CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
August 17, 2019
Forward Thinking

Teaching leadership: How to reach non-supply chain audiences

Supply chain professionals with backgrounds in engineering or business often struggle to reach nonquantitative thinkers. One way they can make their presentations more persuasive is to include "human elements."

Collage of business people

New hires from top supply chain programs are often expected to be powerful change agents in their new companies. In large organizations, this task of "go make change happen" requires persuading many people of all "different stripes" to change their behavior and adopt new practices. It can range from convincing buyer-planners to give up their beloved spreadsheets and use the new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to persuading the vice president of sales to change the incentive system to smooth out the end of month order spike. Or convincing the marketing organization to regulate the introduction of new stock-keeping units (SKUs).

Many or most of these people will be "regular" (nonquantitative) people. Perhaps they studied the arts, humanities, literature, music, history, or other fields and ended up working in planning, sales, marketing, distribution, or a dozen other jobs. By contrast, most top supply chain students were industrial engineers, supply chain majors, math majors, or business majors as undergraduates. These are quantitative/logic-based disciplines. Data is gathered. Calculations are performed. Significance is tested. Charts and graphs are created. Business cases are presented. Graduate education in supply chain management takes this even further with more sophisticated modeling tools, data-based analytics, and now artificial intelligence and machine learning. When do we get around to teaching our best and brightest how to talk to "regular people?" The answer often is: We don't.

Because we don't, our graduates have a much harder time than necessary gathering broad support for change programs. Charts, graphs, and spreadsheets by themselves won't close the deal in generating excitement around change. For many people, a well-timed emotional argument can shoot down an analysis that you spent weeks preparing.

How Humans Communicate

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Supply Chain Management Program we have invented four leadership workshops to fill this gap. The workshop described here teaches quantitatively minded students how to use what we call "the human element" to connect with a large audience of regular people.

The human element is based on the fact that when humans talk to each other we do so much more than listen to the words. We watch the facial expressions and see excitement or fear or joy. We listen to the volume and intonations of the voice and hear urgency or empathy or anger. We see hand gestures and body language. When these are all in synch, such as an angry face, words, voice, and gestures, it delivers a powerful message that sticks in the mind. However, in most business documents and slide presentations, we use only charts and graphs and sterile words, disembodied from any person, face, or voice. Without a human element, much of the power of the message is forfeit.

There are two ways, however, that you can incorporate a human element into your business presentation:

1. Use photos of human faces. Human beings like to look at other human faces. The next time you go to the airport, pause in front of one of those large magazine stands and look at the covers. You will see that almost every magazine has a person's face on the cover. Humans find faces very interesting to look at.

2. Use quotes that come from a specific person. Human beings seem to process words differently and retain the statements better if they appear to be a quote coming directly from a specific person. (Please note this is just an observation from my own experiments in the classroom and professional life, I am not pretending to be a psychologist.)

The natural human behaviors of reading faces and connecting quotes to faces can be exploited when giving a speech or making a presentation to both hold the audience's attention and to get our points across more successfully. How do I know? Because I tried it.

In 2009, at the bottom of the last recession, I gave a presentation to a regional supply chain management conference on the "Recession-Readiness of Supply Chains." The talk reviewed the history of stock market crashes and the effects of recessions on supply chains, and it explained many good and bad business practices related to recessions. I was well prepared. The 50 slides included dozens of charts, graphs, statistics, tree diagrams, and text slides. The audience seemed to understand the points, applauded, and shuffled on to the next presentation.

In 2017, after eight years of recovery and fearing that the next crash was imminent, I was asked to return to the same regional conference and give the same presentation. This time however, I included the human element. I still had 50 slides, but most of the charts and graphs were removed. Instead, the key messages were delivered by people. I searched databases of images for pictures of people whose appearance and facial expressions perfectly fit the quote and message that I was assigning to them to deliver. I found pictures of people who looked like a CEO, a CFO, a vice president of purchasing, several sales people, a human resources manager, a country manager from France, an administrative assistant, and many more.

For honesty's sake, I told the audience that the pictures of people and the quotes assigned to them were not real. Nevertheless, the parade of human faces and their lively quotes kept the audience enthralled the whole time. Furthermore, the business messages were very well received as evidenced by the heads nodding in agreement in the audience. At the conclusion, half of the attendees came up to the front asking questions, shaking hands, and thanking me for the presentation. It was exactly the same message as eight years earlier—except it was delivered with the human element.

Man extending hand to shake

People, faces, and quotes

In a slide presentation or a journal article, we cannot reproduce all of the body language, intonations, hand waving, shouts, and emotions that one sees in a real human encounter. But we can at least show a photo of the speaker's face and some gestures that reinforce the message that they are delivering. The quote backed up by the photo makes the business message much "stickier." Here are some examples of how putting a person, a facial expression, and a quote together can create a powerful message:

Before the market crash: salesman

"In this industry, we do business with a handshake. My customers are honorable people and we trust each other to honor our commitments."

Woman on phoneAfter the market crash: corporate attorney:

"The customers dropped us like a rock. They cancelled all their orders and we have no contracts and no risk sharing agreements. We built product based on their forecast, and now they won't take it. We're screwed."

Man pointing to packageAnother example of quotes and faces synchronized:

Before the market crash: hardware engineer:

"We take great pride in our product designs. We use the latest cutting-edge materials and components to get industry-leading performance out of our products."

Man in business suitAfter the market crash: purchasing manager:

"We let the engineers use all kinds of fancy new unique materials. Now we can't cancel orders of those materials. We are bleeding CASH for stuff we don't need."

Man giving thumbs upAnother example of quotes and faces synchronized:

Before the market crash: purchasing agent:

"My supplier is not a risk. Even though they're a private company, they've been around for 20 years and the owners live in my same neighborhood. Their kids play with my kids."

Woman throwing hands upAfter the market crash: CFO:

"Purchasing never even asked about their financial situation. When they closed, we lost our only supplier. It will take us 90 days to bring on a new supplier ... if we can stay afloat that long."

The workshop

For students who have come up through the ranks of, say, industrial engineering, the idea of including pictures of people and quotes is completely foreign. All of their training has been to make your case using numbers, logic, tables, charts, and graphs. Present the evidence! We now have to teach them that this approach often fails and is sometimes counterproductive with regular people. If you only present information that looks like it came from a math book, people will tune you out entirely. And you are opening the door for an opponent who people can relate to more easily. So, we have to make our students practice multiple times using the human element in their presentations.

We use hands-on small teams to have the students practice including the human element. After an initial briefing, the students are divided into teams of four students and sent to small breakout areas. Each team is assigned one of several "causes" to promote, either for or against. Teams are given 60 minutes to create a short presentation that promotes their side of the issue using the human element in their slides. They get practice at converting their key arguments into compelling quotes. They then carefully select photos of people with facial expressions that reinforce the sentiment of the quote. Teams return to the classroom and use their presentation to sway the rest of the class to support their position. The class votes on which presentation was the most persuasive. As a teacher, it is interesting to see this technique show up later in the semester in their capstone presentations.

Supply chain graduates, engineers, and business professionals use numbers, facts, charts, and graphs to present information to each other. But to "go make change happen" in large organizations, they need to convince regular people to adopt new practices. Currently university curricula and corporate training programs fall short of teaching their rising stars to effectively lead in large mixed organizations. Including the human element in terms of people, faces, and quotes in presentations is a more effective way to connect with people and to make your arguments more powerful and memorable.

Bruce C. Arntzen is the executive director of the supply chain management program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation & Logistics.

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