CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
September 21, 2019

Four keys for unlocking leadership potential

Supply chain managers are often called upon to lead major change initiatives. But are we doing a good job teaching them the skills they need? Here are four techniques that could help.

When students graduate from top universities with a master of supply chain management or master of business administration (MBA) degree, they typically command a very high salary. And in our experience, hiring managers have equally high expectations. They want a "change maker," not just another cog in the organizational machine. Top graduates often get hired into a headquarters group, such as a "center of excellence," that focuses on driving best practices across the company. Similarly, if they are hired as a functional manager, they are expected to improve the process, not just run it. Even before they arrive, new hires are expected to be the rising star, to "go make change happen!"

But that's often easier said than done. Because the supply chain straddles facilities across the globe and is affected by almost every other function in the company, it is both the best place to make change happen and a tough place to make change happen. Bad business practices in those other functions cause poor performance especially in the supply chain. For example, engineers use custom-made, unique components in product designs. Marketing loves stock-keeping unit (SKU) proliferation. Sales piles up orders in the last three days of the quarter. Manufacturing wants 100-percent machine utilization. Planners love spreadsheets and shun enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. All of these practices can lead to an unoptimized supply chain. Furthermore different functions often have conflicting motivations and, of course, everyone has inertia, or a reluctance to change and adopt new ideas.

Other barriers to change exist in the corporate structure. In a multinational corporation, there is conflict between headquarters/centers of excellence and big divisions. There are many cultures, many functions, and many types of people. Many employees are not engineers or quantitatively focused business people, but are driven more by emotions, feelings, habits, attitudes, and tradition. Finally, in any large organization, there are many improvement programs and change initiatives all competing for support and resources.

So, top graduates are typically expected to "go make change happen" but without any funding, staff, or authority and among all types of people who they have never met before. Moreover, the divisions and remote sites really don't want a "youngster" from headquarters coming to tell them what to do. 

It's a tough challenge, and to stand a chance of meeting it, graduates at least need to be equipped with skills and knowledge they learned at college or in corporate training programs that can help them to perform as leaders. Invariably, however, this is not the case.

Classrooms fall short

Every business-focused master's degree and MBA program teaches leadership in at least one course. And many corporations also provide internal leadership training for their best and brightest. But given the wide variety of leadership scenarios that managers can encounter, are we teaching the right ones? 

Leadership comes in numerous forms: leading projects, leading teams, thought leadership, running operations, running organizations, leading troops up the hill, building coalitions, championing causes, leading by example of good work, and countless more.

As educators and corporate trainers, which type of leadership should be our target in the classroom?

One of the reasons why business graduates are ill-prepared for leadership challenges is that they are not learning the right skills in advanced degree programs.

Consider the master's-level supply chain curriculum. There are typically courses on logistics systems, inventory management, database analytics, supply chain planning, global supply chain management, sourcing and procurement, statistics, linear programming, operations research, finance and cost analysis, transportation management, simulation, information systems, and other technical and management topics. Some two-year programs include a summer internship at a company site working in a supply chain role. There are programs that include classes in public speaking, presentations, and writing. Communications courses often cover how to give an excellent PowerPoint presentation and how to tell your story in a job interview.

How much of the curriculum is devoted to teaching leadership skills? In reviewing the curricula of many of the top supply chain master's programs, we found that only 4 to 7 percent is devoted to any kind of leadership training. Most curricula have one course about leadership. We saw no internships devoted to learning leadership. We were delighted that at least one school offered a supply chain course on "change management," but that was the exception.

Conclusion: Although most supply chain master's students take at least one course on leadership, not much of that is targeted to "go make change happen." Likely, most leadership is learned over the years through "on the job training." Most people pick it up by osmosis and/or trial and error. Many companies offer leadership programs, but the feedback we receive on these programs suggests that they have similar flaws to those offered at the college level.

What are the current teaching approaches? In our research we found that the most frequent aspects of leadership courses focus on leading teams, self-assessment, personal leadership style, effective presentations, leadership and ethics, organizational processes, leadership theory and case studies, leading organizations, energizing others, and building high-performance organizations. Less frequent are courses on attributes of great leaders, leadership models for the C-suite, components of great leadership, and management psychology. It was uncommon to see a course on leadership and the implementation of change.

Closing the knowledge gaps

These types of leadership courses do not match the reality that many recent master's-level graduates face. Imagine the setting. With your new master's degree in supply chain, you are the new hire into a center of excellence in a multinational corporation. You are paid very well and report directly to the vice president of supply chain. You are an individual contributor with no staff, no budget, and no actual authority but are viewed as the new "whiz kid." Your boss asks you to do tasks such as:

  • Go visit the transportation managers in each of our distribution centers across the country and get those people to set up centralized procurement of transportation services.
  • Go visit the sales and finance organizations and get those people to start participating in the sales and operations planning (S&OP) process again.
  • Go to the plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, and get those people to start using the new planning software that we just paid US$10 million for.
  • Go to sales and get them to stop bringing in all their orders in the last week of the month. 
  • Go convince design engineering to reign in their use of unique custom-built raw materials in their product designs.

Having had one class where a leadership technique is described will not help a new supply chain manager deal with these types of scenarios. How can educators (and corporate trainers) do better? We recommend that the focus should be on what students need right now—the day after graduation—not when they become CEO. Students need simple, practical down-to-earth tools to use immediately that they can easily remember.

Our dissatisfaction with current theory-based and self-assessment-based leadership classes led us to develop four workshops for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Supply Chain Management program that focus specifically on "go make change happen." We found that the self-assessment and personality-type training programs that are used in many leadership classes are hard to translate into tangible leadership techniques. Furthermore, students often times could not remember enough about their personality types for that to be the basis of their leadership plan. For that reason, we focused on role-playing exercises that could help students practice the necessary leadership skills many times.

Each of these two- to three-hour workshops follows a similar format of an initial introduction to the whole class, breaking into smaller teams (four to eight people) for role-playing, and then reassembling as the whole class for a discussion and team testimonials. A preview of these workshops is given below and will be described in more detail in four subsequent articles, which will appear on Supply Chain Quarterly's website.

The workshops we created to teach "go make change happen" are as follows:

The Human Element. This workshop teaches quantitatively trained students how to use the "Human Element" to connect with a large audience of "regular people" when they give presentations. Human beings like to look at other human faces and are programmed to do this from birth. If you pause in front of a large magazine stand and look at all the covers, you can see this theory in practice. The purpose of the cover is to make a person stop, want to pick up the magazine, and read it. For this reason, nearly all the magazines you see on a newsstand will have a picture of a human face. Our experience also shows that verbal or text statements connected to a face sink in better and are retained longer. By contrast, persuasion in math and engineering—and therefore in supply chain management—is done through graphs, charts, schematics, and proofs. No human element.

This workshop teaches students how to include pictures of people in their presentations and how to have their key messages appear to be statements coming from real people. Teams of students in breakout rooms are assigned opposing sides of a controversial issue and are given one hour to develop a convincing presentation using the Human Element. When the class reconvenes, each team uses their presentation to persuade the rest of the class to support their position. 

More information on the human element can be found here.

"VELD" or Vision, Emotion, Logic, and Details. To drive a change program in a large organization, it is necessary to connect with and persuade all kinds of people—not just engineers and business types—to support the cause. It is human nature to try to convince other people using arguments that sound most convincing to ourselves. For quantitative people, this does not work so well. Think about the current rebellion against such scientific concepts as global warming, vaccinations, and genetically modified crops. It takes more than just quantitative righteousness to carry the day. The VELD method is inspired by Aristotle's three modes of persuasion (ethos, pathos, and logos). We realized that we and our students were stuck on logos (appeal to logic) as the only valid persuasive method. Therefore we invented VELD which adds both "appeal to a compelling future vision" and "appeal to emotion" to our existing tendency to "appeal to logic and details."

This workshop teaches science, engineering, and business students how to incorporate vision and emotion statements in their arguments. Traditionally, math-oriented curricula urge students to make recommendations and business cases by laying out the logic and the details. Appeals to compelling visions or appeals to emotion are scorned in quantitative settings. Yet the large majority of "regular people" are influenced more by a compelling vision and an emotional appeal than by logic and details. Think about some recent elections!

In the workshop, teams of students are assigned an imaginary audience such as the City Council, Department of Transportation, Cultural Committee, and NASA, among others. Each has a different VELD profile. Teams then proceed to create a pitch tailored to persuade that audience, which they then present and justify to the assembled class. 

More information on VELD can be found here

Logrolling. In a legislature, the act of trading votes behind the scenes to get your bill passed was (supposedly) first referred to as "logrolling" by Congressman Davy Crockett of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1835. To champion a cause, our usual gut reaction is to become an evangelist and convince the doubters and naysayers of the benefits and righteousness of our position. This is a lot of work and may not succeed. In very large organizations, especially a multinational corporation, there are always many change programs being promoted at any one time. Each key decision maker can be for or against or neutral on any of these initiatives. Logrolling can be facilitated by working quietly behind the scenes to understand the positions of each of the key decision makers on each issue. It is then possible to bring together people who are neutral on each other's issue and have them agree to support the other person's issue, thereby building enough support to ensure that your issue gets passed.

This workshop has two role plays. Initially, teams of six to eight students, ignorant of logrolling, try to persuade their peers to support their change program any way they can, usually by impassioned arguments. Later they see that they could have reached a deal faster and with less exertion through logrolling. In a final role play, they practice logrolling to quickly make deals.

Cialdini's Six Principles of Persuasion. Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, brilliantly laid out in his best-selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the six methods of persuasion: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. We see these every day since marketing firms are experts at using these principles to sell things. "Only two seats left at this price" is an example of scarcity. But it's not just marketing firms that use the techniques. Stop at a red light in the developing world and destitute people will rush out to wash your windshield in hopes of getting a tip. That's an example of reciprocity.

This workshop teaches students how to use these six principles in a very subtle, professional way in a large organization to build up support for their change effort. Teams of students practice the six techniques through role-playing and discuss which ones to use in each example scenario.

Helping change makers excel

Many of our top graduates are in greater need of leadership skills than analytical skills. Yet leadership training makes up only 4 to 7 percent of the curriculum of most supply chain programs. Furthermore the leadership training that is provided is often targeted at less important skills than "go make change happen." For our gifted graduates and new hires to "go make change happen," both educators and corporate trainers need to change their approach to teaching these vital skills. Simple, practical techniques to generate support across large diverse organizations are needed. Repeated practice through role playing is key to developing these skills.

The workshops described in this article represent a good first step but are relatively new and will no doubt be refined as we receive feedback from students and gain more experience in this new approach. We welcome feedback from academic and corporate educators.

The moniker of "rising star" is not given to the person who creates the best linear-programming model. It is given to the person who makes change happen. Let's give future leaders the tools they need to be effective change agents today and tomorrow.

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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