Supply chain professionals are in high demand. But still, it can be hard to know how to move up into leadership. Here are our tips for building your supply chain career over the medium to long-term.
No matter which way you slice it, the hiring market is strong at the moment. This is true across many sectors, but even more so in supply chain management and procurement.
A few things are going on here. During the pandemic, many companies pivoted their strategies, investing in new technologies and new approaches to build more resilient, agile and flexible supply chains.
This meant the need for new skills, and more people, to implement those changes. With supply chain managers experiencing burnout after two years of relentless challenges, many are seeking new, higher paying jobs, and some are leaving the industry all together—compounding a shortage of candidates that already existed before the pandemic. More people are entering the field, recognizing it as a great career with huge future prospects. But the shortage of candidates is creating upward pressure on salaries, and work/life balance expectations. Companies are finding it harder to hire.
It’s a great time to be a supply chain professional who’s interested in advancing your career. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even in a strong hiring market, it can be tough to know how to move up. So today, we wanted to share some of the most common advice we give to supply chain professionals looking to boost their careers and move into manager-level roles and beyond.
This advice is tailored for the medium-to-long term, rather than immediate job searching advice. (For advice about how to secure your next role, check out our post, How to Get a Supply Chain Job). With these tips, we hope to give you some ideas for how to broaden your experience, and develop the polish and business acumen that our clients are looking for in supply chain leaders.
Here are our tips!
1. Gain exposure to multiple functional areas.
Supply Chain Management touches on every aspect of a business—especially now. This is part of what makes it such an exciting career. Most people start out their supply chain careers in one functional area, for example demand planning, supply planning, materials planning, data analysis or procurement. That’s a good thing. It’s valuable to learn one piece of the complex puzzle involved in bringing products to market.
Each functional area has advancement opportunities—for example into a Demand Planning Manager, or even Director—but each also has a limit. When our clients are looking to hire Supply Chain Managers or Directors, they want individuals who have grown from one functional area to gain a holistic understanding of the entire supply chain. That’s where the real superstar talent lies. For example, we often work on supply chain director roles in Consumer Goods where clients want people who come from a planning background, but who also have lots experience managing complex distribution.
So our advice is this: once you’ve gained an understanding of your function, seek to broaden your experience by learning different areas, either by taking on new functional roles or seeking education. Add purchasing to your supply planning skills, for example, or gain an understanding of distribution processes and metrics. If you’re in Procurement, try to gain experience purchasing goods and services in as many different categories as possible. The more you understand how the whole supply chain works, the more you can identify synergies and add value.
2. Explore mentorship opportunities
According to Gartner research, those who have mentorship relationships are 5-6 times more likely to be promoted than those who don’t. Most senior supply chain leaders credit mentorship as a key contributor to their success. But formal mentorship can be hard to come by. Many organizations have formal mentorship programs. Others don’t. If you’re in a role, consider asking your leadership if they’re open to starting a formal mentorship program to help ambitious, junior supply chain employees broaden their skills. If your organization won’t start one, consider asking senior leaders on a more informal basis.
But there’s a key to making this work. You need to look at mentorship not as an immediate, transactional opportunity for advancement (the “what have you done for me lately?” school of mentorship), but as a genuine opportunity to learn. You’re not looking for your mentor to give you a promotion, or your next role if they move into a different company—although that certainly can happen. You’re looking to build a relationship where you learn from experience, where a mentor can help offer frank advice on areas to develop, often advice that you wouldn’t have even considered.
3. Stay on top of industry trends, and use them to guide your career.
Companies don’t want “seat fillers”—people who come into a role just to “fulfill” a list of “duties.” They want people who are passionate about supply chains, about learning, and about helping to advance a field that’s undergoing rapid transformation—adding value to their organization in the process. One of the best ways to show that you’re not a seat filler is to engage with current major issues in the field.
Supply chain management is changing fast, with companies undergoing massive transformations, pivoting to more resilient models, and adding new technologies to gain responsiveness and agility. It’s important to show your passion by digging in and deeply understanding these changes, and letting that inform the recommendations you make in the workplace. It’s not enough to understand how supply chains work. You have to show that you care about how they will work over the next 5-10 years, and have ideas to match. Read industry publications, attend events hosted by organizations like Supply Chain Canada and ASCM, and have conversations. These are great networking opportunities as well.
4. Improve your personal brand.
Staying up to date on industry trends is part of the picture, but showing your passion is another. We give lots of advice to candidates about improving their personal brands. It’s a part of the elusive “polish” that our clients are seeking. It’s also a constant process, but one that—like house cleaning, or networking—is actually a fairly low time commitment once you get in the habit.
The fundamentals: make sure your resume shines with accomplishments, metrics, and specific skills rather than lists of “duties.” Build out your LinkedIn profile with relevant keywords, action-oriented descriptions of your experience, and a strong LinkedIn profile picture—because yes, hiring managers and recruiters are checking your LinkedIn profile, or even finding you there. More advanced tactics are getting active by posting relevant articles with commentary, trying to find opportunities for speaking as part of industry events, and contributing to industry associations.
5. Continuous improvement and systems experience is key.
Continuous improvement experience has always been important in supply chain management, which is all about finding efficiencies to lower cost, reduce risk, and drive innovation. Still, it used to be a “nice to have.” Certain roles had a continuous improvement component, or certain roles were dedicated to it. In today’s environment, a track record of continuous improvement is a major differentiator between candidates that “can do the job,” and candidates who have hiring managers eager to book an interview.
The same goes for supply chain systems experience. Deep skills in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Procure-to-Pay (P2P) systems, the software involved in various supply chain functions such as Materials Requirements Planning (MRP), Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Transportation Management Systems (TMS), as well as exceptional Excel skills, are often the major areas of focus.
When we’re representing our clients in the marketplace, the candidates who can point to major continuous improvement projects and systems implementations that they’ve done are the ones who stand out. So when thinking about your career so far, don’t think in terms of “what you’ve done.” Think in terms of “what improvements have I made?” It’s a long-term investment, but to grow your career, these kinds of accomplishments are the holy grail for candidates. Seek out deep systems experience, and seek out these projects whenever you can—even if it’s just as a functional advisor on a systems implementation, for example.
Like any career, progressing into leadership in supply chain is tough. It relies on lots of factors. Initiative, strategy, opportunism, and (as always) a little bit of luck play a role.
You could write a whole book about how to get ahead in your career, so these tips are just a starting point. From our perspective as recruiters who exclusively fill supply chain roles, we hope that they’re a good north star as you start to think about how to boost your career in the medium-to-long term. And when you feel that you’ve progressed your skills, reach out to us! We’re always working on new roles in the field.