Exploring the Power of Mentorship in a Supply Chain Career

August 6, 2019

A mentorship program can pay huge dividends. Here’s how to get the most value out of passing the torch.

Recently, we’ve been thinking and writing a lot about talent retention and development in the Supply Chain field. As Argentus President Bronwen Hann, and other leaders in the field, discussed at the SCMA National Conference in May, it’s a big key to solving the talent crunch that many organizations are experiencing.

Companies aren’t finding enough great Supply Chain people to replace the baby boomers who are retiring, and if they are, they might not have the skills needed to thrive in 2019. If we improve our ability to develop talent from within, we help mitigate the problem, and set the field up for future success.

The more conversations we have, the more we realize that giving people more fulfilling Supply Chain careers leads to better strategic outcomes for the companies that employ them.

There are lots of ways to offer people more fulfilling careers:

  • Give them training and educational opportunities to increase their skills.
  • Expose them to different functional areas to broaden their experience.
  • Foster a culture of visibility, accountability, and open communication up and down the organization.

And then, there’s a strategy that’s often under-utilized:


A comment by “CPO Emeritus” Jack Miles on a recent article got us thinking more about mentorship, and whether organizations are missing massive opportunities by leaving it on the table.

Here’s what he said: “I sometimes feel that we are missing the boat on verbal communication [between leaders and employees] and that’s unfortunate. These conversations allow both parties to throw stuff out there, good bad or indifferent. Retention and such is an everyday item that needs to be addressed in an ongoing way. We won’t even talk about mentoring and how the needs have grown and the reality is it is happening less and less.

Most leaders might feel the pressure of the day to day firefighting of a Supply Chain career, as well as an increasing desire to enact business transformations and other larger, strategic projects. Add that to all the daily time commitments outside of work, and it might feel like mentorship is something that you just don’t have time for.

But becoming a mentor has immense benefits for the mentor, not just the mentee. It’s not an act of charity – it’s an opportunity to invest in the future of your organization. It’s a chance to “learn through teaching” and expose yourself to new perspectives on continuous improvement. It’s also one of the best ways to get honest, upfront feedback from a frontline employee about where leadership is succeeding, and where it’s falling short.

It’s also tremendously fulfilling. That fulfillment is, itself, a massive benefit, both for your career and overall wellbeing.

According to the SCMA, 75% of executives attribute at least some of their success to the mentorship relationships they’ve had. According to Gartner, mentors and mentees are promoted 5-6 times more on average than those who forego mentorship.

Professional organizations like the SCMA and APICS (now Association for Supply Chain Management) offer mentorship programs to their members. But more organizations are beginning to adopt more formal mentorship programs internally, to help pass down institutional knowledge and upskill their more junior employees.

Starting a formal or informal mentorship program is an important first step, but some leaders find it hard to sustain and generate the most value from these programs. Like so many other transformational initiatives, it’s something we recognize is necessary. We can create and implement a program, but making it stick is the hardest part.

A great series of articles in Harvard Business Review offered some tips for getting the most out of a mentor/mentee relationship, no matter what side of the equation you’re on. They’re from a bit ago, but we came across them recently and found the advice to be evergreen. Written by academic physicians Vineet Chopra MD, and Sanjay Saint, MD, we think a good amount of the advice is applicable to mentorship opportunities in Supply Chain Management. The authors identified some situations where burgeoning mentorship relationships failed to take flight, and offered solutions for how to avoid that outcome.

Some tips for those on the mentor side of the relationship:

  • Choose mentees carefully. It makes sense to start a mentor relationship informally and decide whether their style and approach matches with yours before taking them on as a mentee more seriously. Chopra and Saint suggest asking a prospective mentee to participate in a project, or assign them a presentation, as a “test” to see if they have the engagement necessary to make the relationship work.
  • Consider a team approach. The classic mentorship relationship is a one-to-one correspondence. But the idea of “team mentors” has gained traction in recent years. It allows busy executives to invest in mentorship while having enough time to pursue their own projects. The authors suggest having one primary mentor, and a number of secondary mentors to act as subject matter experts and additional sources of support.
  • Set clear ground rules. Mentorship relationships sometimes fail to get off the ground because neither person knows exactly what is expected. If you set certain expectations for communication up front, you can avoid things becoming too time-intensive (i.e. numerous constant emails from the mentee), and also avoid communication falling off. The authors suggest setting up a firm bi-weekly or monthly phone call to check in on a mentee’s progress.
  • Recognize that disagreements are inevitable, so intervene early. Differences in priorities can stack up and seem like a fundamental incompatibility. The more open you are in your communication with a mentee, the earlier you can identify where needs aren’t being met on both sides.
  • Avoid the behaviours that make mentees want to walk away. The authors identify a number of areas of “mentorship malpractice.” Avoid taking credit for a mentee’s ideas. Make sure they have the ability to prioritize their own work, and not just your projects. Don’t take it personally if they seek out other mentors to help broaden their learning.

Some tips for mentees to get the most out of the relationship:

  • Establish up front what kind of mentorship you want. Are you trying to broaden your exposure to different functional areas within Supply Chain? Are you looking to dig deeper into your own subject matter area (say, Inventory Management or Procurement)? Are you trying to improve your presentation ability and “polish”? This will dictate the kind of mentor you need, and set you up for more success than just looking around for a mentor, period.
  • Find someone who fits your values. Finding the right mentor isn’t just about finding the person who’s in the job you eventually want. A mentor needs to share your values: do they believe in work/life balance to the same degree you do? Are they more altruistically motivated, or achievement-oriented? Which are you? Are they more practical or theoretical?
  • Don’t commit to something you’re not ready to carry out. Having a mentor is a great way to advance your career, but make sure that you’re ready to put in the extra time and intellectual energy before accepting a mentor into your working life, no matter how exciting it seems. A mentee who is unable to deliver will leave a mentor feeling stung – and rightly so.
  • Be aware of a mentor’s time, and avoid taking too much of it. The authors point out that most mentors are successful because they’re very good at managing their time. As a mentee, it’s important to be effective and concise in your communication. Define goals early. Give your mentor enough time to respond to work product. If you’re going to send an email asking lots questions, make sure to pose them with as little ambiguity as possible, so that a mentor can provide yes or no answers if they have to.
  • Manage up. This one is crucial. Some mentees rely on their mentor to set the direction of the relationship, but they need guidance too. Help them understand, on an ongoing basis, where you’d like to improve your skills, and what knowledge they have to offer that’s most valuable to you.

Mentorship is a complicated process, with common pitfalls on both sides, but with the right amount of commitment and openness, it can pay massive dividends to the participants – as well as the organization they work for.

We’re curious: have you ever had a mentor who positively impacted your Supply Chain career? Does your organization have a formal mentorship program? If so, how do you make sure it works? Let us know in the comments and keep the conversation going!

1 Comment

  1. Deon Naidoo

    I totally agree with this appoach and am willing to support and provide my skills to assist in any program available

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