Throughout my career I’ve focused on practical and objective business skills as I transitioned from an engineer to a program manager to a Six Sigma champion to a sourcing professional. However, as an executive leading from a strategic vantage point, I find that soft skills contribute more to success than reams of results and objective data. Aligning functions and establishing partnerships create an atmosphere for better communication, greater teamwork and, ultimately, greater success for supply management and the overall company.
Create a Positive Environment
However, coupling soft skills with transparency, alignment, partnership and accountability can be transformative for any organization. Following is an examination of the importance of those elements and the roles they play in successful leadership.
Transparency. Fear often is created by a simple lack of information. When direct reports are unaware of your goals or how those goals may affect them, the tendency is to “fill in the gaps,” which fuels worry and uncertainty in an organization. A leader should effectively and frequently communicate the goals and objectives of a change initiative, explaining how the change will affect and improve the organization. Transparency also has the added benefit of creating a better understanding of the need for change.
Alignment. Alignment speaks to the “what’s-in-it-for-me” thought process that most people share. Consider how large troop movements are conducted during warfare. The troops are aligned and move in a coordinated and synchronized manner. This concept can carry over to the business world. Aligning separate, functional elements throughout a company requires that each group understands how their contributions support the company and advance their own careers. There is a greater chance for success by finding and creating this “skin-in-the-game” perspective.
I have used the concept of “servant leadership” to help me meet this element. How to first meet the most important needs of others. When I joined a company with a highly engineered product line, I knew that engineering support was critical to our success in supply chain and cost reduction. In my first meeting with the VP of Engineering, I simply asked, “What can Sourcing do for you?” He responded with, “Please improve the turnaround time on quotes, it is way too high.” I employed transparency, tracked and reported on each and every buyer and their individual time to respond to quotes. Over the next three weeks, we went from an average of 60 days to nine days for response. When I recalibrated with him after a month, he was happy and excited and said, “That is the first time Sourcing has ever come to ask Engineering what we can do for you, and I like it.” Our relationship and our results have continued to grow using the same philosophy.
Partnership. True partnerships can only occur when the internal business units are informed and synchronized. For example, when a highly engineered product goes through a cost-reduction initiative, the project can’t be successful unless the engineering, operations, marketing and procurement teams work as partners. Several years ago, I was in charge of a project to reduce costs of a product line. More than 2,000 ideas were generated from staff, but were considered because a partnership among various functions had not been formed. Marketing, for example, rejected many ideas claiming that customers would never accept some of the suggested changes. The engineering department, which had to approve any proposed changes, became defensive about changing the original design plans.
Thus, the project was relaunched for greater success — only this time we changed the approach. Support from senior level management and all functional leaders was conveyed throughout the company. Functional leaders met weekly with their staffs, which kept visibility high and allowed for transparency and alignment. A clearly communicated mandate for cost reduction was issued by senior management. It also was decided the results would be scored by the finance department, which other business units considered an impartial function. We required that all ideas be judged objectively, and found that previously unacceptable ideas were harder to criticize. The result was a high approval rate of the same or similar ideas generated during our first attempt. There also was a better acceleration of results due to partnering and alignment of resources across all functions.
Accountability. Accountability, which includes tracking, monitoring and reporting successes and failures, is an area where many companies fall short. Too often, there is a lack of clear ownership of a task, project or initiative. We all know that “when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.” That’s why I believe holding others accountable also requires us, as supply chain leaders, to hold ourselves accountable. Without accountability, it is difficult to achieve true success. In the cost reduction example discussed previously, a senior executive was selected to champion each project to be certain that someone owned the end result.
Trust Holds It Together. Transparency, alignment, partnership and accountability are important to successful strategic leadership, but the glue that holds them all together is trust. If a leader at any level in the organization has a hidden agenda or fails to be a true partner, none of the four elements will be effective because trust will have been lost. Ethical behavior and demonstrated consistency is critical for effective leadership.
I recall an incident when a senior procurement leader at a decentralized organization rolled out a purchasing card program to nine separate business unit presidents. He failed to mention the program included a 2% surcharge on the card’s use that would help fund the creation of a centralized procurement organization. When the business leaders realized they had not been consulted or given the option to approve the use of money from their operating budgets, the establishment of a centralized procurement department ceased and ultimately reversed. Because of a hidden agenda and an ethical lapse, trust was lost.
Strong, successful leadership involves many skill sets, and when those skills combine with a leader’s commitment to transparency, alignment, partnership and accountability, amazing results can follow.