4 Tips for Managing Your Supply Chain Career

My first hands-on experience serving as a link within the supply chain came very early in my career. After flipping burgers for a year at age 15, I decided to take an afternoon job at a garden center chain in California. When school was dismissed, I would head to the nursery to water the plants. While watering, I decided to read all the labels and learn as much as possible about the wide array of greenery and flowers the company sold. After a while, I was able to help customers find the plants they needed and design the optimal set-up for their gardens. This led to a promotion to category buyer, and eventually associate manager.

I enjoyed my time working as a buyer, but it was very stressful. Excel sheets from various growers covering availability cluttered my desk. On-site supplier visits, daily truck deliveries with fresh product and quality control were all tasks I had to juggle. Then there were the external factors such as weather and competition. On top of all that, I was studying full time for my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Working as a link within the supply chain is no easy task, especially in today’s fast-paced, operating environment where customers want everything yesterday, and competitors are waiting in the wings for a supply chain slip-up. That being said, it is safe to conclude that a career in supply chain can be rewarding and exciting, especially with buzzwords such as industry 4.0, smart factories, same-day-delivery and digitization floating around.

As part of the monthly blog series here on Beet Fusion, I was asked to share my tips on how to best manage a supply chain career. By no means, at the ripe old age of 30, do I consider myself a career expert, but perhaps these four tips can start a conversation on the topic and help someone find their way up (or onto) the supply chain career ladder:

1. Get your feet wet

For me, this phrase was literal. While watering the plants at the garden center, I had no idea I would be promoted to category buyer (but my socks were soaked by the end of the day). This experience, however, piqued my interest in supply chain, and I haven’t looked back since. In essence, I would encourage anyone thinking about a career in supply chain management to just jump in. There has never been a better time to get involved in this fast-paced, innovative industry in need of some fresh talent. Your first job will not necessarily be your dream job, but it is important to use any and all job opportunities as a learning experience.  A great place to start your supply chain career and learn the ropes would be in a buyer or material planner role.

2. Be a sponge

Whether you are new to a company or have 30 years of experience at the same firm under your belt, there is always a chance to learn something new. A quote I like to keep in the back of my mind is, “Experience isn’t everything: it is possible to do something incorrectly for 30 years.” In essence, it is important to approach your career with an open mind. Soak in your experiences like a sponge. If you have a bad manager, learn how you do not want to act when you reach a management position. If you are in management, be open to ideas from your staff. Always be looking for ways to expand your knowledge and expertise.

Within the supply chain industry, this could come in the form of master’s or bachelor’s degree programs or various certifications available to industry newcomers and professionals. Another exceptional method for expanding knowledge is engaging in online communities and being active across social media. There are some excellent sources of information that offer great insights into supply chain strategy (this site included!).

3. Be the change you want to see

Nobody wants to be around a complainer. There is certainly a time and place for constructive criticism, but constant complaining and griping could create tension within teams. Instead of joining the complainer choir, start putting the change you want to see in motion.

There are many stakeholders along the supply chain within an organization. Production teams strive for the efficient use of equipment. The sales team makes short-term delivery commitments, but the purchasing department didn’t buy enough material for the production process, so the delivery has to be pushed back. All of this is happening while top management is wanting to see a reduction in costs and increased liquidity. Therefore, warehouse managers are cutting back stock, but this will certainly have an impact on availability. With everyone working toward their own goals, it is no wonder tensions run high along supply chains.

In order for things to change, someone needs to be the first person to reach his or her hand across the table. Instead of complaining about the procurement manager who once again ordered too few screws, as the production manager, try inviting your colleague out to lunch to discuss some of the planning issues. Start working on developing goals that can be achieved together and that bring the company forward as a whole.

4. Know your operating environment

Managing a career can look a lot different depending on where you are in the world. After 6 years in the garden center industry, I decided to study for my master’s degree in Germany (my wife is German). During my studies, I became fluent in the German language and got acquainted with the German culture. I quickly noticed some major differences. While studying for my bachelor’s degree in California, everything seemed like a competition and a lot of emphasis was placed on individual achievement. In Germany, it was all about team work (at least at the university I attended). Another difference I noticed, while searching for a job in Germany after my graduation, was that more emphasis was placed on education and certification. In Germany, it seems as though you can get a certificate for everything. It is these accolades that employers want to see, whereas in the U.S.A., more emphasis is placed on practical experience.

You don’t have to be working in a different country to apply this tip. Understanding your operating environment is just as important when you are working for an international company. If you are sent to check-in on a certain supplier overseas, spend some time getting to know the culture before you arrive.

Closing Thoughts

When it comes to career advice, there is a lot I need to learn, especially since I have approximately 75% of my career still ahead of me. Furthermore, there is still a lot to learn when it comes to supply chain management. However, based on my experience to date, I have found that an eagerness to learn something new on a daily basis can go a long way toward advancing a career. Being a positive change agent who is willing to tackle new challenges will also open many doors along the way. And finally, understanding your operating environment will help you avoid embarrassing moments, and may even land you a job overseas. 

What tips do you have for managing a successful (supply chain) career?

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