I interviewed Nick Little who discussed Facing Up To The Talent Crisis In Supply Chain.
Can you start by providing a brief background of yourself?
Yes, certainly, Dustin. Hello and it’s a pleasure to talk with you. I started my career a long time ago now by getting a scholarship in supply management to go university and then was guaranteed a job with British Rail, where I worked for about 15 years in various different supply management and supply chain-management roles. And then I moved to the British Post Office and spent another 12 years there. In both those organizations, I had a passion about developing people.
The way I used to look at things was, I always wanted to make sure there was somebody ready to take over my job for me.
That meant that I wanted to make sure that people had the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to improve themselves, and I wanted to try and develop people from within rather than have to recruit on the open market, because that way I could then be sure I would get people who knew the business that we were operating in. It was a very interesting progression because they were large companies and lots of opportunities for people to move around, so I was able to choose from a fairly large pool of people within the organization. Then I came to Michigan State University about 19 years ago, originally for a year on loan. Still here and I now work in executive-development programs, where I help company clients do exactly the same as what I used to by developing their talent as well.
That’s interesting. Can you talk about where new talent can come from?
Yes, certainly. I think the most important area for new talent is going to be with the recruits we get in at a fairly young and tender age out of university programs. Those are the people who are going to be the future leaders for supply chain going forward. With the very large proportion of Baby Boomers who are retiring in the next few years, I have read some projections that say Millennial Generation people will be 60 percent of the workforce in about 10 years’ time, which is quite amazing. Where do you get those people from? How do they think? How do they behave? It is important to people who are hiring new talent. They can come from university programs, and there are a lot of universities now that offer supply chain management degrees of one form or another.
It seems to be a very...subject, and we all know the reasons why that is. The difficulty that we face is that supply chain itself doesn’t have a particularly good name; it’s not particularly well-understood by people who are not in it. As supply chain managers, we often only get our voice heard when we’re helping put things right after a natural disaster or some other problem that has occurred. And yet every day we are bending over backward to make sure that supplies get where they are needed when they’re needed, in the quantity and quality they’re needed, and so forth. To be able to do that, we have got to get people aware of supply chain management as a potential career.That’s one of the biggest difficulties we have at the moment.
Why do people enter university with an idea of doing supply chain? Well, I’m not too sure that they do. A few might; a few that have family in supply chain jobs are so excited by that fact and what they hear from their relatives that they want to get into it as well. But a lot of students taking supply chain majors have got there because during the course of their university career, they have been influenced by a professor or by their peer group to the fact that supply chain is an exciting and a very fulfilling career choice; it really comes about for them.
A great example I have seen is a couple of university students—not necessarily from my university but from a survey I did a few years ago—they reported that they’d originally wanted to do a finance degree or a marketing degree, but when it came to doing the internships, they didn’t get the chance to understand everything there was to learn about a company, whereas some of their friends who did supply chain internships had a real opportunity to be able to get involved with many different areas of work. I think that’s a tremendous opportunity that we don’t, as supply chain managers, sell very well to potential recruits.
We really ought to get out there and make sure that, as a profession, we’re telling people that the opportunity exists, it’s a great opportunity, it’s got the chance to earn some really good money, and part of the reason for that being the case is the fact that demand far exceeds supply. And everybody who’s done Economics 101 knows that when demand exceeds supply, the price only goes in one direction and that’s upward; that’s what we’re seeing with salaries. We’re also seeing that there are constraints to the supply chain for future talent. It’s very interesting to think of talent as a supply chain problem.
One of the constraints is getting people that really have a good, broad understanding of what supply chain’s about. It’s very easy to teach people a lot of the tools and technique; it’s not very easy to teach them how to put it into practice. A lot of companies are looking for people coming out of university programs with a good range of soft skills as well: the ability to solve problems in teams; the ability to look for root causes; the ability to question things to understand what has happened; and to be able to communicate very well in verbal communication and whatever form of written communication we might be facing today and in the future.
Not all university programs are able to teach that sort of thing particularly effectively. Many universities now put their M.B.A. students through teamwork exercises and address real problems that way or they address case studies as teams. Those are all good opportunities but nothing beats the chance to get out on an internship, do some real work, not just busywork and get to experience the day-to-day life in an organization and be able to help address some of the issues that there are.
I think we have got a duty to those of us that are following to be able to give them that sort of experiences. They look—the Millennial Generation, particular—looks to professionals to be their mentors for the future. It’s becoming a more and more important part of them entering the workforce.
They don’t want to just be sat in a desk and told what to do; they want to have somebody who’s going to help them learn as well and create the right sort of environment, send them on courses to learn additional things that they don’t particularly know and, really, to help them into their career.
Because if folks want to advance fairly quickly and if they’re not given a chance to advance, then we have a problem, because they’re going to go and look elsewhere; they’re going to go look where their peer has had success. Everybody’s needing talent in supply chain management, so have to make sure that we can satisfy some of the demands of those younger folk.
Can you talk a little bit more about how you help them find mentors and develop their skills?
Yeah, I look back at my own experience. I was very lucky when I joined my first organization, the Railway. We were given a mentor from day one. I had a gentleman who had about 45 years of experience working in the supply-management function for the railway. He basically said to me, “I want to make sure that you get the chance to get on, so my door is always open if you ever have a problem. Come in and talk to me.” He had tremendous experience he was very willing to share. What we need to do is, I think we all have a role to play, to be a mentor, to be a coach to people.
However, we need to overcome one thing: We need to overcome the fear that they’re going to take our job. That’s not really the case, because we should always be preparing ourselves to move upward as well. There’ll come a time when, yes, everybody reaches as far as they can go in the organization, and the pyramid gets smaller the farther you go up, so we’re not all going to get to the top. But, certainly, there’s plenty of room for people to move in to different jobs.
One of the things I always suggest to people is, you can be a good mentor only if you fully understand the organization you’re working in. In a larger company that’s easy to do by being prepared to move around. The younger folks are very much prepared to move around as well. Some of the best programs that I have seen are mentored rotational programs, where people spend six months in one part and move on to a totally different part and, often, totally a different geography as well. Nice and easy to do in large organizations; not so easy in smaller organizations.
But in the small company, you can get to understand a lot more about the business itself very quickly and really become a key part of that business if you’re someone who comes up with good ideas, comes up with ideas that are well thought through and able to implement them as well. I would suggest that a part of mentoring is encouraging people to think outside their normal area of experience and normal area of day-to-day working, the old sort of think-outside-the-box idea. Try and make time to sit down with people, and ask them questions that will stretch their imagination and get them to apply some of their experience and some of their learning in a totally different field as well. That has benefits not just for the individual, but for the organization as well.
Do you have any recommendations for companies that will be interested in developing these internship programs or becoming mentors?
Yes, there are a couple of good examples that exist. Looking outside supply chain is probably the best way to do it at the moment, because these things are only very young in supply chain other than a few companies. Look what’s been done in other functions—finance or marketing or sales, even—and say, “How can we apply that to supply chain?”
There’s plenty of opportunity in supply chain now with the breadth of supply chain, everything from procurement, product development, through the production, manufacturing, service planning, through to the actual operations of the business and then the logistics, distribution, and customer service functions. Moving around within those functions is very, very easy when they’re all brought together under supply chain management.
But I would certainly say don’t encourage people to be a total, in-depth specialist in any one area alone. They have got to get the opportunity to become what the HR people call a T-shaped person. By a T-shaped person, that means somebody who’s got a breadth of knowledge across the whole of the organization and the different functions that there are; plus, they have the ability to drill down deeply in at least one area. That’ll help people as they plan their career and they progress to be able to move into other areas but have some sort of skill and benefit that they can bring to addressing questions that are related but not necessarily exactly the same as the function that they’ve worked in in the past. And then for the internship programs, what you really have to do as employer is avoid the easy internship planning.
That means that you have got to actually come up with challenges for these people. One of the best ways that I have found to do that is to set them meaningful projects, a project that has some sort of return on the investment that you’re making in them by coming up with some impact, whether it’s financial or not—it doesn’t really make much difference; it’s better if it can be financial, because they have the opportunity then to work out a good ROI on what they’re doing—but it’s got to be something that has some air of opportunity; it’s also got to be a real issue that the company faces. I have found that the best issues are the ones that encourage people to talk across as many functions as possible and also outside the company, toward your suppliers and toward your customers as well.
Thank you, Nick, for sharing your views today on facing up to the talent crisis in supply chain.
Okay, Dustin, you’re very welcome. Thank you.
About Nick Little
Nick Little, BA (Hons), MCIPSManaging Director, Railway Management Program Assistant Director, Executive Development Programs Department of Supply Chain Management The Eli Broad College of BusinessMichigan State University The James B. Henry Center for Executive Development3535 Forest Road, Suite C-31, Lansing, MI 48910-3831, USA
O: +1 517/353-8711 x 71006
C: +1 517/256-4708
F: +1 517/353-0796
Asst Dir, Executive Development, Eli Broad College of Business,
Michigan State University