How to Lead When You’re Not the Leader

Supply Chain Leadership

You’re not the boss of me.

If you’re a supply chain planner, have you heard that before? If you haven’t, trust me, they’re saying it.

Well, OK. Maybe they don’t say it that exact way. Let’s try these:

Procurement: I have savings targets to meet this year. Buying in the largest volumes possible is the only way I can hit them.

Manufacturing: Our utilization numbers are low. We have to reduce changeovers by running larger lot sizes.

Sales/Marketing: We need to keep these 27 small volume products in order to strengthen our brand. If we don’t, our top 3 products (which account for 90% of our sales) won’t continue growing.

Or maybe even these…

Quality Assurance: Before we release that lot, we need to review the test results from the third party lab.

Regional Business Unit: If we don’t receive the shipment by today, we’ll lose our only customer.

And finally…

[Run Random Ad Hoc Task Force Generator here]: You need to fill out this 37 question data request form every time you sneeze.

I don’t know, but sure seems like that’s what they’re saying.

So Who’s Right?

Well, here’s the thing. Everyone is. In most cases, all these groups are doing what they believe is the right thing to do.

Here’s the problem. Often times, the supply chain planning group is not part of a business line. As such, they don’t have direct responsibility for procurement savings, manufacturing throughput or sales.

We’ve seen some mature organizations appoint a senior position like a vice president for supply chain. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Often, what planners do have responsibility for are service levels and inventory (often reduction, not optimization by the way). But how to minimize stockouts and reduce inventory when you don’t own the necessary levers?

Leading When You’re Not the Leader

Supply chain planners have a distinct advantage. You are the only ones that have an end-to-end view of the enterprise.

Always, always welcome opportunities to help people out.

This visibility allows you to optimize the supply chain as a whole, and not just the individual nodes.

You’ll find a gazillion books on leadership in Barnes & Noble or The problem is a lot of these books are written from a CEO’s perspective. That’s not what we need here.

Instead, what we need are books on, oddly enough, being a cool guy or girl. You know, like the folks we’d gladly grab a drink with. Or the ones we’d like to go on business trips with. Or the ones we’d like to be on teams with.

Here are a few ideas on how to be that guy or girl:

1. Always, always welcome opportunities to help people out. Especially, when it’s outside of your job description.

2. Keep emotions out. Let numbers and facts do the talking. You connect more by saying less.

3. Listen. Try this. Every time they say something, repeat it and ask them if you understood their points accurately. Don’t comment until they confirm.

4. Tell a story. Who doesn’t love a good story? Integrate the various concerns into a comprehensive and insightful story. Help the individual stakeholders see the larger picture.

5. Make people’s lives easier. Don’t request multiple meetings, send various questionnaires, or send PowerPoint decks. Those are just delaying tactics. Propose a plan of action and a few alternatives. It’s easier for people to interact from a running start versus a white sheet.

Notice something? All the suggestions are about giving.

And that’s the key. When you give, you’re cool. And when you’re cool, people trust you and genuinely want to be part of what you’re trying to do.

This is what we’re trying to push for here at Real World Supply Chain. If this is something you’re interested in. Here’s a good place to start.

As always, we’d love to hear what you think.


  1. RWSC Team says

    Thanks for the insights Stephen. Totally agree with everything you say.

    Additionally, the mindset you describe below has to be genuine. Otherwise, long term success will be challenging.

    Thanks for taking the time to share.


  2. Stephen Hodgkins says

    This even sounds familiar from any support function! I have never had a staff to delegate tasks, so these past 26 years have honed my negotiating skills.

    The key is to find common ground – what is the basic shared needs that both parties can say ‘yes’. Seek the win-win; it is buried there somewhere. Suggestion #1 is critical: jumping at opportunities to help colleages in different functions, building ‘credits’ towards a future favor to ask. It means ‘networking’, which is where the true power lies. Spend this hard-earned ‘capital’ wisely, as it takes time to accumulate it. I am now the go-to guy for informed feedback!

  3. The RWSC Team says

    Yep, not always easy, but almost always worth the effort.

    Glad you liked it!


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