As a provider of training, coaching, and mentoring for supply chain leaders, I can tell you in all confidence that there’s much to be learned from studying the careers and deeds of our great leaders in business and commerce.

To demonstrate this, I want to share some inspirational examples of great leaders doing great things; along with the lessons you can learn from them to become a more effective supply chain manager, senior manager, or executive.


Take a Lesson from These Great Leaders

Some of these examples cover supply chain topics and some don’t, but all of them can (and really should) be applied to supply chain leadership scenarios and situations. Where better to kick-off then, than with a lesson from one of the great leaders in the ecommerce revolution—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.


Your Competitors Are Not Your Customers (Lesson from Jeff Bezos)

Needless to say, there are many lessons from Bezos’ business philosophy worth sharing and learning from, including this one about customer focus, which any supply chain leader would be wise to slip into his or her intellectual toolkit.

In a 2015 letter, as revealed by CNBC, Bezos made the following observation:


“Many companies describe themselves as customer-focused, but few walk the walk. Most big technology companies are competitor focused. They see what others are doing, and then work to fast follow.”


Although Bezos refers to tech companies, his statement rings so true in my experience of working with supply chain organisations.


The Lesson:

Of course, it’s important to monitor competitors and acknowledge what they do, but it won’t contribute that much to your business’ success. Your competitors’ customers are providing you no revenue… until your superior business and supply strategies persuade them to defect and start buying from your company.

That’s why as a supply chain leader, if you take just one lesson from Jeff Bezos, it should be this: stay aware of your competitors, but instead of reacting to their steps to improve performance, seek to know what your customers want, and be consistently proactive about delivering, while remaining cost-efficient.

Oh!… and if you don’t want to take Jeff Bezos’ word for it, (or mine) keep in mind this quote from one of the great leaders of the 20th century, Henry Ford: “The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.”


Listen to Your Supply Chain’s Inner Voice (Lesson from Anne Mulcahy)

Anne Mulcahy was CEO of Xerox Corporation from 2001 to 2009, during which time she was credited with rescuing the company from what would have been financial ruin.

When asked what she believed was the most important factor in “the great turnaround,” she credited the 90 days she spent travelling from one Xerox business unit to another, listening to employees’ views on the company and its problems.

According to Stanford Graduate School of Business, Mulcahy described her epic listening-tour (during which she covered more than 300,000 kilometres) as being instrumental in saving Xerox from bankruptcy.

In that description, she made a statement which I think is a very succinct, but powerful message to take on board from one of the great leaders of our time. Mulcahy said, “I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that’s time well spent.”


The Lesson:

As a supply chain leader today, it’s typical to depend not only on the people within your own company, but also those who work for your suppliers, business partners, and often, your customers.


That’s a lot of informational resources to learn from if you only take the time and make the effort to hear what these people have to say.


Listening is a vital skill to develop and nurture as a supply chain leader, especially when it comes to hearing the inner voice of your organisation, from whence much wisdom and insight can be captured and put to use.

So try to keep Anne Mulcahy’s sentiment in mind. Actively monitor how much you listen compared with how much you talk, and try to achieve a 50/50 balance. For most of us that does require some conscious effort—but it’s an effort worth making to improve your leadership performance.


When You Do Talk, Keep it Real (Lesson from Howard Schultz)

While Anne Mulcahy can teach us how to listen more than talk, there are times when, as a leader you have to speak up. So the next lesson is from the man who built an empire in fresh-brewed coffee, stepped down as CEO at the height of his company’s success, only to take up the position again eight years later to address what he still sees as his own mistakes.

That’s the essence of the executive rollercoaster-ride taken by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz as his company grew from nothing to become the coffee-lover’s Mecca, before falling into a pit of public vitriol within a deeper abyss of global recession.

It seems that stormy waters are something with which great leaders must become familiar, but it’s not so much what you go through as how you go through it that will define your abilities in the eyes of those who look to you for leadership and inspiration.

If you want to learn a lesson from Schultz, take 15 minutes out of your day to read this article in Harvard Business Review, because I guarantee you will be moved by this glimpse into his reality back in 2008.


The Lesson:

Upon reading the HBR interview with Schultz,  you’ll learn why sometimes you’ll need to open up when mistakes have been made, to shoulder responsibility, admit what you don’t know, and stand front-and-centre when there’s bad news to deliver.


In the case of Starbucks, it was a CEO “fessing up” to an entire corporation, but it could just as easily be you at some point in your career as a supply chain leader.


The key takeaway is that there are a hundred ways to dodge bullets when things go sour, but if you face up to reality and help your people to do the same, the ability of your operation to recover from setbacks and even take a leap forward will be improved dramatically.


Social Media Matters in Supply Chain Leadership (Lesson from Frederick W. Smith)

Fred Smith is a Vietnam War veteran as well as being the founder of express parcel giant FedEx, so you might be forgiven for thinking he’s less than impressed by what’s on YouTube.

Certainly, there was one time when he was definitely NOT impressed, after a YouTube video went viral, showing a FedEx employee delivering a computer monitor by tossing it over the customer’s garden fence.

In an interview for Fortune Magazine Smith commented on the incident and explained how…

“We immediately had the head of our express delivery operations record his own YouTube video in which he said, “Look, this is not what we stand for. We apologise.” That went viral too.”


In his interview, Smith used the YouTube incident to illustrate why leaders must look upon setbacks and failures as opportunities for improvement.


However, since I already touched on that in the lesson from Howard Schultz, I’d like to use Fred Smith’s example to highlight another key learning point for supply chain leaders.


The Lesson:

Whether you’re into social media or not, it’s an important influence on the way people perceive your business. Indeed, social media has demolished the partitions between front and back-office environments. In the age of information, every corner of your business has become a customer-facing component.

Therefore, as a supply chain leader, you need to pay attention to what’s being said about your business on social media channels, assess how your supply chain activity is influencing social media chatter, and use the same channels to respond and communicate with your company’s protagonists, antagonists, followers, and customers.


Steal Ideas With Impunity (Lesson from Sam Walton)

Innovate, innovate, innovate… Is this becoming an overused buzzword in the supply chain world or what?

After all, there are only so many ways you can transform raw materials into products and get them to the people who want them. I’m not suggesting that innovation shouldn’t be on the radar for supply chain leaders, as long as it’s realistic to improve through innovation.

But let’s be honest for a moment, as the late Sam Walton (The founder of Walmart) was when he said that “Most of us don’t invent ideas. We take the best ideas from someone else.”


In the first lesson of this post, we learned not to over-analyse your competition, so it may be fitting to conclude with this lesson inspired by Sam Walton’s observation.


While it makes sense not to try and follow competitors, you shouldn’t ignore what other supply chain organisations are doing, especially those which have overcome challenges you’re facing. There’s no harm at all in analysing their performance and emulating what they do best.


The Lesson:

If you want to lead your supply chain organisation to success, benchmark your performance, but don’t focus too much on competitors. Instead, look at companies with similar supply chain characteristics to yours. These companies might be involved in the same industry as you, or in others.


Look at what those organisations do well, and see if you can take their best ideas and adapt them to improve your own cost and service performance.


After all, Jeff Bezos didn’t invent e-commerce. Coffee shops were around long before Starbucks became a household name. Express carrier services have been operating for at least a couple of centuries and as Sam Walton would have been the first to admit, there was nothing new about grocery retail when he went into business.

Being a good or even a great leader doesn’t mean you have to somehow inspire everyone around you to come up with new ideas all the time, although the occasional breakthrough isn’t to be sniffed at. At the same time, encouraging people to take interest in existing ideas and practices, to evaluate them and adapt them, and to use them to reduce cost and/or improve service… that’s effective leadership.


Great Leaders Learn from Everyone



I hope the examples in this post have been illuminating, but remember that as a leader, you can learn from everyone, especially your own company’s customers, employees, and partners.

Never stop seeking new knowledge, because as McDonalds founder Ray Kroc once said, “As long as you’re green, you’re growing. As soon as you’re ripe, you start to rot.”

I’ll leave you with that educational quote, which probably serves to make my point—in far fewer words than it would have taken me. Of course if you’re hungry to learn more about supply chain management and leadership, my team and I will be happy to help you sate your appetite.

Just sign up as a member of our Supply Chain Leaders Academy, and we’ll help you to stay green for at least the next 12 months.


Contact Rob O'Byrne
Best Regards,
Rob O’Byrne
Phone: +61 417 417 307


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