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Op-Ed: Developing a Career in Global Sourcing and Supply Chain Management

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Dynamic changes in the global market have changed the way companies view the sourcing and supply chain management profession. To succeed, future leaders will need to be global leaders whose qualities enable them to steer teams, work with suppliers, customers, and partners across different business functions, countries, and cultures.

However, as many companies today still view sourcing and supply chain management as simply a functional expertise, young talents in this profession are facing several challenges that hinder them from developing key qualities required of future leaders in this field. These qualities include a global mindset, cultural intelligence, technical savvy, knowledge across diverse business functions, emotional intelligence, and inspirational leadership. Challenges to entering this career range from lack of global exposure, cross-functional experiences, leadership development opportunities and a limited budget to further business skills and education.

This article discusses recommendations on how young professionals can proactively overcome these types of obstacles, develop the qualities necessary to prepare for global sourcing and supply chain leadership roles and be positioned to help their organizations reinvent talent development initiatives to better meet what business will demand in the future.

The importance of having a global mindset, exposure, and cultural intelligence

To stay competitive in this era of globalization, a company’s supply chain will need to be resilient enough to adapt to the market’s constant changes. A global exposure and requisite worldly mindset, plus cultural intelligence are crucial to future executives’ success. Let’s take a look at some emerging trends in the global market.

With China’s ongoing double-digit wage increase, the next decade will continue to witness the changing landscape of global sourcing due to a major shift of low-end, labor-intensive production from China to other economies that offer more competitive production costs like the ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and Africa. These shifts create a new set of challenges for global sourcing and supply chain executives: setting up a new supplier matrix, managing new local teams with different working cultures, working with new local production compliance law, and setting up new logistics networks to bring products to market. The emerging markets might offer lower labor costs, but they often come with underdeveloped logistics infrastructure that could hurt speed to market.

Companies around the world, especially those from the United States and Europe, which were mainly viewed as consuming markets in the past, are expanding into emerging markets to capture the consumer growth opportunities. In the next decade, 70 to 75 percent of global consumer growth will come from emerging markets, with China and India leading the way. McKinsey & Company reported that by 2025, consumers in emerging markets will spend $30 trillion annually, which it called “the biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism.” The opportunities span from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce.

As lucrative as these new business opportunities might be, setting capable and competitive distribution networks is a key determinant to a foreign company’s success in these markets. This is not an easy task. Apart from fierce local competition, last-mile delivery is a huge challenge due to underdeveloped domestic road infrastructure, multi-layered and heavily manual distribution network, unreliable tracking system, slow cash-upon-delivery processes. The logistics problems get even worse when delivery points are outside of big cities.

So how do young professionals and students who want to pursue a career in global sourcing and supply chain management obtain a global mindset, exposure, and knowledge to be prepared for these emerging challenges? Here are some suggestions.

Study and work abroad, learn languages to gain global exposure

As companies rapidly expand their businesses across borders, young professionals who have had international experience, or are bilingual or multilingual, are exposed to more career opportunities as their skills can be used in different markets around the world. Schools in the U.S. in particular offer plenty of study abroad programs, from high school to graduate level. Many schools are also Peace Corps participants, providing students opportunities to work as volunteers abroad.

Another recommendation for students going on a study abroad trip is that a homestay (living with local families) will help them learn the local language and culture much faster than staying with other students who speak their own language would. Besides language and culture and learning what living in a foreign country offers, the experience also pushes a person out of their comfort zone and trains them to be resilient and adaptive to new environments, to constantly problem solve, view things from different perspectives, and become better communicators. These are the critical business soft skills that experience living abroad can provide.

As career-minded students might find it challenging looking for internships directly related to their area of professional interest, there are several ways to obtain local business and professional experience. One suggestion is to get involved with local professional associations, business conferences and expatriate roundtables. For example, the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals has numerous local roundtables globally that host workshops and networking events, especially in large commerce hubs like Shanghai, Singapore, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Mumbai, among others.

If information on these opportunities is not immediately available, young professionals and students should reach out to local U.S. Chambers of Commerce, or sourcing and supply chain associations in the U.S. for local contact details. Professional groups on social network like LinkedIn can also be a source for information and advice.

Understand that values of sourcing and supply chain management go beyond managing operational costs

In today’s competitive global market, sourcing and supply chain management should no longer be simply perceived as a position of functional expertise that manages purchasing of goods and operations. A successful global supply chain is one that gives an organization the operational power to achieve its objectives and outperform its competition by better serving the customer. To prepare for future leadership roles, besides an expertise in sourcing and supply chain management, young professionals will need to have good knowledge across other business functions to be able to envision, develop, and implement sourcing and supply chain strategies that enable their organization to achieve its set goals. Marketing makes promises to customers, supply chain delivers. The lack of alignment can create brand disasters.

So how do young professionals proactively develop the skills and knowledge needed for future leadership roles?

Build a network of mentors and nurture this network

Having a network of mentors is crucial, especially in a profession as dynamic as global sourcing and supply chain management. That network should include a vast number of diverse business areas within and outside of an organization. It is important to have a strategy to successfully start and nurture a mentorship. First, young professionals should build their own brand within an organization, defining themselves as go-getters, problem solvers, and active contributors by getting involved in department projects, inter-department dealings, and cross-functional initiatives. Second, they should define their career goals, know the areas they are most interested in or passionate about, and build an agenda around what they need to learn and do to achieve set goals. Finally, they should find their first mentor.

A mentor could be a manager who has an inspirational leadership style, or an expert in the business area the young professional is passionate about. A mentor does not have to be someone within one’s own department or organization. An effective and rewarding mentorship should not feel like a forced relationship, but one that is empowering for both the mentor and the mentee. A young professional should genuinely want to learn from his or her mentor, and the mentor should genuinely want to coach. If one has done a good job at building their own brand as an active team player who always aspires to learn and contribute, it will much easier for them to get a senior leader to want to become their mentor.

It is very important that young professionals actively add value to the relationship with their mentors, and not to fall into the trap of only expecting to receive knowledge and coaching from their mentors and forget to give. Ask your mentor how you can help with projects, keeping in mind you will need to manage your time wisely as you still need to excel at your daily job.

Once a mentor assigns tasks or projects with deadlines, the mentee should respect those deadlines. That ensures the mentor of the mentee’s commitment to learning, and that his or her time spent coaching is valued. Happy with your progression, mentors might very well leverage their connections to help you build your network with other mentors who are experts in other business areas. A well-rounded network of mentors covering diverse business functions, which young professionals can proactively build around, can play a crucial role in providing opportunities in cross-functional exposure that enable collaborative practices not only within an organization but also across the industry.

Furthering global market knowledge and business skills

Young professionals often find their organizations have limited budget for further supporting their business skills, knowledge and education. Here are a few options to can help proactively overcome this obstacle.

Active involvement in professional associations is extremely beneficial to helping young professionals build their networks, get advice and guidance, and increase their knowledge and expertise. This will make them more valuable assets to their organizations. Membership in professional associations is often significantly more affordable for young professionals and students. With this membership, you can register for conferences and participate in local workshops, roundtables and networking events at discounted rates, and also benefit from a large online library of resources and research, including countless case studies and other market intelligence materials for free.

Subscriptions to global trade and supply chain journals are also recommended. There are several respected journals out there that provide market intelligence reports, analysis and forward-thinking articles like, the Sourcing Journal, the Journal of Commerce, Supply Chain Management Review and American Shipper, to name a few. Companies often have corporate subscriptions to these publications in print and online. Young professionals should take advantage of these resources to increase their industry knowledge.

Additionally, technology and the Internet make it a lot easier when it comes to learning. Flipboard, for example, a widely used, free-to-download app on smart phones and tablets, allows users to read virtually thousands of articles from countless business journals of their choice in a magazine-format platform. Setting Google alerts on topics one is interested in and saving articles with useful information in a “read-later” app like Instapaper are also helpful practices. One should share articles they find interesting with their mentors and colleagues, discuss these practices and ideas. Initiating an active, collaborative learning and sharing network will help young professionals become valuable contributors to their organizations and the industry.

Knowledge in key business functions like finance, marketing or information technology will be crucial for next-generation global supply chain executives. The ability to speak the language of their internal customers and executive counterparts in these areas is key to successfully getting the organization to buy into their sourcing and supply chain strategies.

To further their knowledge in diverse business functions, in ways other than going back to school for a higher degree, young professionals can look at more time-effective and cost-saving quality professional certificate programs offered by universities across the country in part-time or online study formats. With the power of the Internet, online learning is revolutionizing education. Coursera, an online education platform, works with over 100 universities around the world with the majority being top institutions in the U.S to offer more than 400 courses free of charge. Courses are offered in a number of disciplines from engineering to business and information technology in several languages. If one is willing to learn to improve their knowledge and skills, there are always several options.

The above practices will help young professionals develop strategic thinking skills and vision setting ability for global supply chains. Being able to foresee possible ripple effects of events in your own industry, adjoining industries or unrelated industries, and the impacts that these can have on your organization’s global supply chain will allow you to proactively develop strategies to quickly capture market opportunities or react to unanticipated disruptions.

Practice servant leadership

More important than mastering business skills, technical knowledge and market intelligence, is one’s leadership capability. Future global sourcing and supply chain leaders will have to be able to inspire and empower collaboration, innovation, and trust, across teams of different cultures, languages and locations around the globe. Successful leaders practice servant leadership to develop teams to their fullest potential and empower them to contribute their talents and collaborate to help the company outperform its competition. There are several ways young professional can start developing their leadership skills.

–   Take the initiative to work on resolving problems or challenges a department faces.

–   Volunteer to work on collaborative projects in the organization.

–   Learn the key systems the organization uses, even ones outside of your immediate responsibility, and then offer to help teach or train others. Advocate for talent development, cross-training and a collaborative culture.

–   Take an active role within professional associations, contribute in any way possible. For example, help organize a local roundtable’s events or participate in surveys that would contribute to knowledge of the industry.

–  Reach back out to your school through the alumni association to speak with seniors or recent graduates on any topic that would be helpful to their post-college experience like information related to job search or career growth. A young profession could also share advice and thoughts on their school’s alumni board if they prefer writing instead.

–  Mentor, coach, and develop those who work for you, just like how your mentors help you. Reach out and give back.

–  Bring ideas to the table, regardless of whether the discussion is within your own department, or across other functions within company. Don’t be afraid to throw out ideas and ask questions.

These practices are what young professionals can take upon themselves to build a well-rounded skill set and leadership capabilities, while helping to promote a self-reinforcing talent development culture within an organization, and making a contribution and a difference to their professional community.

About the author: Mi Nguyen is a Global Sourcing Senior Specialist at J.C.Penney, a major American apparel and home retailer. She has more than 5 years of experience in global sourcing and supply chain management. Mi has lived, worked, and studied in Vietnam, New Zealand, China, and the U.S. With her diverse background, Mi’s passion is to bring a global perspective into helping develop the next generation of global sourcing and supply chain management talents.

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