By Dr. Robert Gordon, CPC  |  10/20/2023

career in supply chain management


Supply chain management is a growing field. Gradually, more companies are beginning to understand how important supply chain professionals are to any organization.


Things I Wish I Had Known Before Starting a Supply Chain Management Career

I’ve been in the supply chain field for over 30 years. However, I wish someone had told me several important things when I began my own career path in supply chain management.

For instance, I wish I had known that the start of my supply chain career would involve a wide scope of responsibilities, networking, and continuous learning. If someone had told me about the critical nature of supply chain responsibilities, networking, and continuous learning a little sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of grief figuring them out.

My first supply chain role after college was with a start-up cruise line. The organization had started using a fax machine, but a department secretary still typed up hard copies of purchase orders and mailed them to each supplier.

The purchase orders were typed on carbonless paper that had multiple copies. The top was the original copy that would be mailed to a cruise line supplier, the white copy went to the file, the gold copy was kept in a numerical log, and the blue copy went to accounting.

Purchase orders were signed in ink and would go out to confirm orders. Although we would fax purchase orders to suppliers, the mail copy was considered the contractual copy and included our terms and conditions on the back. With technological advancements, things are different now, but it shows how what has changed over time and how the supply chain management field continues to change.

This introduction to the field helped me to understand that any role in supply chain management has a broad scope. When I started, I did a lot of filing, faxing, and data entry, and I was also responsible for the general organization of the department.

That work lasted about two weeks until my immediate supervisor was scheduled for vacation. Suddenly, I was responsible for everything to keep food and beverage items to a cruise ship traveling throughout the Caribbean. I did my best and made mistakes, but I learned a lot. However, the scope of my job continued to grow.

After being thrown into the deep end, I was moved on to purchasing spare parts, which required implementing a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. I knew little about spare parts, but I was willing to learn.

As a test, my boss had me source some airplane parts. I knew even less about airplanes than ships, but I did find the parts at a fair price through networking.

Had I known I would have to learn all these areas with only partial guidance, I might have opted to go into computer coding like several of my friends. At least there, I knew what was expected, and I only had to program a solution.

This experience led me to the second important area I wish I had known before starting a supply chain job: networking. In the early days, I had to learn a lot about spare parts, ship systems, manufacturers, and logistics. I began to find out who knew what and talked to people in a similar position with more experience than I.

I also started reading all the magazines that engineers would read. I had to find people with expertise I did not possess and try to help them as they helped me. I found several new people in the field who were more than happy to talk about their experiences.

I am not an extrovert, but I worked hard to become more sociable and learn from others, especially soft skills such as communication and conflict resolution. The sales field is full of extroverts who like to talk. You can learn a lot by listening to others when they are trying to sell you a product or service.

Communication in this fashion might not have been easy, but asking clarifying questions is better than having a misunderstanding. Engineers can be a little arrogant, so phrasing your questions properly and asking intelligent questions is essential.

Over time, I have become skilled enough that engineers forget I am not one of them and go into way too many details. I find that high praise, and they feel that I might be able to help them with a solution.

Networking and having a good memory allow me to occasionally contribute to a discussion by having an opinion or option. It’s not that I have experience fixing certain problems, but I have spoken to enough people that I might have heard about a similar situation and solution.

I also wish that someone would have told me about the need for continuous learning. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I thought my educational life was complete.

But I found out that I had to keep gaining new knowledge and technical skills to remain current in key areas of the supply chain management field. Typing and faxing purchase orders might have been the norm when I started, but I had to learn about ERP systems. (Can you believe there are so many different ones and few are similar?) I also needed to learn how to transmit data electronically to and from a ship as well as to and from a supplier.


Is a Logistics Degree Needed for a Career in Supply Chain Management?

No, it is not a requirement to have a logistics degree to work in the supply chain management industry. I feel that people with other degrees can also function well in the field of logistics and supply chains.

However, having a degree of some type may be advantageous for seeking supply chain management jobs. Having the foundational skills that come with a degree could be helpful, as a lot of what happens in the supply chain requires critical thinking.

Having a supply chain management degree or another degree that relates to some area of supply chain management can help you understand the different functions within a supply chain. Logistics, for instance, is one of the important functions of a supply chain. However, other degrees may make sense if you want to pursue the career path of supply chain jobs.

If you're seeking to enter the supply chain management field, some degrees worth considering are:

A bachelor's degree in any of these areas could have some applicability toward supply chain management.

My master’s degree is in business administration, and my doctorate is in management and organizational leadership. Both degrees have been very helpful in my work. I also earned a graduate certificate in project management and a graduate certificate in logistics, which have also proven useful in my supply chain management career.


What Skills Are Typically Needed for Supply Chain Management?

One of the top skills that a person going into the supply chain management field needs is problem-solving. Supply chain managers commonly face complex situations that require creative problem-solving abilities to ensure happy customers.

Many people think there is no more work once the contract is signed, but there is plenty of work after the contract signing. There are always issues, problems, and challenges to overcome.

Being able to identify issues and implement effective solutions is crucial. Adapting to new situations is important for organizational success, so a manager needs to be flexible and ready to adapt as situations occur.

Another top skill needed by supply chain managers is planning and organization. The details of supply chains are always complex.

It might seem like supply should be straightforward, considering all the recent COVID-19 pandemic craziness and the shortage of products such as toilet paper, face masks, and hand sanitizer. However, good planning and organizational abilities are needed to manage the flow of goods and services and coordinate with different departments and suppliers.

Managers need strong analytical skills to analyze data and make data-driven decisions to create a reliable and great supply chain. Data is an ally to supply chain managers. They must collect relevant data to make decisions about inventory levels, distribution, demand patterns, production schedules, quality control, and other metrics.

A great manager will need the ability to negotiate. People always ask me why. The answer is simple: without planning, data, analytics, and critical thinking, how will you be successful in a negotiation for your business?

A successful negotiation in supply chain management involves planning, data, analytics, and critical thinking. A manager will negotiate with suppliers, vendors, and internal stakeholders.

It is vital to leverage the business information that you have to negotiate better prices, higher quality products, or more favorable terms from other companies.

Another skill that managers need to have is a solid understanding of supply chain management concepts, tools, and technologies. If you cannot get a better price from other companies, can you get free delivery? If products are not free, how about a reduced price?

Some suppliers can offer businesses a vendor-managed inventory program to minimize overhead. Knowing different angles and options will open up what can be done to reduce overall costs rather than only focusing on price points.

Leaders can benefit from project management skills because they often need to manage multiple projects simultaneously, including coordinating with different teams and meeting deadlines. For instance, consider that a contracting officer has to manage several contracts (projects) simultaneously, and those contracts will be at different phases. Keeping track of each phase of these contracts and processes is essential to success.

Leadership is yet another essential skill for working in supply chain management. Managers will lead different teams and need to provide guidance, direction, and motivation.

Good leadership skills can help drive performance and ensure successful operations. Supply chain managers have to lead both internal and external personnel, especially under different conditions and circumstances.

Managers need to understand ethics and the law. To work as a manager, you are responsible for spending other people's money, and you must remain accountable for those transactions. Upholding ethical standards in procurement, vendor relationships, manufacturing, and other areas of the supply chain is vital for building trust and maintaining a company's reputation.

Finally, supply chain managers need good communication skills. They work with many people, including suppliers, customers, and internal teams.

The people they interact with could be situated anywhere around the world, especially if it’s necessary to work with a broad international supplier base. As a result, being able to communicate clearly and effectively is essential.


A Broad Knowledge Base Is Critical for Supply Chain Management Careers

Continuous learning and professional development are also key to staying up to date with supply chain industry trends and best business practices used in supply chain management. For instance, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and Blockchain are just a few of the new technologies that people in supply chain management should know.

In addition, a greater understanding of cybersecurity is increasingly crucial in different supply chains. Gaining additional knowledge and experience in these areas can help a supply chain manager remain competitive in an expanding market.

People in supply chain management careers must expect to keep learning and take courses to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. If you are not keeping ahead of the competition, then the competition will eventually catch up and pass you.


Supply Chain Management Professionals Must Be Strong Leaders

Supply chain managers will likely have to manage a team, as any efficient supply chain involves many people. Setting a good example is critical to success.

As a leader, it is vital to encourage and motivate your team. Happy people are more productive and have increased job satisfaction. Creating a positive work environment can help everyone communicate better and achieve more goals.

Supply chain leaders require effective communication skills. Effective communication is essential for setting clear expectations, providing feedback, and addressing concerns.

Good communication also involves active listening and understanding non-verbal cues, and I strongly believe in adjusting your communication style to suit different individuals. Situational Leadership® is one of the best ways to manage a team.

Managing people also requires two other fundamental skills. One is conflict resolution, and the other is delegation.

Conflicts are inevitable in any workplace, and identifying, addressing, and constructively resolving disputes is vital for maintaining a productive work environment. You must also handle conflicts right away, as conflicts will never goes away on their own.

Delegation, however, is hard for many people as it makes them feel a loss of control. Effective delegation involves assigning tasks and responsibilities to the right team members, based on their skills and expertise.

Delegating tasks can help you manage your workload and empower your team members to take ownership of their work. However, the risk of managing others is that a leader is still responsible for the process and lack of results if the work does not get done on time.


A Day in the Life of a Supply Chain Manager Is Never Boring

You will never know what to expect if you become a supply chain manager. I remember working for a commercial shipping company, and one of their ships had a generator go down. My boss told me that we needed to get a sizeable portable generator (600 kilowatts) and a fuel tank to a Texas port, so the vessel could sail to the next port.

My manager was in a panic, as this problem could stop the ship’s movement. I was relatively new to the company, and I guess I was not panicked enough. Somehow, he did not think I was serious enough about it.

Little did he know that this was not my first time getting a generator to a ship with problems. I made a few calls, got a few things arranged, signed a rental agreement, and arranged the trucking. After that, the generator and fuel tank were ready to go.

My boss did not know that a while back with my previous company, we had a similar problem. However, that generator was needed for delivery to Ushuaia, Argentina. If I could get a generator to the bottom of the planet, I was confident that I would get a generator delivered to Texas.

It turned out that Texas might not be as remote as Ushuaia, but it still has its issues. The truck with the generator and the fuel tank was stopped for being overweight, so I had to arrange for a second truck and a crane. Then, I needed to get the fuel tank moved to the second truck before getting the generator to the ship.

It was a messy situation, but the work got done. Ultimately, the generator was waiting on the dock for the ship to pull in and load it aboard for temporary use.

Every day in supply chain management is different, and there are always new challenges to supply chain work. Even when you think you have a situation in hand, problems with products, services, personnel, schedules, or transportation can arise and require you to use all of your skills.

Situational Leadership is a registered trademark of Leadership Studies, Inc.

About the Author
Dr. Robert Gordon, CPC
Dr. Robert Gordon, CPC, is a faculty member of the Reverse Logistics Management and Government Contracting and Acquisition programs at the University. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from the University of California, Los Angeles; a master's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix; and a doctoral degree in management from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Gordon also holds graduate certificates in information technology project management, information technology security and logistics management from American Public University.

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