Closing the Generation Gap

Supply chain executives need to take advantage of the 'dynamic tension' between senior and neophyte employees

Sometimes it's difficult to keep the generations straight. No sooner do we understand the Boomers and their Gen X offspring, then we have to figure out Gen Y, sometimes called Millennials. What's a supply chain executive to do?

Bob Rudzki, president of Greybeard Advisors in Pittsburgh and a veteran supply chain industry executive with experience at Bayer and Bethlehem Steel, says the establishment of cross-functional teams can produce strategies and formulas for opportunities previously unknown to the company.

"When I was at Bethlehem [as head of procurement] we had a very mature department," he says. "Seventy percent of the team of 120 could retire within five years. We faced a department where the smarts would be walking out the door.

"What did we need?" asks Rudzki, who has co-authored multiple books on supply chain and leadership. "A new generation coming in, plus people who had been around a little while. We hired kids right out of school at 21 or 22, and brought in people in the company who were 35-40. We trained them cross-functionally going forth, mixed different ages and backgrounds. It proved important. When you ask people to think through a challenge, it will be in touch with their experience. Cross-functionally, though, they'll ask a question that might appear nave, but is actually profound because of what it causes the team to think through. So we want a mix of Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y. That diversity of background creates a dynamic that nothing is left uncovered. You can take a fresh look at everything. You can't do that with a guy who's been doing the same thing for 20 years."

Peaceful Coexistence

Shekar Natarajan, an author and former director of supply chain for Pepsi Bottling Group, says that more and more companies are finding that to generate revenue and profits, they must focus on customers and understand their choices, preferences and values; understand supply chain management centered on the objectivity and analytical framework of decision-making; and embrace technology.

"This has created a need for niche specialties and focus areas in supply chain that are technology driven," says Natarajan, Supply & Demand Chain Executive's 2011 Next-Generation Thought-leader for Supply Chain. "Younger generations are much more technologically adept due to their early exposure and willingness to embrace high-tech information-driven solutions."

He agrees with Rudzki that having young leaders entering the workforce without being constrained by past experience is a good thing.

"In my opinion, the diverse points of view driven by younger, tech-savvy managers improves leadership performance by helping to shape better ideas; they become better influencers and change agents, and visioning is improved. In fact, companies must create a culture where both generations can coexist; leveraging the strengths of each other's thinking and experience to drive highly effective supply chain performance."

The Long View

One benefit of technology, Rudzki says, is that it can help an organization transform from operational purchasing to strategic. However, he warns, while technology is a game-changer, there are dangers, not the least of which is relying on it too much.

"The challenge I see is thinking that technology is a panacea that will solve all the problems. A company can go through legacy systems, and make them permanent, rather than best practices. Technology needs to respond to what is best practice and how to enable it to occur. Avoid the temptation to take a checklist approach."

That takes critical thinking about internal needs. For example, Rudzki says, the commodity market is supply constrained and can't get in balance, a checklist approach would be to say, "It's going to be a tough market for two or three years.

"A more creative, strategic approach," Rudzki offers, "would be to say, ‘This is a major market for us. If we do nothing, it will have an adverse impact. What can we do to change that?'"

That thinking, he argues, comes about more easily with a multi-functional team of all ages and experience levels. "With the right team, you get ideas. You have to have a long-term plan. For example, encourage marginal suppliers to seek your business. Give suppliers some help to think it through. That strategy requires a multi-year look."

Another example: "What's the role of procurement or supply chain in a company?" Rudzki asks. "We have a big client that's been around a long time. Yet the role of procurement was very tactical, very operational. Each morning they had a meeting: ‘Was the plant interrupted yesterday? Was the problem solved?' They made it very short, very tactical. They were just firefighting, but with no idea how to pursue strategic properties."

"Dynamic Tension"

Often, though, that mix of young and experienced leads to a sort of dynamic tension within the department. Leaders should look at it as a positive, Natarajan notes.

"This dynamic tension is notby any means a bad thing," he says. "You have to really balance the two and think collaboration/win-win to drive significant results. Young leaders should embrace the opportunity to leverage the experience to understand what works and what doesn't work; formulating strategies and ideas while working in conjunction with experienced counterparts."

In turn, he continues, "knowledge masters and experienced leaders should act as mentors and/or coaches to guide the future-generation leaders. They need to impart their wisdom and ‘know-how' in a way that it can be leveraged by younger, more technology-driven leaders. You can only shape better ideas that are a blend of both the worlds if the culture allows free exchange of ideas in an environment that allows positive dissension, constructive dialogue and mutual respect."

Not to be overlooked is the influence of social media, Natarajan says. "I see that future supply chain organizations will be shaped by all features that made social media so popular – accessibility, mobility, insight sharing, information sharing, real-time event awareness, alert triggers, agility and ability to react to issues and the creation of global communities that act as talent pools. Being able to participate at this level will be a requisite skill."

A Diverse Environment

It might be difficult for senior executives to see the knowledge that young professionals can bring, sometimes considering them too inexperienced to add significant value. What can they do?

"The senior executive role is critical to the success of young people and the ability of an organization to harness their skills for the betterment of effective supply chains," Natarajan says, adding that they must focus on three elements:

  • Providing a culture for success in a "walk the talk" style leadership. "It's important that they demonstrate the behavior they want the young leaders to acquire and practice."
  • Ensuring that they have right people with the right skills in the right place to build an organization centered on learning, experience and exposure (to industry and technology) to drive success.
  • Developing the goals, objectives and measurements that allow the tracking of results and the celebration of the wins.

"Senior leaders should pay particularly close attention to the dynamic tensions caused by intergenerational gap," he adds. "The key is to create an environment where diversity in ideas, values, expertise and exposure are entertained and respected and morphed with constructive conflicts. Successful leaders create effective teams that leverage each other's strengths and really transform how the business operates."