Editor’s note: APICS magazine is pleased to welcome Karen Alber as the new author of “Executive View.” Alber is a partner at The Integreship Group, where she works with rising supply chain leaders.
John Watson, retiring CEO of Chevron, recently shared some reflections on Linkedin. He wrote: “If I were to start my career over, I would do one thing differently. During my early years in the company, I was fairly analytical in how I approached most situations. And although that served a purpose, I later realized that you can be much more effective if you recognize the importance of people in business. The sooner you learn about reading people, listening to others and building relationships, the sooner you will be more effective.”
I am so passionate about this topic that I moved on from a role as CIO at MillerCoors to start a business that prepares future leaders for the people dynamics they will face. I want to help professionals make people skills second nature and prime them to weather any storms that come along the way.
I began my career as a recent college grad with a degree in operations on the shop floor supervising production of Cap’n Crunch cereal. What a learning experience! I worked the third shift with a crew of employees who knew a heck of a lot more than I did about the operation, equipment and processes. I remember asking myself, “Who am I, at 22 years old, to supervise this experienced group of individuals?”
I held many roles in my journey from that position to today: production planner, buyer, planning manager, supply chain manager, director of business solutions, vice president of change management, chief of staff to the CEO and senior vice president. Each of these was more challenging than the last. By the time I was CIO, I found myself asking, “Who am I, now at 50 years old, to lead hundreds of individuals who have amazing technical expertise in supply chain, finance, data centers and cybersecurity at this $10 billion organization?”
While each role required strong technical ability, what really helped me succeed were sophisticated people skills. Now, these competences were never taught to me — not in school or any of the hundreds of hours of training I received from my employers. I was fortunate to have mentors and role models to look up to, as well as the time and money to seek out training. Unfortunately, not everyone has these opportunities.
As an executive, I don’t have to tell you how the complexity of people dynamics change as we move into higher leadership roles. The people dynamics encountered as a third-shift supervisor on the Cap’n Crunch line were quite different than the ones I encountered as CIO and each level in between. As our responsibility level grows, so does the responsibility of those who work for us — and thus the stakes rise exponentially related to how successfully we navigate difficult people issues.
Supply chain leaders are very comfortable when someone comes to our office with an inventory problem; but how about when someone tells us about a family emergency or that they’ve witnessed an ethical violation? Obtaining the people skills necessary to handle such cases involves practicing and rehearsing how to navigate conflict while getting feedback and guidance from someone who has been a leader themselves. It demands that we make ourselves and all our fellow leaders comfortable and confident with the people we lead. The ultimate goal must be to create company cultures where leadership of people is valued as much as other talents.
Make the investment in yourself by working on specific people skills, such as listening better, asking the right questions, and learning techniques to get beyond biases and assumptions about others. The countless interpersonal interactions leaders have every day directly affect team engagement, trust and how much discretionary time and effort employees put forth. With some time and attention paid to developing these capabilities, I have no doubt that every executive can attain remarkable transformation. I hope you’ll join me in the quest to build the best possible supply chain leaders for a rapidly changing and turbulent business climate.
Karen Alber is a partner at The Integreship Group, where she works with rising leaders to master the people parts of their jobs. Prior to this, she served as chief information officer at both MillerCoors and Heinz. Alber may be contacted at email@example.com.