Supply Chain leaders – CEOs-in-Training

From supply chain to CEO

Chantal KadingThere are many paths one can take to becoming the highest-ranking official in an organisation but not all are equal, writes executive coach, leadership & talent strategist, and founder / managing director of People Shop in Cape Town. Chantal Kading.

Supply chain leaders have often been overlooked when it comes to finding the right candidate for CEO, even though some of the world’s most successful chief executives like Apple’s Tim Cook and GM’s Mary Barra launched their careers from supply chain platforms (F. Gomer, 2022).

Beyond a powerful vision, social influence, creativity, erudition and strong communication, there are other hard-earned skills which make supply chain expertise extremely valuable for the position of CEO. In today’s business world, the bottom line is not just about profit, but also sustainability and the important role that bimodal supply chains can play in driving both.

Optimising efficiencies and reducing cost while meeting or exceeding customer expectations is what seasoned supply chain professionals do best. Their strong analytical skills coupled with complex problem-solving makes them formidable (F. Gomer, 2022). Research has shown that great leaders are analytical and that the ability to out-think and out-execute competitors is rooted in the kinds of analytical approaches used in operations (K. Ohmae, n.d.).

When Tim Cook began his rise to CEO he started as Apple’s vice president of sales and operations and then got promoted to chief operations officer. It is reported that within months of joining he managed to reduce on-hand inventory from $400 million to $78 million (L. Dormehl, 2022). Sales and Operations is often viewed as management’s handle of the business because it can provide the kind of visibility that drives optimal thinking.

Tim Cook uses optimal thinking to define his commitment to quality, articulate Apple’s greatest accomplishments, and to optimise the company’s innovation initiatives (, 2022). Optimal thinking is about focusing on the most constructive thoughts and optimising situations in your control while holding realistic expectations. This may be one of the reasons why the ability to balance optimisation and business growth is what top CEOs expect from their supply chain leaders.

According to Mckinsey’s longtime leader, Marvin Bower, the role of CEO can be regarded as being so specialised that executives can prepare for it only by actually holding the position. In our opinion, the role of chief supply chain or operations officer may be the closest one can get to a testing ground and may even account for the emerging trend of supply chain professionals rising to CEO positions.

Scott Shay (Executive Director of the Global Supply Chain Institute) argues that; “supply chain leaders undergo excellent development for top leadership roles through the normal course of doing their jobs”. Supply chains’ integration into almost every aspect of the business as well as its management under central leadership and centres of excellence may allow professionals to develop the kind of holistic and strategic perspectives that CEOs embody.

Before she became CEO at General Motors, Mary Barra had worked her way up from engineering and administration to VP of Product Development with her role being extended to cover global purchasing and supply chain tasks. Her experience in this global role is reported to have shaped her forward-thinking leadership style and ability to navigate high pressure situations while solving problems quickly and decisively.

Although many paths exist to the role of CEO, one thing that is certain is that the ability to think analytically and strategically while holding realistic global perspectives is essential. The ability of supply chain professionals to contend with ever more complex sequences of activities while assessing situations from different perspectives means that they have something to offer that can be more easily translated into higher-level positions and organisational success.

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