Friday 26th May 2017 - Logistics & Supply Chain

On the board walk

Here’s a cautionary tale for any logistics professional aspiring to a seat on the board.

One who made it was attending his first board meeting, but getting rather puzzled by an increasingly acronym-fuelled debate on a particular topic. He didn’t want to appear ignorant but eventually felt he had to ask what one of the acronyms meant in case anybody asked for his opinion. His question provoked nothing but blank looks from other directors. Then one of them looked it up only to find it meant something different from what everybody had previously thought. ‘Which means,’ said one of the old hands, ‘that our policy has been completely wrong.’

Of course, it could be worse. You could find yourself attending your first board meeting – as did one rookie director – and looking into the angry eyes a non-executive director, somebody you fired years ago in a previous company.

Never a dull moment on the board? Well, not quite. No doubt there can be plenty of tedious stuff. The point is – how many logistics professionals have what it takes to make it there? Not as many as should, even though the broad area of logistics is becoming a key performance issue for more and more companies.

The problem is that too many find it difficult to develop a directorial dimension to their thinking. They fail to appreciate that being a director is a fundamentally different role to being a manager. Think of it partly, if you like, as the difference between strategy and tactics. Between the nuts and bolts of managing a warehouse and the broader conceptualising of the business gains from developing an integrated supply chain.

It’s not easy making the leap. Some never achieve it because they simply can’t shake off the habits of being a great manager. But great managers can make poor directors if their judgement on the big issues isn’t sound. Obsession, for instance, with the minutiae of transport scheduling won’t win you a seat in the boardroom no matter how expert your knowledge.

So that’s the first point. Too many excellent logistics managers trap themselves below a glass ceiling because they believe specialist knowledge is the sole route to the top. Certainly, your expert knowledge ought to be exemplary if you’re a logistics director with a seat on the board – but it’s not enough.

You must be able to see where your business function sits in the bigger picture. More than that, you have to show how logistics can add more value to the company and help it achieve its strategic objectives.

Another factor that holds logistics pros back is the fact they don’t get enough opportunities to practise their skills at influencing a group of equals. The distribution or transport manager will be more familiar with running a hierarchical department where he or she issues orders and expects to see them carried out.

Persuading strong people of equal stature of your point of view is a different kind of skill which long years in a command and control management structure may erode, even if it was there in the first place. So learning about how to debate issues in a non-confrontational way and influence equals is important for the logistics pro heading for the boardroom.

Company reputation
And, increasingly, influencing fellow directors is only the part of it. Directors are (or should be) guardians of a company’s reputation. So making sure the company doesn’t slide into the mire in the first place is (or, again, should be) a director’s principal consideration.

But don’t, either, underestimate the breadth of qualities needed to earn a seat at the boardroom table. John Harper, who was professional development director at the UK’s Institute of Directors and who has served on the boards of more than 30 companies, knows more about those qualities than most.

He says a director’s qualities include ‘capability to take a wider view than confined by their background or discipline; political astuteness and sensitivity; good interpersonal skills; ability to listen and to communicate ideas, concepts and facts succinctly and emphatically; financial awareness and numeracy; business competence; good judgement,common sense, diplomacy; strength of character, courage, integrity, wisdom; relevant experience, special knowledge and skills.’

Step forward any paragon who matches that job description.

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