I imagine a lot of people who read this blog series also listen to our podcast series. There is a lot of connective tissue between the two in terms of content and intended audience, and of course much of what I talk about there will influence what I write here.

Today I want to share something great that came up during a prep call for a future podcast interview. Now I was not recording the conversation, but this is less about quoting someone and more about walking through a way of visualizing and thinking about something that I found really clear and engaging.

While suggesting different ideas we might want to explore, I asked a supply chain executive with almost thirty years of experience what advice he would have for a young person at the start of their career who aspires to one day hold a senior leadership position. Now I was just riffing —trying the question on for size, if you will— but he paused and gave a very thoughtful and detailed answer, a version of which I am sure we will get to record and share with you in a future episode soon.

In the meantime, I would like to take a lot of what he said while also including content from other conversations and presentations I have enjoyed to write today’s column. What does the career path of a senior executive look like, and as the business landscape continues to evolve, how is that path also changing?

Breaking a Whole Career Up into Portions

Before I get into what this executive said that really struck me, let’s all agree that trying to think about someone’s entire working life —especially for someone at the very start of it— is too big and too vague to produce useful ideas. A future executive who graduates from university in their mid-twenties probably has four decades or more of working life in front of them. What twenty-something has a realistic plan for where they are going to be at 40 or 50 or 60, and of the few who do, how many of them end up following that plan in a meaningful way?

It is a vanishingly small number, to be sure.

Instead of trying to conjure the possibilities of decades all at once, it was suggested to me that a much more useful thought exercise is to imagine a career in pieces with each piece being no smaller than two to three years, and no piece being bigger than five to seven years.

With that concept in mind, imagining a whole career is not one long stretch of time extending further into the future than our hypothetical young person has yet lived in their own past. Instead, we are talking about perhaps eight to ten sequential pieces of different but rational and comprehensible lengths.

That is much easier to visualize, easier to talk about, and it is also more flexible to the very real possibility that things may not go according to plan and one or more of those pieces further down the path may turn into something else as some point without rendering the rest of the thought experiment useless.

Labelling the First Pieces

As you would expect, the first piece is going to be, “Getting any sort of entry-level job, hopefully in your field.” I know that sounds self-evident, but I also know many of the people in Executive Platforms’ network are closer to their well-earned retirements than they are to the early days of their careers. The realities of educational requirements and expectations of working experience have changed for young people. The jokes about entry-level jobs that require Masters degrees and IT positions asking for more years of experience in a programming language than that programming language has existed are based on kernels of truth. It can be hard to get started, and it can be especially hard to get started in a position relevant to your longer term goals. The executive I was speaking to mused something like, “Let’s hope that’s just a two- or three-year piece. Get into the working world and get the experience you need to move forward with your career.”

The next piece is probably going to be a three- to five-year piece, and this should be viewed as the crucial piece where we are actually talking about a career path with a plan rather than just a conversation about someone’s past, present, and future work history. We are going to call this piece, “Doing real work in your field,” which is an admittedly fuzzy label. Let me expand upon that a little.

A person interested in one day becoming a senior supply chain executive probably has ‘a first job’ after school that will hopefully within a couple of years transition into ‘a supply chain or supply chain-adjacent job’ that will still be on their résumé decades after that first job has dropped away. We don’t need to focus too much on what the job is in the label, but it’s probably going to fall into one of two buckets. Either this person is doing operational work of some kind —hands-on in a factory or driving a truck or running around in a distribution center, or any of a hundred other supply chain and supply chain-related functions— or they are in an office contributing to the planning, monitoring, and administrating of a supply chain or supply chain-related organization.

Again, right now we don’t need to mention which bucket is associated with this second labelled piece, but we will want to remember there were two buckets, because that is going to be important later. We are also saying this three- to five-year piece is crucial because if someone doesn’t transition from their first job into a stretch of actually doing real work in their field that will become the foundation of a career in supply chain, then they are not on a planned career path so much as they are moving from one job to another.

With the first two segments named, the third and final of what we might call ‘The Early Pieces’ will be labelled, “Become responsible for something, and do well.”

It may sound silly, but of course it is very serious. No one with aspirations of senior leadership ever goes from the bottom to the top in one vaulting leap. The first step up the ladder is getting into some kind of managerial, supervisory, and/or accountable role. For example, maybe our young person entered the workforce, got a job on an assembly line, was recognized as a possible future leader, and was promoted to lead a team that performs a specific task. Having received that promotion, our one-day senior supply chain executive needs to perform well, learn some of the soft skills of leadership along the way, and eventually be promoted again to do something else.

There is no one answer for how long the “Become responsible for something, and do well” piece lasts, but let’s keep in mind none of the pieces in the ten or so segments of this career path are meant to be more than seven years. This is the third piece. If the first one was two years and the next was three, the first position of leadership might not start until five years into someone’s working life and could see them still at the first rung of the ladder towards being a senior executive a dozen years after starting their career. If we imagine that as the higher end, our twenty-something is now in their late thirties. There are all kinds of great low-level managers who are older than that, of course, but if they did not move onto the next step of their career after twelve years, they probably are not destined for one of the top jobs in the supply chain organization by the end of their careers.

The Other Bucket

What is that next step, the fourth piece that sits somewhere between six and twelve years after entering the workforce? Do you remember there were two buckets that we didn’t use in the label of the second piece, but our future senior executive was in one bucket or the other? We’re going to call the fourth piece, “Doing great work in the other bucket.”

Our team leader on the factory floor needs some experience and exposure to working in the front office.

Our manager of data analytics needs to get out of the corporate headquarters and work on real-world projects where they get exposed to the hands-on stuff on a daily basis so they can learn the other side of the business.

Whichever bucket they were in before our future senior executive was doing real work in their field and then became responsible for something that they did well with, they need to work in the other bucket. Someone planning to climb the ladder as high as they can needs to be comfortable wearing both tactical and strategic hats. Once they have experience with one, that is only going to make them that much better doing the other one, and it is when they have a proven track record with both that they have demonstrated all the qualities needed for senior leadership positions, especially in the supply chain space.

One more thing about the two buckets? The best candidates for senior leadership don’t spend their careers mostly in one bucket with a short stint in the other bucket. From this fourth piece onward, they should always be alternating between hands-on and big picture roles. That’s the best way to stay well-rounded and to avoid the pitfall of basing your understanding of how your supply chain works on something you did briefly many years ago. There are fantastic subject-matter experts with a wealth of hands-on experience who have not worked on supply chain planning since the early days of the Digital Revolution, and there are amazing data analysts who started their careers decades ago working in a warehouse but have not seen any of the advances and changes that have happened in warehouse management since. We are talking about people who have had exposure to both buckets, but their limited and outdated understanding of one whole side of the inner workings of the supply chain organization makes them unsuited for the top jobs that require fluency in both.

Stretch, Grow, Challenge, Grow

So what comes next after demonstrating you can perform well in a leadership position in both buckets?

“After that, you need to stretch yourself,” the person I was speaking with said. I already mentioned I was not recording the call, so I am paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “Me? I had spent all my time in Europe up to that point in my career. I went looking for a position in Asia. Now not everyone has to do a geographic thing, but you need to get outside your comfort zone and do something different. Even if it’s a lateral move. You need to show you can do great work wherever they want to put you. You need to volunteer for things. You need to be seen to be ambitious and capable. You want to be in a position that when you ask for more, they’ll give you more. Stretch yourself and grow. Challenge yourself and grow.

There is no one right answer for how many pieces of what duration we are talking about here. We have moved beyond the universal ‘Every senior executive needs to do exactly this’ part of the conversation. Some people will do two or three pieces of five or seven years each, and now our person who was maybe in their late thirties as they became a well-rounded executive on the rise is in their late forties or early fifties. Some people will do four or five two-year pieces instead.

Whatever they do, this is where the endgame of an executive’s working life comes into focus. There are people who will thrive in one of the pieces they ask for to the point where they do not want to move on and climb higher. There are people who will find they cannot reinvent themselves over and over again, preferring to return to work they know they enjoy. There are people who will have other things become more important in their lives to the point where chasing a senior executive position is no longer what they want to do. In all of those scenarios those leaders are making the right choice for who they are and what they want to do.

For the people who do want to pursue the top positions, we are now ready to talk about a different piece of the career path again.

Other Parts of the Business

All supply chains are built on hierarchies where leaders guide and support the people working under them. Front-line workers have their managers, who have managers of their own, who report up to directors and vice presidents and so on. The higher you rise through a supply chain organization, though, the fewer supply chain people are working on other work related to your own at the same level as you. Eventually there is a supply chain executive representing large portions of the entire supply chain function to other executives who are working in other parts of the business entirely.

This whole conversation has been about the career path a young person needs to follow to become a senior supply chain executive, and we are coming at last to the culmination of all that has come before. Once you are engaging with the marketing people or the finance people or the quality people where they are thinking of you as “The Supply Chain Person” who can answer their questions and explain what the supply chain can and cannot do for them while communicating what it needs and wants to achieve its objectives, you are pretty high up in the organization.

There may be several people still above you within the Supply Chain hierarchy —maybe an SVP, or an EVP, or a Chief Supply Chain Officer— but from this point on, we are talking about senior supply chain executives. Once you are engaging with other parts of the business on behalf of the supply chain function, further progress in your career is a matter of degree within very senior roles rather than working your way up to that level of responsibility.

How Is the Career Path Changing?

I said at the start we wanted to talk about not only the path, but how the evolving business landscape is changing it. We could probably do a whole other column about that —and I probably will at some point— but for the sake of finishing this one in a well-rounded way, the two biggest forces shaping the future arcs of a supply chain executives’ careers are the War for Talent and the rapid pace of technological change.

In all the conversations we are having right now about talent attraction, development, and retention, the point is being made that people are more and more comfortable moving from company to company and position to position based on a wide range of motivations. This is probably going to shorten the length of any one piece of the path we have discussed in this article. There are a lot of two-year pieces that used to be five-year pieces, and you can do a lot more pieces in quick succession today than would have been the case when the senior executive I was speaking with began his career.

Meanwhile, the disruption the Digital Revolution is bringing to the supply chain profession is going to increase the importance of one of the two buckets we talked about earlier, at least for a while. There will always be a day-to-day tactical side and a big picture strategic side to supply chain organizations, but being comfortable with the Industrial Internet of Things is probably going to both blur the division between the two and also accelerate people who leverage data to drive success to rise higher and go further than they could in years gone by without having a well-rounded working experience throughout the organization. That may not always be the case, but right now there certainly seems to be opportunities for people who can get the most out of digitization to advance their careers in a profession and discipline hungry for expertise in that skillset.

There will be more to say about this in the future, and I expect having now done this for senior supply chain executives, it would be interesting to explore how much is the same and how much is different in other disciplines. For now I suppose I will end this column by saying I found the idea of visualizing a career in sequential pieces, some of which need to be done in order and all of which need to be done with clarity and deliberate purpose really stimulating and useful. I hope you did too.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.