The Opinion Page
News and comments about the issues facing today's SCM and Inventory Management professionals.
Here are profiles of two very different supervisors:
"Boss A": As an employee, you would describe this person as friendly, easily approachable, and helpful. Knowledgeable about the business and the company, "Boss A" freely shares her skills and knowledge with you and your peers. Her knowledge has been gained both by experience within the industry and your company, as well as solid training and education from outside the company. She is a fan of continuous improvement both on personal and business levels. She demonstartes enthusiasm about the strong points of your company, and a desire to change the weaknesses and gaps. She encourages learning, and sets education of her employees as a high departmental expense priority. She allows her own career to move more slowly than it otherwise might, due to the resources that she devotes to her team.
"Boss B": This gentleman is very well-educated, holding an MBA from an Ivy League University. He is incredibly driven, grasping business issues aggressively with his own hands. He is less experienced in your industry than Boss A, but makes up for it in terms of enthusiasm. He runs the business "by the numbers", valuing results very highly, His focus is on the current and next fiscal Quarter. Since joining the team 6 months ago, he has achieved all the results that were asked of him - increased sales, reduced costs, reduced inventories and increased speed of delivery. He is a skilled orator. The Executive Committee has put this chap on the "fast track" towards quickly increasing levels of responsibility, with a view to installing him as a Vice President within the next couple of years.
Which one of the two is the real leader?
I have been blessed to work with and for some people whom I consider to be real leaders. These were people who taught me the way business ought to work. People who were altruistic. They took great pride in the work of their subordinates, and valued employee development very highly. They commanded respect. They were approachable, and largely open-minded. They were visionaries. They wanted the Team, and the Firm to succeed. Most had learned the business from the ground, up. These people included my rowing coach, Mike E., who guided me and my crew to two Henley Championships, and who shaped many of my attitudes towards elite sports and life. There was Mr. Chapman, mentioned in this blog before, who was one of the great unsung visionaries in supply chain management in the 1970's and 1980's. There was Wendy J., my mentor for many years and a great team builder. My list includes Tahira H., who was probably the most naturally intelligent leader who I have ever met. There was Colin P., for whom I would have punched my way through a brick wall if he had asked me. And there was Doug P., who showed such respect and support towards his employees and was never truly recognized for his efforts.
These leaders had a number of things in common: they learned their business with a grass roots approach. They paid their dues. They put business and team efforts ahead of individual aspirations, even their own, They did what they knew was right, and achieved material success as a byproduct. They were approachable. They thought in holistic terms, understanding the interrelatioships in the organization and between people. They were thrilled when one of their employees stepped up another rung in the career ladder. And they truly cared.
I have worked for the other kind of supervisor as well. Some were friendly and approachable, and some had been put into impossible situations, and just did the best that they could. But often I could not help but get the feeling that the purpose of my work was to advance their careers, not for the betterment ot the company. And that is a very poor motivator. They taught me very little, and I felt my own level of fulfillment diminishing. And because of their lack of experience, they frequently lacked the skill set to resolve the really big problems. In fact, their interference in the solution tended to cause more harm than good. They tended to withold information, lest the workers interrupt their agenda. They liked to maintain the "status quo" in their staffing arrangements, especially if the team were somehow working fairly smoothly, abnd would occasionally block an employees career progress. The worst of these supervisors were bullies, relying on threats to get the job done.
Dr. Deming was no fan of hiring graduates out of college or university, and dropping them into management positions within a company. He believed that in order to be effective supervisors, individuals need to know the work of the people that they supervise.
It is, or should be management's responsibility to remove barriers that exist which inhibit workers' ability to do their job. Make it easy to do the job correctly. These barriers might include a focus on producing things quickly rather than properly. They might include emphasis on numbers rather than quality.They might inlude accepting sub-par input materials at cheap cost, use of poor tools, and turning a deaf ear to workers' suggestions.
Deming argued that the one thing that novice managers fresh out of school can do is count. Therefore the metrics became paramount: quantity of output, costs of products and cost variances, quotas and sales all became the Holy Grails of business.
One of the problems with the "promotion from within" approach, on the other hand, is that the best employees usually become the supervisors (nepotism and office politics aside) and this leaves a gap in the skills of the work force. But at least the kowledgeable supervisor can teach and mentor the new employee in methods and processes.
Many colleagues of mine have complained incessantly about the culture of their old, and previously successful employers. "It has been ruined" they cry. The company is no longer what it was. It has been taken over by MBA's fresh out of grad school, consultants, and bean-counters. It's sad that once proud organizations lose their way in this manner. Somewhere, buried in the basement with the old tax files, are the core competencies and spirit that made such companies great.
It is management's job to help others do their jobs better - in other words, to lead.
My true hope is that a few of my own employees look back at me as a leader, rather than merely a supervisor. That would be a nice legacy to have.
John Skelton is the Principal Consultant and founder of Strategic Inventory Management.