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Supply Chain and Operations Officers

The changing leadership styles of supply chain executives

4/8/2021 Scott Adams
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The shock of COVID-19 hit supply chain executives as hard as any, as industries from consumer goods to agriculture scrambled to provide for unforeseen needs and work in life sciences took on unprecedented urgency. The shock appears to have accelerated some shifts in how supply chain executives lead that were already underway.

Between 2016 and 2020, nearly 4,000 supply chain executives took a proprietary Heidrick & Struggles survey—the combined results of which highlight how much each leader tends toward each of the eight styles of leadership (To learn more about Heidrick & Struggles’ Leadership Signature survey, see “What's your leadership signature?”)

The changing leadership styles of supply chain executives

In 2016, the scores across styles varied little, meaning that supply chain leaders overall used a broad range of styles. Through the years, the share of executives who were more often working as collaborators, energizers, and harmonizers grew fairly steadily, while those tending toward being composers, forecasters, and pilots fell. The core executional focus, which sits with the producer style, changed little.

This focusing of leadership skills aligns with the growing strategic importance of the supply chain function in most companies. Before COVID-19, the most significant disruption most supply chain leaders were facing was from e-commerce; the resulting shifts in business models made it necessary for supply chain executives to work with leaders far outside their traditional purview, including chief marketing and chief digital officers. This brought supply chain officers out of the back room and, for many, created a full C-suite role. Such roles require far higher degrees of collaboration and connection than more siloed roles.

Looking ahead, we expect the need for supply chain leaders who can transform both their supply chains and their functions to further increase. This increasing need will be driven by omnichannel consumer requirements and e-commerce-driven supply, along with the entry of new competitors into virtually every sector—making it harder for companies to accurately build supply and demand forecasts (especially in long lead time manufacturing environments).

Furthermore, staying ahead in direct-to-consumer businesses will mean staying ahead of constantly changing technology, automation, and engineering tools, as well as adeptly using data and analytics to drive decisions—all of which will require significant digital dexterity among supply chain leaders. (For more on digital dexterity, see “Achieving digital (re)acceleration.”) Leaders will also need to maintain agility, which, especially for larger businesses with complex and global networks, can be very challenging. (For more on agility, see “The future is now: How leaders can seize this moment to build thriving organizations.”) We expect that some companies will benefit from drawing new supply chain leaders from different industries to bring a new perspective.

About the author

Scott Adams (sadams@heidrick.com) is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Atlanta office and a member of the Supply Chain & Operations Officers and Consumer Markets practices.


Scott Adams Principal +1 404 6827400