Work from home continues to get lauded for efficiencies and innovative approaches. The pandemic years will be remembered for a major shift in how and when we work. But there are also some real pain points, and supply chain is one of the groups dealing with a lot of those challenges.

Lockdowns prevented the flow of goods at every step. We’ve seen every industry impacted by manufacturing shortages. And consumer demand has driven inventory shortages. It’s hard to miss the struggles of supply chain.

Supply chain leaders are managing against an uncharted set of circumstances and external factors that are causing real consequences to businesses. That’s why they’re in the hot seat. Not because they did anything wrong, but because they’re managing one of the biggest pain points felt in companies today. Company Boards and top leaders are pushing for answers and insights on what’s happening. They feel the business disruption and need to know how to resolve it quickly.

So, they create “hot seat” moments for supply chain leaders. Those managers and leaders come prepared to communicate specifics and details of the problem rather than packaging the full picture of what’s happening. In fairness, they’re communicating what they’re asked to share: how to resolve pain points quickly. But it’s a rookie mistake at a senior level within a company. And it’s causing many supply chain communicators to feel caught in the hot seat.

Here’s how it happens. Supply chain leaders are asked to explain the problem and quite literally, that’s what they do. They come into executive-level meetings and communicate where the pain points are. They tell senior leaders what they’re working on to solve the problems, and they share details of steps and timetables to manage expectations.

The communication gap is this: what senior leaders ask for doesn’t translate into what they actually want. They want the full story, not just today’s problem. And when a supply chain manager or leader brings them the details of the problem, senior leaders worry that the leader is too reactive and managing against the problem of the day versus managing toward a broader view of what’s ahead of them.

It’s the difference in someone who is viewed as a strategic thinker versus a tactical thinker, and it all comes down to communication. It’s solvable, and it’s how we coach functional managers and leaders to organize their thoughts from a senior leader’s perspective.

Here’s how we build the broader view:

First, set context.
Before you give the details of your company’s problem, set context for the senior leaders.

Offer perspective on what’s happening and why you believe it’s happening across supply chain processes. Build your credibility as someone who understands the challenge from the factors outside your company to the impact those factors are having within your company. Company leaders and Boards like to hear what’s going on all around them. We call it external perspective, and it’s illustrated through examples of other companies and industries.

Context raises the altitude of a conversation and tells the full story from the beginning rather than just the problem which feels like starting in the middle.  Senior leaders find common ground with a communicator when they understand the full view of what’s happening and why it’s happening. It’s a broader view that makes it easier to see how a manager or leader got to the details of what they’re solving today.

Second, clarify the ideal state.
Senior-level audiences and boards ask for information about where things stand today, but they always contrast it to a snapshot of where the company wants to be tomorrow. Their perspective is that a clear sense of where we want to be leads to good decisions about managing today. While they ask for input on a current situation, they really want a clear picture of getting beyond the problem.

It’s the difference in someone who talks about a moment in time versus someone who can paint a picture over time.

Third, lead to a recommendation.
While every communicator should make recommendations to guide senior leaders’ decisions, they should also position options that show well-thought-out choices for decision making and compromise. Clearly define the way you think things should run. Then, explain the choices and options that senior leaders have to get there. This is where they consider resources, technology and all factors that can be managed to get to a modification of the recommendation.

Options are often based on moving slowly or quickly, comparing least disruption to greatest disruption, or considering lowest impact to highest impact. Three is the magic number when highlighting options that lead to a final recommendation. And because options are presented, it validates the communicator’s considerations and gives a senior leadership team some room to negotiate the best step.

Fourth, define the big steps.
Even with a strong storyline, every manager or leader wants to show the full range of steps and details behind actionable items. Organize the specific steps into broader steps. Keep the actions to three or four big concepts framed in a way that makes it easy to see there is detail below it. When you show a senior team 20 steps, they get into the weeds with you and analyze each and every step. That’s how conversations get off track, and it’s difficult to get them back on track.

Company challenges create visibility moments for individuals. And with the pressure on supply chain today, those moments are quickly becoming career-defining. Some managers and leaders will leverage those moments to illustrate their ability to think and communicate strategically. Others may miss the opportunity by focusing too much on the details of today and not offering a broader picture of what’s ahead.

It all comes down to communication. And with a little help on senior-level communications, you can turn your hot seat moment into a career-defining opportunity.

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Sally Williamson & Associates