Solving the Communication Gap: Supply Chain
The conversations that we’ve had with supply chain leaders this year remind me of conversations we had five years ago with CISOs and last year with CHROs. It’s when communication shifts from updates on major initiatives to being the major initiative that dominates every update. And as the lead communicator, you feel as if you’ve shifted from the expert to the fall guy. Because there are more questions than answers, and more uncertainty than resolution. It feels like you’re always sitting in the hot seat!
One supply chain leader described it well last week: “I leave one update only to start preparing for the next one. And I never seem to be able to instill confidence about where we are and what we’re doing. It’s more playing defense on why things have occurred and what might happen next. I don’t feel like I’m bringing clarity to communication.”
Another supply chain leader said: “I feel like supply chain has shifted from a playbook to a chess game. We deliver results with a proven playbook. And we have contingency plans for road bumps along the way. But the current environment is like watching a chessboard and wondering what the next move will be.”
And it’s no wonder that they feel like they’re sitting in the hot seat. Last month, McKinsey reported that global container shipping rates have quadrupled in three years, and schedule delays have tripled in the same timeframe. Whether it’s demand or limited capacity, all companies are feeling the slug as they try to keep their own goods and services moving.
The supply chain pressure is felt all through the company as sales leaders want to know what to tell customers, product leaders want to know how to schedule releases and purchasing teams are trying to track materials. And the supply chain leader has been pushed forward to communicate all of it…with very little information to go on.
By instinct, most supply chain leaders are problem solvers. They’re really good at thinking through end-to-end process and keeping many steps moving forward. They can solve bottlenecks and delays with a different route or a different raw material. But they can’t solve a problem that isn’t clear in their view. And they’re finding that they can’t communicate that murkiness effectively to senior teams.
So, if you’re in the hot seat, here are three concepts that we’ve shared with other supply chain leaders to bring clarity to unresolved challenges and consistency to on-going communication.
Establish a plan to communicate up and down the supply chain.
The supply chain leader hasn’t been a constant in senior team meetings until now. They showed up occasionally with updates on transformative initiatives, and they never brought information forward until they were ready to give an update. The shift in when you communicate has blind-sided them.
They can no longer wait until they have the answer. There isn’t an answer for most of the challenges they’re facing. Communication is no longer driven by their timing; it’s set by leadership needs and an urgency to manage risks. And they’re learning to be proactive about a communication plan and process. They’re learning that when they don’t communicate, someone else does. And the biggest problem they’re managing is misinformation. So very quickly, we’ve helped these leaders put process in place for communication itself. It takes a cross-functional team and a process for looping in sales to keep customers informed, purchasing to bring insights from suppliers and logistics to bring insights from carriers and freight.
Define a three-dimensional view.
For problem solvers, the message is always “here’s the problem, and here’s what we’re doing about it.” But that approach to communication can make a supply chain leader seem very reactive. And in today’s environment, it can seem as if you’re only reacting to what’s happening versus trying to anticipate and manage around what’s ahead.
The three-dimensional view helps a leader set a storyline that includes:
• the macro-view of insights in the marketplace…what’s happening around us
• the current view of what we’re dealing with today and the impact we expect from it
• and the future view of what’s ahead and options we’re considering.
In all instances, we’re finding that leadership teams need some help understanding the big elements of supply chain and the levers that a leader can adjust or manage to minimize the impact. Most supply chain leaders didn’t have a strong storyline in place when the crisis hit, so they’re playing catch-up to simplify the supply chain view in conjunction with explaining where the risks are greatest and what they can do about it. And it’s making communication too complex.
Set the broader picture so that you can come back to it consistently. This helps everyone get on the same page and begin to listen for the same components.
Close the loop with follow-up answers.
Back to the hot seat. Most supply chain leaders would like to slide out of it. And we’re pushing them to lean forward in it. Here’s why. Because there’s so much visibility for supply chain, there’s also a lot of internal misinformation. And that can feel like a game of “whack-a-mole” as leaders try to deliver the accurate message and diffuse the wrong ones. It helps to add a follow-up loop to all communication so that the right messages take hold and shut down some of the noise.
Think of it as a press secretary who can capture what was said and asked and keep the right messages in circulation. Some supply chain leaders have designated a person to manage this. Others have done it themselves by sending out a short note after senior meetings to reinforce the information shared. You have to reset the expert seat and keep your perspective and your response front and center.
And if you’re not a supply chain leader? Take note of what they’re dealing with and be proactive in learning how to lead communication of a long-term challenge with a senior team. Because if security leaders have managed it, HR leaders have managed it, and now supply chain leaders are navigating it, it’s only a matter of time before every function area will feel a little heat in the hot seat.
Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!