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.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates


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.

Call us when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates