Career ROI: Advice From the C-Suite
March/April 2012, eSide Supply Management Vol. 5, No. 2
Advice From the C-Suite: Work Smart, and Be Open to New Opportunities
When I was 17, my father told me: "Control your destiny, or someone else will." Harsh words but also true. Since then, I've tried to excel in every task I undertake — especially in my professional life — and control my destiny.
At this point, looking back, I believe career success is the symptom of working smart and being receptive to new opportunities. In particular, several factors have proven instrumental in my career path, beginning with ...
Keep Learning, All the Time
In a supply management (or any) career, the most self-destructive phrase of all can be, "I already know that." Saying this essentially closes all the doors to new ideas, new skills and new opportunities. And when there's no learning, there's no growth.
I began my career in a project management office (PMO) of a textile mill in 1995. I, along with 12 other college graduates, spent 12 weeks training in almost every department. The purpose was to develop an understanding of the company's policies, manufacturing processes, quality systems, challenges and opportunities, as well as how to get along in the world of work.
After our on-the-job training, the new hires were to be permanently placed in selected departments based on our skills and interests. I wanted to work in the PMO, where I'd be engaged in new technologies and new projects. Given my personality, I knew this kind of stimulation would be required to keep me charged up at work. I also knew that to attain this position, I had to stand out from the crowd — which, for me, relied more on being confident than being competitive.
Given my mechanical engineering background, I read the manuals for the spinning machines and looms. I also sought out operators and supervisors on the floor for additional training. To get what I wanted, it was imperative that I knew the basics of the machines, technologies and practical issues on the floor.
Ultimately, I was assigned to work in the PMO office on new technology transfer. Although it was what I'd wanted, seizing this opportunity was also a leap of faith. Such opportunities are generally given to experienced professionals, as they require embracing new technology to improve top line and productivity. I was prepared to shine if this opportunity came my way — which, luckily, it did.
It was quite an undertaking, but I was very excited to work with seasoned professionals, to learn and deliver. Continuous learning creates positive change. One can't learn and still be the same person, team or organization. When we're always learning, there's a constant evolution in the ways we think and act.
Consistently Challenge Yourself
Although self-motivated and driven to challenge myself, discipline has been my forte. After spending a few years in the PMO and design offices, I decided to develop a wider knowledge base and hone the competencies of a successful business leader. I've done so by attending several training sessions, and applying what I've learned to my day-to-day work. I've also worked with two mentors along the way, read up on best practices and closely observed (and followed) leaders in the organization.
I decided manufacturing would be the next stop on my career journey. I figured this would help me sharpen new competencies, including people management, conflict resolution and empowering/mentoring employees. In manufacturing, it's difficult to grow without experiencing it firsthand. I knew a manufacturing role would not only help me develop leadership skills, but also to understand the process and how to handle customer complaints.
Again, I knew the transition wouldn't be easy. The life of a manufacturing manager is full of surprises — customer complaints, fluctuations in production plans due to volatile forecasting, the cost of manufacturing products, working with labor unions, the lack of "down time" and so on. All these challenges make manufacturing a gold mine for developing the competencies that bprepare you for bigger and better positions and challenges.
But, as before, I started with the basics — by learning the current trends and best practices in the world of manufacturing (total productive maintenance, lean/kaizen to continuously improve productivity and statistical process control to name a few). I found this opportunity in strategic sourcing, technology transfer, manufacturing and Six Sigma at Visteon and General Electric.
In each progressive role, I continuously challenged myself to learn more and learn how to become a fine leader. Every work assignment, as well as classroom training I've undertaken, has taught me situational leadership, people skills, communication tactics, negotiation strategies and customer focus. All of these have fueled my professional trajectory.
Have a Vision for Your Career — Short- and Long-Term
I've learned the value of taking time to clarify what your purpose is for your profession. What must you do to realize that purpose and in the manner you wish? Not having a vision for your career is akin to shooting into the dark.
I'm a strong believer in the pursuit of continuous and sustainable growth. A human resources leader at GE once asked where I wanted to be, professionally, in 10 years. Because I'd thought plenty about my career vision, I articulated that to him. We then made an appointment to discuss my career planning further. In doing so, I learned how to take a career inventory, a structured approach to planning my short- and long-term career vision.
The first step is to identify your next career move based on your ultimate career goal. Next, identify how many steps away your ultimate goal is. Third, take inventory of your current qualifications and skills. Finally, identify the gap between your current qualifications and skills, and those needed to attain your ultimate goal.
It's always beneficial to step away from the day-to-day grind of work and spend some quality time reflecting on our careers and developing plans for our futures. In my own career, I've used reverse planning tools to do this — planning backwards, from ultimate career goal to current state. The result is an analysis of current skills, as well as the identification of gaps that must be overcome to get there.
Learn How to Manage Expectations
Not knowing what's expected of you at work is setting yourself up for failure. Never assume the job requirements. Instead, spend time with your bosses, peers and internal customers to understand their expectations of you and how your work affects their success.
In our everyday work lives, we play several roles. Sometimes we supply information; other times we're information receivers. In both roles, we must learn to face facts, and then convey them to the involved parties realistically and honestly. In other words, we must hone our transparency skills.
Delivering bad news can be a critical component of remaining transparent. Recipients of bad news would prefer to hear it at the beginning of the project/process rather than late in the game. Granted, they'll be concerned either way about the difficulties associated with the news, but if you postpone delivering bad news, they'll wonder what else you've been hiding. They'll stop trusting you, and the situation will only deteriorate from there.
In terms of professional goal-setting, I develop my own career goals with reasonable and stretch targets to meet the organization's goals. For example, if I need to save US$5 million for the business, I try to stretch my goal beyond $5 million. Every company looks for professionals who can go above and beyond their set goals. Doing so is dynamic in nature, so I periodically revisit my goals to identify gaps and requirements to change strategy for better alignment.
When you manage stakeholders' expectations properly, you're setting up a situation in which the internal customers, your staff and managers behave in a way that works for everyone — mature management. Anticipate how things could go wrong, and head those problems off at the pass.
Embrace Change; Don't Shy Away From It
I have been selective about, yet open to, many different career opportunities. While not every opportunity that has presented itself was worth considering, each warranted some degree of contemplation and left an impression on me.
For example, while working at GE, I was presented by Tyco International India with the opportunity to lead a supply chain operation in Asia for a commodity business. It was, of course, a risk. It would mean switching from a high-tech business environment to a relatively foreign commodity business setting. The position represented big responsibilities and an unfamiliar supply base. Even so, I knew the basics of supply chain, irrespective of product and technology.
After spending four years at Tyco India, the organization sent me to the United States for career advancement. I landed at Tyco Electrical & Metal Products — a spinoff of Tyco International, which recently became Atkore International.
Both progressions — from GE to Tyco India, and Tyco India to Tyco Electrical & Metal Products (now Aktore International) — have been phenomenal changes on both the professional and family fronts.
I love my job and welcome all the new opportunities it presents. In my current role, I'm responsible for logistics and distribution, a mixed role involving sourcing and operations. In this challenging economy, organizations must manage cost to be successful and sustain growth. As a team, my colleagues and I continuously search for opportunities to improve productivity and remove cost. In doing so, there is always a learning opportunity — a chance to implement a new idea.
I also actively seek out other industry leaders to help identify best practices, which can then be applied in our own operations. I constantly challenge myself to learn new things and work toward achieving my long-term career goal of becoming a business leader in my organization.
Maintain a Healthy Work/Life Balance
As you move up the ranks in your own organizations, keep in mind that it requires vigilance to maintain healthy work/life equilibrium and manage expectations, on both sides.
My family has supported me at every step and through every career decision. At one point, while working as the director of supply chain for Tyco International, I was even a "road warrior." Every other week, I traveled to Asia, Europe and the United States, where I was constantly on the move visiting manufacturing plants and suppliers. Throughout that experience, my family and friends gave me the space I needed to focus on my work.
We all have many competing responsibilities. In my mind, it's the healthy balance of all these — work, life and everything in between — that enables us to be more productive and strengthens an employee's loyalty to an organization.
Amit Marwah is director of global logistics & distribution operations at Atkore International in Harvey, Illinois. To contact this author, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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