I recently received a LinkedIn message from a relatively junior connection asking a simple question: what education, training, experience, and character traits are needed to be a good S&OP leader? I thought, “What a great question,” and “this topic is not often discussed.”

It made me think a lot about my career and those of people in the profession whom I admire. There is so much conversation these days about talent shortages and the lack of career definition within the supply chain planning profession, yet there is rarely a meaningful discussion about the qualities and competencies required to be a great planner.

Of course, it would be easy to say, “Get a degree in industrial engineering or supply chain management or statistics; find a way to cross-train a bit in supply and demand functions; and then work hard.” But that statement lacks any meaningful context and fails to truly address the spirit of the question as posed.

Admittedly, I liked this question in part because it presupposes S&OP leadership as one of the loftiest roles in the supply chain profession—a place where it arguably belongs. It is a role that requires extensive subject matter knowledge of demand, supply, product portfolio management, finance, and a heap of change management for good measure. A capstone job as it were, with practitioners capable of flexing in and out of supply chain sub-disciplines as needed to solve problems throughout an organization’s supply chain. The only thing seemingly missing from the job requirements is a cape and a mask.

Among long-time S&OP practitioners, our “origin stories” usually evoke a wink and a chuckle, since most of us did not follow a set pathway in our careers. S&OP leadership was never considered a “destination profession” for me and my peers; most of us meandered our way to these roles. Some planned better, while others had careers like mine—a bit more random, which seems a bit ironic for a planning professional, don’t you think?

As I formulated a response to my LinkedIn friend, I realized, not surprisingly, my career seems a perfect example of the typical S&OP leader’s journey.

The Meandering

My early professional career was marked by a series of starts and stops at half a dozen different companies. After putting in my four years at college, and then six months at a technical programming school, I went to work designing manufacturing systems in FORTRAN and ALGOL— the hot computer languages of the day. I was a computer programmer trained in systems design and development, and my initial focus was manufacturing and distribution. For nearly a decade, I worked 12-to 18-month stints for a variety of organizations: a manufacturer of facsimile machines, a book distributor, an air freight company, a large bakery, an aerospace contractor, and an industrial pump manufacturer.

I learned something new and different at each of these stops: discrete and process manufacturing, distribution, international freight movements, and large-scale project management, among other things. The diversity of these experiences was tremendously helpful to me. I worked within systems groups designing software.

This gave me visibility—literally—to see the data moving through these organizations. I observed the similarities—and differences—in the types of data and flows based on the type of business. I learned so much about how data are used and leveraged within an organization — and how data are the bridge between different functions within an organization. And as my later experience taught me—it is an essential element when developing a robust S&OP process. In fact, data are so important to S&OP that my most common advice to new hires and those fresh out of school is to study the data flows and systems in their own organizations.

Many pundits talk about millennials as being impatient—too eager to move up and advance in an organization without first demonstrating that they have earned the privilege by proving their competence. I am not sure this impatience is unique to that population cohort, as I was a very impatient young professional 30 years ago. After about a year working in each of these jobs, I would begin looking for the next gig, and I would only consider a position if I were sure I could learn something new.

It took me eight long years before I landed what I consider my first real job, and the enduring lesson for me was patience. Here again, my advice is simple: be patient with your career. Learn everything possible in your current role and continue to increase your experience and knowledge while seeking your “first” substantial role.

As I look back, all of my preliminary jobs served a purpose. In each, I was intentionally enhancing my knowledge and thus “pulling a logical thread” through my early professional zigzag. I also learned a lot about myself: the type of business I wanted to work in, how flexible and open I was to change, and the importance of persistence in working toward a goal.

As I waited for a big job in a great company, I made good use of my time. I maximized each job experience to learn all that I was able in that role. Throughout this self-designed apprenticeship, I continued in my formal education, taking classes a couple nights each week on new programming languages, accounting, marketing, finance—anything that would augment my resumé.

On weekends, I took a job as a clerk in a personal computer store where I learned to repair and configure PC hardware and software. Of course, none of this had anything at all to do with S&OP directly, but I was honing my craft nonetheless, focusing intently on expanding my knowledge on any subject that tangentially applied to my systems-focused discipline. I always ought to widen my education in those instances when my role crossed over into other subject areas, and I rarely missed an opportunity to dig deeper into my chosen profession. The notion of career learning became embedded at this time, and it is a gift for which I am forever grateful.

My Goal Job

Almost unexpectedly, and of course after a lot of patience and education, I was offered my goal job as a systems manager in a manufacturing plant working for a great company. I continued to follow the path that had helped me achieve my new role, and doubled my determination to learn as much as I could. I studied shop floor applications, work flows and data flows, production scheduling, variancereporting, and quality control—all while developing applications to support multiple functions within the plant.

Throughout what proved to be a seven-year stint, I raised my hand to volunteer for every type of training the company offered: Six Sigma, SMED, SPC/SPM, Juran, Empowerment, Team Development, and so on. During those seven years, I participated in 31 weeks of company-sponsored training. I learned every role in a manufacturing plant as I mirrored people in their everyday jobs to better understand how to support them with systems and associated business processes. I completely “got it.” I was working in a manufacturing plant and I knew that understanding manufacturing principles would help me better relate to my colleagues. Further, understanding the competencies required of a good manufacturing leader helped me define the training I needed as well as the systems I would ultimately design. By focusing on becoming a top-notch manufacturing systems analyst, I was actually laying the foundation of my future S&OP resumé without even realizing it.

Of course, not everyone will have the chance to be a manufacturing systems analyst, but the lesson learned was that I should try to expand any role into something larger and set higher expectations for what I needed to know than the job description would otherwise suggest. In this way, I was always ready for the next role when it was offered. In time, I gained enough confidence to begin making recommendations for improvements at the plant, and started developing and purchasing application systems to enhance operations. I specified and implemented a forecasting tool to better estimate demand, and a production-scheduling tool to better manage the flow of a multistage production operation, with the goal of improving stage synchronization. I designed a fast-cycle process to boost production cadence and reduce inventory. I started to feel I was making a difference.

During this time, I learned to be intellectually brave, willing to expose my own ideas for scrutiny. If you seek to make a difference in your company, I believe you must be brave. S&OP leadership will test both your courage and your spine.

The Universal Traits Of An S&OP Leader

I did not offer this backstory of the first 10 years of my career to encourage my LinkedIn contact to become a manufacturing systems analyst, or as a textbook example, but rather to illustrate the underlying requirements of a solid S&OP leader. The role requires passion, meaningful work experience, and a commitment to career learning.

Being an S&OP leader is less about what you know or essential experiences you can check off on a list; it is more about who you are and your attitude. The answer to my LinkedIn colleague’s question is NOT easy. To date, there has not been a singular or standard formula for success in an S&OP role. There are however some universal traits that I see in the best of my colleagues, which may offer helpful advice to any aspiring S&OP leader:

Commit To Your Craft & Seek To Be The Best

Then, even if you never become the best, you are likely to close in on greatness. This will require you to learn as much as you can about every aspect of S&OP. Commitment means dedicating the time to dig deep into the concepts underlying each step of the S&OP process. Learn about statistical forecasting algorithms and stage and-gate processes; understand how best practice companies forecast new products and retire obsolete ones; investigate inventory metrics tied to S&OP, and how decisions on product families within S&OP should be determined.

Despite all my experience, I never stop reading about best practices. I seek out books and articles and re-read old seminal works to see what I missed on the first pass. I attend industry conferences to see how others do the same thing I do but differently. I belong to professional organizations that are centered around best practices so that I may continue to learn. I completed an MBA yet still avail myself of executive education whenever I can. It sounds painfully clichéd, but I never stop learning. Your career begins to stall when you stop learning, so stay committed to your craft.

Cross-Train Within Your Discipline Whenever Possible

I have worked in manufacturing plants, in a distribution center, in inventory control, as a demand planner, in IT roles supporting manufacturing and supply chain software, and I implemented production- scheduling software. A good S&OP leader has a strong working understanding of supply and demand—hands-on experience. And it helps to have some background in distribution and execution. To the extent that you can create job diversity on your resumé with a history of passion and success, you will enhance your ability to be a “great” S&OP leader. Seek to spend significant functional time—focused on the realities of day-to-day business operations and processes—in the realms of both demand and supply planning at the very least. 

Never Stop Learning About Business

Both your organization’s business as well as business concepts in general. Understanding your organization’s business model—consumers, strategy, go-to-market approach—will all add tremendous depth to your value within any organization. When colleagues joke with me and say things like “Whaddya think ya want to be, a marketer?” I take it as a compliment, as validation that I have taken the time to understand important business levers beyond the scope of my profession.

Give Back

Dedicate yourself to one or two professional groups within your field. At this stage of my career, people often ask, “What is left for you to learn?” The answer is, “A lot.” Simply writing articles for APICS Magazine, the Journal of Business Forecasting, or other industry publications has helped me hone my craft and my elevator pitch. I have developed better ways to explain topics—a better turn of a phrase or two—and doing research for articles always enhances my knowledge of a subject. Giving back by writing or presenting about what you have already learned is a guaranteed way to make sure that you yourself never stop learning.

Get Certified

Becoming an APICS CPIM or IBF CPF gives employers confidence that you have the foundational subject matter knowledge to perform a job. These certifications are increasingly a requirement for senior level consideration. The old axiom that you can never take away someone’s education applies equally well to certification.

Stay Current

While there are core principles in any profession, the supply chain world is comparatively new and still evolving. There are amazing advances coming our way in artificial intelligence. Emerging technologies that will influence S&OP in the near-term future include (but are not limited to) machine learning, block chain, and predictive analytics. A good S&OP practitioner will stay atop current technologies; it is the reason why I walk the vendor booths at every conference I attend.

Do Not Focus On A Single Industry

Although I have spent a majority of my career in food and beverage and consumer goods, some of my best ideas for S&OP implementations, process flows, and metrics have come from attending conferences and listening to how other industries have applied S&OP: corrections, health systems, banking, education, and industrial chemicals. Learning about the application of S&OP within other organizations has helped me both as a consultant and as an internal practitioner.

Develop A Thick Skin

I can guarantee you one truth: an S&OP leader will be questioned repeatedly for their motivations, knowledge, and competency. If you are not, then you are probably not pushing change hard enough or creating enough organizational tension. Lazy people; individuals with agendas; people who are uncertain about you, the process, or your role; and those who legitimately differ with your point of view or approach will challenge you, and the going can get rough at times. Develop a steadfastness of cause that resembles a thick skin. And, most importantly, listen to what is said and try not to take it personally. This is a great help in improving your process, content, delivery, agendas, and so on. I personally do not have the thickest skin when it comes to accepting criticism, but I strive to turn any complaint into an improvement if possible, and some of the best ideas for improvement are hidden in the middle of hurtful, negative comments.

Develop Your Critical-Thinking Skills

Delve into problems vigorously. Work the intellectual Rubik’s Cube to understand all angles to an issue, data, or a task. Force yourself to question deeper, find details, and look for exceptions. And then develop multiple answers, solutions, or solves to any question. Problem solvers with critical- thinking skills are the most desired employees. Develop these skills.

Embody The Concept Of Continuous Improvement

S&OP processes need leaders who exemplify the values of continuous improvement. Adopt it as a mantra for everything pertaining to your professional development—if not your personal life—as well as the S&OP process that you lead. Always ask yourself, “What’s next?”

None of these suggestions may be a surprise individually, but in the world of S&OP, they all matter. S&OP is a broad discipline, and one needs to spend time understanding core concepts across a diverse range of topics in order to be truly successful. A commitment to lifetime learning coupled with passion, critical thinking, and business insight will all help grow your career. As I ended my email, I wished my LinkedIn colleague a good journey, with a knowing smirk and a nod of my head. I will keep an eye on this person.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of the Journal of Business Forecasting. Subscribe to get it delivered to your door quarterly, or become a member and get subscription to the journal plus discounted events, members only tutorials, access to the entire IBF knowledge library, and more.