Where Can My Supply Chain Career Take Me?

Will You Go From Buyer to Chief Supply Chain Officer?

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The supply chain career path has evolved over time. It wasn’t that long ago—when I was starting at a new company—that I was introduced to the head of sales there.

Introducer: “This is our new head of supply chain.”

Head of sales: “So you’re the new purchasing guy.”

I didn’t bother expanding the head of sales’ view of supply chain in that moment for a number of reasons:

  • Not enough time (It was a brief, hallway meeting.)
  • Where to start? (Does supply chain start with demand planning or Tier II supplier management?)
  • Yes, “purchasing guy” is partially correct (Purchasing did report into me.)
  • He walked away (The main reason I didn’t hit him with a clever follow up.)

Supply chain isn’t just purchasing—and if you’re working as a buyer, purchasing agent or purchasing manager, you have a unique view of your company’s or your industry’s career opportunities. 

With supply chain’s critical role in today’s global business environment, the supply chain professional is no long simply the “purchasing guy” or gal. Supply chain roles and responsibilities encompass a broad array of business functions. 

  • Demand Planning
  • Inventory Control
  • Customer Service/Fulfillment
  • Logistics
  • Freight
  • Warehousing
  • Production Planning
  • Purchasing
  • Sourcing
  • Supplier Management
  • Supplier Engineering

That’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good start. 

Getting Started

Fifteen years ago, I noticed that—and I admit to over-generalizing here—supply chain professionals typically fell into two categories:

  • Energetic young professionals
  • Lifelong buyers, planners, freight coordinators or inventory managers

The energetic young professionals of 15 years ago were not trained in supply chain. They were typically men and women fresh out of college who wanted to get started in a company in any capacity—so that they could springboard into marketing or other seemingly sexier departments.

In fact, I took over a supply leadership role at a company about 15 years ago and was told on day one by my new boss (who was the Chief Financial Officer) that if you surveyed the employees at the company and asked which was the last department that they would want to work in… most of them would say supply chain.

The lifelong buyers and the energetic young professionals just didn’t mesh. The energetic your professionals looked at their supply chain jobs as a stepping stone. The lifelong buyers resented the energetic young professionals.

We survived those early days. Team-building sessions. Training. And we optimized.

But the path to a supply chain career is different today. Energetic young professionals entering supply chain often have studied supply chain and are choosing supply chain over marketing and other less sexy functions.

Buyers and Planners and Analysts, Oh My

Globalization, outsourcing, offshoring and low-cost manufacturing have meant that supply chains have grown increasingly complicated and important. Supply chain optimization can drive cost of goods and inventory levels down—and profit margins up.

Because of that, the visibility of supply chain professionals within organizations has increased.

 No longer just someone placing a purchase order, but an expert driving value throughout the organization.

In the past year, I’ve had three friends tell me that their high school aged son or daughter is planning to go into supply chain. 

These high school students seem to understand that a job as a supply chain analyst, buyer or planner might be waiting for them after college—but after that, what?

Entry level supply chain jobs provide a great opportunity for young supply chain professionals to get a 360-degree view of the company they work for. Buyers, planner, supply chain analysts and other positions work with Finance, Sales, Research and Development, Marketing, Engineering, Quality and other functions. That kind of visibility can be invaluable to a young professional trying to figure out what’s next.

Supply Chain Middle Management

The supply chain middle management career move is a true inflection point in the supply chain professionals career path. Before this point, a young supply chain professional was not permanently marked.

A supply chain analyst can grow up to be almost anything. Same with the buyer or the planner or the coordinator. But spend a few years as a purchasing manager or planning manager or inventory manager or strategic sourcing manager and that’s who you’ll end up being.

Even if you weren’t thinking about staying in purchasing for your entire career, after your LinkedIn profile lists you as a purchasing guy or gal for years upon years on end—that’s how the rest of the world is going to view you. 

If you’re in a supply chain middle management role and have been doing it for a few years, you should consider lobbying your employer to change your job title from purchasing manager or planning manager or inventory manager or strategic sourcing manager to supply chain manager. There’s a halfway decent chance that your employer won’t know the difference between purchasing or planning or inventory control or strategic sourcing and supply chain and allow you to make the change.

In the meantime, take a close look at your company’s supply chain. Does your specific function have an impact on the broader supply chain? Does your purchasing job actually involve strategic sourcing? Does your planning role require you to optimize your company's inventory? 

Maybe you’re already managing that supply chain—and you just need your job title updated.

And, if not, take time during your supply chain middle management years to figure out the direction you want to head. And then work toward that plan. 

Supply Chain Director Level

Do a web search for Supply Chain Director jobs. Supply Chain Directors are the job level when a lot of companies roll all the purchasing, planning, sourcing and other supply chain functions under one job title. If you find yourself in a job called Supply Chain Director (or Director, Global Supply Chain or Director, Supply Chain Management), congratulations.

That means that you’ve likely excelled in multiple supply chain functions and are now seen as the company expert. It means that you probably performed more than one role at the entry level and within the supply chain middle management level—i.e. you ran purchasing, did some analysis and planned some production and source strategically and controlled some inventory. 

But it also means that you’ve got an 80 percent chance that you’ve reached your last job title. 

If you want to grow in a career within supply chain beyond your Supply Chain Director role, the first thing you need to consider is: Who do Supply Chain Directors report to?

In small and medium sized companies, Supply Chain Directors will often report into non-supply chain roles: heads of manufacturing, operations or finance. 

In larger companies, Supply Chain Directors will sometimes report into higher level supply chain positions—such as Supply Chain Vice Presidents and sometimes Chief Supply Chain Officers. But that's the luxury of working at a larger company—where a Supply Chain Director may not be the director of the company's entire supply chain, but just one facet of it. Supply Chain Directors of specific geographic regions or Supply Chain Directors of limited product lines, for example. 

If you work at a larger company, you may have the opportunity to a Supply Chain VP role, but not everyone will make that leap. 

If you work at smaller companies, your Supply Chain Director role is as far as you can go within supply chain. That's why I give Supply Chain Directors an 80 percent chance of staying in with that job title until retirement. 

Other Supply Chain Career Paths

Once you've gained some significant experience in supply chain—at the supply chain middle management or director levels, there is the option of pursuing the consultant career path. Supply chain consultants continue to be in high demand and true supply chain experts (usually you need to be a specialist—i.e. supply chain analytics, supply chain ERP integration, etc.) can enjoy a healthy career helping companies drive bottom line optimization. 

One other career path that is becoming more popular with supply chain professionals is moving from supply chain management into general management. A seasoned supply chain pro has spent her career optimizing their company's bottom line—and integrating sales, finance, manufacturing, engineering, etc. Supply chain professionals are learning—and their employers are learning—that supply chain pro's are ideally suited to running a company's entire operation.