From supply chain survival to leader: How you can follow Lenovo’s lead and find success during an acquisition

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“Stand up if you know what it’s like to live through an acquisition, or if you’ve experienced a crisis at your company at some point in time.” That was how Ben Massie, Vice President of E2E Supply Chain Execution at Lenovo, kicked off his presentation at the 2019 Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference in Phoenix, AZ. Nearly everyone in the room was standing—myself included. Massie’s story centered on his journey from IBM to Lenovo during the acquisition of System X—a seven-year process from sale to hyper growth. There were layoffs. A lot of them. A revolving door of mangers. Seven in sixteen months. And a shift in culture that put the emphasis solely on the bottom line.

Defining survival mode

Mistakes were made admitted Massie. Smashing together the System X supply chain with that of Lenovo’s proved difficult. For the first month, integration issues meant they couldn’t generate any orders. After that, they spent weeks being unable to fulfill them because they didn’t have any of the required materials. “I’d get calls from sales daily asking me when their orders would ship,” recalls Massie. “’I don’t know when your order will ship. Maybe never.’ I used to tell them.” It was pure survival mode. And things were only going to get worse. “Our logistics was a mess,” said Massie. “We sent a truck 2,000 miles. On that truck was a single box. Inside that box was a smaller box. And inside that box was a single slip of paper—a software license. How does something like that even happen?” Massie described survival mode as this:

  • Everyone always takes the path of least resistance—even if it’s not the right path to be taking
  • You’re admired by others for just making it through
  • By the time the finish line rolls around you’re completly exhausted
  • Morale takes a back seat
  • You’re just happy to have survived—and have no idea what comes next
  • Victory is just the ability to sustain, not grow
  • Information flow is spotty
  • The enemy comes from inside your own organization—it’s every man, woman and planner for themselves

The survivor/winner’s paradox

But when it comes to making the leap from just surviving to thriving, there are few things to keep in mind according to Massie.

  1. It’s very difficult to be a winner if you haven’t at some point first been a survivor. You haven’t learned what it takes to get through the tough times. Or how to make mistakes and actually learn from them.
  2. Nearly everyone who adopts a survival mentality does not survive. That’s right. Many of us may never find our way out of survival mode following a crisis or a big event like an acquisition. It takes years and a level of grit not everyone has. But that brings us to the most important point of the paradox.
  3. The transformation from survivor to winner is the number one incubator to create strong, successful leaders. If you can lead your team to hell and back you’re off to a good start. Massie says moving from survivor to winner is all about using the weight of your survival to your advantage.

You’ll learn endurance (remember, it took Massie seven years to come out on the other side!). Your team will be strong—bonded by their shared experience in the so-called ‘battle’. Once you’ve learned how to transform once, you’ll be able to make that a repeatable process, so the next time a crisis strikes, you’ll know how to pull your team and supply chain through it faster. You’ll have the wisdom, balance and perspective to see the positives that came out of the pain. And you’ll truly understand the sacred value of winning.

What winning looks and feels like

Five years after the acquisition things finally began to stabilize for the System X team. Revenue started to recover. The deep, painful cuts to people were paying off and they’d become experts at doing more with less.

Lenovo experienced some impressive success if you look at where they were in 2014 and where they are now.

  • Manufacturing value add costs dropped nearly 60% from
  • Order-to-delivery rates jumped 10%
  • Quality improved by 3.5%

And they did it all with less than half the number of people. Massie said winning is when you:

  • Develop a true sense of urgency
  • Are celebrated for your accomplishments, not just your ability to make it through
  • Become energized by the goal of winning
  • Relentlessly pursue improvement
  • Inspire and motivate others to do their best
  • Think strategically
  • Understand that victory means growth, not just stability

Leading your team out of survival mode and into victory

Leading your team from survival to success in the shadow of an acquisition or crisis requires three main abilities according to Massie (and I’d tend to agree with all of them).

  1. BELIEF: You have to have unwavering belief that this can and will get better. You have to believe in the project. Every. Single. Day. No matter how hard It gets or how daunting it may seem. If you don’t believe success is possible, how can you expect your team to believe it either.
  2. COURAGE: You have to have the courage to keep going. Every. Single. Day. Like belief, if you don’t have the courage to move forward, you’re never going to be able to inspire your team to find the courage to keep going either.
  3. HEART: Above all else, you have to have heart. Acquisitions are hard. Painful. Terrifying. And people are scared. Scared of losing their jobs. Scared at the idea of change. Scared of what comes next. You have to inspire, lead and guide through good times and bad. If you want to move from survivor to leader, then that is your mandate.

In a global era where costs are tight, competition is fierce and success seems harder than ever to achieve, it’s little wonder so many of us in the session could relate to Lenovo’s harrowing tale of layoffs, culture shock and the struggle to get out of survival mode. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the struggle. I’ve come through the other side. And so will you. As Massie said:

"There's light at the end of the tunnel and it's totally worth it."

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