Supply chain leadership lessons from Dallas Cowboys legend Troy Aikman

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Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in four years in the early ‘90s, may not be the first person you think of when it comes to giving great supply chain advice. One thing the legendary pro athlete does know is leadership. You can’t be a great quarterback without it and that was the topic of his keynote presentation at the recent Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference. The wisdom he shared, while not directly related to supply chain leadership, is certainly applicable to that space.

Lead from a basis of who you are

There are tons of great leaders out there, and while some have common characteristics, Aikman says ultimately, being a good leader means being true to who you are. He cautions that if your personality naturally tends to swing one way or the other between soft and caring, and tough and demanding, you’re going to need to find a way to strike a better balance. You can’t coach everyone the same way. Learn what works with your team members and be a better leader by motivating them in the way that works best for them. This lesson comes down to gaining a better understanding of how you and your team members work individually, and as a whole. When it comes to your supply chain, understanding cross-functional dynamics, much like the dynamics between the different positions of a football team, becomes critical in overcoming the all too common issue of silos. If you properly manage the team dynamic, you’ll have a team that’s more collaborative, and ultimately a supply chain that’s better equipped to make better, faster decisions.

Coach for what you want your team to be, not what they are

Aikman shared a story about a player who wasn’t always the superstar on the field. He knew his job, and tried hard, but just didn’t seem to have the talent of some of the other players. Aikman then explained that this player was transformed by a few inspirational words by the coach—who told him he was the best player he had coached in that position in a very long time. The next time that player started, it was as if he was a completely different athlete. Aikman says the lesson here is that you have to coach your team for what you want them to be—whether that’s an amazing running back or a demand planner who’s taking the time to look at the end-to-end supply chain instead of just node-to-node. Recognizing that your players may not be where you want them to be now, but seeing their potential for the future is critical to the success of your supply chain. As a strong supply chain leader, you’ll be able to guide them into the roles you want them to play—a vital skill, especially during times of change.

Don’t discount the importance of locker room skills

Aikman also places a heavy importance on good locker room skills. In a football context, he warns upper management is sometimes too quick to cut players who may not be at the top of the roster in terms of on-field skills. Taking a strict “money ball” approach and not taking the time to see the impact those players have on the rest of the team in terms of morale and motivation, may end up being a big mistake. Certain people emerge as leaders off the field, and the same is true of your supply chain team. If someone on your team isn’t your superstar player (but can still get the job done satisfactory), but helps the rest of the group function better as a whole, it could be worthwhile keeping them on board. There’s something to be said for having soft skills, like conflict resolution and compromise negotiation, especially in supply chain where tradeoff decisions happen daily. Some people just naturally bring out the best in those around them.

Be confident in your processes and your people

Stick to your call if you’ve made a decision based on what you believe is the right play to run—even if others are skeptical. Provided you’ve done your due diligence and thoroughly evaluated your course of action, you have to be confident enough to move forward with it. Listen to what others have to say, but if you’re still convinced you’re on track, don’t back down. If you’ve done your job right as a leader, your team will follow you onto the field even against the toughest opponents and give you their all because they believe in you. That confidence is a requirement in supply chain where innovation and change aren’t always easily accepted. You may face pressure from above and below, but remember that without risk there’s no reward. Across all of the lessons Aikman shared, one message always came out on top. It takes more than a quarterback to win the game. Every person on the team has an important role to play, but to truly achieve success, in football or in supply chain leadership, you must surround yourself with good people, make good decisions for the right reasons, work hard and all focus on achieving the same result. Valuable lessons, even if you’re not a Dallas Cowboys fan.

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