Insights / Supply Chain / Article

How CSCOs Can Avoid Career Derailment

January 28, 2020

Contributor: Lisa Bigelow

How new chief supply chain officers can avoid mistakes and succeed as a leader.

Caitlin is an accomplished executive with a good reputation and is known for nurturing and growing talent in her organization. She is elated when a competitor approaches her for a position as chief supply chain officer (CSCO). Caitlin feels that her experience adequately equips her for this new challenge, and she is excited to get started. 

But four weeks into her new role, things are not progressing as she had hoped. Her direct reports seem disengaged, and she worries that some staff members are sabotaging her projects. All the strategies and tactics that enabled her previous success not only haven’t been effective, but some also seem to produce the opposite effect.

What happened? 

Caitlin risked derailing her career by applying learned behaviors to her new role without first considering the organizational context. Desirable traits such as charisma, confidence and persistence often have a behavioral “flip side” that bosses, peers and individual contributors may regard as negative. And these perceptions don’t just damage careers — over time, they can weaken employee morale and customer confidence, too. 

Improving self-awareness, gathering trusted feedback and focusing on the team can help a new CSCO build respect, and later, engagement

It’s no surprise to experienced CSCOs that Caitlin found transitioning difficult. Star recruits are often hired based on a perceived ability to lead versus actual time spent in the C-suite. But when unexpected setbacks derail plans, new CSCOs who ignore the importance of context and high-quality relationships may find themselves reassigned or demoted. Some may even find themselves out of a job.

“Executives may not recognize the negative traits in themselves because those traits are balanced with positive traits that have powered previous success. Change the context, and the traits that were once positive can lead to career derailment,” says Sarah Watt, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner.

In fact, Gartner research shows that 57% of surveyed line managers rate their leaders’ agendas as highly likely to derail. Although not every dire prediction came true, in 27% of cases, it did, leading to weaker business results. And where do the problems start? A lack of contextual awareness and emotional intelligence.

Read more: How to Successfully Transition Into the CSCO Role

3 reasons why new leaders fail

CSCOs anticipate relying on skills refined from past professional experiences to deliver results in a new role. But successful C-suite leadership requires a full understanding of the people and processes at the new organization. 

Gartner identified three traps that ensnare new CSCOs.

  1. The new CSCO lacks self-awareness and doesn’t adapt to the new organizational context. CSCOs who fail to understand the negative aspects of once-praised traits can quickly find their agendas derailed. For example, a CSCO once hailed as a visionary in a prior role could easily be regarded with skepticism or as eccentric in a new organization where the CSCO has no track record of success.
  2. The new CSCO doesn’t take the time to get to know the existing team. Senior leaders are accustomed to producing deliverables that exceed expectations, and quickly. However, results aren’t produced by one person, but by a team. Failure to listen, build relationships and understand pain points can lead to a lack of trust and result in disengagement. 
  3. The CSCO ignores context when implementing new ideas or processes. It’s tempting for new leaders to make change quickly as part of delivering results, but change without understanding the business and market can lead to derailment. CSCOs should first review objectives and learn how the new market ticks before making sweeping recommendations on, for example, cost optimizations

In each trap, a lack of self and contextual awareness on the part of the CSCO leads to poor performance and weakened business results. By honing emotional intelligence skills, a new CSCO can earn trust and deliver on strategic objectives.

How new CSCOs can succeed

Improving self-awareness, gathering trusted feedback and focusing on the team can help a new CSCO build respect, and later, engagement with and adoption of CSCO-led initiatives. 

“Examine the negative aspects to your positive leadership traits,” says Watt. “This is sometimes easier said than done, but various leadership benchmarking tools are available, and having a mentor in place will also help to provide additional feedback.”

Watt also recommends paying close attention to colleague interactions during the first six months in the new role.

“If they react in unexpected ways, do not try to push through the resistance right away,” Watt says. Instead, consider if there is any merit to the resistance and share concerns with a trusted mentor or executive coach.

Fit in first to lead later

Finally, resist the temptation to prioritize performance over relationships — at least at first. Strong relationships can accelerate performance when the CSCO makes a time investment in relationship building upfront.

Gartner research suggests that new CSCOs charged with turning around a struggling business are at an increased risk of failure. And although that’s probably not a surprise to anyone who has managed a turnaround, the reason supply chain organizations succeed is because of the productivity of the supply chain team members themselves, Watt says — not the direct involvement of the CSCO in solving day-to-day problems.

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