Vendor Management Skills Accelerate Supply Chain Career Growth

By Published On: February 12, 2024

This article is a companion piece our Leadership Podcast, “The Art of Leading Other Leaders.” 


Your supply chain career will advance much faster once you master the art of external vendor management and can balance that with your internal priorities and obligations.

The most successful leaders in supply chain are those that  conduct the symphony of interdependence in balancing and managing internal relationships and obligations with long term partners. Some people thrive on leading internally and find career growth there. Some people do better handling vendors, third party suppliers, and other external relationships. The people that can have success doing both will be the ones whose careers accelerate the fastest.

Leadership development in supply chain is ideally enabled by lateral moves. Yes, one moves UP but the best leaders do so after they gain functional and operational domain depth in the lateral roles they experience. This knowledge base across functions and practice spaces arms one with the ability to form a comprehensive model of how things should work for everyone. This allows for better problem solving and tradeoff management across teams and functions while maintaining and balancing relationships with vendors and third party suppliers for years. 

The question is, how do we get there?  You need everything necessary to manage internal cross functional relationships and then some. If you can figure that out, you can accelerate your career. Hopefully we can cover some career pathing directions and necessary experiential models to pursue in order to better understand this type of supply chain leadership and vendor management essential for career acceleration.

Competitive Advantages in Career Acceleration

Sources of Competitive Advantage – or lack thereof – exist in many different ways. The common examples of competitive differentiation include brand value or intellectual property – mostly “whats.” In today’s world of extended supply chains, the “how” of managing networks of partners (raw material suppliers, logistics service providers, contract packaging and manufacturing providers for example) is a source of advantage for notable brands including Apple and Monster Beverage. This is more the exception than the rule. Many large companies who rely on external partners get this wrong and suffer the consequences in quality, cost, and brand reputation. 

There is work to be done to deliver customer service, quality, competitive cost, sustainability and supply chain resiliency when there is a commercial relationship and contract between your team and those on the other end of the phone. This is more difficult when we talk about tier 2 and beyond partners. Obviously, we have a lot less control over the supplier of my supplier. But hopefully our Tier 1 relationship has a positive influence on those as well which can help guide long term success throughout the chain.

Companies that grew up in an asset heavy world (we do it all) who then added partners to support innovation, capacity needs, or corporate strategy shifts have not all kept up in the skill and capability building. This is due to an increasing portion of their supply chain success being in the hands of others. The spotlight work and top talent are engaged in internal cross functional collaboration in many companies and the best and brightest may not be attracted to roles managing partners. 

Many of the skills and capabilities needed to manage these partner relationships and gain alignment and influence action are common to the work of getting things done cross-functionally in a large organization. These include collaboration and communication across all mediums (listening as well as speaking) as well as the ability to simply get things done. We cover a lot of this in our first 10 leadership podcasts. These are table stakes for effective external relationship and vendor management

Advance Your Supply Chain Leadership Career with these Podcast Episodes:

There are a number of other critical skills and capabilities that we need to add. It starts with understanding how a commercial agreement is developed and documented. Ideally, the relationship does not rely on the contract to resolve day-to-day issues. In the best relationships, the contract and commercial agreement rarely come into play. However, both parties need a clear and fair agreement that outlines the work to be done, the financial considerations, and how issues will be resolved should any arise in the course of the relationship. Those truly gifted at managing these relationships keep the contract terms in their back pocket to use only when necessary. 

Cross functional interaction Prevents Sunk Costs 

As always within supply chain operations, you’re either going to pay now or pay later. Sunk costs are sunk costs. Can you manage different relationships that require different levels of nuanced vetting? Can you give your CFO assurances that you’re being as cost effective as possible while not sacrificing service and quality? Is your knowledge base broad enough to be conversationally aware and able to identify red flags/lights on the supplier side and also be savvy enough to get the necessary money out of the CFO to preserve relationships with vendors who provide necessary levels of quality and service to ensure growth?

Long Term vs. Short Term

The folks that accelerate their careers the fastest demonstrate an ability to balance competing interests from a position of leadership.

Data suggests an average supplier relationship lasts 7 years. Being able to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties for that long takes a certain savvy. Think about it. You know the nuance of your supplier. You know what they can and can’t do. You accept their limitations and they accept yours. You’ve managed expectations up to your CFO and other stakeholders. 

Internal pressure to cut costs might help in the short term. But it could hinder growth and development in the long term. Your supplier segmentation strategy is highly dependent on creating these lasting external relationships working in tandem with your internal obligations. For example, your supplier can’t continuously improve quality and service if they are being squeezed on rates by your Procurement team and choose to process improvement resource as a cost cutting maneuver.  Costs might go down but risk goes up.

Your pitch needs to adjust. Balance the needs of the CFO with your need for supplier reliability and resilience and quality capability. This requires high level communication skills and an ability to not react, but to respond.

Analysis of strategic value vs. bottlenecks is huge. Your packaging is not necessarily strategic but it carries a high risk and can slow things down. So don’t treat bottleneck suppliers as low cost because it will create a hidden risk that is real given recent experience. Understanding this and where your non-critical assets vs. your leverage are is essential. Your own experience and knowledge will help you form a better understanding of your vendors and how best to manage them. Don’t discount what you already know. Add to it.  Balance that with a nuanced understanding of your vendor’s limitations – as well as their top line capabilities. Do this over time and you will be an asset unto yourself – able to write your own ticket almost anywhere.

Conclusion: Unique Skill Sets Required

Managing internal relationships and communications matrices are one thing. It requires a level of politicking and maneuvering in order to maintain productivity and profitability. However, the rules and infrastructure are set. Experienced players know the game and the hierarchy of decision making. 

Vendor management/third party relationships requires different skill sets and savvy. One has to learn how to read people and situations. Financial arrangements and motivations color most communications and interactions. Trust is only built over time and  mutually beneficial deals. The hard part is bridging the gap between internal and external. 

Are you able to judge when to trust someone and when not to? 

Can you get to the bargaining table to say “help me help you?”

Do you understand when to change up your pitches, situationally?

The best supply chain leaders understand the interdependence of different functions. This skill set is especially applicable when managing external relationships and balancing them with internal priorities. 

There’s a reason big brands like McDonalds maintain 50 year relationships with some of their vendors: because they had the right people in place to work both internal priorities into external negotiations in a way that kept everyone happy.

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