The Millennial CPO: How Will the New Generation Transform the Supply Chain Profession?

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I approach this topic of millennials in supply chain with conflicted enthusiasm. It’s a subject that lends itself to more lazy speculation than anything resembling intellectual thought. The millennial is discussed as though it has turned into its own species, as if bigger differences separate two people born in 1980 and 1985 than two people born in 1985 and 1990. All this complaining about younger generations goes back to the ancient Greeks (where all things tend to go, perhaps even bringing up “the ancient Greeks”).

That was the conflict. Now comes the enthusiasm. Oh boy, it is so much fun to speculate lazily about millennials. Who are they? What makes them tick? Why are they so entitled? Why are they on Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat so much? Why don’t they have a work ethic? Why do they complain about fetching coffee at their unpaid internships? (A mystery, but the U.S. Department of Labor is on their side.) And the scariest question: Am I one?

The Pew Center defines millennials as the generation born between 1981 and 1997, which means that everyone from Beyoncé to that college sophomore you saw get turned away at the bar is a millennial. Demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss (who coined the term) mark millennials as those born between 1982 and 2004, which excludes Beyoncé but not Prince William.

“When another manager begins describing their issues with millennials to me,” says Paul Boyer, head of procurement at Genentech Hillsboro Technical Operations, “I have to politely remind them that I, too, am a millennial. Sometimes the colleague then corrects me, ‘Well, you're not that kind of millennial...’ This exposes that certain individuals have drawn a blanket conclusion about a generation of colleagues, and that they can't break that conclusion even when presented with the numerous exceptions.”

A New Generation Takes the Helm

Boyer was an ISM/ThomasNet “30 Under 30” winner in 2014. The program recognizes “rising supply chain stars.” I spoke to a number of the 2014 winners, who are all at the older end of the millennial generation, about what they think are their generation’s strengths and challenges and how the supply chain profession will evolve as a new generation takes lead. “How will millennials change procurement and supply chain?” I wanted to know.

But perhaps the better question is how millennials working in supply chain and procurement are already changing the profession. In one of my conversations with a “30 Under 30” winner who’s about to hit 10 years in the procurement profession, I realized the in hindsight highly obvious fact that millennials are growing up. They already make up a third of the workforce. The older among them are stepping into managerial positions. They’re hiring and mentoring younger employees. They’re giving talks at conferences and industry events. And a decade from now, they could even be CPOs.

So while your millennial interns may have forgotten — again! — to put creamer in your coffee, their older counterparts are already proving to be movers and shakers in their careers. And here are some common themes that came up in millennial procurement professionals’ discussion of their own generation.

Technology, Technology, Technology

I envision the field to become more and more tech-centric,” says Jennifer Wolff, senior manager of material planning at Masco Cabinetry. “I continue to be disappointed by the systems that exist for our field.” It is safe to say that technology has embedded itself into the average millennial’s personal and work life. According to Nielsen, more than 85% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 own a smartphone, and a quarter of them ranked “technology use” as the defining characteristic of their generation.

So it’s no wonder that millennial procurement professionals have set a higher bar for tech solutions. “None [of the technological systems] are adaptable enough to service the uniqueness of each company, so we use what we can and make up the difference with manual intervention and spreadsheets,” Wolff says. “Since my generation is used to [and] even spoiled by easy-to-use technology, I hope we can pioneer these improvements.

Alejandra Huhn, vendor master specialist at NuStar Energy L.P., expressed similar thoughts. “I believe the profession will become increasingly integrated with new technologies,” Huhn says. “Millennials are more interested and willing to try new ideas such as internet of things, and hopefully we can keep that focus on ingenuity as we move forward into more leadership positions.”

A Different Work Style

Certain traits come to mind when the words “millennials in the workplace” are heard, some of them mutually contradictory. Desire for flexible work schedules, job-hopping, innovative thinking, lack of entrepreneurial spirit, impatience with workplace hierarchies, so on and so forth.

As millennials take over the reins of the supply chain profession, “innovations will be quantum in nature, [like] Amazon on steroids,” says Jonathan Byrnes, senior lecturer of supply chain management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But [it will be] accompanied with many failures as new managers fail to understand the basics of strategic positioning and organizational change and growth.”

Millennials themselves — true to their nature — are more optimistic. “In supply chain and beyond, I think the millennial generation is prompting a great deal of change and innovation and at greater speeds,” says Laura Dearborn Stearns, supplier commodity manager at Cisco. “Millennials tend to be productively disruptive. [They] ask ‘why?’ and challenge legacy methods in favor of a more efficient, user friendly, adaptable or technologically progressive way.”

Thanks to technology, millennials are also disrupting the divide between work time and personal time. Be this a good or bad thing, it is evidence that millennials are in fact quite invested in their careers. “The work day isn’t limited by the time in the office. We’re checking emails as soon as we wake up in the morning [up until] we lay down in bed at night,” says Wolff. “This trait is especially key in the field of supply chain where material delivery issues often require 24-hour attention.”

But do millennials have a choice but to be invested? Perhaps the Great Recession has had just as big of an effect as the internet did on shaping millennials as a generation. “Economic turmoil and its effect on our parents' employment has led us to believe that firms are not stable nor loyal entities,” Boyer explains. “The temptation would be to think that this will make millennials disloyal or unstable. Actually, I think this roots them in the knowledge that ‘change is constant’ and ‘risk is real.’”

Millennials are not staying with companies for years and years, as earlier generations did, and they are also more likely to piece together part-time work and freelance gigs, though not necessarily because they want to. As a result, Boyer says, “[millennials] make decisions that more realistically discount the future and focus on creating change in the present.”

“In addition, this generation has observed the continuing trend towards automation of routine jobs and its effect on once-stable career choices,” Boyer continues. “Therefore, I project a continued trend in entrepreneurial thinking – inventing the next opportunity. When harnessed and nurtured within a company, this could expand opportunities and help prevent stagnation in the market.”

Think Human-to-Human

Millennials are team players, to use a term that hiring managers love. Maybe it’s from social media, maybe it’s from all the trophies, but millennial professionals are “all about collaboration,” as Geil Browning, CEO of Emergenetics International, put it in an article for Inc. “This generation… wants to impact the greater good and is not too interested in how things were done in the past. In fact, the top-down approach that characterizes many companies may be one reason for the high turnover rates associated with millennials.”

Stearns thinks that more collaboration is a boon for procurement and supply chain. “As a result of this behavior and increased collaboration, I think supply chains will benefit from increased efficiency and transparency throughout,” she says. “This innovation will also allow for greater and faster adaptability to changes in the market and environment. Increased end-to-end integration and access to information is one area in which the supply chain domain is already moving.”

As more procurement processes become automated, the focus shifts more to strategy. “I think the biggest change to the supply chain profession, which we’re already starting to see, is a shift in what’s being procured and how,” says Amy Alpren, director of strategic sourcing at CBS Corporation. “The supply chain profession is becoming more and more strategic. I, for example, manage professional services, a category that requires a certain level of expertise, time, established relationships, internally, as well as externally, and a tactical approach.”

A Parting Thought

“The ability to innovate, however, comes with a caveat,” Stearns says. “The organization and company must support and embrace such efforts and those who are initiating them. Understanding millennials and enabling them will lead to greater success.”

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