A Chat with John Dowling a Management Consultant in Supply Chain

by Louise Landau

Even without considering the impact of actually contracting COVID-19, the lack of certainty over the future of our personal and professional manner of existence is, for the most level-headed of us, anxiety provoking. At this point in time, many of us operating in the business world have temporarily settled into our new existence of home-working, online meetings and social distancing, but for how long and what happens next?

Information sharing during this period is one way of taking a step towards finding answers to these questions and today, I spoke with John Dowling, a Management Consultant in Supply Chain who has been kind enough to share his experiences over recent weeks.

[LL]: What are your observations over the past few weeks and how have you been affected?

[JD]: There is a lot of uncertainty out there, and we felt it was really important for us to step out from our usual box and understand the situation people find themselves in today. At this time, it is especially important for us to view the people we interact with as individuals and human beings living through an extraordinary situation and not just as prospective clients.

This situation requires looking beyond simple commercial opportunities, it is about doing the right thing.

Everyone is out there trying to find the best ways forward, and we tried to think about what we can do to give more people confidence in what they are doing; to make these people stronger in their unique situation. I felt it was really important to stop and think: what do business leaders really need at this point in time? These are human beings that are in a difficult situation and they need support.

[LL]: How have you addressed this?

[JD]: Well, first of all I thought, as a leader, it was really important to be proactive. I sensed that people out there trying to protect their people and keep production going would need to get insights they could trust, share their challenges and have a sounding board for their solutions. In such an unprecedented situation, I felt that could work best by setting up a peer group of senior business leaders. So I reached out to some people in my network and offered to set something up.

The first session was two weeks ago with a really interesting mix of people from a range of industries, from foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to engineering and automotive. I think to start with it was an unusual situation for all involved, as very often – even within their own organizations – people are expected to be the experts, to have the answers, and it can feel uncomfortable to reach out to others for insights and even to offer a view on somebody else’s challenge when we don’t even know the industry. I was so impressed by everyone getting involved and being so insightful and supportive.

[LL]: In broad terms – can you share some of the discussion topics?

[JD]: In the first session we spoke about some very tangible issues on a range of pressing topics, such as coordinating efforts within the company on a global, regional and local level, dealing with the authorities, managing the supply chain, keeping production going right down to overcoming scarcity of sanitizer and protective equipment. Above all the practical issues however, communication and leadership were seen as really critical.

There was a great sense of everyone wanting to genuinely support their people and be there for them.

The discussion reminded me of what a leadership trainer told me about twenty years ago: “they’re human beings, not human doings”.

The group were keen to get together again, so we set up a second slot to discuss future outlook and scenarios. That took us to issues such as a sustaining the supply chain while production may be on hold, anticipating severity and duration of the crisis in certain geographies and how best to come out of the situation in an improved position relative to competitors.

What impressed me most was how quickly companies have been coming to terms with a crisis situation and then shifting to look beyond.

To me, that ability to look beyond the crisis, will determine who will come out on top. The ones who realize there is no yesterday to go back to but rather a future to build will win.

[LL]: Information sharing is very beneficial but how do you address the issue of discretion?

[JD]: We had to be mindful that we were getting C-level people to give up their precious time, based purely on their willingness to share with others and on their hope of getting something out of it. To make it work for everyone we laid out three rules: efficient use of time, no passengers and, most importantly, confidentiality. Of course, confidentiality can be tricky when the whole point was for people to be able to take away insights. We applied the “Chatham House Rule”, where you can share the ideas but not allow them to be attributed to who said them. For the purpose of our discussion, people only needed to share enough information to explain their situation and allow others to contribute, which, while still sensitive, is a lot less than full disclosure.

[LL]: How long is it going to go on in the state that we are now, and what would you see as the core learnings or implications for the future?

[JD]: Let me turn the question round, Louise. The duration will depend on industry area and circumstances and of course there will be life after Corona. I think the winners will be the people who realize that there is no yesterday to go back to.

In terms of core learnings, so far these three are at the top of my list:

First, many companies will need to re-think the role of headquarters.

Coronavirus has emerged at different times, with differing levels of severity and prompted quite varied government reactions around the world. While there are certain things that can be managed effectively on a central level, such as group-wide cash management, engagement with top management of global customers and suppliers or providing certain data. For many other things, local management needs the empowerment and autonomy to deal with them locally. So, HQs will need to be more agile, on the one hand more service providers and coordinators than dictators, while on the other hand picking the right areas to really get involved down to the nitty-gritty.

Second, the way people are working will need to change.

We have witnessed large portions of the office-based population now working from home and engaging via video and phone. And judging by my own experience over the last few weeks, that has been every bit as productive – and at times more so – than if I had been in an office, in meeting rooms or on trains and planes travelling to and fro. The challenge is enormous for those used to managing and being managed based on presence at the office – but why wouldn’t we keep the advantages?

Lastly, there is such a wealth of innovation happening right now.

Companies that may previously never have envisaged manufacturing anything other than their traditional products are now getting creative, both in terms of how they manage the crisis and in the way they are looking for alternative products or uses they can create with existing resources. If you like, it’s a modern-day business version of MacGyver. And I think companies who can preserve that thinking into their non-crisis future have a fantastic opportunity to succeed.

Coming to your trade, Louise, all three of these things have one thing in common: they need a different type of leadership than the typical, stereotype, alpha-male “tough” leader that many company cultures have nurtured. Tomorrow’s – no, already today’s leaders need to be able energize, empathize, connect the dots, remain calm under pressure, combine big vision with small ego and mobilize resources in the entire value chain and ecosystem. Leaders need to take a long hard look in the mirror and instead of bringing in people who look and think the same, they need to be able to identify their own gaps and deficiencies and bring people on board who will make the organization stronger. For me, all of that is real leadership, just without the chest-thumping. In short, this is a real opportunity for companies who embrace diversity of thinking and agility in action to get ahead and stay ahead.

[LL]: Thank you so much for your time John. Always a pleasure speaking with you.

If you have any questions, please contact us at info@ryderexecutivesearch.com

The original version of this article can be found here.