As we emerge from the greatest disruption the world has experienced in nearly a century, distribution leaders may be left wondering how to lead their companies into the future. What worked before the pandemic may not work today, especially with supply-chain shortages, price increases and the Great Resignation.
For our businesses to thrive, leaders must adapt or die — and bring our team along for the change. But to do that we must carefully examine our business and leadership practices, and decide which qualities stay and which ones go.
Recently, my team and I launched a three-pronged research series to gauge the confluence of changes that are transforming independent distributors today. Not only did we survey distributors to get their unfiltered take, but we traveled to meet with dozens of distributors throughout two seasons of the We Supply America tour and engaged in deep conversations with their leadership teams and staff. I also pulled from my extensive strategic work one on one with leadership teams throughout the country.
From this, we established three foundational components that could make or break the future success of the independent distributor:
In the first pillar of the research series, out now, we focused on leadership and dug into the data to examine the forces (internal forces, external forces and people forces) that were driving change in our businesses today.
We found that due to the accelerating confluence of change, that the very nature of leadership in distribution is changing more rapidly than most of us realize. About 78% of respondents in our survey agreed with this premise. And, as a result, 83% of leaders believe we must lead differently coming out of the pandemic than how we led going in. We cannot lead our teams the same way we always have.
As one respondent said: “Distribution is in danger of becoming an extinct business model if management philosophies continue to remain archaic.” Instead, management needs to focus on and invest in empowering all employees to achieve their potential – a Noble Calling for today’s leaders.
Nearly all of the executives we surveyed agreed the human element will play a bigger role in leadership going forward.
We asked distribution leaders to share the qualities they believed were the keys to future success in leadership. Instead of business goals and KPIs, many of the answers pointed to qualities that supported the development of the individual and acknowledged the role humanity will play going forward. The top leadership qualities they said distributors need to embrace included:
- Commitment to growing and developing people
- Defining a meaningful purpose
- Investment in the future
- Ability to lean into unknown
- Defining a meaningful purpose
- Playing the long game
- Having a mindset that anything is possible
- Having a pioneer and innovator mindset
- Bias toward technology
In theory, these qualities seem fundamental. But in practice, they are often sidestepped for what’s considered more urgent tasks. What’s more, the overwhelming challenges of the pandemic and its aftermath have caused some leaders to return to “what’s always worked,” rather than embrace the changing nature of leadership.
Disruption is always around the corner and changemakers know these challenges are continual opportunities for improvement.
Joe Nettemeyer, President and CEO of Valin Corp., believes constantly looking ahead is critical to the success of distribution. Yet he’s heard other business leaders say, “This is how we’ve always done it, and this is the way we’re going to do it.”
To that he says, “They’re wedded to the success of yesterday. They didn’t look to what it takes to be successful tomorrow. You have to bake that into your thought process. If you’re not going where the industry is going, you’re going to be left behind. You’re not leading. You’re harvesting.”
One distributor we surveyed believes leadership must go beyond traditional management strategies and include qualities that inspire and motivate growth. “Empowering your employees to be the best versions of themselves will create more leaders. We all have plenty of managers, we need leaders to excel. Putting time, money, and coaching back into our people is how we will thrive.”
Another told us:
“With people at the heart of it all, finding ways to incorporate the human element ("what's best for my team?" and "what's best for my customer's teams?) will be significant. If you have an emotionally exhausted team no vision will be executed to its full potential.”
We’ve seen a shift in the workplace and if leaders want to thrive into tomorrow, they must embrace the qualities the marketplace seeks in its leaders today — and balance purpose with profits.
Want to see what distribution leaders have to say about the changing nature of leadership? Learn more in our new report.
Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnleashWD, executive producer at We Supply America, and president of the Beveridge Consulting Group.