Seasoned Leadership in Action™ – An Interview with Joe Carson, CEO Spend Strategies, LLC!

Joe Carson

At Supply Chain Game Changer we believe in sharing experiences and expertise from people in every industry and from across the globe.  As such we have introduced our “Seasoned Leadership in Action™” Interview series at Supply Chain Game Changer. This interview is with Joe Carson, CEO and Founder of Spend Strategies, LLC.

I first met Joe Carson when he worked at Lucent and I worked at Celestica. As in many of these relationships we were dealing with difficult problems that had arisen. My interaction with Joe and his team was tremendous and entirely professional. There was nothing but complete support for our mutual success and teamwork to resolve these challenges.

Joe Carson
Joe Carson, CEO Spend Strategies, LLC

Joe’s leadership and intellect were reflected in his team, including Michael Massetti, and their behaviour. No matter what the difficulties were we always felt that even though they were the customer that they were in it together with us.

It was a great lesson in how to successfully manage a strategic customer-supplier relationship, a lesson which I have always kept in mind in all other interactions.

Thank you Joe for your friendship and taking the time to share your experiences and expertise with us.

Here is our interview with a true Global Industry leader, Joe Carson:

Tell our readers a little about your background and experience?

Joe is currently the CEO of Spend Strategies. As an experienced business professional, he has served in diverse roles ranging from Marketing and Strategy, to Procurement and Supply Chain. Past leadership titles include Chief Procurement Officer at both Lucent Technologies and Micron Technologies, in addition to other leadership positions as Vice-President Supply Chain Management, Operational Excellence Executive, and Chief Strategy Officer.

He has enjoyed leveraging all these past experiences in assisting businesses implement game-changing supply chain innovations as well as helping emerging software services companies who are building solutions that solve the types of complex, global supply chain challenges that he faced as an operational supply chain practitioner. 

Several articles and reference books have highlighted Joe’s procurement transformation accomplishments at Lucent Technologies, Juniper Networks, and in the area of Supply Chain Risk Management.

He is a frequent speaker, college lecturer and author on topics that include Supply Chain Risk Management, Environmental Sustainability and Governance, and the use of new A.I. tools and analytical techniques that deliver real value to today’s procurement organizations. Joe received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

What are some of your greatest achievements in Business? 

I have two stories. Both involve Change Management. The first one is for the teams I’ve been fortunate to lead, and the second is a personal change management story. 

In both my prior CPO roles, I joined companies while their supply chains were implementing new and then-innovative supply chain practices in order to compete more effectively.

In each of these circumstances, the sourcing teams had to not only grapple with unprecedented external business challenges, but itself had to transform to allow for success of the enterprise. From these experiences I learned the value of courage, commitment, and the power of mobilizing people to their fullest potential.

New teams in far-off locations took on more strategic roles and those contributions were a major part of the company’s future success. Those team members demonstrated the grit to pivot from old to new and the commitment to their fellow functional colleagues to not only earn their seat at the business table, but to achieve unprecedented procurement results.

As the leader of the team, I focused my energies on translating the vision into day-to-day tasks, adjusting the plan as new events unfolded, and of setting a high bar on performance of the team and myself.

The second example is a personal one. In the early days of my executive career, I joined a consulting company that supported performance improvement for their clients. As a new consulting team member, I had to assimilate many new skills.

The first few months were difficult as I had to roll up my sleeves and do many gritty analytical tasks that I never done before. Creating clear and compelling presentations. The details and magic of Excel analyses. All the organizational tools necessary to mobilize large groups into action.

Those valuable analytical and planning skills served me well for decades to follow as I went on to subsequent leadership roles. I was more effective at communicating a vision to a team. And, I was able to help my future subordinates to analyze business problems more comprehensively and competently.

I would encourage everyone to continually pick up additional diagnostic skills and especially those that are part of an analytical toolset.

How has the Business and Supply Chain changed over the course of your career?

From the early days of my career, the purchasing and manufacturing function has changed both from the inside-out and from the outside-in. These two functions, previously viewed as tactical necessities, have now made the pivot to strategic contributor.

When I first entered the supply chain arena, consolidating the approach to supplier management into a single “strategic sourcing strategy” was a novel concept and only leveraged by a few leading companies. Today, most companies have made this full transition.

The shift has been garnered through a blend of passion, experience and expertise from scores of leaders that have participated in the world of supply chain over the past two decades. This level of excellence has earned supply chain a seat at the table as a respected and contributing member of the business management team.

Hats off to the many that worked hard to add business value to their company’s strategic mission and equally important, acknowledgement goes to those senior corporate business leaders that recognized the opportunity to sharpen their competitiveness by bringing the supply chains teams into the Board room.

Now, however, it is time to take supply chain management to the next level. Global economies, consumer-sentiments, available data and tools, team member skill sets have each advanced. Supply Chains need to continue to progress as well.

What are some of the lessons you learned in your career that you would like to share for others to learn from?

There are many, but here are three. 

Continually include and expand your exposure to a diverse set of ideas and experiences. This is achieved by having the courage to ask for the opinions of others and the patience to listen and seriously consider their response. In the corporate world, and especially in globally complex problems, finding the “right answer” requires inclusion of several diverse perspectives and fact-gathering.

Rarely is there a single-dimensional right answer, and if so, it probably would have been solved before it came to your desk. Possess humility to gather input and involvement from the stakeholder community, peers, and trusted subordinates, and then the confidence to move forward. When have we asked for enough opinions and are ready to move forward? 

Well… This brings me to my next lesson and a phrase I have repeated many times. The best leaders continually balance both “paranoia” and “swagger” as they approach adversity and new challenges. 

“Paranoia” forces us to constantly ask ourselves, “have I done all I can do? Was there anything I have not considered? Should I have spent more time on this problem?” And then simultaneously, knowing when the answer is sufficient to be able to declare it a “Yes!” and to move forward boldly and decisively.

A sense of swagger that conveys confidence, but not arrogance. Team members are looking to follow leaders who display BOTH characteristics. Empathy and humility to seek an understanding of issues from all sides. Then, the courage and commitment to move forward swiftly and assertively. 

This concept is true for people, but is also true for Supply Chains, which brings me to my third lesson. The importance of a “Risk Culture” in Supply Chain Management. As with the leader, supply chains must operate with confidence and excellence, but also with the paranoia that, in a real-world environment, anything can go wrong.

This uncertainty means that we also must retain a risk posture that is constantly on the look-out for issues that could impact business and impinge upon the continuity of supply.

From my experiences in challenging times, Supply Chains team love to be the hero and demonstrate the amazing “dive and catch” play. An event occurs and the incoming material teams learn that a needed component will not be delivered on time. The business is at peril. Who will come to the rescue?

The amazing Commodity Manager! They grab the phone and begins dialing up the supply base. After much shouting and cajoling, the parts are now scheduled to arrive, and production is allowed to continue. The crowd roars in applause! …

But why wasn’t the team surveilling the landscape and aware of the events before the delivery was interrupted? Is there an established protocol in place to react to a large-scale disruption as we are seeing with COVID19? What is the next likely disruption and how do we best avoid its consequences?

Supply Chain teams need to have at least one brave sole who is continually monitoring the landscape and thinking about what might go wrong. They will face much criticism for their handwringing and for appearing to be too conservative-minded.

However, this role is a much-needed position in today’s environment. Avoid the “dive and catch” in its entirety and proactively manage potential risk exposures. This is what I call a “Risk Culture”.

What challenges facing the world are important to you and what are you working on these days? 

There are several challenges that I think need to be brought together and owned by supply chain teams, especially those responsible for supplier selection and management. I spoke about the need to know and understand the details of the extended supplier network.

Back 20 years ago, we began delegating those responsibilities to intermediaries, contract manufacturers and such. Those intermediaries had the flexibility to independently select and manage our suppliers, in addition to the logistics of flow of material from purchases.

Recently, several factors are screaming at us to now improve transparency of those selection and management decisions. I spoke about supply chain risk in the previous answer.

In addition to continuity of supply concerns, we see that many consumers are increasingly interested in how their suppliers are managing their environmental, sustainability and ethical governance responsibilities – known as E.S.G. Increasingly, E.S.G factors need to be integrated into sourcing strategy decisions and therefore into supplier selection criteria.

On top of that, we add the on-going tariff discussions and, post-COVID, true country of origin interests and cost pressures will mount. As global economies come back to life, there will certainly be inventory imbalances and price dislocations that would otherwise be hidden from view. We must be able to manage our supply base transparently and efficiently.

This rapidly becomes a big data problem that requires tools that can gather and integrate large amounts of structured and unstructured data, compile the information autonomously and against pre-established metrics, and then finally distill all of it in a format that allows for rapid decision-making.

I believe Supplier Management must step up its game. We will need to have new measurement tools, audits, and clear analytics to be able to completely characterize our selected set of immediate and especially the downstream suppliers. Not just the first tier, but every tier.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning software will be part of that tool kit and be used to either collect a continually changing global dataset or be able to mine data from publicly available information. Procurement teams will have to advance their skill base and leverage these tools so as to develop new metrics that drive supply base characterization and improvements.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed investigating and authoring my thoughts on how I see these ideas and metrics coming together. I see this is a fragmented area today with few standardized methods or tools. I am working on how these ideas and concepts can be consolidated and implemented in real company settings and used to drive supply base management performance in the future.

What is the role of Business, Supply Chain and Change Leadership in addressing these challenges? 

Each of these stakeholders have a role to play in recognizing that Supply Chain is now a critical competitive weapon. Supply Chain leaders need to have the paranoia to question their ability to monitor, analyze, and manage, their supply base to the new standards of excellence and transparency. If they see a deficiency, then have the swagger to step up and ask for help from their leadership.

I have observed that Supply Chain team members, many times, act like Marine recruits – only happy when there is mud on our faces, and when we are being yelled at! It is time to charge out of the fox hole and into the strategy room. Our functional peers need what we have to offer. Increasingly, the business axiom of competition through supply chain excellence is playing itself out – especially post-COVID19.

Companies compete through supply chain performance. However, unlike traditional competitive factors such as price, product features and designed-in quality, there is rarely a product management advocate who is measured and paid on the return for investment in supply chain excellence.

Typically, these are viewed as two different functional departments with segmented and unaligned budgeting rules – usually based on cost reductions versus competitive positioning.

Supply Chain leaders must develop metrics on supply base characterizations that can easily translated into the customers’ requirements for continuity of supply and ESG performance. Product Management, Finance, and the Executive team need to see people and technology investments in areas that improve supply chain performance as lucrative as the investments in other elements of the product features and design.

What advice would you give people who have a career in, or who are considering joining, Business and/or Supply Chain? 

This is an amazing time to join a Supply Chain team. As I have spoken about here, many important and business-impacting areas are getting a lot of attention.

If your interest is in people, supplier managers operate across multiple functional areas both inside the company and with the suppliers’ companies.

If business experience is what you are after, managing a supply base means overseeing millions of dollars of business and working with senior executives, including your suppliers’ CEO’s.

If your interest is in data and analytics, then much is happening in the application of A.I. / M.L. as an analytical toolset.

If your curiosity lies in environmental issues, risk management, ethics, compliance, or a variety of new areas of concern, once again, there is a place for you in Supply Chain.

This is a maturing and evolving part of business that is going through a dramatic sea change – and as they say, “a rising tide raises all boats”. Come on aboard! 

How can people contact Joe Carson?

I can be contacted through my Spend Strategies email address at [email protected] or through my LinkedIn profile. I really enjoy learning and engaging with others, especially in areas of mutual interest. Do not hesitate to email me so we can share ideas and learn from each other.

Originally published on June 2, 2020.