Finding your career niche in procurement and supply chain

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In an environment where millions of people can do what you do, how do you find your niche, excel in that niche, and sell yourself to the people that matter?

To distinguish yourself from the competition, you’ll need to invest in yourself and embrace the mindset of being a work-in-progress for the entirety of your career.

Whether you’re committed to achieving growth within your current role or looking to pivot to something totally different, applying an entrepreneurial skillset could help you realise your goals.

When you think of yourself as an entrepreneur, you begin to take responsibility for your career path and reject the notion that your employer must dictate your journey.

Are you a Generalist or a Specialist?

Because supply chain and procurement professionals are great at adapting and reacting, they often fall into the trap of thinking they can embody the role of “the generalist.”

“I’m a really good supply chain and procurement professional. I can do my job in any industry if you just give me a shot.”

Unfortunately, this attitude won’t help you stand out or succeed in a world where many other people position themselves as specialists.

Hiring managers and organisations are intrinsically lax (or lazy) when it comes to the recruitment process. They don’t care about what you can do. They care about what you can do for them.

That means they’ll be reluctant to hire a self-proclaimed generalist – even if that candidate is talented, skilled, and eager to learn and adapt. Why would they take the risk when they can hire someone from the same industry who’s performed a near-identical role for many years?

It might sound unfair, but that’s the reality. You can complain about it, or you can shift your mindset and carve out your USP.

Ultimately, it’s important to play to your strengths and find a specialism. It’s not worth the uphill struggle attempting to force-fit yourself into a role you suspect you could be really good at. If you don’t have specialist expertise, hiring managers likely won’t consider you.

How do you find your niche?

If you’ve ever felt like rolling your eyes when the advice proffered by a wildly successful billionaire is to “follow your dreams,” you’re certainly not alone. Guidance of this kind is vacuous at best, and it’s certainly not the answer to your long-term career happiness.

Instead, start by figuring out what you’re good at and put in the hours and the grit until you can excel at it. It’s at this point where you’re likely to become truly passionate about something.

To choose your niche and chart a successful and realistic career path, you’ll also need to consider the following three factors:

  1.  Assets – Your soft and hard skills.
  2. Aspirations – Where is your career heading, and how you plan to get there?
  3. Market – Is there a market to pay you for your skills, or is it simply a hobby?

You need to be able to leverage the assets that set you in the direction of your aspirations while making sure you can earn a living. Unfortunately, being good at something doesn’t mean an employer will pay you for it.

If you’re struggling to find your niche, your network can be a huge source of help. Ask a trusted connection what they see as your greatest strength. Or, if they had to come to you for advice on a topic, what would that topic be? Their answers might surprise you and motivate or inspire you down a particular path.

Remember, it’s feasible to develop a specialisation in a certain function while maintaining that all-important “natural athlete” mentality that will enable you to perform well and adapt as your career progresses.

How do you sell yourself?

The job market won’t reward you for getting better; it will reward you for convincing other people that you’ve gotten better.

Once you’ve established your niche and are working to hone your skillset, you can begin to think a little more about how to best present and sell yourself. One way to do that is to start thinking of yourself as a consultant.

There’s no doubt that you’ve advised someone outside of your company or industry at some point in your career. In doing so, you’ve essentially provided consulting services.

Balancing your employer’s expectations with your own career goals can be tricky and lead to feelings of frustration that you have so much more to offer than your current position allows. But in assuming the role of a consultant, you can push back against these restrictions and start marketing yourself as a desirable product.

For example, when someone asks you what you do, why bother telling them your job title or employer when you can describe the business problems you solve or talk about the more engaging and exciting elements of your career? Your expertise, knowledge, and vision will come to the fore because you’re owning them and refusing to be limited by the narrow parameters outlined by your employer.

How do you find your dream role?

Supply chain and procurement professionals typically have a good understanding of business operations. But they often find it hard to apply their knowledge and broad perspective to their own careers.

Candidates assume that connecting and building relationships with many recruiters is the best way to “be in the know” about job opportunities and advance their careers. But a recruiter’s primary focus is to serve their client, not to look out for you. If there are no open positions that match what you’re looking for, there’s not much they can do to help.

You can do so much more to sell yourself than producing a two-page resumé and connecting with recruiters on LinkedIn. Embracing the start-up mindset, putting yourself out there, and building your network are much more effective ways to ensure you’re in the running when a suitable role opens up.

You’ll need to be in constant planning mode, adapt, embrace risk, and take affirmative action. Leveraging the three-point plan methodology from the book ‘Start-up of You’ is listed below as a guide to help you to always think a couple of steps ahead.

  •  Plan A – How are you developing your competitive advantage? What are you doing in your career on a day-to-day basis? Most people have only committed to working on their plan A, and that’s where their commitment stops. Plan B and Plan Z will help you think further ahead and set you apart from the competition.
  •  Plan B – This is the commitment to changing your goals or finding different ways to accelerate your existing ones, whether it’s starting your own business or seizing a new opportunity. You might pivot to doing something a little riskier, like accepting a role where you’ll earn less but learn more or if you want a job in Silicon Valley, move to Silicon Valley.
  •  Plan Z – Plan Z is your fallback. It’s the certainty that you’ll always be employed because you have a solid and desirable skill set. This knowledge allows you to take risks when it comes to Plans A and B.

It’s very easy to convince yourself not to take risks or go after the things you’ve always sought. Ask yourself what is preventing you from doing that, what makes you apprehensive, and how you can overcome those fears.

Access more insights with Vitalize Talent’s “Revitalise Your Career” online course for Procurement and Supply Chain professionals, hosted by Naseem Malik and Aaron Cleavinger. Enrol here: https://revitalize-your-career.teachable.com/p/revitalize-your-career

About Author

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Naseem Malik brings over 15 years of experience in the supply management and logistics function to the search and recruitment business. Spanning diverse industries, he has worked in numerous roles of increasing responsibility, including implementation of global supply strategies, product and process cost reductions, and supply chain improvements. https://www.linkedin.com/in/naseemmalik2006/

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