What It Takes to Be a Leader in Warehousing

by Beverly Harvey

From the minute the great toilet-paper shortage that kicked off the COVID-19 pandemic in the US became known, warehousing has been in the spotlight (along with the entire supply chain). E-commerce channels at distribution centers have grown by 60 percent or more since the pandemic began, Roberto Michel reported in November 2020. The net effect has been to accelerate change, especially in the area of automation and its contribution to social distancing. “Just when it seemed that the pace of change for warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) couldn’t get any faster than it has been over the past few years,” Michel noted, “COVID-19 came along to show us just how fast that pace of change can be.” Change, of course, requires strong leadership.


Warehousing is a subset of logistics, which is, in turn a subset of supply chain. The three terms are sometimes used interchangeably, with “logistics” and “supply chain” especially referred to by some as the same field.


By far, the largest field employing warehousing leaders is supply chain and logistics (including the warehousing field), but retail firms also hire them, as do companies in IT, construction, automotive, food and beverage, consumer goods, oil and energy, and transportation. Top companies employing warehouse leaders include DHL, PepsiCo, Amazon, Tesco PLC, Kuehne + Nagel, Coca-Cola, CEVA Logistics, IBM, and Procter & Gamble. With US businesses adding an average of 1,000 warehouses and distribution centers yearly since 2008 (reports blogger Christine Hanks), the field continues to expand.


In 2016, less than a third of warehouse workers were women, suggesting that the proportion of warehousing leadership that comprises women is also small. Under the larger supply-chain category, 17 percent of top executives were women in 2020.


Preferred Background

Several years of experience are required for a warehousing professional to get into leadership. “Most warehouse managers with a high school diploma have worked their way up through the ranks,” notes Nicole Pontius in a comprehensive article on the background needed for warehouse leadership, “starting their careers in lower warehouse positions and gradually earning promotions to supervisor roles, eventually to the role of warehouse manager.”


Those whose leadership journey in the warehousing field begins in the warehouse-manager role typically hold at least a high-school diploma, and more than half have bachelor’s degrees, majoring in such areas as supply-chain management, logistics, business, or administration. About 4 percent of these high-school grads those also hold a certificate beyond the undergraduate degree, such as Certified Professional in Distribution and Warehousing (CPDW) or Certified Warehouse Logistics Professional (CWLP).


Other suggestions for those aspiring to warehouse leadership are to join industry organizations and monitor trends in the field.


A typical career path from entry-level warehouse worker to the executive level starts with individual contributor roles (such as warehouse associate, logistics coordinator, or material handler), and progresses through Warehouse Manager, Warehouse Lead, VP of Warehouse Operations, and finally a C-Suite position such as Chief Supply Chain Officer, Chief Logistics Officer, Chief Operations Officer, or Head of Warehouse Operations.


Desirable Characteristics

“The process of being organized in a [warehouse] leadership position requires a special skill set,” writes Lance Brandow, “combined with detailed knowledge.” Included in this skill set, Brandow of Brandow Consulting states, are the ability to set priorities for employees and ensure a safe warehouse environment. Ken Ackerman summarizes the special skillset required of warehouse leaders as the ability “to identify and remove barriers to productivity.” Additional leadership characteristics recommended for aspiring warehousing leaders include the following:


Leadership Styles in the Warehousing Field

In the overarching category of supply chain, which encompasses warehousing, one study of leadership style asserts that “no standard supply chain leadership model exists.” In the research study, Supply Chain Leadership Report: Many Styles Generate Success, the Supply Chain Council (APICS) identified and examined three leadership styles – Directing/Executing, Conducting (likened in the study to conducting an orchestra), and Counseling. While proclaiming “no single supply chain leadership style is optimal in every situation,” the report favors the Counseling style.


An argument for Servant Leadership emerges from supply-chain company LEGACY, which views this leadership approach as key to improving company culture, particularly because of the values-driven nature of Servant Leadership.



These resources offer additional insight on leadership in warehousing:

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