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Career ROI

Right on the Money


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

July/August 2008, eSide Supply Management Vol. 1, No. 4

eSide recently sat down with best-selling author Daniel Pink, who believes those who harness their right-brain aptitudes will rule the future of business — even in left-brain professions such as supply management.

His latest book, A Whole New Mind, asserts that artistry, empathy and big-picture thinking are the key factors which will decide who moves forward and who gets left behind in coming years.

With an emphasis on logistics, accounting and finance, those who choose a supply management career often lean to the left — the left side of the brain, that is. But if best-selling author and "world of work" guru Daniel Pink is on target, the future belongs to right-brainers.

"It used to be the most important abilities were left-brain: logical, linear, spreadsheet, sequential," Pink told me when I interviewed him at ISM™'s 93rd Annual International Supply Management Conference & Educational Exhibit "Those are still one-hundred percent necessary — but no longer sufficient," he added.

In his latest book, A Whole New Mind, Pink says artistry, empathy and big-picture thinking are now determining who moves forward and who gets left behind. "When I say this to a group of artists or designers, it seems pretty groovy," Pink says. But when the same case is pled to a group of supply management professionals — people who get the numbers right and make sure everything is on time — the response is usually very different.

"They all begin quietly text-messaging each other," Pink laughs. "And I don't need to tell you what they're saying."

Behind It All: The 3 As

Pink says right-brainers will usurp left-brainers' power in coming years based on three factors: abundance, Asia and automation.

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Abundance is extremely powerful, especially in the U.S., where there are more cars than licensed drivers and the self-storage industry takes in $22.6 billion just to house people's extra belongings, Pink explains. As a result, he believes just filling a need is no longer adequate — because not many needs are left.

Although Asia is an equally important factor, Pink uses India as an example because, as he explains, it embodies Asian competitiveness with its size and economic reach. "In Asia, I meet people like I do in India — people who have degrees in computer science and engineering and will work for $15,000 a year when we pay people in the U.S. $60,000 for the same job," he explains, pointing out that a staggering 1 billion people now live in India. "If offshoring is overhyped in the short term, it's underhyped in the long run."

As software replaces many brains in the workforce, increased automation is the final factor. "But what part of the brain can software replace?" Pink asks. "The logical, linear, sequential, rules-based side."

All three factors come into play for professionals concerned about future job security. "In this world of work, each person must ask himself or herself three questions: Can someone overseas do what I do cheaper? Can they get a computer to do it faster than me? and Is what I'm delivering in demand in an age of abundance?" Pink explains. "Left-brain abilities will get you to the table, but right-brain ones will differentiate you."

6 Right-Brain Aptitudes to Cultivate
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So, which abilities are most critical? Pink narrows it down to six: design, story, empathy, play, meaning and symphony.

  • While design is a fundamental business skill in this economy, Pink emphasizes that supply management professionals need not be great designers — just literate.

  • He defines story as the ability to put facts — a once-rare commodity now available, for free, everywhere — into context, and then deliver the message with emotional impact.

  • Empathy is defined as the ability to stand in someone's shoes, feel with their hearts and see with their eyes. "It's a fundamental human ability, but it's hard to outsource and hard to automate," Pink explains.

  • In coming years, he predicts the ability to play will be essential to success, though it might seem counterintuitive.

  • Already, professionals are seeking meaning and transcendence in professions — a trend Pink only expects to grow.

  • Symphony is defined as an elusive aptitude for seeing the big picture, connecting the dots and combining them to make something better. "So much of what a supply management professional does is to integrate things, work with different parts of the organization and make sure everything is connected," Pink says. "It's the best predictor of star performance out there."
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"This Is So Not Me"

It's true: Most supply management professionals cannot claim Pink's six right-brain aptitudes as strong suits. Nevertheless, he insists they are innately human abilities that simply have not been called out of hiding. "They're like atrophied muscles," he says. "If they're not in demand, people don't use them."

Pink even suspects most left-brainers would be surprised by their right-brain skills, given reasonable expectations. "I don't think you can take a person who isn't innately all that empathic and turn him into Ghandi, but I do think you can make him less of a jerk," he explains. "I also think you can make someone who doesn't have a great visual or artistic sensibility literate in design."

When job hunting, Pink admits that communicating right-brain proficiency can be difficult in a left-brain profession. Instead of speaking in theoretical terms, he recommends demonstrating a record of accomplishment.

"Basically, this just means you tell the story of the ends rather than the means," he says. "Someone who has achieved something valuable before is likely to do it again, and employers know that."

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a senior writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. She can be reached by e-mail.

For more information on supply management leadership, visit the ISM articles database.

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