Looking back at your career to date, what is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a supply chain and logistics executive? Put differently, what advice would you give to a young professional to help him or her pave a successful career path in the supply chain and logistics field?

I still have many more miles to pave in my career, and more learning to do, but here’s my advice to young professionals:

Leave your cubicle and spend time in the frontlines. When I started my career as a materials science engineer, I would spend countless hours in my cubicle designing new semiconductor packages. Occasionally, I would would visit the manufacturing line to conduct an experiment or respond to a problem. I thought I knew what manufacturing was all about, but I really didn’t…not until I volunteered to be a second shift supervisor and experienced firsthand what it’s like to fall behind schedule because a critical piece of equipment goes down and you don’t have a spare part, or not having enough associates or technicians to cover a shift, or what it’s like to receive a brilliant idea to improve productivity from an hourly worker. This lesson is what makes the television show Undercover Boss so popular — if you truly want to understand something, you have to see it and experience it for yourself. (For related commentary, see “Explaining the Value of Logistics to the CEO”).

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or ask for help. Many young professionals, especially if they have graduated from prestigious schools, assume that their managers expect them to know all the answers. In reality, we know that book knowledge doesn’t always translate to what happens in the real world, so what we expect is that you ask smart questions. What is a smart question? One that I don’t know the answer to, or a question that leads me to think differently about the way we currently do things, or a question that opens the door to new opportunities. Similarly, I don’t expect (or want) young professionals to take on a task without soliciting help or advice from others. Working with others will help you come up the learning curve faster, and get the job done faster too. The assumption, of course, is that your company culture embraces collaboration and mentoring (which was the case for me at Motorola, but not at Polaroid). What I expect is that when a similar project or situation arises again, you will apply what you learned the first time around, and that you will acknowledge the contribution of others in your accomplishments.

Invest in developing trusting relationships. With so much emphasis on technology and business processes, it’s easy to overlook the most important element of supply chain management: people. Spend time getting to know your colleagues, as well as the people you interact with at other companies, especially your customers and suppliers. Stay in contact with them, engage in honest communication, and avoid surprises. When someone needs help or asks for a favor, provide it with no strings attached. Nothing great happens in supply chain management without taking risks, and the courage to take those risks comes from having trusting relationships, which take time and effort to build. (For related commentary, “Want a Fast-Response Supply Chain? Facilitate People-to-People Collaboration”).

Learn to speak the language of the CEO and CFO. If you can’t read and understand an income statement or balance sheet — or understand how supply chain metrics impact financial metrics — then your ability to effectively communicate the value of your role to the CEO/CFO is severely limited. If you didn’t take any accounting or finance classes in school, take one now. And if you work at a publicly-traded company, read your company’s financial reports to understand the main drivers of financial performance, and then look for ways that better supply chain management can positively influence those drivers.

Continuously improve your communication skills. As I wrote in “A Troubling Issue in Supply Chain Talent Development,” supply chain knowledge and experience can only get you so far up the leadership ladder. The most important attribute to reach the top is the most basic one: Being an effective communicator.

I’m sure I could come up with some additional advice if I had the time, but now it’s your turn: What’s your advice for young supply chain professionals?

(For related commentary, see “Interview Questions for Supply Chain Candidates“).