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  • Neil James

3 Ways Coaching & Mentoring Will Improve Your S&OP Programme

In my previous article, “3 Tools for Sustainable Cross-Functional S&OP” I introduced the key roles that coaching and mentoring can play in building and sustaining high-impact S&OP.

The terms coaching and mentoring are widely known and often used interchangeably but here I am specifically referring to two forms of intervention which in combination are very powerful in supporting the leadership development and organisational changes required for impactful S&OP.

Whereas coaching uses a range of techniques to enable a coachee to create solutions from their own resources, mentoring uses a different approach in that it allows for providing specific advice or guidance based on the mentor’s experience or expertise. In this way, the two approaches can be highly complementary when applied in a complex change and programme such as the deployment or development of S&OP.

The key drivers that make these interventions so impactful in a S&OP deployment or improvement programme are related to the nature of the change leadership required. In particular, S&OP deployment or development demands;

  • Practical execution of a complex process

  • Building process sustainability

  • Developing cross-functional leadership capability

Each of these features creates specific challenges for those tasked with leading, sustaining and enhancing S&OP and the specific contribution of coaching and mentoring to these is outlined below.

1. Building the Knowledge and Skills for Practical Execution

The technical and functional requirements of S&OP have been well-documented since its creation over 30 years ago. A Google search for ‘S&OP’ returns 1.3 million results and there is no shortage of technical advice available to design or improve an S&OP process. However, for the functional leaders tasked with executing S&OP, the practical execution of what is often a complex and highly-connected process presents practical challenges. Typical examples of this are;

Applying the S&OP theory to the real-world situation in the organisation requires more than an understanding of the desired target process (although that in itself of course is critical). Definitions of the S&OP process will often have significant detail on what must be delivered but somewhat less on the practical steps (or the 'how') to make it happen.

An example of this is the need to create a consensus forecast with collaborative inputs from the commercial and supply chain teams. There may be significant barriers to achieving this including both hard and soft issues - for example, lack of reliable data, poor relationships or lack of trust between the functions, lack of common goals and incentives or pre-existing parallel decision-making routes. A simple description of the process outcome or even a generic description of key steps to create the process will be of little utility in addressing this situation.

Creating or re-energising a S&OP process can also create significant tension in the organisation as it requires teams and leaders across a range of functions to adapt their behaviours and ways of working to a new common standard. Teams will be expected to comply with the S&OP calendar, and potentially eliminate parallel functional processes which duplicate the organisation’s S&OP process. This process inevitably meets resistance from time to time and this can originate at senior levels. A leader attempting to drive this change process will again find that an understanding of the desired end-state is only a small part of creating a sustainable solution.

Coaching is therefore valuable to help the S&OP programme leader explore how to align the target end-state for the process with the organisational context (comprising structures, processes, systems, culture and people). The specific value of coaching here is that it allows the S&OP leader to exploit their detailed knowledge of the context in building solutions rather than adopting an off-the-shelf standard. This greatly enhances the probability of success and sustainability of the approach.

In the situation where the nominated S&OP leader has relatively little experience of a well-functioning S&OP approach then a mentor with specific expertise in that area may also be needed to allow the leader to make a fast start and deliver the quick wins that can help sustain organisational commitment. Mentoring can also be very helpful in this situation especially when combined with advocacy and support for the programme. As described above, S&OP implementation often requires major change and support from a senior mentor can help in exploring possible approaches, making introductions to key stakeholders and advocating for change where needed. These would not typically be in scope in a classical coaching approach but should be considered as an additional support for a leader tasked to drive S&OP deployment or enhancement.

2. Embedding Leadership Behaviours to Build Process Sustainability

Building sustainability of a high-impact S&OP process requires its leader to develop and consistently demonstrate high performance behaviours that create the conditions needed for a productive S&OP process. Typical examples of key enabling behaviours for high impact S&OP include engaging and inspiring across functional boundaries, holding process participants to account and recognising and rewarding contributions to the common corporate S&OP goals.

A key foundation for developing these capabilities is of course to fundamentally understand the key S&OP process steps and outcomes and how the leadership behaviours support them. However, just as important for the leader is exploring how they can adopt the key leadership behaviours to suit their personality and leadership profile. A close alignment of process requirements and individual skills and preferences is essential to develop the sustainable leadership practices which are required to build and enhance the S&OP process they lead.

This is a very productive area for coaching support. The essence of coaching is that it challenges the coachee to work within a defined framework (in this case a standard definition of the S&OP process and its leadership requirements) to create their own solutions in such a way that they understand them, believe in them and will execute them. Here supporting the S&OP leader to assimilate the requirements of the process, whilst also deeply understanding their own preferences, capabilities and resources enables them to rapidly build an approach to leading the process which they feel confident to sustain and enhance. This is simply not possible in the straightforward adoption of a leadership recipe created elsewhere.

A second requirement for a sustained high-impact S&OP process is also important here – building the sustainability of behavioural change in others both at individual and team/function level. As outlined above, executing an impactful S&OP process will make significant demands for change at various levels in the organisation. The nature of the required change or how to approach it will be highly specific to the organisation concerned and this means that generic guidance on achieving this will be of limited value.

Coaching is valuable here as it enables the S&OP leader to reflect on the starting point for the change across functions and stakeholders and to build and ‘pressure test’ a robust plan for change based on the actual prevailing context. Coaching also forces the leader to reflect on the journey they aim to lead and the assets they have available to them and then to create options for action. By setting out sustainability of change as a key requirement of these action plans, a coach can also act as an agent to challenge the leader’s plans from the perspectives of influential stakeholders. This pressure testing can help ensure that the leader not only creates impactful plans but also plans that are tailored to the target stakeholders rather than being restricted to their natural preferences or comfort zone.

3. Developing cross-functional leadership capability

S&OP, by its nature, is a complex and highly cross-functional process. Most traditional career paths do not prepare leaders for the leadership requirements that this generates. For example, individuals tend to follow a commercial career or a supply chain career and it is rare to find leaders who have genuine cross-functional experience.

However, high-quality leadership of a S&OP deployment or enhancement demands a leader with a good grasp of the drivers, culture and processes across functions, especially across the Commercial and Supply Chain functions (and ideally also Finance). Given that this shortfall cannot be instantly addressed, an important intervention to support a new S&OP leader in this area is mentoring. Mentoring can especially help to fill gaps on cross-functional awareness and empathy. For example, a commercial leader taking on a role to drive S&OP deployment would benefit from access to a mentor with core supply chain experience. Using mentoring to fill gaps in knowledge and understanding across functions is critical to support a leader to attain genuine cross-functional engagement in S&OP. These gaps would not be readily addressed by a traditional coaching approach whereas access to the knowledge and experience of a mentor (or range of mentors) allows an S&OP leader to rapidly assimilate and contextualise the requirements of the S&OP process from the perspectives of key stakeholders and participants in the process.

A further need in the cross-functional leadership capability for S&OP is the development of high-impact cross-functional communication and influencing skills. Ultimately, the effectiveness of S&OP depends on the quality of the transactions between its cross-functional participants. The role of the leader in building strong cross-functional partnerships and collaboration is critical but again, most traditional career routes primarily involve individuals learning to influence within functions and cultures rather than across them.

Fortunately, this capability can also be readily built with the support of coaching. In particular, use of diagnostic tools and frameworks such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is well-established. This can be used as a platform for building both self-awareness and understanding of others’ communication styles and preferences. Coaching with the support of this platform enables a leader to build the capability to tailor and deliver impactful communication to stakeholders in different functions, with different cultures and preferences. It also enables the leader to design interventions with the cross-functional team to set-up and maintain the high-performing team behaviours required for the collaborative ways of working in S&OP.


Whilst S&OP is a complex and inter-connected series of processes which requires significant technical and functional capabilities to execute, a detailed process playbook is not sufficient to support a leader to drive the deployment or improvement of high-impact S&OP.

However, the specific combination of both coaching and mentoring is especially valuable as it allows the S&OP leader to both acquire knowledge and understanding rapidly through mentoring whilst also adopting new leadership practices and skills through coaching.

The 3 key areas where coaching and mentoring make a critical contribution to S&OP deployment or enhancement are:

  1. Building the Knowledge and Skills for Practical Execution

  2. Embedding Leadership Behaviours to Build Process Sustainability

  3. Developing cross-functional leadership capability

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