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How Does a Warehouse Manager Become a Director?

February 2, 2024
Joe Fitzpatrick

For some people, warehouse management is a lifelong career.

After all, as you gain experience you can manage larger or more complex warehouses, with harder targets but correspondingly greater resources and technology. The earning potential goes up linearly, with highly-experienced warehouse managers working near the coastal cities of the US and Canada able to command $160,000 per year or more.

But you may be asking: do I really want to dedicate my whole life to this discipline?

By moving into a more interdisciplinary or business-oriented role, you could get the opportunity to:

  • Accelerate your earning potential.
  • Work in more varied environments, maybe even work from home.
  • Have more control over your schedule.
  • Delegate tasks to junior managers.
  • Future-proof your career against AI automation.

Not to mention the interesting challenges that come from zooming out and dealing with a bigger piece of the puzzle.

There’s more than one path for warehouse managers looking to progress into senior leadership. For the most ambitious, the destination is vice president of operations or even chief operations officer. But there’s many different ways to get there.

By moving into a more interdisciplinary or business-oriented role, you could have more control over your schedule.
Experience managing multiple sites shows that your leadership skills are scalable.

You Need an Additional Specialization

Being great at managing a warehouse doesn’t necessarily convince an employer to have you doing something else. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But if you can make a case for being able to solve problems on a broader scale, with no drop in quality at the warehouse level, then you have a compelling value proposition.

This often happens by combining an adjacent discipline with warehouse management to create a role with an outsized level of responsibility. For example:

  • Purchasing/Procurement is a highly commercial function that synchronizes perfectly with your existing inventory management responsibilities. It exposes you to the kinds of strategic business questions that top the agenda in the boardroom. This path can lead to roles like director of supply chain.
  • Experience managing multiple sites shows that your leadership skills are scalable and your processes keep working even when you’re not there in person. That marks you out as a candidate for responsibilities with a broader, or even global, reach. One step might be to oversee a team of junior managers as a group or regional director of warehousing.
  • Expertise in systems or change management puts you in good stead to be a stakeholder for technology or operational excellence throughout the company. A track record not just keeping the warehouse running but transforming it is solid evidence you can do the same with other departments. This could lead to a director of operations position.
  • Logistics/Transportation is another discipline that fits hand-in-glove with warehousing. You can start by playing a more active role in carrier management, getting the receiving process in the loading dock running seamlessly. Over time this can expand into the experience necessary to be a director of distribution.
  • Understanding manufacturing, materials recovery or facilities management can enable a warehouse manager to take responsibility for a complex, multi-functional site. These are more technical routes to senior leadership, perhaps via expertise in automation or heavy industry. On the way there, job titles may include senior plant manager.

But how do you get one of these roles?

There’s an easier, slower way and a harder, sometimes quicker way.

The easy way is to move to a smaller company that combines these job profiles out of necessity. Spend a few years optimizing their operations with the limited budget you have available, then apply for a suitable associate director role at a bigger company.

The faster way is to push for increased responsibilities at your existing company. This is a hard sell unless you’ve already got your warehouse running seamlessly, and you might feel that that’s out of your control due to limited resources. But that’s your first test: if you can make a business case for investment in warehouse technology or performance incentives for the team, you’re already thinking like a director.

You’ll Have to be Able to Talk Business

Two things all business executives understand intuitively:

  • Operational excellence throughout a large organization is unattainable.
  • Operational excellence is just a means to an end.

The kind of methodical diligence that makes “problem-solving professionals” like engineers and warehouse managers effective can turn out to be a problem in senior leadership.

In the boardroom, the COO will often speak as the stakeholder for order and efficiency, but even they must overrule their instincts when there’s a question of innovation, or ‘moving fast’ to catch the market. Executives accept chaos and optimize for the chance to seize business opportunities.

Warehouse managers need to understand that the language of efficiency often doesn’t resonate with senior leadership. More likely than not, they see warehousing as a cost rather than an area of competitive advantage, and the role of warehouse managers as protecting the business against risk and downside.

To cut through these assumptions, warehouse managers need to be talking about data, the customer experience, scalability, supply chain resilience, and unlocking profitability. All of these factors are affected by operational realities in the warehouse, but it’s down to the warehouse manager to explain how; to advocate for the potential upside from investment.

This way of communicating will be indispensable as you look to move into an associate director role. You need to be able to show that your thinking is not restricted by the formal boundaries of your domain of responsibility; to explain your decisions not just in operational terms, but in business terms.

The Biggest Factor is a Record of Notable Wins

For a warehouse manager aspiring to directorship, it's not enough to incrementally improve efficiency. 

You need concrete evidence of your ability to think and act like a director. That means implementing major changes that markedly boost your facility's profitability, flexibility and resilience.

Warehouses typically face high staff turnover. By fostering a work environment that encourages longer-than-average retention, you demonstrate outstanding people management and development skills. This is important for directors, who frequently delegate complex and sensitive tasks.

Effective crisis management is also critical for warehouse managers aspiring to directorship. While many managers see disruptions as awkward setbacks, those with a director’s mindset recognize them as inevitable, and use them to identify the limits of existing systems and processes. Directors are not reactive. Their communication style is rooted in factual investigation, focusing on what can be quantified and improved.

This focus on measurability naturally extends to how individuals with a directorial mindset approach technology. Directors are data-hungry. When it comes to integrating new systems, they don’t just want to know how it will affect daily workflows, but what it will make visible that was previously invisible.

But software integration tends to be expensive and often yields disappointing results. It’s a high-stakes game. What’s more, if you’re focussed on driving a major change project, who’s keeping an eye on daily operations? 

Can DataDocks Help You Land Your First Director Position?

Overhauling your WMS is not always worth it. But what about a more targeted project, like implementing dock scheduling? It doesn't divert attention away from daily operations, yet offers substantial improvements in resource allocation, reduced wait times, and more accountability with carriers.

The biggest hurdle is getting your external stakeholders on board and fully utilizing the system. 

That’s where DataDocks comes in. Not only does it make the scheduling process seamless, but also entices carriers into booking their own appointments and sticking to them, by generating data that shows the relationship between punctuality and turnaround time.

Implementing DataDocks can lead to measurable improvements in the profitability, flexibility and resilience of your facility, while also demonstrating your data-driven credentials as a warehouse manager on the path to directorship.

To learn more about what DataDocks can do for you, give us a call on (+1) 647 848-8250, or book a demo.

You need to be talking about data, the customer experience, scalability, supply chain resilience, and unlocking profitability
What companies look for in a director is someone who has a transformational impact, not just a knack for keeping the lights on.
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