Every year since 1977, as the president of the Specialty Tools and Fasteners Distributors Association (STAFDA) completes their term, they receive a small statue depicting a peddler from the 1800’s. He is wearing a pack stuffed full of his goods and holds a cane to help him cross the wilderness. It was an amazing moment for me in 2005 when I received my Peddler statue. The tradition was started by Wayne Henderson of Dynamic Sales and his son Jim continues it today. While I was introduced to these peddlers at STAFDA conventions growing up in the family business, it was at Texas A&M as an Industrial Distribution student that I learned of their importance. My professor shared colorful stories of the early peddlers forging ahead in advance of the railroads creating supply routes for our burgeoning country and laying the foundation of modern distribution. Because of this heritage the rugged individualism shown by our early peddlers is a trait still expected in distribution professionals. 

Many of our leaders, whether they occupy the top spot in a company or head a department (even if it’s a department of one), are handicapped by this expectation. The peddler of the 1800’s wasn’t able to harness the power of collaboration, build teams, or reach out to peers in his field for help. Instead, he was left to fight the fight on his own. And today that expectation of rugged individualism in our leaders has contributed to a feeling of isolation. Instead of being able to turn to others they’re often expected to discover the riddle, solve it, and implement the winning solution all on their own.

Two-hundred years ago, alone and forced to blaze a trail through new and dangerous territory, individualism was crucial for success. However, as our industry has matured the need for that singular trait has been replaced by new qualities. Now our distribution leaders must not only be able to bring out the best in themselves, but also do that in others for their companies to succeed. The peddlers of the 1800’s faced trials we’re fortunate to have moved past; think snakes, bears, and extreme elements. However, the unprecedented disruption in distribution since the start of the pandemic is a challenge that illustrates how those who go it alone cannot compete with those willing to collaborate to find stronger solutions.

Strengthen your network

Throughout 2022 the focus of this column will be on strengthening your network. Don’t worry, this isn’t about cybersecurity, and you won’t need an Information Technology degree to make the most of these articles. We are not talking about that kind of system. Instead, we’re going to cover the basic nuts and bolts of building strong networks of people within your company and with outsiders. The prescriptions are not to help you build a list of prospective employers or customers, but instead a group you can tap into whenever you encounter a challenge where the insights and experiences of others will help you craft and implement a solution far better than what you could have arrived at on your own. We will share best practices around creating the right size and composition of your network, ensuring you have the right breadth and depth of voices. Not all problems are best tackled through a group, we’ll help you decide which ones you open to the group and which ones are handled in other ways. We’ll explore how often to meet, the format to use, how to deal with confidentiality and much more. 

When it comes to why we should build and constantly fine tune our professional network, it’s hard to argue the logic of effective and consistent interaction with your peers. If you’re a seasoned Purchasing Agent, you may have ten to twenty years of experience. You’ve seen a lot over your career, but if you were to meet regularly with ten fellow purchasing agents you could easily have over a hundred years of experience to draw from. I’m no mathematician, but I understand a hundred years of experience trumps ten. Since the challenges you all face are similar each of you will easily relate to the examples shared and lessons each has learned. An incredible benefit to exploring issues with a group of peers comes from the realization you are not alone; your peers have dealt with, or are dealing with, similar experiences. By exploring common challenges and receiving honest feedback you get better at what you do and by extension so does your company. 

Find a peer group

As valuable as peer networking can be for seasoned team members, it’s an incredible resource for folks new to their role. Just because you have been recently promoted into a greater role doesn’t mean you bring all the answers with you. If you were smart enough to receive the promotion, you’re likely smart enough to realize that tapping into the experience of others can jump start your success by accelerating your learning curve. Smart owners will make sure their new managers have access to a network of peers.

 “An incredible benefit to exploring issues with a group of peers comes from the realization you are not alone; your peers have dealt with, or are dealing with, similar experiences.”

While a peer group can tackle almost any issue a common topic is technology adoption. Members hear first-hand from their peers about new technologies, products, and vendors. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all presented. How many times have we wished we could hear feedback straight from a source more concerned about our needs instead of only having access to a vendor’s reference? Whether it’s a technology decision or any process change being able to say, “I have talked to ten of my peers who face the same challenges, and here is how they’re dealing with it.” It gives you more confidence in your decision, makes your proposal more credible, and your recommendations more convincing.

As we cruise into 2022, let’s make this the year we work to develop a strong network of peers. One comprised of those inside and outside of our companies. Instead of solely relying on your own talents let’s strive to collaborate with others. This will dramatically improve your effectiveness at solving the challenges you face, make you a better leader within your company, and probably a better person outside of work. Using a peer network can help you grow in all those ways and more. It’s likely if you’ve made it to the end of this article that’s exactly what you’re hoping to accomplish. Don’t go it alone. I am available if you have questions or would like some help. Please look for more articles in this series and harness the power of peer networking to be the best you can be.

Marshall Jones is a professional facilitator for the American Supply Association's CONNECT peer networking groups, as well as a founding partner of Connected Peers Organization. Connected Peers brings together key employees in Distribution’s leading companies to solve common challenges through online facilitated experience sharing. You can contact Marshall at marshall@connectedpeers.com and find out more about their work at www.connectedpeers.com.