8 Critical Competencies Necessary for Frontline Leaders in the Wholesale Distribution Industry

Key Competencies Help Cultivate Future Leaders

Successful wholesale-distribution companies are preparing leaders to be competent across a wide range of capabilities—technical, intellectual and interpersonal.

Training high-potential employees to become effective supervisors and managers is a top priority in the wholesale-distribution industry. Failing to address this challenge can put a company’s operational effectiveness, industry competitiveness and future business survival at risk.

While many companies focus on leadership training to fill skill gaps, most traditional training programs come with their own challenges, such as undefined or irrelevant learning objectives, inconvenient schedules and short-lived outcomes. Implementing a different approach—competency-based learning—holds promise in filling leadership talent gaps and helping company leaders address business problems.

This paper will explore the challenge of leadership development in the wholesale-distribution industry, the specific competencies needed by wholesale-distribution managers and how several companies are implementing a competency-based leadership development learning model with success. The insights presented in the paper are based primarily on interviews with industry experts, talent development leaders and corporate training specialists.


The substantial number of retiring employees, coupled with ongoing business challenges, is forcing executives to prioritize leadership development. In 2015, Apollo Education Group collaborated with the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) to survey NAW-member organizations on industry skills gaps and training needs. Nearly one-third of respondents (64%) cited leadership development as a top concern. In addition, 58% reported a workforce deficit in the soft skills required for effective leadership. Similar concerns about leadership preparedness are reflected in the 2016 report, Facing the Forces of Change: Navigating the Seas of Disruption, by the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence.1

Cultivating leaders from within a company, especially those transitioning into roles as new managers, takes planning in order to identify and train potential future leaders. Unfortunately, the days of being able to groom select employees over a period of years to ascend into managerial and supervisory positions are all but gone. Today, time constraints limit the feasibility of offering traditional, classroom-based training.

If leadership development isn’t addressed, the pipeline will dry up. We would much rather promote from within, as internal candidates make some of the most devoted and best leaders. No one can wave a magic wand to create a strong bench of leaders —one has to take progressive action and make it happen. We have a lot of experienced and tenured warehouse and salespeople; to be successful, we need to continue cultivating this internal talent pool into a team of leaders.

– Mark Steele, Director of Corporate Development, Laird Plastics

Upper management who could mentor aspiring leaders are likewise under time constraints and other limitations. In addition, as managers leave the workforce in large numbers, they take with them their institutional knowledge, business acumen and opportunities for coaching up-and-coming managers. This makes the need for upskilling the current workforce all the more apparent and urgent. The challenge is for future leaders to be prepared and competent across a wide range of capabilities—technical, intellectual and interpersonal.

Critical thinking is about understanding what you’re trying to do—getting down to what the issue is, being able to articulate the pros and cons and being able to incorporate opposing viewpoints so that as an organization you can come up with the best answers and best practices.

– Jim Mock, Distribution Center Manager, Composites One


Just as the wholesale-distribution industry is evolving, so, too, is leadership development. Traditional classroom-based education has, for the most part, proven ineffective in developing the practical yet crucial soft skills that serve as the building blocks of effective leadership. It teaches everyone the same information at the same pace, regardless of anyone’s existing knowledge and skill set. Mastery often is measured by a test at the end of the training. This old-school style of learning also costs companies in terms of travel, work disruption and productivity. And the return often does not justify the costs when content is forgotten within weeks or even days after training.

Making learning stick requires actively applying the content to the workplace to make it actionable. Knowledge retention and application also depend heavily on the support and active involvement of the trainee’s direct supervisor. This kind of skills application and knowledge reinforcement can be found in competency-based learning.

Competency-Based Learning as a Game Changer

A competency is the combination of knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform a job task.2 When applied to a corporate learning model, competency-based learning is nothing like how students are traditionally taught in college, where instruction is based on a pre-defined number of credit hours required to graduate.3 Rather, the end-goal of competency-based learning is for the learner to be able to apply the new competencies in a work setting.

This new learning model accounts for learners learning at their own pace; it doesn’t force them to learn something based on a time table, like a college credit hour.4 It also focuses on developing only new skills rather than spending time on skills the learner already has. Thus it builds on existing skills gained through prior training or on-the-job experience. From a business perspective, competency-based learning is an even more attractive option when delivered online because it is available 24/7—enabling access to learning during or outside work hours—and eliminates travel time and costs.

A value or dollar sign is directly linked to each competency. However, you’ll never appreciate its financial impact until after the fact— when you realize a competency is missing and it’s impacted your revenue, or worse, your reputation.

– Steve Dworski, PHR, Manager of Training and Development, Parksite

Competency-based learning answers the question: What will my employees be able to do as a result of developing a particular competency?

– Christopher Davis, PhD, Provost, Western International University

Competency-based learning is the basis for a leadership development program that was jointly developed by Western International University and NAW. The program was designed to address industry talent needs and training deficits that were identified in research by Apollo Education Group in collaboration with NAW.


These following eight competencies were identified by wholesale-distribution industry experts, talent development leaders and corporate training specialists as being most critical for the success of newly promoted leaders or up-and-coming supervisors and middle managers.

Building Relationships

Relationships are built on trust, understanding and communication. They are crucial to individual and business success. Having the ability to relate to others and where they are coming from—whether it is from a values, upbringing or cultural perspective—can go a long way in strengthening rapport. Distribution managers must develop skills in verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening and conflict management in order to create mutually beneficial business relationships, whether with colleagues, customers, vendors or management. It also means tuning out distractions—email, phone and social media—and focusing on the person in front of you. Sometimes just devoting time and attention to a relationship can make all the difference.

In Action

Maria is the new sales manager for an underperforming region, overseeing four direct reports. She scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of them during her first week in her new role, and biweekly thereafter. She wanted to get to know them as people and learn what was important to them and what they saw as strengths and weaknesses in the department. She listened carefully and took notes. She learned they lacked motivation because there had been mistrust between her team and her predecessor over sales numbers and commissions. She assured them she was there to support them and would be transparent about the team’s sales. She was true to her word. By the end of the quarter, their numbers showed an uptick. Maria’s team shared with her that when she came on board, they felt like she trusted their abilities, and they wanted to reciprocate the trust.

Business Impact

By backing up her words with actions, Maria proved to her team that she could be trusted. Building relationships with each of her direct reports created a foundation upon which they felt valued and supported, which ultimately translated into improved individual performance that benefited the company’s bottom line.

Effective Communication and Feedback

The ability to provide feedback that is understandable, constructive, timely and specific can go a long way in improving performance by reinforcing or changing a behavior. It involves more than talking and listening. Nonverbal communication can convey just as much—the eye roll, crossed arms or door slam. How those messages are conveyed is important to how they are received.

In Action

LaTisha understands that the way she manages people can mean the difference between fostering motivated, high performing employees or indifferent, low-performing ones with no desire to improve. She manages a distribution center team. When any of her team members achieves a milestone—such as exceeding quarterly goals or coming up with an idea that streamlines a process—she shares that achievement with their peers. LaTisha knows that taking a few minutes to publicly acknowledge the team member reinforces that employee’s efforts. That employee will likely stay motivated to continually seek out ways to make a difference, and may even inspire others to take similar initiative. Likewise, when an employee is displaying obvious physical cues that they are not vested in their work or willing to go the extra mile, LaTisha will call him or her into the office to talk through any issues that may be causing or contributing to the employee’s bad attitude. She knows that calling it out in front of others will only serve to embarrass the employee and can backfire by worsening the situation. Turning it into a private coaching moment can help a difficult employee understand the implications of their behavior and help them begin to take steps to improve.

Business Impact

The way LaTisha handles two very different kinds of employee behavior creates a harmonious workplace and contributes directly to morale. Reinforcing positive performance makes the employee feel valued and appreciated, and can foster a pipeline of good ideas and effective behaviors that can benefit the business. When dealing with a problem employee, LaTisha makes it about the behavior, not the employee, so that they feel respected and maintain their dignity. She effectively keeps the negative behavior from infecting the rest of team, which preserves how well they interact and do their jobs.

Handling Difficult Conversations

Having difficult conversations is part of being a manager. A hallmark of a good leader, however, is being able to engage in discussions that are solution-based, particularly when dealing with tough topics, opposing opinions and high emotions. From talking through a less-than-stellar performance review with a direct report, to delivering unwelcome news or updates to senior management or a customer, these kinds of dialogue can be more manageable when managers work toward the goal of creating a positive outcome. Newer managers may struggle with this, especially if they lack experience and confidence. But having conversations is not just about talking; it’s also about listening to the other side and seeking to understand before reacting.

In Action

Larry, a middle manager, witnessed Tim, a department supervisor, being disrespectful to another employee. Watching this behavior by one of his direct reports made Larry angry. Because it was the end of the work day, he decided it was best for him to cool off and not confront Tim at that moment. The next morning, Larry called Tim into his office and asked him to explain his behavior toward the other employee. Larry wanted to hear what Tim had to say about the situation, and to learn if there was any justification for his actions. During the conversation, Tim admitted that he had acted poorly, and together Larry and Tim discussed actions that Tim should take to apologize to the disrespected employee and ensure that his future behaviors with all coworkers and customers are respectful and professional.

Business Impact

Putting the lessons from this competency into action empowered Larry to approach the situation with a level head. It helped ensure that Tim’s disrespectful behavior would not become habitual—which could have had continuing negative consequences for Tim and his coworkers. Handling the difficult conversation in a calm, collegial manner served as a valuable opportunity for Larry to reset expectations of Tim, and for Tim to take accountability for his actions going forward. Ultimately, the outcome was improved working relationships between Tim and his coworkers.

Critical Thinking

Effective managers do not make “fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants” decisions. Making tough choices, using logical reasoning and asking smart questions requires deliberative thought and fact-gathering. In order to do that, negative emotions, ego and bias must be kept in check. Critical thinking enables managers to carefully evaluate the facts at hand in order to make the best decision at any given time or to make a business case when presenting an idea.

In Action

Leon is the new sales manager for his region. One of his biggest customers called to complain about a major order they had recently placed, and threatened to take their business elsewhere. Leon acknowledged the problem and was determined to solve it. He called up the customer’s purchasing director and gathered information about the order itself. After the call, Leon engaged with the sales, customer service and the warehouse teams to find out why the problem occurred in the first place. Together, they discussed answers to Leon’s questions: Was it a communication breakdown with the customer or internally when fulfilling the order? What were the consequences of not ensuring the customer’s satisfaction? What is the quickest, most efficient way to resolve this issue? Together they discussed what processes could be put in place to reduce the likelihood of such a situation happening again. Leon called the customer and let them know he would fulfill the order correctly and that steps were taken to ensure the error would not reoccur.

Business Impact

By investigating the issues related to the error with the customer’s order, Leon was able to address the situation quickly to the customer’s satisfaction. Had he not done so, he would have risked damage to the company’s reputation. Leon’s fast involvement of the other teams for their input enabled him to arrive at a well thought-out solution to save the customer relationship and prevent future mishaps.

Conflict Resolution

Conflict is inevitable. All companies and employees experience it; it occurs even among teams that interact regularly and have good working relationships. Managers who learn techniques to handle it in a constructive manner can help achieve a win/win outcome. Not all conflicts or problems can be eliminated, but how they are handled is what makes the difference. Viewed in a positive light, conflict can be seen as an opportunity to address underlying issues that have surfaced, and to take actions to improve the situation.

In Action

A customer calls late in the business day to place an order after the established cut-off time. To keep the customer happy, the representative accepts the order and submits it to the warehouse team for processing. Those in the warehouse now have to put aside their end-of-day tasks to fulfill the order. This not only causes inefficiency for the warehouse team, but it also creates resentment toward customer service for allowing the late-day order to go through in the first place. For many companies this situation may be unavoidable because of the unwritten rule to never say no to a customer. In this instance, both teams could use this as an opportunity to come together to understand each other’s unique roles as well as the challenges and unintended consequences created in such scenarios. It also would allow them to discuss ways to work through similar situations in the future, which can help strengthen the teams’ communication.

Business Impact

Working together to address the situation allows everyone to see that, despite the different roles, they are part of the same team supporting the company’s overall business goals. In this situation, understanding that a happy customer is paramount inspires everyone to rally together to serve the customer in the most efficient way possible, and encourages the teams to find a way to increase efficiencies in future similar situations.

Adaptive Leadership

There is no single way to lead. Just as no two employees are alike, the ways they are managed should not be alike. Effective managers adjust their leadership styles based on the work environment, situation and personalities involved. For example, a manager may need to provide a lot of direction and coaching to a newer employee, but very few instructions to an employee who has been performing the same functions for many years. Likewise, a manager may pitch in and work alongside her direct reports the entire day when the team is short-staffed, whereas that same manager would focus more on other tasks when all team members are present.

In Action

Aaron, a middle manager at a distribution center, had given thought to his own leadership abilities, but had never broken it down into a defined style until he learned more about leadership competencies. Reflecting back on his career, he assessed himself as the kind of leader who would pitch in to help his employees on difficult projects. His eye-opening moment came when his own manager revealed that he thought Aaron’s natural style was quite different. Seeing his managerial style through someone else’s eyes forced Aaron to critically assess how he was leading his team and interacting with them in different situations. It also gave him a target to shoot for: to develop a style that would allow him to empower his team with the skills and tools to get things done on their own, rather than using his “help.”

Business Impact

By understanding various types of leadership styles, Aaron better understands his own natural leadership style and which other styles to develop in order to bring out the best in his employees. He will be able to adapt his style to help individual employees to perform at their highest potential. In some cases, he may need to provide personal coaching; in other cases, he may empower employees to work autonomously. By applying various leadership styles based on the needs of employees and the goals of the business, he can provide more effective direction to the team so they can collectively produce better results.

Performance Management

The questions every manager asks are: How do I manage performance? How do I help my team meet its goals? Whether performance is measured in terms of sales, customer satisfaction or employee reviews, having a structured process to track, improve and reward employees performance helps facilitate changes in behavior that help to increase the value each employee brings to the organization. In particular, having such a structure in place gives managers a framework within which to provide employee feedback so they can address performance issues through timely corrective actions.

In Action

To replace annual employee evaluations with a more frequent review cycle, the HR director put together a monthly performance review tool that documents 25 attributes that customer service representatives should have. The tool helps managers set expectations for employees and formally outlines how they are evaluated so there are no surprises. Employees have the opportunity to grade themselves prior to sitting down with their respective managers to discuss progress. Several employees have expressed appreciation for the frequency of the reviews, which helps keep the attributes fresh in everyone’s mind. Employees are able to make incremental improvements or adjustments over a shorter period of time, which helps the team as a whole improve for the benefit of the company.

Business Impact

By implementing a monthly review process, managers provide ongoing feedback on the employees’ performance and progress. It fosters frequent communication between employees and their manager and effectively builds their relationship. The manager can address any shortfalls in performance right away and work with the employee to collaboratively develop an improvement plan. Using the performance review tool in conjunction with departmental performance reports on sales and revenue, the manager can track how changes in employee behaviors are affecting business outcomes.

Career Management

When managers want to develop and progress in their career, they need to think of the people on their team they can develop to fill their shoes. Succession planning from within involves grooming others on the team who want to pursue growth opportunities. It fosters loyal, motivated employees who will be more likely to stick around because the company is investing in their future.

In Action

Tracy, a regional middle manager at her distribution center, hadn’t really broken down her career prior to learning about the career management competency. It was interesting for her to see her career progression in terms of phases. The process had an impact on her: She more clearly understood what she is doing at this point in her career and how to help those on her team achieve that same clarity. Her goal now is to share what she knows to help keep the company going. She now thinks of how she can help her direct reports in their own career development, and she plans to have conversations with them about how she can best help them. Developing this competency even led to a candid conversation with her own supervisor about possible options in her career path.

Business Impact

Understanding where Tracy’s direct reports are in their career cycles, as well as where she is in her own, helps put her team’s succession planning in clearer focus. She’s able to begin working on a plan to develop the employees who can best fill her shoes as she moves on her career path, which helps ensure the culture, productivity and cohesiveness of her team. Tracy knows that developing internal talents saves the company time, effort and money as opposed to having to find future managers externally.

Three women discussing business during a meeting

If you want to be in management and you can’t handle or deal with conflict, you’re going to have a short-lived career.

– Derek Dudulec, Distribution Center Manager, Composites One


Impact of Individual Competencies

The importance of competency-based learning for aspiring and newer managers can be found in the managers’ own feedback about their morale and noticeable improvements in confidence and on-the-job behavior. Based on first-hand accounts and feedback, participants in the Next Generation Leadership development program have implemented the following improvements:

  • New managers are replacing tactical talks with engaging conversations with employees.
  • They are no longer struggle to deliver constructive feedback.
  • They have the tools and the confidence to resolve workplace conflicts.
  • They are actively co-developing career paths with their direct reports.
  • They are thinking more critically about how to survive market pressures.

We need strong leaders to be able to expand our business in terms of both sales revenue and future acquisitions. If you invest in people, they want to stay with you. That’s the big challenge today: You need people to drive the business and get results, but you have to invest time and energy to help them get better.

– Don Hairhoger, Vice President of Operations, Composites One


Competency-based learning is poised to cause a paradigm shift in leadership development in the wholesale-distribution industry. It is enabling companies to tap into their existing pool of high-potential employees to fill the leadership talent gap rather than having to recruit externally. By training current employees in the skills companies have said they actually need, it helps ease their transition to new management levels and beyond.

Employees trained in these leadership competencies are bringing what they learn immediately into their workplace by applying it to daily situations on the job. Their success is measured in the confidence they gain, the improved team morale they foster, the conversations they no longer struggle to initiate and the conflicts they are able to resolve. The interpersonal soft skills these employees are learning—and the insights they are gaining—form the foundation upon which they will coach and mentor employees to higher performance; and make informed business decisions; and lead their company through future industry challenges and market forces. All of the leadership competencies in action have the potential to benefit the business and the bottom line.

Abrupt changes in management and leadership can damage business relationships. However, a thoughtful plan of leadership succession can build on these relationships, making them stronger. From the customer to the supplier, the community, government and obviously shareholders—leadership impacts each of these relationships, making it necessary to have a succession plan in place.

– Christina Anastasia, PhD, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Western International University


For more information about competency-based learning strategies and solutions for the wholesale-distribution industry, visit West.edu/NAW or contact us at NAW@west.edu or 866-810-8491.

About National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors

National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW) was created in 1946 to deal with issues of interest to the entire merchant wholesale distribution industry, thereby freeing affiliated associations to concentrate on the concerns specific to their lines of trade. NAW is a federation of wholesale distribution associations and thousands of individual firms that collectively total more than 30,000 companies. Learn more: NAW.org.

About Apollo Education Group

Apollo Education Group offers a full range of employee education and talent management services to help companies reach their business goals. With deep industry expertise and a 40-year history of educational innovation, we use business-relevant content and the most advanced learning technologies to design and deliver cost-effective, scalable and customizable learning solutions for corporations worldwide. Learn more.

About Western International University

Western International University® (West) is a university built for working adults with an innovative model that delivers quality undergraduate- and graduate-level education for about half the cost of many other universities. A specialist in innovative education since 1978, West prepares working adult students for leadership positions in the dynamic, global marketplace. Visit West.edu.