Helping Students ‘Think and Do’: John Zapko

In this spotlight Q&A, SCRC Executive Advisor John Zapko talks about how and why he advises our supply chain students as they work on projects with our corporate partners each year, including how they’ve overcome the unique challenges of this semester.

John Zapko

What is your professional background?

I worked for IBM and Lenovo (after the purchase of IBM’s Personal Computing Division) for 32 years in various management positions, mainly in Supply Chain functions. My predominant expertise is in procurement where I built and led global organizations responsible for sourcing and managing suppliers of both direct materials and services as well as indirect purchase categories to support company operations worldwide.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Talent development is always at the top of my list of career highlights. As a 30+ year experienced manager, from 1st level through executive management roles, I enjoyed building leadership skills on my teams, developing expertise by assigning challenging roles and observing talented staff grow their experience and successes.

Can you describe your role as a practicum project advisor?

As an advisor, I have a dual role. First and foremost, I am responsible for ensuring that every project team member has an opportunity to grow or advance their skills in teaming, communicating, critical thinking and all of the other development opportunities the practicum project experience offers. Secondly, my aim is to ensure that the sponsor companies receive the value they expect from the output of each project team.

How did you hear about the executive advisor opportunity, and what made you decide to share your knowledge and expertise with students? 

While at Lenovo I was the relationship leader with the SCRC and the NCSU Poole College of Management. In this role I was a member of the SCRC Board of Advisors and was an executive sponsor for multiple practicum projects every year. Through these projects I witnessed first hand the value that can be brought by a well-developed practium program and a dedicated set of talented students. I became an active supporter for the SCRC at Lenovo and engaged across many of the company’s organizations for project opportunities. I also built a great relationship with Dr. Handfield and when he offered me an advisor role upon my retirement, I accepted without hesitation.

Can you give a brief overview of the project(s) you are advising this semester?

I am advising two project teams this semester, both for MBA 549. One is an analytics and data modeling project where the team has been given several large data sets consisting of the manufacturing company’s previous year’s logistics spend, cost, timing, origin and destination information. The requested output is to: a. clean, organize, segment and categorize the data, b. build a data visualization dashboard on Tableau, and c. and recommend and embed into the analytics model several KPIs for performance analysis and service comparison.

The second is a research and supply chain mapping project where the team has been requested to map the supply chain interactions with 13 of the pharmaceutical contract manufacturing company’s stakeholders. Once the mapping is complete the team will then generate through research, surveys and interviews a list of suboptimal operations leading to regularly experienced forecast inaccuracies.

What challenges do you often find students facing when working on their projects? What do you advise them to do? 

Naturally, for every team working with various sponsor companies there are many and varied challenges. I think the most common challenge student teams face is effectively communicating their weekly progress. The practicum program prescribes a weekly checkpoint meeting with the client where progress is reported, challenges are noted, questions are raised and feedback is given. Each client dedicates a different level of time and attention to these weekly sessions and the challenge is to quickly understand how each company operates and work to set and meet expectations. This semester, the difficulties brought by the unique challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified this challenge as even establish norms have changed drastically. In addressing this challenge I advise my teams to always communicate with clarity and purpose. Advance notice of meeting purpose, topics, questions, decisions sought, expected timing and other clarity is a practice that will always pay dividends.

Why would you recommend taking a practicum course to students? What do you think is the most valuable skill or opportunity gained by completing a practicum project? 

A practicum course is a full semester of practice for every student starting or advancing their career. The opportunity to work with a real company to solve a real problem allows every project team member to learn new and develop existing skills. These clients have high expectations and it takes an effective team to deliver. The most valuable opportunity for every practicum student is to work together with each of their peers to create a highly effective team. Each student meets their teammates on ‘day one’ and the sooner that group of individuals becomes a team… the better is the learning experience, the more professional is the interaction and output, and the more satisfied is the customer.

What advice would you offer to students to help them become better candidates for professional positions or graduate school?

Seek feedback always and often. Just like in your education, in your career you should always be learning and developing. Along with a healthy self-awareness, each of us should be seeking input on how our strengths can become more expert and in what areas can we improve. A practicum project offers each student a golden opportunity to get (and give) constructive feedback from several peers, an advisor and multiple company representatives…. don’t miss it.

What has been the highlight of your experience as a project advisor?

The highlight for me every semester and for every project is watching individuals develop into a team and the team developing into an highly effective unit. Regardless of the level of coaching and counseling necessary from me to have teams reach this goal, I take pride in their achievements.

In your free time, what do you enjoy doing? Do you have any special skills or talents?

My wife and I have recently become grandparents with three under 2 years old and they have become our new passion. With my additional free time I also enjoy golf, other recreational sports and DIY construction.


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