MIT Sloan Executive Certificate holder Neil Ackerman is a highly successful supply chain and strategy executive currently serving as Senior Director of Global Supply Chain Advanced Planning and Innovation for healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson. His accomplishments in supply chain innovation throughout his career have been many and include inventing and managing Amazon’s global Small and Light program as well as spearheading Mondelēz International’s direct-to-consumer supply chain models. He holds numerous U.S. patents, has been featured in a multitude of high-caliber national and international publications and media outlets, and is a winner of multiple leadership awards—including the prestigious Amazon.com “Just Do It” Award. Last year (2016), he was even a Distinguished Visitor of the U.S. Navy.
So, it’s hard to imagine a time when Ackerman wasn’t sure where he wanted to go, or how he was going to get there. But for the now-accomplished executive, there were several turning points in his career that required deep thought, new ways of thinking, and giants leaps of faith.
Seeking top-tier education from MIT
In the early 2000s, Ackerman was working for Altria (a Philip Morris company), where he held various positions in strategy, project and product management, IT, sales, and marketing. “I was a high performer, and I made it to a comfortable level, but I didn’t know how to get to the next level of my career,” says Ackerman.
Already an MBA holder from the University of Richmond, he decided to earn an MS in Management of Information Technology from the University of Virginia. “It was clear at this time, 2008-2009, that the technology revolution was going to cross the chasm. I wanted to get in that game, and as soon as I did, I wanted to learn more.”
That’s when Ackerman decided to pursue an MIT Sloan Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation. “The application of this exciting new tech to business—that’s where things really got interesting. And it’s how I discovered my passion for supply chain. In the programs at MIT, I learned that nothing happens without an efficient and effective supply chain. You can’t launch anything—digital or hard goods—without it. I immediately began developing frameworks for applying what I learned to what we were doing at Altria.”
Ackerman also returned to MIT Sloan in 2010 to earn an Executive Certificate in Management and Leadership. “For me, highly developed strategy and innovation skills is a great addition to the toolbox, but, I also wanted to have deeply developed skills in leadership and management, which is where MIT also provided top-tier education.”
Making his move: Amazon.com
By 2011, this new knowledge and confidence led Ackerman to take the next step in his career. “Actually, it was my wife’s idea. She said, ‘You should really apply somewhere where you can focus on supply chain strategy,’ and she literally pointed to an Amazon box we had sitting in the living room. I applied to a job at Amazon that night, at midnight on a Sunday. The very next morning, Amazon called my cell phone to set up an interview. I flew out to Seattle ten days later. Four days after that, I had a job offer.”
“Also at this time, my wife was seven-months pregnant with our third child—too pregnant to go visit Seattle, a place she had never been,” says Ackerman. “So, we committed to leaving Virginia and moving to a corporate apartment near Amazon sight unseen, right after the baby was born. It was a leap, and we took it, all 3 children, my wife and I. We arrived on a rainy November and made history!”
At Amazon, Ackerman focused on fulfillment strategy. Among other roles, he became the inventor and general manager of Amazon’s Small and Light Program, leading large teams and fulfillment centers.
“I had a great career at Amazon. I received the ‘Just Do It Award’ and got to spend time with the some of the world’s greatest minds. I wrote the strategic plan for Amazon’s fulfillment program—these are things I never would have been able to do without my course work at MIT. I used the frameworks and even the PowerPoint slides the faculty gave us again and again. I still have all the books sitting in front of me. I drilled through the work, kept trying to be a better writer and communicator; it worked out through determination and lots of support from my wife.”
Reflecting on his time at MIT Sloan, Ackerman can recall many moments that stand out. “In particular, I remember one afternoon in the Corporate Strategy program, Professor Arnoldo Hax put up a strategic management framework, and it just clicked for me. I realized that if I could put everything into that framework, into those five buckets, I could communicate anything, forever. I was right.”
Ackerman also recalls socializing with a group of global participants during a program break and conversing about the Internet, trends in business and technology, and about Amazon. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to work at a place like that.’ But it gave me a sense of where I could go next. A couple of years later, I was accepting an offer.”
Next stop: Mondelēz
A few years after starting at Amazon, in 2015, Ackerman was recruited by Mondelēz International, maker of some of the best-known snacks brands in the world. He became a member of the strategic leadership team for Mondelēz’s global integrated supply chain as well as their global e-commerce organization, where he launched a direct-to-consumer business for Oreo.
At Mondelēz, Ackerman was the expert on eCommerce and supply chain innovations. He was published and gave multiple keynotes globally for his work on the eCommerce flywheel, for example, and its impact on supply chain. Ackerman has been on the cover of multiple industry magazines for supply chain innovation and continues to be a leader in the space of creating supply chains to be a revenue generator. But when talking about his successes, he is quick to return the subject to MIT.
“I’m not naïve about what MIT Sloan certification has done for me. In addition to the skills and frameworks you can acquire, it’s important to realize that many corporations give more weight to these certificates than they would most MBA programs. The reputation of MIT Sloan is very meaningful in the business world.”
His next great leap: Johnson & Johnson
In a very exciting series of events, earlier this year (2017), Ackerman’s career took yet another great leap forward—this time in the direction of the East Coast. Johnson & Johnson was looking to do advanced planning for the digitization of their supply chain globally across all their vast businesses, including applying demand sensing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to their planning processes and technologies worldwide—and they wanted Ackerman to lead the charge.
“It’s still remarkable to me. My first job was selling products out of a van in Albany, NY, and cell phones were nearly non-existent. And here I am, 20 years later, albeit through a tremendous amount of hard work and risk-taking, getting a phone call from the largest health care company in the world, the 13th most effective supply chain on the planet, and they want me to be the senior director for advanced planning. This was the opportunity to do something that could positively impact the health of millions of people—if our team can improve forecasting, demand, delivery and manufacturing, we will impact lives. There was no way I could turn it down. It is an honor and I am humbled to work for Johnson and Johnson.”
Ackerman says working at J&J is a truly unbelievable experience. “There is a reason why this company is so successful and that it’s able to make people’s lives better. It’s awesome to be a small part of that mission.”
Staying connected to MIT
Ackerman continues to engage with MIT Sloan by occupying Johnson & Johnson’s research sponsor seat at MIT CISR (Center for Information System Research) as well as sponsoring a research project for the Masters of Science and Supply Chain at MIT, for which he mentors two students over nine months as they develop their thesis. Outside of work and MIT, Ackerman is also a board member for After-School All-Stars (founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a member of the board of advisors for FLEXE, a platform solution for warehouse space and supply chain resources.
Ackerman encourages executives at any stage in their career to turn to MIT Sloan Executive Education for inspiration, knowledge, and immediately applicable skills and frameworks that are meaningful and impactful over the course of an entire career.
“It is crystal clear what these programs can do for a motivated individual. I am so lucky to have been and continue to be a part of it. My career has been so exciting since receiving my first certificate and applying that knowledge, and there is no doubt that MIT was a large part of my success. It has been an amazing ride, and it’s not even over yet.” Ackerman does not know what the future can bring, but says, “keep thinking big, inventing, and simplifying with an eagle eye on the customers and good things happen.”
Learn more about MIT Sloan’s Executive Certificates.