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C-suite crusader

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Ann Drake is on a mission: to help qualified women—in supply chain management and beyond—move into the top ranks of business leadership.

Ann Drake is a trailblazer. As chairman and chief executive officer of DSC Logistics, a provider of supply chain and logistics services, she was one of the first female top executives in a still male-dominated industry. In 2012, she received the prestigious Distinguished Service Award from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP)—the first woman to receive the award since it was launched 47 years earlier, in 1965.

While Drake appreciates and values such recognitions, she has no desire to be out front on her own. Rather, her aim is to help other women advance into the ranks of business executives and corporate leaders. Although she has focused much of her effort in the area of supply chain management, through AWESOME (Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management & Education), the organization she founded in 2013, she has long been an advocate for women's leadership in any field of endeavor. Active in the Committee of 200, an international association of women business leaders, she's also a charter member of the Paradigm for Parity (P4P) coalition, a recently formed group of executives who pledge to achieve gender parity in their companies' corporate leadership. Supply Chain Quarterly spoke with Drake about why she is a champion for women, what's been achieved so far, and what she hopes the future will bring.

Ann Drake What do you find especially fulfilling about the logistics business and your role as a corporate leader?
I'm very lucky to work for a family-controlled company, and I'm lucky that when I came in years ago, it was a logistics business. This field is changing all the time; I feel like I've been in many different businesses!

In addition to having a leading-edge place in a business as important as logistics, it's exciting because this is all about horizontal thinking. It's about knocking down barriers, and also about working across broad themes and across organizations in the supply chain. That's interesting, important, and challenging work.

I never dreamed of being a corporate leader when I was a young woman. But finding myself here, I enjoy watching people grow and helping them grow, meeting challenges head on and rising above them, working together on different, complex challenges, and making customers happy. Those are all really rewarding.

What motivates you to devote your time and effort to issues not only beyond your own company but also beyond your industry?
I see the work I'm involved in outside the company as a platform for improving the world we live in. For example, I was appointed by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure to be on a national commission on the future design of the U.S. interstate highway system. The highway system has a direct impact on logistics and supply chain management, but it is also something that has long-term implications for the country. It's important to be looking to the future. Another example is the Northwestern University Transportation Center. I've been involved in that for about 15 years. It's so valuable being involved in leading-edge thinking on transportation and logistics and working with other companies on thought leadership.

I have been involved since the early '90s in several roles beyond the logistics industry, like the Committee of 200, which is a women's business leadership organization. That's been a source of inspiration, how-to information, and friendships across all kinds of businesses. We learn and grow as leaders together. That has been such a wonderful resource for me, as have other groups I'm involved in. Now, as I'm advancing in my career, I want to help other women to advance and step up to leadership roles. It's very gratifying and really important work because women are so very much in the minority in many businesses, and certainly in logistics and supply chain.

Name: Ann Drake
Title: Chairman and chief executive officer, DSC Logistics; founder, Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education (AWESOME)
Education: University of Iowa; Master of Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University
Recognitions: 2009 "Industry Leader of the Year" Award, Illinois Institute of Technology; 2012 Alumni Merit Award, Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University; Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) 2012 Distinguished Service Award; 2014 International Women's Forum Award "Women Who Make a Difference"; 2015 Schultz Award for advancing women in transportation and logistics, McCormick School of Northwestern University
Volunteer Experience: Kellogg School Global Advisory Board at Northwestern University; Board of Governors, Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council; Board of Trustees, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry; Board of Governors, Committee of 200; Business Advisory Council, Northwestern University Transportation Center; Committee on the Future Interstate Highway System, appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
CSCMP Member: Since 1985

Why did you launch AWESOME, and have the conditions that prompted that decision changed much since then?
I founded AWESOME in 2013, soon after I received CSCMP's Distinguished Service Award. That was for two reasons. First, I was honored to have been chosen and wanted to do something to give back and further the industry. And second, when I was giving my acceptance speech—I remember this very clearly—one of my lines was, "you remember when ... it was mostly all men." I was complimenting the industry for giving me the award. But then I looked out and realized there weren't many women in the room, and that things hadn't changed as much as I would have liked. I decided it was my responsibility to help advance women's leadership in supply chain, and that I would try to help more women advance in the field. I also felt we were at a tipping point because I had several women customers for the first time. So I thought maybe it was the right time to find senior women and get them together.

I feel like it has changed some in five years, partially because I'm constantly reaching out to women [in supply chain management] and finding them! We're bringing them into the AWESOME network. When we started, we were surprised to find 200 women in senior roles, and now we have more than 900 senior-level women in the network.

It seems like there have been changes in the number of senior women involved in all kinds of businesses, including government and infrastructure. The downside is that the data show that very few women leaders are making it to senior positions, and even fewer to C-suite positions, regardless of what field they're in. I don't think we're going to run out of work for a long time.

At a time when many professional groups are losing members, why is AWESOME growing so quickly, and where do you find members?
I think it is growing so much because it is unique in our industry. So many women have been in the room with mostly men throughout their careers that joining AWESOME is like an opening up, there's a kind of joy to find women colleagues they can talk to, learn from, share stories with, collaborate with, and just enjoy each other. It's camaraderie, it's a network, it's synergy. I have experienced that with all my other women's organizations.

As for finding members, in the early years it was basically me meeting one person at a time at conferences and meetings. If there weren't qualified women in the room, I would tell men about AWESOME and ask them to connect me to someone in their companies. So it was really built one person at a time in the early years. Now we have two senior leaders working with us, both of whom are past chairs of the CSCMP Board of Directors: Nancy Nix, our executive director, and Heather Sheehan, head of member engagement and sponsorship. When we read about or meet somebody who is qualified to join, Heather will connect with her. We really have a small staff working on it, but that outreach is part of why AWESOME has grown so much.

It's amazing to us because we've assumed, like many people have, that there just aren't that many women in senior leadership. Making the organization applicable to a broad base of different kinds of companies has helped—we define the supply chain field very broadly on purpose, because principles of supply chain management and leadership run across so many jobs. But I'm blown away myself by the incredible women leaders we've met.

The criteria for membership are quite specific, including titles, level within the organization, types of organizations, and even minimum revenue thresholds. Why does an organization devoted to breaking down barriers set such restrictions on who can join?
Mostly it developed from what I've learned over the last 25 years about how women's networks work successfully. We're focused on senior women at similar levels and similar places in their careers because they have the influence to be able to make things happen in their companies for other women. We want senior women to get more senior so they can bring along other women in their networks. Also, we think it's beneficial to start small and make sure something is successful rather than take on too much too soon. We want to grow carefully and grow qualitatively. We want to build our way into a bigger, broader future.

Even though AWESOME's criteria are specific in the ways we define senior leadership, the scope of companies and organizations is very broad, from [functions like] manufacturing, procurement, and transportation, to government agencies involved in infrastructure and transportation planning and policy making, to military leaders providing materials and logistics support for troops around the world. That's representative of the way we see supply chain itself: reaching across boundaries and working collaboratively with many entities.

If we had more money, resources, and people we would broaden our programming and educational sessions for other levels of women leaders. But we have added some programming for women in more junior positions; for example, we have scholarships for young women to attend the annual CSCMP conference and the AWESOME Symposium, and we have slots for emerging leaders who are recommended by another member to come to our annual conference. We're hoping to expand programming for them in the future.

We also have information and resources that we publish on our website every Friday that's available to anyone. I also want to mention that every year we review the criteria for membership with our advisory board, and every year we have altered it based on lessons learned.

Why did you create the DSC Women's Leadership Council (WLC), and what are its objectives?
We established it at about the same time as AWESOME. We realized our own numbers weren't tracking very well as I, too, was a victim of thinking there just weren't that many highly qualified women. I also believe a lot of gender bias is truly unconscious. When we started out, I ran focus groups in DSC to figure out why we didn't have more women at various levels. Even just doing that made a difference, because it gave permission for people to talk about the issue together.

WLC started out meeting irregularly, and it created an informal network for those women. We got some speakers and sponsors. I also asked everyone on WLC and on the management team—both men and women—to read Work With Me: The 8 Blind Spots Between Men and Women in Business, by Barbara Annis and John Gray, which talks about the differences in gender styles and points of view. The best working style, of course, is a combination—combining the strengths of both. If you don't have diversity, then you miss out on those strengths.

Currently the criteria for membership are the level of their position, and they have to be either in line management, such as operations, or a customer-facing position. There are about 15 members; DSC overall has 3,600 employees. We took a baseline measurement last year of the percentage of women at all levels. Our goal is to move that percentage up at all levels.

The leadership council now manages itself and does a really good job of enhancing leadership skills. It's already having an impact on the members and on the company. In the future we will work on the goals of the Paradigm for Parity coalition. When I became a member of P4P, I committed to make five actions happen in the company that we believe will lead to more women in leadership positions. If we can help make this happen for women at all levels we will be moving in the right direction.

Members of the Paradigm for Parity coalition commit to achieving gender parity in their corporate leadership by 2030. How do you do that, and how would you measure that change?
Rather than dictating what people should do, we felt we should give them latitude to do it their own way. Mine is to give women a network and to make it okay to hire and promote them.

Traditionally surveys have found that women have to be more qualified than men to get hired into the same positions. We're not only making it okay for people to talk about this, but we're also giving them tools to do something about it. Those are some things I've done in my company, but we're all learning. That's part of why we're doing this—to learn from each other what does make a difference, and what works. Ultimately, our goal is to move the needle on senior positions. When that happens we'll know we've made an impact.

One of P4P's five steps is to provide "sponsors, not just mentors" to women who are positioned for long-term success. What's the difference, and why are sponsors more valuable than mentors?
The idea of sponsors for women came out in the last five years or so. Their job is to make you successful. It puts the burden on the sponsor to help you navigate organizational issues and advance you in the organization. Mentors might talk to you once in while, and you may have a relationship with them and look up to them. It's much more informal. So sponsors are much more responsible for the end result and have accountability.

Both are very important and very valuable, but sponsorship has a bigger impact. We learned this because we looked at men's networks and why they are so successful. One of the learnings was that we need to take a more active role in helping women advance. It doesn't have to be only women sponsors; men can be sponsors, too. In fact, it's best to work with both kinds of sponsors in your career.

If P4P's goals become reality, will organizations like AWESOME and P4P still be necessary or relevant?
It's going to be so far in the future I can't even think about there ever being a time when we wouldn't be needed. There will always be a need for sources of learning and collaboration. I think there is still so much to be done.

You have four granddaughters. What are your aspirations for them in the future?
Yes, I have four very lovely granddaughters. The oldest is 16. I'm thinking about how to ensure that they have equal chances to do whatever makes them happy and successful. That's why I pay this much attention to removing barriers and figuring out how to make women successful leaders in every endeavor and business—I want to help make it possible for a workplace, a country, a school system, a cultural institution to be able to achieve their best by having diverse members and people in their organizations. And clearly I care about individual happiness for my family members. I'm sure many readers feel the same about their families.

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