CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
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March 31, 2020
Strategy

On top of the (business) world

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Women supply chain professionals are increasingly making their way into the highest levels of corporate management. Why are more doors opening for them now?

In 2014, when Mary Barra became chief executive officer of General Motors, supply chain professionals were gratified that one of their own had reached the pinnacle of corporate leadership. Her background—which includes manufacturing, procurement, and supply chain management—was a factor in her choice as leader of the giant automaker. Her appointment was also notable for another reason: her gender.

Barra was not the first supply chain professional to lead a business, nor was she the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company. But as CEO of one of the world's largest manufacturers, she set a highly visible example for other women in supply chain. Now more women are entering the "C-suite," following in the footsteps of pioneers like Judy McReynolds, head of ArcBest Corp., and Ann Drake, chair of DSC Logistics and founder of AWESOME (Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education). They're staking their claims as presidents, directors, and chief executive, operating, supply chain, procurement, information, and technology officers. In addition to the three executives we profile elsewhere in this article, examples include:

  • Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O'Lakes Inc.
  • Kathryn Wengel, chief global supply chain officer, Johnson & Johnson
  • Maria Lindenberg, chief procurement officer, Chevron Corporation
  • Sally Miller, chief information officer of DHL North America
  • Francesca DeBiase, executive vice president and chief supply chain and sustainability officer, McDonald's Corp.

With women supply chain professionals increasingly making their way into the ranks of corporate leadership, it's a good time to ask: Why are more doors opening for them now?

Signs of change

As surveys over the past decade have shown, the number of women at all levels of supply chain organizations has steadily grown. Historical statistics are hard to come by, but women represented 11% of respondents to the 2006 Career Patterns in Logistics and Supply Chain Management study of senior supply chain professionals conducted by The Ohio State University for the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP)1 and 28% of respondents to the 2012 survey.2 More recently, women represented 50% of respondents to a CSCMP survey of early-career supply chain professionals' attitudes about their profession.3

The number of women of all backgrounds in the top echelons of management remains small. Only a handful of women CEOs lead Fortune 100 companies, and about 5% of chief supply chain officers at Fortune 500 companies are women. In supply chain organizations, women hold just 14% of senior vice president, executive vice president, and C-suite positions, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Transportation and Logistics.4

The fourth annual "Women in Supply Chain Survey," conducted by the research and advisory firm Gartner in partnership with AWESOME, found that on average, women hold 17% of C-level positions at carriers, 3PLs, supply chain technology firms, and supply chain consulting firms.5 (CSCMP also contributed to the research.)

The Gartner-AWESOME survey also found that, after more than doubling, from 7% in 2016 to 15% in 2017, the percentage of women supply chain executives across all respondents' companies declined, to 14% in 2018 and 11% in 2019. While that decline is momentarily troubling, there are signs of change that bode well for the future. The percentage of female supply chain vice presidents and senior directors jumped from 20% in 2018 to 28% in 2019, suggesting that there's a growing pipeline of women who are qualified to take on higher positions. Another good sign is that 60% of respondents said they were leading initiatives to recruit, develop, and promote women in their companies' supply chain organizations—a big leap from 44% just a year earlier.6

The momentum builds

There are many reasons more women supply chain professionals are taking leadership positions, but from a high-level perspective they can be grouped into three main categories:

1. More companies are recognizing that supply chain provides a solid foundation for companywide leadership.

During her 30-year career as a supply chain professional at Fortune 500 companies and 11 years on CSCMP's board of directors, AWESOME Executive Director Heather Sheehan saw supply chain management come to play "a bigger and bigger role in C-suite conversations." A major reason, she says, is the growing recognition that—regardless of gender—supply chain professionals have a unique vantage point that makes them especially qualified for companywide management positions. "Because supply chain touches every aspect of a company's business and links functional areas and operations, all the way through plan, source, make, deliver, and return," she says, "experienced supply chain leaders know how everything works together. They see the whole system; they aren't bringing just one functional perspective." As more women enter the supply chain profession, advocate for themselves, and move up the ladder within that field, they're simultaneously making themselves visible as qualified candidates for corporate leadership positions, she observes.

One example is that of Sonia Syngal, president and CEO of apparel retailer Old Navy. In a 2018 interview with the U.S. television network ABC, she credited her varied experience in sourcing, product, and supply chain operations and strategy in a wide range of industries as a factor in her ascent to the top. "A breadth of different experiences is really important ... all of my jobs have been core line jobs—meaning, core to creating the value that is essential to a company."7

But there's another reason supply chain management skills are more valued at the top now. E-commerce has changed the nature of what corporations need from CEOs, writes Nader Mikhail, founder and CEO of the supply chain technology platform Elementum. Corporate value is increasingly driven by the volume of satisfied and repeat customers; by the effective management of cost of goods sold; and by the impact of corporate social responsibility programs, he observes. This dynamic means board members "are increasingly turning to leaders who have made careers out of translating the big picture and thousands of moving parts into executional reality." For that reason, Mikhail says, the ranks of future CEOs will be filled with former chief supply chain officers, not just former financial executives.8

2. More companies are recognizing the business benefits of diversity.

While many businesses have a long way to go, overall there is a greater awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias and less discrimination against women in business than at any time in history. "The world has changed ... the typical bias we used to see doesn't get a pass anymore," Sheehan says.

Importantly, companies are learning to value diversity of all kinds because it equates to diversity of thought—a necessary foundation for developing creative, effective solutions to business problems. According to Deloitte, research has shown that diversity improves profitability and the ability to innovate. By pursuing more diverse talent, companies can introduce different perspectives, experiences, and strengths that will support the technology-focused jobs of the future.9

In enterprises that value diversity, there are, of course, more opportunities for women to rise to executive-level positions. But inclusivity also encourages the development of support systems for women that will help them advance, Sheehan points out. This means women have more access to co-sponsors and mentors than before. Moreover, in a business culture that values diversity, women are stepping up "with more courage and confidence to pursue C-level leadership positions," she says.

3. Women bring something different to the table.

The women executives we spoke with believe that the traits and qualities that make effective, respected leaders apply to everyone, regardless of gender, and that reaching those heights also requires being exceptionally good at one's job. Yet they also say that women bring some additional strengths and outlooks to leadership positions that may differ from those of their male counterparts.Those differences may play a role in their success as leaders within supply chain organizations. In a blog post, SCM World Chief Content Officer Kevin O'Marah posits that women are especially effective in supply chain management because many are excellent at multitasking and cross-functional thinking, at collaboration, and at communications and utilizing teams.10

Those qualities and skills also have a measurable positive impact at the C-level. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, researchers from the Peterson Institute for Global Economics and Duke University documented that companies that moved from having no women in corporate leadership to having women constitute 30% of leadership typically achieved a 1 percentage-point increase in net margin. That translates to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm, they said. There are many potential reasons for that profitability advantage, but the researchers homed in on one in particular: the greater diversity of skills that female senior leaders contribute to corporations "increases effectiveness in monitoring staff performance and [leads to] less gender discrimination throughout management ranks, which helps to recruit, promote, and retain talent."11

Advice for the upward bound

While some of the structural and cultural barriers that have largely kept women out of the top ranks are coming down, that in itself is not sufficient to vault women supply chain executives into the C-suite—and keep them there. For some, it may require changing their approach to leadership, a reality many women leaders continue to confront today. Two-thirds of the 550 respondents to the consulting firm KPMG's 2019 poll of executive women said that they have had to change their leadership styles to a greater degree than their male counterparts. Similarly, 81% of women respondents said they believe that women must be more adaptable than men in order to lead successfully and advance in their careers. Meanwhile, 49% said they struggle with how to maintain their authenticity as they rise through the ranks.12

By all accounts, working with supportive, effective mentors (whether male or female) is essential. Speaking at the 2015 CSCMP annual conference, Debbie Lentz, currently president, global supply chain at Electrocomponents PLC, asserted that if we want to see more women supply chain professionals in the C-suite, then women who are already there should consider it their responsibility to mentor others.13

Making personal connections with women supply chain professionals who have achieved that level of success is ideal, but with few of them available, an additional way to benefit from their wisdom and experience is to attend conferences and participate in professional associations. Another is to read relevant interviews, articles, and blog posts. For example, the three leaders profiled in this article—Susan Brennan, COO of Bloom Energy; Karen Kenney, president of Janel Group; and Lily Shen, president and COO of Transfix—all offer sound advice for upward-bound women in supply chain.

Susan Brennan
Susan Brennan
Karen Kenney
Karen Kenney
Lily Shen
Lily Shen

AWESOME's 2019 Action Agenda, "Seven Smart Moves to Make Bigger Waves for Women's Leadership," synthesizes recommendations from women supply chain leaders into seven strategies for succeeding in high-level leadership roles within and beyond supply chain organizations. Very briefly summarized, they include:14

1. Help others understand the importance of supply chain management to business success. Educate your company's management team about the value of supply chain and how it impacts the organization's top-level goals and strategies. Be the expert who understands the bigger business picture and supports other groups that need supply chain expertise.

2. Advocate for diversity. Help your company identify and initiate or expand corporate initiatives that improve diversity. Pay particular attention to those that enable women to succeed, such as family-leave policies and recruiting for diversity.

3. Assess your strengths and pursue opportunities where you can grow. Learn new skills that align with your company's priorities and acquire knowledge that speaks corporate management's "language," such as finance and profit and loss. 

4. Expand your network. Proactively seek advice and knowledge from others to open a path for advancement. Build both internal relationships across functions and management levels and external relations with business partners and outside suppliers and vendors.

5. Build a deep "bench" in your organization. Assure a strong cadre of candidates for promotion by becoming a mentor or sponsor. Support the careers of high-potential women, giving them "stretch" assignments and introducing them to new people, ideas, and experiences. Advocate for them when assignments and promotions are being discussed.

6. Reach back further. Be a role model for future supply chain professionals and young women getting started in the field. Attend career days, serve as an academic resource, and develop internships.

7. Develop allies who are men. Emphasize the business value of diversity, and avoid an "us vs. them" mentality. Work collaboratively on diversity-related issues and share mentoring across genders. Recognize unconscious bias and address it in a constructive way.

In the vanguard

Women are increasingly making their way into the highest levels of corporate management; according to Fortune magazine, as of mid 2019, there were 33 women CEOs among the Fortune 500 companies. That's a record high, but it still represents less than 7% of the total.

While the number of women CEOs at very large companies is a good indicator of progress, that statistic alone does not fully represent what's happening on the ground. For one thing, CEO isn't the only title in the C-suite; as previously noted, there are other corporate positions women can and do fill. For another, although large, publicly traded enterprises are more widely known and reported on, they're not the only ones offering leadership opportunities for women. In fact, as our three executive profiles attest, more and more women are at the helm of mid-size and smaller companies too.

Experienced supply chain experts are well positioned to be effective corporate leaders. At the same time, research has demonstrated the financial and performance benefits of choosing women leaders. Put those facts together, and it seems inevitable that the women supply chain professionals who have already earned a place in the C-suite will—and should—have a lot more company soon.

Notes:

1. "People: The Power behind the Supply Chain," Inbound Logistics, January 2007, https://www.inboundlogistics.com/cms/article/people-the-power-behind-the-supply-chain/

2. "Survey finds supply chain professionals upbeat about jobs, career," CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, Q3 2012, https://www.supplychainquarterly.com/news/20120925-survey-finds-supply-chain-professionals-upbeat-about-jobs-career/

3. Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, "2019 Study: Young Professionals in Supply Chain," October 2019, http://cscmp.org

4. Katie Date, "Summary Report for the Women in Supply Chain Summit: Achieving Balance in SCM," Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation & Logistics, June 2019.

5. AWESOME/Gartner "2019 Women in Supply Chain Research," May 2, 2019, https://www.awesomeleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/2019-AWESOME-GartnerReport.pdf

6. AWESOME/Gartner, 2019.

7. Anieze Osakwe, "Sonia Syngal on how to become CEO of a company," ABC News, April 3, 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/sonia-syngal-ceo-company/story?id=54213193

8. Nader Mikhail, "Tomorrow's CEOs Will Come From an Unlikely Place: The Supply Chain," Fortune, December 11, 2018, https://fortune.com/2018/12/11/ceo-supply-chain/

9. Deloitte, "Women in supply chain management: Diversity and inclusion in manufacturing" (undated) https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/operations/articles/women-in-supply-chain-management.html

10. Kevin O'Marah, "Women in Supply Chain: The Mary Barra Example," Forbes, June 21, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinomarah/2018/06/21/women-in-supply-chain-the-mary-barra-example/#36831b8c54fd

11. Marcus Noland and Tyler Moran, "Study: Firms With More Women in the C-Suite Are More Profitable," Harvard Business Review, February 8, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/02/study-firms-with-more-women-in-the-c-suite-are-more-profitable

12. KPMG, "Advancing the Future of Women in Business: A KPMG Women's Leadership Summit Report," June 19, 2019, https://womensleadership.kpmg.us/kpmg-womens-leadership-report.html/?utm_source=USATODAY&utm_content=Article4

13. Toby Gooley, "As you rise, you must lift," CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly, Quarter 4 2015, https://www.supplychainquarterly.com/columns/20151021-as-you-rise-you-must-lift/

14.AWESOME, "2019 Action Agenda: Seven Smart Moves to Make Bigger Waves for Women's Leadership," September 2019, https://www.awesomeleaders.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/AWESOME-Action-Agenda-2019-091519.pdf 

 

Susan Brennan SUSAN BRENNAN, CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER, BLOOM ENERGY CORPORATION

Education: B.S., Microbiology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; M.B.A., University of Nebraska-Omaha; alumna, Prince of Wales Business and Environment Program

Previous Experience: Vice President of Manufacturing, Nissan North America; Director, Global Manufacturing Business Office, and Director of the North American Manufacturing Business Office, Ford Motor Company; among others

Professional Leadership: Top 100 Women in Automotive, 2005 and 2010; AWESOME 2018 Legendary Leadership Award; national advisory board member, National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation at Stanford University; president and founder, Southern Automotive Women's Forum; past vice president, Automotive Women's Alliance Foundation; advisory board member, University Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, Middle Tennessee State University; member, International Women's Forum, Society of Business Fellows, Watermark COO Roundtable, and Committee of 200; honoree, Women of Influence 2016, Silicon Valley

SPEAK WITH SUSAN BRENNAN about her career and you'll soon understand why the COO of Bloom Energy is featured in a book about women in the automotive industry titled The Road to the Top is Not On the Map. Brennan's eclectic career path demonstrates her belief in pursuing work that is meaningful and fulfilling on both a professional and a personal level.

As a child in a steel-making town where air pollution was ever present, Brennan developed an interest in environmental science. When, as an adult, she moved to a town where an automotive factory was going to shut down because of the pollution it was generating, she saw a chance to save jobs while improving the environment. Brennan was instrumental in reducing the plant's environmental impact and keeping it in operation—one of her proudest accomplishments. During three decades in the automotive industry she held many positions, including vice president of manufacturing for Nissan North America, where she launched the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

Brennan recently joined Bloom Energy, a San Jose, California-based company that manufactures a new kind of solid-oxide fuel cell, which produces electricity from natural gas with no combustion or particulate emissions, low water usage, and lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional electricity generation. She saw an opportunity to use her operational and leadership skills to improve the environment in a new way. "I was interested in Bloom because it is one of a kind," she says. "To be involved at the beginning of a transformation—really a revolution—is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

In 2018, Brennan received the Legendary Leadership Award from AWESOME (Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education) for her achievements in helping women supply chain professionals excel and advance to corporate leadership roles. In an interview, she discussed what women supply chain professionals bring to the table and offers guidance for those on their way to the top.

Q: More women supply chain professionals are entering corporate management lately. Why are we seeing that momentum now?

The growth of e-commerce and online retail, with its two-day delivery and the need to move things globally better, cheaper, and faster, has opened up what had traditionally been a trucking- and rail-dominated industry into a more innovative business requiring supply chain management solutions. This wholesale change has created more diverse professional opportunities. Another reason is that more universities have been adding supply chain curricula. Back [when I was in college], only Michigan State University and a few others had programs; now it seems like the majority of colleges and universities have courses in the supply chain field. So the combination of educational opportunities and the need to move products and materials in a new way has opened up "white space" for women who have the ability to manage complex transactions.

There also are more organizational resources and more links between groups like AWESOME and other women's groups. Women support women much more proactively than before. In the past there might have been only one woman executive, who fought to get where she was. ... Now women are actively bringing others up through the organization.

Q: What do you bring as a woman in a leadership role? Or does effective leadership depend on the same qualities, regardless of gender?

I'm an old-school feminist! I will never say gender is irrelevant, but I think they can both compete [for leadership positions]. I think that when people say gender matters, in a negative way, it discounts and minimizes the women who went before us to open up the workforce.

Do I bring something different? I do. If you are a woman who can survive and thrive in a male-dominated industry, there are certain skills, resiliencies, and grit that you can bring to a role like the one I have now. I'm fortunate because every place I've worked they wanted someone to bring in a different perspective. If women can succeed in that situation, it's because we bring specific skills to the job. Often we are writing or creating the path—there aren't cheat sheets we can follow.

I think women are more open to looking at things in a different way, especially in male-dominated businesses. I personally experienced this in manufacturing, where some people said they wouldn't work with me because I am a woman. Resiliency was important, and I never felt sorry for myself. Women before me had it much worse!

Q: Do you have any advice for other women moving into C-level positions?

The most important thing is to be authentic. Be who you are and bring your "whole self" to work, and keep persevering. I'm a single mom, and sometimes you have to be late because your role as a parent requires it. You can't pretend it didn't happen.

Bring your own strengths and take full advantage of what you have. As you get further along in your career it's harder, because people look to you for everything. It's important to know what you don't know. Also, don't say, "it can't be done." Learn from smart people and build a team that will be able to take it to the next level. And recognize that there can be multiple solutions to a problem! Keep your brain pliable and open to innovation. If you aren't resilient and open to new thinking and solutions, it will be a challenge.

 

Karen Kenney KAREN M. KENNEY, PRESIDENT, JANEL GROUP INC.

Previous Experience: Vice President, Global Partnerships, Janel Group; Chief Operating Officer, Liberty International Inc.

Volunteer Experience: Founding member and chair of the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT); advisor to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC), including one term as Trade chair of the Trade Enforcement and Revenue Collection Subcommittee; served as advisory board member of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy's International Maritime Business program

KAREN KENNEY IS A RARITY. Not only has she spent her entire career in the same industry, she has spent virtually all of it with the same company. And she's risen to the top the old-fashioned way: by starting at the very bottom and learning every aspect of the freight forwarding and customs brokerage business, from international logistics and business development to the implementation of information technology (IT) systems.

Kenney began working summers as a "runner" (courier) at Rhode Island-based Liberty International Inc. and "fell in love with the industry," she says. She remained with Liberty for 34 years, eventually becoming chief operating officer. When the global logistics provider Janel Group Inc. acquired the company in 2015, Kenney joined the new parent as vice president of global partnerships, developing Janel's agency network in Asia and supporting key account sales. In 2017 she was named Janel Group's president.

Although some segments of international logistics, such as ocean shipping, trucking, and warehousing, have traditionally been male-dominated, women have long provided leadership in critical areas like regulatory compliance, customer and supplier relationship management, and technology, among others. Kenney has been involved in all of those and much more. In this interview, she discusses how hands-on experience and diverse points of view support strong business leadership.

Q: More women supply chain professionals are entering corporate management lately. Why are we seeing that momentum now?

In my experience there have always been lots of talented women in supply chain management. In fact, on average, I've worked with more women than men. As doors have opened more widely to women across all types of businesses, talented women who have been there all along are stepping up and walking through those doors.

I think another factor is that our business has changed. There are a lot more expectations, and requirements are more exacting than when I started three decades ago. Back then "close enough" was good enough. But not now! Today, every minute and dollar matters. The really successful companies care about having the best and brightest on every single level. That means having the right person, the most talented person, in the right position. That opens doors for more women and men.

Q: How did your professional experience prepare you to lead both a business organization and its people?

I've worked in virtually every segment of this business; there's very little our people are doing every day that I haven't done myself. That puts me in a position of empathy, which is really important. It helps you to know where the cracks are and to know where people can make the business better every day. I would also say that one of the most important experiences has been direct contact with customers at virtually every supply chain touch point. That is probably the most important and valuable experience in my toolbox. It's my job, essentially, to spend every minute of every day making customers' lives easier. Because of my own experience, I have the tools to instill that culture in every aspect of this enterprise.

Q: What do you bring as a woman in a leadership role? Or does gender not matter in effective leadership?

I don't believe gender is relevant, but I do believe diversity is. At Janel we want to have lots of different people at all levels with different ideas who can see problems and figure out how to fix them. Gender plays a role in that, of course, but it's not the sole aspect. Our senior team, in fact, is intentionally diverse across gender, cultures, and experience. Some of our senior leaders are from very large companies and some are from smaller firms. They have different experiences solving the same problems. A big company, for example, will have more resources and a wider perspective on what a solution might be and will approach a problem in a very different way than small "mom and pop" shops do. The latter tend to be scrappier and maybe a little more creative in how they go about problem solving—and maybe a little more efficient in how they make things happen. That doesn't necessarily make it better. Our thinking is, let's take advantage of both approaches to find the best answer.

Q: Do you have any advice for other women moving into C-level positions?

The most important thing is to go for it! Even if you're not sure if you fit every single bullet point in a job description, don't hesitate. If you're a natural in terms of leadership, you can figure it out as you go along and can network with other people to learn. That's number 1.

Number 2, I think it's important to help other people be successful, especially young people who are just starting out. My generation of leaders learned by doing different jobs ourselves, but the kids today approach things differently than we do. One of the delights of diversity is to help them figure out how to be successful in their own way. If you do that, it will help your company be more successful.

I have spent more time on that lately and find it personally satisfying and very helpful to our organization. I was incredibly blessed when I was coming up in the industry to work for three really talented entrepreneurs who gave me a lot of opportunities. They let me try my hand at selling, and they let me travel to Asia to develop agency partnerships. They let me oversee automation development and implementation. Importantly, they let me fail and learn from that. I'm grateful for their support, and I consider it an obligation to make a similar contribution by helping future leaders.

And finally, when you mess up, move on. Don't wallow! I did that early on, and it's not productive. The clock on the wall keeps ticking and people are counting on you. Don't waste time on nonproductive things, just course-correct and keep going.

 

Lily Shen LILY SHEN, PRESIDENT AND CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, TRANSFIX 

Education: B.S., New York University Stern School of Business; executive education at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School

Previous Experience: Almost 20 years in leadership roles at Silicon Valley technology companies, such as executive director, mobility and advanced technology, at IDEO; Internet marketing director at eBay; chief marketing officer at Wealthfront and Bloomspot.com; venture partner at Canvas Ventures; and independent business advisor and consultant

Volunteer Experience: Venture for America; Room to Read; and AIGA, the professional association for design

THROUGHOUT HER CAREER, Queens, New York, native Lily Shen has followed where her curiosity, energy, and entrepreneurial insights have led her. Shen, who is president and chief operating officer of Transfix, a digital marketplace that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to optimize the matching of freight carriers with shippers, studied finance, management, and organizational behavior at New York University's Stern School of Business. Her favorite class was operations management, which, she says, helped her appreciate the importance of improving processes by driving efficiency at both the company and systems levels.

Her career in technology, finance, marketing, product development, and venture capital may not be the typical path for executives in the transportation industry. But Shen sees a common thread. "So much of technology is about connecting people to people, people to products, and people to spaces—it's all about building connections," she says. In fact, the opportunity to help grow a company that's dedicated to building connections was one of the things that attracted her to Transfix. She also saw that freight transportation was "ripe for applying technology as a powerful way to solve complex problems and drive efficiencies," she says.

In 2019, after two years as Transfix's chief operating officer, Shen added the title of president, with responsibility for corporate development, product development, engineering, finance, legal, and human resources. In an interview, she shared her thoughts on bringing skills to a new field and how women can succeed in corporate leadership.

Q. How did your background prepare you for leading a business in an industry that's new to you?

Having experience across different industries and functions at different stages of companies' life cycles was incredibly valuable in preparing for a role like this. I think you can apply pattern recognition to tackle new challenges and solve them. With pattern recognition you know what "good" looks like in terms of people and processes. That doesn't mean you're necessarily replicating them [from an earlier experience], but you can anticipate challenges and plan for them to avoid pitfalls. By focusing on business principles and fundamentals, pattern recognition also lets you see how things are done consistently or inconsistently across different companies and industries. For example, a marketplace business model or a product development cycle, at certain stages of a company's life cycle, should be working well. Or, from the opposite perspective, you can see how things are done differently. The important thing is to take the best of what you've learned and apply it to a new company or industry.

Q: What do you bring as a woman in a leadership role?

It's so important that we can even be talking about women in leadership roles, but we're really just beginning that conversation. I think you have to be an example for others. From my perspective, I want to be able to show other women that absolutely, it is possible to be a business leader. Women need to know that they are very much capable of doing that.

I also think that being in this position allows me to give back to other women. For example, I can offer growth opportunities by helping them to become the leaders they want to be. One reason I joined Transfix was our commitment to diversity. I want to continue and drive that forward.

Transportation is largely male-dominated, even more than some of the other industries I was in. It's up to us to change that by bringing more diversity to leadership perspectives, and to management style and philosophies—and to make all of that better for organizations and their people.

Q: Do you have any advice for other women moving into C-level positions?

You have to take risks in order to grow. When people think about risks, they think about big life decisions, but we take thousands of small risks every day. Go ahead and expand your role. Sometimes opportunities are right in front of you, but you have to take them! Be proactive, and push yourself to take advantage of those opportunities.

Something I really value and recommend is to be a "connector." Women are natural connectors. This is particularly important as you move into leadership positions, where you're bringing functions together, bringing processes together, and bringing people together. Women who are good connectors are very well poised to take on leadership roles. Sometimes you'll be leading up front and sometimes from behind. Whatever the situation requires, be authentic and true to yourself and your style—and be confident enough to do that.

 

Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, and material handling, and a lecturer at MIT's Center for Transportation & Logistics. She previously was Editor at CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. and Senior Editor of SCQ's sister publication, DC VELOCITY. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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