For supply chain, the war for talent has never been so fierce. According to a recent DHL report: “the task of finding people with the right skillsets is increasingly difficult – especially at the middle and upper management levels”. In fact, it paints a picture of an industry that is behind the times. One that is struggling to integrate old and new ways of working. With “culture clashes” around how talent wants or expects to work.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the industry continues to struggle with diversity. According to Gartner, “women consistently don’t make it through the pipeline” and hold just 17% of senior supply chain management roles.

So how do supply chains bring about change, increase their diversity and inject new talent into the function?

One person that knows better than most what it takes to be a woman in the supply chain and logistics world is Omera Khan – the first female Director of the Logistics Institute at the University of Hull. She is considered a leading thinker and researcher in the world of supply chain risk management. Currently the holder of Professorships at universities in both the UK and Norway, she splits her time between academia and industry, advising some of the world’s leading businesses on managing risk and building resilience in their supply chains.

Here she talks to James Gherardi, Director Supply Chain at BIE, on her experiences within the profession and what she thinks needs to change.

Why is it important to bring greater diversity to the profession?

“Businesses need supply chains that are resilient and fundamentally capable of operating, irrespective of whatever is happening around them. In a world that is constantly changing and evolving, we equally need leadership that is dynamic and comfortable in keeping options open: to disrupt itself rather than be disrupted.

The challenge we are facing is that we have created too many silos. We have trained people in boxes, ie the box of accounting or the box of design. When the reality is that we need cross-functional experts who are agile and resilient, who can adapt and thrive in an ever changing business world.  If you’ve built your whole career doing something one way; being surrounded by people with the same background, the same education, and by definition the same mindset, are you effectively going to be able to do that?”

If you want to change things, you need to have diversity of experience, diversity of thought and diversity of culture. You don’t get that with everyone marching to the same drumbeat. It isn’t a case of one gender being better than the other, or one race, or university or route into the profession. It’s about being able to identify and source that mix of skills, personalities and capabilities and make sure they complement each other through the addition of new and alternative perspectives.

“We’ve had a legacy leadership made up almost exclusively of one demographic, the people that came up with lean supply chains, Just-In-Time approaches etc. But we need different supply chains now, different departments that don’t exist solely in their own silos but where supply chain and procurement, sales and customer service all sit together, all understanding one another: true value chains

One of the greatest advantages I have experienced in my career in terms of breaking down silo’s is starting life in design and ending up in supply chain. The culmination of which has inspired so much of my groundbreaking research and the recognition that the “supply chain begins on the drawing board”.

To achieve this, businesses are going to need diverse teams consisting of people with a variety of backgrounds and lived-experiences. Teams in which individuals feel supported and able to be their true selves.”

What challenges have you come up against?

“As a young woman, and as a woman of Pakistani origin, I’m quite often the only person in the room that wasn’t an older white man. There have been times when I know I have been treated differently because of what I am and how I look, rather than what I’m able to contribute.

“I’ve been talked over, I’ve been constantly assessed based on my age and appearance rather than my credentials and achievements, and even when I have been given a platform, there’s been occasions when people have suggested it’s because I tick a political correctness box. When it happens over and over again, you start to question yourself and your worth. It can be disheartening.”

How have you become successful within the profession?

“With the realisation that the only way to go is forward, and to keep doing what I’m doing. I have had amazing support from senior mentors. One of those is Martin Christopher, Emeritus Professor of Marketing & Logistics at Cranfield School of Management. Martin was my external examiner for my PhD, and we worked together at Cranfield, where we developed pioneering research in supply chain risk management. Martin has been a constant source of encouragement and a sounding board throughout my career. For women, in particular, to succeed in the supply chain industry, good mentors are invaluable.

What are the next steps leaders need to take?

“It’s the ability to think differently that is most desperately needed if the supply chain and logistics sectors are to future-proof against disruption. Organisations need to be asking themselves how they create a workforce fit for both the now and the future. “

“The supply chain of the future is resilient, it is agile, and it embraces diversity. We’re waking up every day to a new challenge, both as people and as businesses. We need organisations that support us, whether it’s delivering food, medicine, or clothing. We need to adapt to the changing world and adapt fast. In some areas we need to disrupt the status quo and ask ourselves can we truly continue to do things the same way?  

I think we all know the answer to that!

Written by

James Gherardi

Specialising in executive search and interim management assignments, James has a wide-ranging network of senior supply chain, procurement and operations executives across both the UK and international marketplaces. His unique combination of expertise and experience ensures a successful outcome for clients and candidates alike.

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