This week, Wednesdays for Women features a Q&A with Heather Sheehan, Executive Director of AWESOME (which stands for achieving women’s excellence in supply chain operations, management and education). Heather’s career spans more than 30 years in the manufacturing and transportation industries, with leadership positions in procurement, logistics and marketing at Danaher, Honeywell, Union Pacific Corporation and NCR Corporation. She was on the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals board of directors for 11 years, also serving as the group’s chairperson.
Heather will appear on the General Session main stage at FOCUS 2018, May 6-9 in Orlando, and along with host partner JDA, welcome hundreds of senior women leaders to the AWESOME Symposium in Orlando immediately following FOCUS. In advance of both events, we asked a few questions about why advancing women in supply chain leadership is so important, especially now.
SCN: Why is advocating for women leaders in supply chain so important to you?
HS: After 30 years working for major corporations, my focus was to use my time and talents to make a difference for others. While I loved my corporate career, I was ready for something that would help people, especially women. I want more women to experience a highly rewarding, exciting career in the leadership ranks of supply chain. More corporate boards are recognizing the value of supply chain operations experience as a critical qualification for the CEO role, so supply chain is a key path for women into the top leadership role.
SCN: What challenges did you personally encounter as a woman working in the field?
HS: My undergraduate business major classmates at Penn State in the early 1980’s were 50-50 men and women, and when I got to my first job, I was one of two women in a department of 20. Ever since, I’ve been asking, “Where did all the women go?” As my career accelerated, there were even fewer female colleagues. I encountered some people (men and women, too!) who didn’t think I belonged in a particular role simply because I’m female, but I never took it personally. My approach was to change the conversation to our business goals and explain how I could help achieve the objectives. It worked every time, and I think it helped change some individuals’ misperceptions about women.
SCN: What is the best way for companies to grow women leaders in supply chain?
HS: Supply chain leadership requires a mix of capabilities that spans from the highly analytical and technical to the interpersonal and relationship skills. You cannot be successful without the whole range. There are so many women who have this great range of skills, but they don’t recognize themselves as leadership material. Companies can grow these leaders by identifying the women who have the range of strong skills, by helping them secure mentors and sponsors, and by telling them they are potential leaders. I just read a study about female CEOs by the Korn Ferry Institute. They found that 65 percent of female CEOs first realized they could become a CEO only when someone else told them. Hearing it from a trusted source is a powerful motivator and confidence-builder, and then if a company provides a roadmap of the experiences and development needed and guidance along the way, women will grow into leadership roles more quickly.
SCN: Why is building a strong network of women leaders so important?
HS: Until I attended the AWESOME Symposium in 2014, I’d never had the chance to network with a large group of supply chain women. The caliber of women at the Symposium was top-of-the-field. I was energized by the power and intelligence in the room. And everyone was so approachable and engaging. I realized that if I’d had this kind of network years earlier, I might have learned faster and made fewer mistakes because of the advice of a trusted group of women. And, it’s just more fun working with so many women after often being the only woman in the room for 30 years.
SCN: What are some of the things AWESOME is doing to support the advancement of women in supply chain leadership roles?
HS: Rather than give you a laundry list of AWESOME’s initiatives (which you can see at www.awesomeleaders.org), let me tell you about this: At the 2015 AWESOME Symposium, I had the honor of interviewing Harvard professor and author, Rosabeth Moss Kanter. I’ve continued to follow her and she posted her recent TEDx talk about the only three career steps that matter: Inclusion, Influence, and Impact. The priority for AWESOME is to ensure supply chain women are successful in these three career steps and are able to advance to the level to which they aspire. This happens when each of us takes a step to engage more with each other, support each other and gain confidence from each other. The AWESOME network only works when we actually show up and participate, so we work to provide the opportunities for members to connect, collaborate, learn, and inspire others.