Episode 4: How to become a supply chain leader with Lucy Harding

May 18, 2022


This session discusses:

  • The role of the Chief Supply Chain Officer
  • The skills required to become a supply chain leader
  • Diversity and inclusion in the workspace

Lucy Harding

Lucy Harding is a Partner and Global Head of the Procurement & Supply Chain Practice at Odgers Berndtson, based in London. The practice operates across all industries in both the public and private sector. Lucy has significant experience operating in the procurement and supply chain search environment following 10 years operating in a leading boutique firm. She has successfully completed appointments across a range of leading global companies in both the UK and internationally.

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Helena Wood

Hello, and welcome to Episode Four of Freight to the Point, a podcast by Zencargo. I’m Helena Wood, and today I am joined by Lucy Harding, Partner and Global Head of the Procurement and Supply Chain Practice at the executive search firm, Odgers Berndtson. Today, we’re going to be talking about the role of the Chief Supply Chain officer, the challenges that supply chain leaders are facing in today’s tough market, and the space for diversity and inclusion in the supply chain workspace.

Lucy, we are so pleased to have you here. I hope you’re not going to be embarrassed when I say this, but when we speak a little bit about you internally, you’ve done a couple of events for us. Now we always describe you as the ultimate girl boss. So we’re all fangirling around having you joining us today to talk a little bit about your experience.
You should check that with my team and my kids and see what they say.

Lucy HardingHelena Wood

I feel like I’d have a rounding agreement from anyone that we speak to, but we’re just so excited to learn a little bit more from your amazing experience.

So Lucy, let’s get Freight to the Point. Tell us about your origins and how you got into recruitment for procurement and supply chain.

So great to join you by the way. Thank you very much for asking me to join again. So my background, I did an Economics and French degree at university. When I was a student, I worked in factory at Kodak where my dad worked. Kodak contacted me at my final year and asked me if I wanted to think about joining them as a graduate in procurement. I had no idea what it was, but I felt it was linked to my degree in terms of economic cycles and demand and supply and inflation and things like that. So it felt reasonably relevant. I went to meet the person I was going to work for, a female boss who remains an inspiration to me today and was one of the main reasons for joining. And I had a great couple of years there learning all about procurement and global factory management and working with colleagues in the US and Europe and senior stakeholders in terms of helping them understand their cost base going into their manufacturing businesses.

So that was my early years. Then, after a couple of years, I decided I wanted to change. I registered with a recruitment agency who specialised in procurement and they talked to me about joining them. I thought, well, I’d never really chosen procurement, and this was a good way of taking a little bit of a step back, looking at lots of different companies and working on the assignments to recruit people for them. So if I didn’t like recruitment, I could still go back into procurement if that’s what I wanted, but probably from a more informed position about companies and industries.

So that was back in 2000 and I’m still recruiting 22 years later. I stayed in the boutique for 10 years recruiting mainly in the procurement space. Then, I joined Odgers the end of 2010 to focus on procurement and broaden in the practice across the end to end supply chain. I’ve just stayed in it ever since. It’s fascinating. I’m so lucky to be able to work across lots of different geographies, lots of different industries, recruiting all different kinds of leadership roles in the end to end supply chain. So very much from procurement planning, operations, logistics, and distribution. In my team, we also cover the industry vertical of distribution. So working with 3PL companies. It’s ever changing and I’m ever learning and like everybody in supply chain in the last three or four years, it’s been a roller coaster.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodFascinating, thank you so much for sharing that. And it’s interesting to hear that there was clearly another girl boss who got you into the supply chain space and got you hooked. When you were leaving that phase of having had that amazing graduate experience at Kodak, and then thinking recruitment was the next step, what was it about recruitment that was tempting for you?

I think opportunities to work with people are very much. I’m a people person. Again, it was the person that recruited me, another great female leader actually said it’s low risk move because I get to see a much broader perspective across supply chain and procurement because of the companies I’m going to be working with as my clients, and understand all the different jobs in the supply chain. So that if I decide I don’t want to stay in recruitment, I’ll have a much more informed view of the roles I do want to do if I want to go back into procurement. So I was staying close enough to the function to be able to go back into it if I chose to do that. That was why I thought it would be an interesting move.

Then I’ve stayed in it because I’ve worked for two great companies. I like the engagement with people. I love being able to understand client requirements and understand my candidates and bring the two together. It’s a bit like matchmaking. It’s great to be able to understand what people are looking for and then have an opportunity with a client where you think, “I’m going to give that person a call. It might have been a year ago that we talked about what they might be looking for, but I think this is it.” Let’s have a conversation and talk about their career progression, what it means to them in terms of challenge, in terms of meeting their personal aspirations. That’s what I enjoy.

And every search is different. It’s a different candidate market. Whenever you go into it, it will be a different requirement by the client, different cultural challenges, different business cycles that organisations are in in terms of the capability that they need to hire. So much variety, very people-linked, and constantly learning.

Lucy Harding

Helena WoodI think that’s such an interesting perspective. In two ways, first, if we think about that initial move to recruitment of, and this is not the right phrase, but being almost on the spectator side of the industry where you could really look at all of the different interconnected roles within supply chain and get to grips more with. We’ve spoken with some of our other guests about, frankly, the magic of supply chain. I don’t know if you had this moment of realisation, but if I think about my own journey of coming into supply chain and suddenly thinking, “Oh my goodness, there’s this entire industry and world that I didn’t even know existed.” The clothes I’m wearing probably came to the UK on a ship from somewhere else in the world. Isn’t it incredible that everything happens miraculously and my easel parcel arrives when I order something. It’s just mind blowing.

Exactly. Totally agree. It’s like a hidden gem in terms of career opportunity. I mean, again, going back to my graduate experience, I was engaging with very senior stakeholders, two or three or four grades above me. I was a fresh grad, but they were my stakeholders. So you get to understand a lot of senior business issues from very early on in your career. Plus it gives you the opportunity to look across an organisation. What is happening at a regional level, what is happening at a global level, the external supplies that you engage with. It’s a brilliant foundation to understand how businesses operate.

Then picking up on your point about you didn’t realise that that’s what supply chain was about, I think what we’ve seen in the last two, three, four years really sit in the UK in particular since Brexit, is supply chain has become much more understood by everybody because there’s been lots of disruption. We’ve had obviously lots of planning, we had to go through for Brexit. Then obviously the pandemic hits, supply chain disruptions issues coming out of China, the global shipping issues that we’re seeing today, commodity shortages that mean we’re not getting manufacturing of cars happening, we’re not getting consumer electronics. Even the very short term spike around issues of PPE when we first went into COVID. Suddenly supply chain became a conversation on everybody’s lips in terms of: Why isn’t my stuff arriving? I didn’t realise it came from China. I didn’t realise it was made from India? If we’ve got shortages in manufacturing, why haven’t we got so many different varieties of bread or pasta on the shelves in our supermarkets? Why isn’t there as much fresh fruit coming through.

These are all supply chain issues that because everything’s been fairly stable or in comparison to now for the last 20 or 30 years, it’s just worked. It’s like anything. Everything works until the chain starts breaking down. And what we’ve seen in the last few years, and I think we’re going to continue to see for the next few years, is there are links in the chain that are weak and they are breaking. That leads to the disruption that we’re seeing today, which affects everybody’s everyday life. But people just didn’t realise. We just bought things and because they were always there, they always arrived on time, there were no shortages, which meant we just didn’t question where things came from.

Lucy Harding

Helena WoodNo, and you’re so right. We’re so programmed to have these high expectations. We still expect everything to arrive not only the next day, we’re all starting to think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we can order something online and it comes by 6:00 PM?” For many of us, we see that happening. So I want to unpack that statement because there are so many interesting things to touch on with that. One of the first things, because I think it’s really relevant to your personal journey, and I imagine triggering some of those points around working with people and feeling the impact of your work, is the PPE crisis at the beginning of the pandemic. I know you were personally involved in trying to negotiate some of that. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that all unravelled and what it must have felt like?

Not personally involved. I mean, in terms of recruiting, I’ve done a lot of work particularly in the last few years with the NHS supply chain organisation to recruit their new Chief Executive Procurement leads. But because of my network, people were putting requests onto LinkedIn or emailing me to say, “Do you know anybody that works in this company or that understand or knows where you can source particular raw materials?” So it was just great to be able to help and then actually, “Yeah, I do,” or “I know somebody that I could ask that might know somebody.” It was similar around, I remember trying to help sourcing laptops into NHS Trust to enable remote working. Again, there were just lots of traffic of requests going through LinkedIn and direct emails to me to say, “Do you know anyone that you can connect with?”

It was just great to be able to drop notes to people, give people a quick call or send a quick message to say, “Hey, I’ve just seen this request. Do you know? Can you help? Or can you recommend anybody?” So I wasn’t directly involved, but it was just the ability to use my network where I could to try and connect people and say, “Speak to this person. They should be able to help you.” That was great. It kind of felt in a little, very, very, very small way, actually helping a little bit.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodWhich is incredible. Something we ask all of our guests when they join this podcast is to tell us about any moment in their career where they really feel like they’ve made shit happen. I wonder, is that your moment, or do you think you’ve had other opportunities to really make an impact in the industry?

I think probably just little areas where I’ve been able to help or to connect people through the pandemic in particular. Then, as I worked more recently to recruit into the NHS supply chain leadership, to bring new leaders in that are going to drive transformation to be able to continue to support the NHS to deliver what we need, it’s just been so relevant and it’s just been so current, and it is the kind of thing that your children can be proud of you about, or can at least think, “Oh, I understand that you do something that’s of use, then mom,” instead of, “I don’t know what you do. It’s fine.”

Lucy HardingHelena WoodI think you probably wouldn’t be the only professional who’s supply chain related or supply chain adjacent who’s had more engaged dinner table conversations around their work than in the past.

Yes, definitely. Definitely. So that’s been nice, both as I say, with the children, but also just around the dinner table, because people have been genuinely worried and it’s like, “Well, why isn’t it there food on supermarket shelves,” or issues with as what we were seeing in NHS. So to be able to support them in those things was great.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodI’d love to hear from you. Given obviously your expertise, given your space in the executive search and recruitment fields, as the supply chain market, the industry has changed, you’ve spoke so clearly about the last four years. So never mind the pandemic. We had Brexit rumbling before that all happened. How are you seeing the role of a supply chain executive changing given all of these circumstances?

I mean, it definitely is. I think it’s changing from being seen as something operational that you just make stuff, you move stuff, you deliver stuff, and the focus of an organisation has been that’s obviously enabled organisations to deliver their sales and their services to their customers. But I think it’s definitely elevated through into the boardroom conversation as a consistent conversation now with so many other factors other than just on time, in full delivery, which is kind of what the measure has been previously. Much more around risk, around resilience, around supply chain visibility. We’ve got the ESG agenda coming in that’s rapidly becoming into regulations, so you can’t ignore that much of the emissions and Scope 3 sits in the supply chain. It doesn’t sit under the direct control of an organisation. So there are a lot of topics that are in the boardroom now that are linked directly to supply chain.

Some of them are short term about risk, about resilience, about ensuring product supply, but we’ve got much more longer term issue, around the ESG agenda, around what is the supply chain network going to look like? Where are we going to manufacture? Are we going to nearshore? Are we going to bring things back to the UK again? Are we going to invest significantly in automation because of the labour shortages that we’re seeing, and then overlay all of that with the current inflation figures that we’re seeing coming through. Again, it’s a strategic conversation in boardrooms about what does our supply chain look like and need to look like for the next three to five years, rather than, it just works, it just operates, it’s fine, it’s an operational function.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodWhich is so interesting, because I think, what we are seeing consistently and I’m hearing it in what you’re saying is that sort of shift from the reactive to the proactive, from the back office to the board room. There’s so much change for the supply chain professional and I’d love to hear based on, think about the candidates you’re placing and the conversations you’re having. How is the skills profile of a chief supply chain officer changing? What do they need to be doing now that they maybe didn’t in the past?

I think the technical pillars of an end to end supply chain, so plan, source, make, deliver, remain the same. It’s like any leadership role, really. If you’re going to make an impact in the boardroom, you need to be able to have a strategic business conversation. The times that we are living in at the moment, they’re tough conversations. They’re not good news conversations. It’s trying to present to senior leaders across an organisation information so they can make strategic decisions, but information in a way that it’s linking to business strategy, to organisational strategy, understanding the implications of if we change X and Y is going to happen.

But equally we have to make some decisions here. We can’t just keep on making things faster, quicker, cheaper, and meeting consumer expectations that have dramatically shifted again in the last 10 years to, as you were saying, next day delivery, same day delivery, delivery within an hour of you ordering it if you live in a particular city. Something’s got to give, and that’s about making informed decisions and understanding we may have to change some of these things here, which could ultimately increase the cost of the supply chain, which ultimately is either going to impact your margin, it’s going to impact your share price, or you put the price through to the customer. But those are your options and which ones are we going to take? They’re not easy conversations to have both within the boardroom and then potentially with shareholders.

So I think it’s about that resilience, that ability to see the supply chain role in the wider context of business strategy, business performance, and be able to have robustness to have those conversations and confidence to be putting the view across and options across when it’s not always going to be a good news story.

And what we are seeing, quite frankly, is the unravelling of 30 years of supply chain best practice strategy, which is about low cost country sourcing, very lean, holding no inventory within your supply chain. Well, what we’ve seen is that’s okay when everything is stable. But we are not in stable times and when one of those links break, everything breaks and it hits the overall business performance in terms of ability to serve the customer. So cost has got to be built back into supply chains, just purely in terms of resilience, overlay that with ESG initiatives as well, overlay that with potentially increased capital investment to move more towards automation and warehouses or automation in manufacturing facility, and who’s going to pay. Those are tough questions.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodTough questions and tough conversations to have, but it’s a much more, this is going to sound unfair, but a much more involved role and a more, hopefully rewarding role. I’d love to hear your take. We had a very interesting conversation with our CEO and founder, Alex, in our first podcast episode. He was getting quite excited as he was thinking about the future of supply chain and the role of the professionals in the future. One of the changes that he is seeing and hopes to see more of is the trajectory of supply chain leadership to the CEO position, which traditionally might have followed a commercial route or maybe a finance path. But, we are seeing, I think given this expanded skills profile, given the strategic importance of supply chain within so many businesses, the potential of the supply chain leader to take that top seat. I wonder, are you seeing that as well?

I think it’s a possibility. I don’t think it will become the majority. It’s definitely about having the supply chain role in the boardroom and that’s the first step, right? You’ve got to be in the boardroom before you can be considered to be the chief executive. I think we need to see that being more mainstream before we’ll see momentum of chief supply chain officers becoming chief executives. I think it will happen, but I don’t think it will ever be at the same volume as you see the path to CEO coming from CFO or coming from Chief Commercial Officer or somebody that’s got that breadth essentially is what’s required.

But it varies by industry as well. So depending on the nature of your industry, it might mean that you need to be a very financially astute leader to, and come from a CFO background, to be a CEO of a particular business. If you’re in a pharma environment, for example, it may mean that you need to be much more a scientist background or a marketer in a consumer business. So, I think it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it will become the mainstay source of candidates for CEO roles.

What you may see is that it becomes more of a common stepping stone on the way to becoming the CEO, because you really understand the operations of a business and the link between making your product and where you’re sourcing your materials from and delivering it over through to the customer. So you may see that being much more of a tick in the box that probably is favourable to have before you go on to become a chief exec. But I think anybody that is pure play kind of very deep and very specialist around the supply chain, I think you may find their skillset could be a little bit too narrow, even though we’ve talked about the breadth of the function, if that’s all they’ve done.

But if above and beyond function, it’s about leadership. It’s about how do you lead larger groups of people? How do you drive transformation and change? How do you inspire your customers? How do you product develop? How do you reach new markets? It’s all of those things. So, it’s ultimately a leadership role that could come from anywhere if you’ve got an exceptional leader within your organisation. It’s still quite early days, but I do see the non-executive opportunities looking into this community more, again because they understand, they need that senior voice around supply chain around the boardroom table.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodWhich is fascinating. I think, to your point around opportunities for really excellent leaders and leadership being such a key driver, it’s a really, now more than ever, really supply chain needs leadership. Businesses need leadership that comes through and from supply chains, there’s so much opportunity there for anyone in this space.

And you made an interesting point as well around, you spoke of sort of the unravelling of 30 years of best practice and learnings, which is kind of frightening, I imagine, for lots of people sitting thinking about it. But for anyone coming into supply chain or early in their supply chain career, to me, it just presents so much opportunity as we sit sort of on the cusp of disruption as these links in the chain are breaking. So, for anyone who is early in their supply chain career thinking about getting into supply chain and wants to grow, do you have any tips as to where to start and how to map out your career path?

I think so, yes to everything, and keep learning, I think. And I would say if you can be in control of it, which you should be, rotate around the supply chain. Try not to get, if you end up in planning, stay in planning; if you end up in procurement, stay in procurement. Try and navigate and take control of your own career. Don’t wait to be asked, but actually have those conversations and lead them yourself to try and work through as many areas of the supply chain as you can. Because that’s what’s going to give you breadth and all of those different perspectives.

But I think like any function, it’s always great to take a role in the business if there’s an opportunity to do that. So if you can step out of the function and go into a commercial role or a marketing role or a product development role or something slightly broader, where actually you are the customer, the stakeholder of the supply chain function in some way, because it can give you a really, really good understanding of what does it feel like to be served by this supply chain team? And if you then go back in, you’ve got the customer view to be able to shape the supply chain strategy because you’ve seen it from the other side.

So I think it is about, you know, strategically planning your career and thinking you can go in so many different ways. Try not to get too stuck in one element of the supply chain if your ambition is to ultimately take a supply chain leadership role. Look to see how you can navigate through the different functions and possibly even move into, I say, a different part of the organisation where it gives you a different perspective. Then you can come back in and apply that in your leadership role in supply chain.

Lucy Harding Helena WoodWhich is just so much great, really practical advice. I hope for anyone that is listening and thinking about taking that jump or sort of looking to map out their career, I’m sure there are things they could take away from this.

I suppose one other area of challenge for anyone thinking about career growth, career development, or anyone possibly in your position, looking into businesses to maybe place a candidate, is the space for diversity and inclusion. I think we can possibly all recognise and put our hands up that supply chain possibly hasn’t historically been at the top of the pile when it comes to diversity, particularly from a gender perspective. I think things look like they’re getting better. I think we’re both sitting here as two women speaking on this podcast about supply chain, but I’d love to hear from your experience of what you’re seeing on the diversity and inclusion agenda within the supply chain space.

I mean, I think, coming in at entry level, I think it’s fairly balanced actually, which is unusual across many entry level functional roles. The challenge always comes at the leadership levels and the director levels. So a couple of levels off the Chief Supply Chain Officer, if you like. But it is improving and it is getting better. It’s all about having great role models and having senior female leaders and having senior male leaders, championing females or other diverse groups. It’s not just about gender. Ethnicity is really, really important too, as is things like neurodiversity. But it’s important to have senior sponsors, male and female, senior role models. People running sponsorship programs, mentoring programs, giving advice freely, and supporting people coming through, but it is a brilliant function to go into and it has so much variety within it.

The reality is we’ve always seen lots of statistics that have been around for probably the last 10 or 15 years coming out of great businesses like McKinsey proving that more diverse businesses, more diverse leadership teams, are more commercially successful as organisations. But there’s a whole load of other statistics. I was speaking with a colleague who runs a diversity and inclusion consultancy business last week. She said businesses, particularly in supply chain and operations, diversity on the shop floor is really, really important. More diverse manufacturing teams. They have higher health and safety rates. They have lower absenteeism. And quite frankly, it’s more fun to work with a diverse group of people. This is a great profession to attract diverse candidates, but like anything, it’s about keeping them and not losing them because it’s just become an area that they don’t want to work in anymore. Or obviously what we’re seeing now, lots have been talked about in terms of the great resignation with people making different choices.

So it’s not just about diversity, but then it is about, to use the words we’ve used already, inclusion. Once you’ve recruited a great diverse team, you really have to keep them. You have to make everybody feel included, that they feel it’s an equal environment. They can be themselves without judgment and they’re completely comfortable in that environment. So there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think it’s such a diverse function and it has a good entry level of mixed gender that we should be working to make sure we keep that diverse mix going forward. And diverse businesses just make better decisions, in my view.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodThey do. And they’re more fun. I think having diversity of thought is absolutely what any supply chain is going to need right now, given all the challenges that we’ve listed. Unfortunately, things aren’t slowing down. We’ve got different curve balls and black swan events coming at us constantly. So it really does seem that now is the moment to make sure that supply chain organisations, leadership teams, are ensuring they’ve got that diversity of background, thought process, to make sure that they’re able to make the best decisions and be set up for success.

Yeah, definitely.

Lucy Harding Helena WoodSo, Lucy, see one final question for you before we get onto our quick fire round, which is around how you think about the future of supply chain and where you really see the most scope for change. How do you want or hope to see the supply chain being disrupted?

I think it’s about supply chain redesign, to be honest with you. So the redrawing of the global map, where we’re sourcing from, the unraveling of globalisation, moving much to more towards regional strategies or local strategies. That also actually helps with the ESG agenda in terms of bringing things closer to home. So I think that’s where we’ll see the biggest shift.

I think the exciting things about that are obviously opportunities for new geographies, new opportunities are going to spring up to create more work that maybe previously was offshore or outsourced. We’ll see a lot more innovation around automation as well, which I think will be exciting and interesting. And my personal hope, we need to reduce the consumerism that’s really grow very quickly over the last 10 years or so. This expectation of “I want it now. I want it tomorrow. Fast fashion, I’m going to order 10 different things. They’re going to arrive tomorrow. I’m going to send nine of them back because I can.” I personally hope that by redrawing the map, which will put some additional cost back into the supply chain, ultimately it will also help to dampen maybe some of this consumerism that I believe is what we’ve got used to, but actually not necessarily what we need.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodI think that’s a very powerful way of looking at things. I actually entirely agree. You’re making me feel rather guilty for having placed an online order for things I’m now not going to return earlier this week. So Lucy, thank you.

We’re ready for our quick fire round. I hope you are sitting comfortably. We would just love to get some top tips from you for any supply chain listeners or shippers on the call today. So for anyone that’s in supply chain at the moment, Lucy, would you recommend that they are thinking about their long term or their short term strategy?
Long term.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodPerfect. Would you recommend that they are trying to optimise for efficiency or effectiveness?


Lucy HardingHelena WoodNice. A little bit of a curve ball through there. What is the number one lesson that working in supply chain has taught you?

Oh, that’s a good question. Be prepared for constant change.

Lucy HardingHelena WoodPerfect. And who has inspired you the most in your career?

My first boss at Kodak.

Lucy Harding Helena WoodAmazing. Lucy, thank you so much. It’s been amazing to have Lucy Harding, still a girl boss. We’re still fangirling. Thank you so much for contributing to our podcast and we’re hoping to hear from you soon. Thank you.

A huge thank you also to our audience for tuning into this episode. If anyone has any questions or any feedback, please do contact us on LinkedIn. We’d absolutely love to hear from you. But for now and until our next episode of Freight to the Point, goodbye.