3 Lessons Learned: From One Woman in Procurement to the Next
Women in the C-suite are slowly gaining momentum, with leaders like Jane Fraser, CEO of Citi, Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte, and Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society all being named “first female CEOs” within the last few months. But there is still opportunity for other women to level up to the C-suite, especially in procurement. A recent study of 300+ procurement organizations reveals that only 38% of employees were women and only 7% hold supply chain executive positions.
We need more women in the C-suite, but I also believe we need to prioritize opportunity for anyone who works hard and proves their value — no matter their gender or background.
I was hired at LogicSource at age 28 as corporate controller. When I hopped in my Jeep with my dog—and the rest of my former life as a controller in-tow—driving across the country to start my new journey seemed crazy. I was excited by the opportunity ahead of me at LogicSource, but I had no clue that in very short order I would be tasked with becoming one of the youngest CFOs in the history of Bain Capital’s portfolio.
What I could be sure of was that I hadn’t been handed anything. I was in this position because I had put in the work and proven my value. While my firsthand experience with LogicSource was validating, the journey was never easy and certainly never guaranteed. It’s much more common to get stuck on the ladder than it is to keep climbing, but I’ve compiled a few critical lessons learned along the way that can help any woman (or man) as they endeavor to work their way up the C-Suite ladder.
Confidence is a Commodity
And a rare one. When seeking advancement opportunities, you must be prepared to leave your comfort zone. That could mean leaving everything you know thousands of miles in your rearview. But, more commonly, we pass up daily opportunities to differentiate ourselves and prove our value. Everyone likes to work on projects they know they can knock out of the proverbial park, but chances are that’s exactly what you were hired to do in the first place.
Simply doing your job well is great if all you want is stability and staying power. But remember, we’re going up, and that means risking the fall.
That’s why I regard confidence as a commodity. We know what’s behind us and are used to handling what’s right in front of us. It’s when we begin to grow and move up that uncertainty creeps in and makes us doubt ourselves. Having confidence in your experience and ability to problem solve is how we’re able to pick ourselves back up when we falter and face the unpredictable once again. It’s about mindset.
When we are confident in our abilities, we grow more comfortable taking calculated risks. Sure, you might get some splinters in your hands trying to keep a hold of the ladder, but the rewards could be unlike any you could have imagined. Because here’s the dirty little secret: no one ever feels ready for the next big thing, but the ones who excel are confident that even in the worst circumstances they will only fall to the level of their training and experience.
Specifically as women, we have certain skills that come naturally to us as mothers, daughters and wives, like empathy and communication. In my case, these soft skills have been invaluable during my time in Procurement.
More and more, emotional intelligence is a sought-after attribute not just for Procurement professionals, but executives across the full spectrum of industries. As workforces become more blended—generationally and geographically—being able to foster harmony and continuity as an executive is priceless. An easy way to capitalize on these skills and show your value at the C-suite level is by listening to other members of the leadership team and offering thoughtful advice accordingly.
Even if you’ve developed an evolved interpersonal skill set, that doesn’t mean you’ll routinely find yourself luxuriating in a sea of at-work tranquility. Trust me when I say no combination of skills or traits can keep the wolves at bay. In fact, if you’ve ever felt completely overwhelmed and in over your head, you’re on the right track. It’s these moments that really taught me. Sure, in some way they have all deepened my understanding of a certain subject, but more importantly, I survived the storm, and each time I made it safely to shore I gained confidence in my ability to problem solve, take risks, and to not be afraid of making a mistake.
Early on, I was exuding a false confidence to the powerful people around me. Eventually though, that confidence was earned, and became a reliable guide on my C-suite journey.
Whatever stage in your career you find yourself, make sure you have the right perspective when it comes to understanding your experience. That new challenge that’s got you stressed out? It’s not going to be the thing that sinks you. Rather than a burden, these challenges are the reward for having overcome difficult situations in the past.
It’s like when I lived in Alaska — the best views were always after the hardest hikes. Every now and then, to put it in perspective, look back at all you’ve accomplished from the things that scared you the most. We all confront impostor syndrome on our way up. Honoring our experience and our accomplishments along the way is how we take ownership of our confidence and move forward in the knowledge that getting to where we are now was never a fluke, and never will be.
Now, in full possession of our confidence, we can articulate our ideas and share our vision with business leaders so we can showcase the value we bring to the table. As I gained confidence, I was able to take on incredible opportunities (challenges) that would have floored a less confident Niki. Whether it was managing debt deals, keeping a steady hand on the financial wheel during leadership transitions, leading the company through a sale, or overseeing the technological expansion of the LogicSource business, it’s confidence that helped me accomplish it all before I turned 35. If it’s possible for me, the same is possible for you.
Take Time to Build a Rapport with Your Team
My grandpa always said you don’t have to be the smartest in the room, but make sure you’re outworking everyone else. This advice sticks with me today, and I’ve learned that outworking doesn't always mean being glued to your computer from dawn to dusk — it could mean taking more opportunities to get facetime with your boss or connecting with peers on a personal level.
When my boss would ask me to join or host a group happy hour, lunch-and-learn session, or a team run, my answer was always “yes.” Sure, there were 100 things to get done at the office and chores to be done at home, but as LogicSource CEO David Pennino, always says, “life is about choices.” Building genuine relationships at all levels of an organization is critical to success, no matter if you’re a first-year associate or a tenured executive.
As an employee looking to climb the ladder, it’s important that people know who you are. Social settings are so much more than chances to relax. I have always approached them as learning opportunities. Seek out groups you may not have cause to interact with on a daily basis. Follow your curiosity. Chances are that you’ll learn something new about the company or a specific function that you never would have if you’d said “no.”
And if you’re really focused on the climb, you may even get an opportunity to step in on a special project and gain new skills. Opportunities to prove value don’t always have to be the things that knock us on our ass, so stay alert and say “yes” as often as you can.
As the executive leading the organization, demonstrating a genuine interest in your employees’ lives is paramount to building a culture of trust and encouragement. Successful leaders must be relatable and approachable. Listen to what your people are saying about their day-to-day life. Not only will your openness endear employees to you on a personal level, but in being willing to hear the good with the bad, you can get ahead of problems that might be lurking in your blind spots or brainstorm a new idea that could streamline a process and improve the client experience.
The only cost to the business for being an empathetic, vulnerable and authentic leader is your time. As a busy executive that might seem like more than you can spare, but if you’re serious about leadership, making that time is imperative.
Seize the Moment
The pandemic has accelerated opportunities for working moms, a special group of workers who are never not working. Remote work provides flexibility for moms to juggle personal and professional responsibilities, as well as the ability to manage their days based on how they best achieve productivity.
For employees engaging with remote work in good faith, the new normal is “get the job done” irrespective of rigid nine-to-five constraints. This added flexibility is more than a simple perk. It’s leveling the playing field in a profound way. With remote work proving a viable alternative to business as usual, women have an unprecedented opportunity to pursue their goals and climb the ladder without fearing that the responsibilities in their home lives will dash any chances of rising to challenges at work.
In Procurement specifically, we need to be honest with ourselves about how we can fill in the gaps when it comes to women in leadership positions. It’s long past time to update the standards of what successful leadership looks like. We’re entering a new era of possibilities for women to boldly go after what they want and for organizations to stand up for what’s fair and right.
As life returns to normal, this aspect of our new world of work is one I hope sticks around for good. With confidence, empathy, and a newly emboldened perception of what’s possible, I hope women take these lessons and empower themselves to make the climb they have always wanted.