Executive Perspectives: A Panel Discussion

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Women Executive Supply Management Summit (WESMS)

San Antonio, TX
February 2009


Moderator: Carolyn Buck-Luce, Global Pharmaceutical Sector Leader, Ernst & Young

Panelist: Judith Baranowski, Director, AlixPartners LLP

Panelist: Jill Bossi, Senior Vice President — Supply Chain Management, Bank of America

Panelist: Maureen Merkle, Former President of Procurement, AT&T Services, Inc.

In this insightful panel discussion, four extremely accomplished women supply management executives shared their professional challenges and successes, ranging from defining career moments, to perspectives on personal branding, mentoring and more.

Moderator Carolyn Buck-Luce has a proven track record of advocating the advancement of women professionals. Six years ago, she chaired and founded a task force of 55 vastly different companies — including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft — with one common goal in mind: advancing women's and multicultural issues in the workplace. Buck-Luce also teaches a business course on women and power.

"The advancement of women is hard because business and mental models create challenges," she began, and followed up by asking attendees to share their unique career advancement challenges. Their responses included work/life balance, communicating career goals to upper management, transitioning from doer to leader, how to say no, working with other women, being taken seriously with an emotional nature and handling off-color remarks. These hot topics set the stage for what would be an inspiring dialog between the panelist and WESMS attendees.

Defining Moments

Buck-Luce began by asking each panelist to share her unique career trajectory and a few defining career moments.

For panelist Judith Baranowski, a 33-year supply management veteran, her first defining moment happened in the late 1970s when she was working as a buyer for Ford Motor Company. "My supervisor — a woman — wanted to pave the way for other women, but she lacked the respect necessary," Baranowski recalled. It was then that the importance of paving your own way became clear to her.

Another defining moment included Baranowski's first position as a director, during which orchestrated her first supplier conference. One of the projectors in the venue was not working, so she simply crawled under the podium and plugged it in.

"Duh, right?" she laughed. "But that proved to my team that I'd be a hands-on director."

Finally, Baranowski recalled her first vice presidential position at a failing business as a major leadership shaper. Expecting the worst, her new team was terrified when she called an introductory meeting. What they received, however, was a list of personal rules compiled by Baranowski — an explicit rundown of her values, plus what she expected of her team. Three endure today: you only get one chance to make a first impression; every day is a job interview; and the world needs players, not just coaches.

For panelist Maureen Merkle — one of four female physics graduates at her university — living and working in a male-dominated environment is second nature. Merkle, who has changed careers four times within AT&T, recalled writing specs for her first job (as the only female engineer) as a defining career moment.

"The [head of the] installation group called and asked for Mister Merkle," she shared. Upon finding out Maureen was a woman, he refused to work with her. At that moment, Merkle said she learned a valuable lesson: Do not allow frustrations to fester. Though conflicted and new to the organization, she decided to tell her boss about the situation, which was quickly remedied in Merkle's favor.

Eventually, she moved into supply management at AT&T. She obtained a related degree and learned the legal aspects of contracting, all while raising her family. "I really stretched and grew," she recalled.

Soon after, Merkle garnered executive-level support after devising a solution that benefitted the whole organization — a move that spearheaded several promotions within the supply management function. Today, she leads it.

"You've got to be able to execute," she told attendees. "Don't just meet goals; exceed them."

For panelist Jill Bossi, supply management was not something she thought of as a career — at least, not at first. "It was a safe haven at the time," she recalled. However, after working for Lisa Martin, senior vice president of worldwide procurement for Pfizer Inc and 2008 chair of the ISM Board of Directors, Bossi learned that it was a profession to be proud of — one that could be genuinely beneficial to the organization-at-large.

Although career success was paramount to Bossi, she said she eventually recognized she was spending all her time working. At that point, she decided where she wanted to live and used her network to help secure a position at Bank of America, where she has spent the last five years.

Today, Bossi enjoys all the benefits of a joyful work/life balance. "I work to live, not live to work," she said.

As the daughter of a reformer — her mother was one of only two women to graduate from her Chicago university — moderator Carolyn Buck-Luce realized early that she wanted to change the world for women. "I've always been a woman in a man's world," she said, citing her time spent as a United States government official in the Soviet Union after college graduation, plus the 18 years spent at Ernst & Young afterward.

Throughout her career, Buck-Luce has strived to ensure that professional opportunities not be capped regardless of gender. "That's been the common denominator in all my jobs," she told attendees. "I've focused on developing people, not just women in particular."

One of Buck-Luce's greatest leadership lessons is the result of a shift in perception: Instead of work/life balance, she regards it as work/life integration. "I think a lot about the model I'm setting for my kids," she explained. Three of her four children have graduated college and are living and working in New York. "I've been their career coach," she added. "I've had to integrate the roles of living two separate lives."

Personal Branding — What Is It, and How to Build It

The concept of personal branding was near and dear to attendees' hearts. As such, it topped the list of discussion topics.

Bossi said two traits define her personal brand: ethics and integrity. "Both are paramount," she said. "The people working for you are the ones getting it done, so praise them. Having integrity is the ability to get over yourself."

Merkle, meanwhile, has solidified her reputation/brand as a performer, professionally. "If I said I'd get it done, I got it done," she recalled. "It's about integrity and effort. It's your word, your reputation and your legacy."

Looking back on her career, and those of her peers, Merkle theorized that young professionals' brands are based on what they know. As they advance in their careers, the emphasis shifts to how well they lead.

"It's about your 'hallway reputation,'" Merkle explained. "You've got a brand out there — but is it the brand you want?"

Perspectives on (Wo)mentoring

All four panelists agreed on the mutual benefits of formal mentoring. For up-and-coming supply management professionals, it offers an opportunity to meet with high-level executives in a safe environment. For executives, it offers a unique perspective from elsewhere in the organization — one to which they might not otherwise be privy.

To make mentoring optimally effective, Merkle offered her best advice. "You can be perceived as having borrowed power," she warned. "Use it correctly, or you'll take on the mentor's negative perceptions, as well."

Bossi agreed, adding that it is incumbent upon ambitious supply management professionals to initiate mentoring. "We should be going out and finding our mentees and mentors," she said. "Set up a meeting. It's your responsibility to get the ball rolling."

Meanwhile, Merkle stressed the importance of informal mentoring, not just organization-mandated mentoring relationships. "You're not marrying them," she laughed. "Mentoring can be drive-by."

For those afraid their potential mentors will decline the invitation, Merkle and Bossi say there is little basis for fear. "They won't say no," Merkle reassured attendees. "No one I know ever has." And for Bossi, being asked to mentor is "incredibly flattering," she said.

"And remember: Men make great mentors, too!" added Buck-Luce.

Inappropriate Situations

For female professionals, off-color remarks are a common problem. This, according to Bossi, means women must learn how to handle the "good boys" and the "bad boys" in their workplaces.

"If it's an inappropriate comment — banter, for example — tell him!" she advised attendees. "And if it's a human resources situation, get them involved. We owe it to the other women in the organization to do so."

Being Visible to Higher-Ups

One ambitious young attendee wanted the panelists' advice for making upper management aware of her career development goals. "Are you wondering how to wear your ambition gracefully?" Buck-Luce asked her. The attendee agreed this was a fair assessment.

Baranowski was the first to offer the attendee advice. "Wearing ambition gracefully shouldn't be raw, but it should be persistent," she said. "Let it be known you're interested in other opportunities. Sit down and have a formal meeting to figure out what it'll take to get you there."

Then, Merkle emphasized the role which demonstrated capabilities play in getting noticed by higher-ups. "If you can solve a dilemma, do — even if it's not your responsibility," she said. "Also, make sure to get the appropriate parties involved to avoid turf issues."

Working With Other Women

Wrapping up the panel discussion, another young attendee who was encountering pushback from her female boss asked the panelists if they had any negative experiences working with other women. Most agreed they had.

"But, we forget that we're all people, first and foremost," Bossi advised. "We need to work at figuring out what's driving their difficulty."

Merkle agreed, adding that age disparity can drive jealousy in the workplace. "Take a step back and assess the situation," she offered. "Ask yourself how you can do a good enough job that there's no way she can hold you back."

Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

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