“When I think about the suppliers that I work with, I can’t think of a single one with a woman in the top job,” says HweeHuang Lim, director of global supply chain at Emerson, a leader in helping businesses automate their production, processing and distribution facilities.

Originally published March 2017

Singapore-based Lim has been responsible for sourcing strategy and development of the Asia supply base, including China and India, for nearly seven years, and she’s used to standing out as a woman.

“Emerson assembles items, and the raw material makers are typically very technical. So, for example, you walk into a factory that produces steel castings,” she says, “There, the environment is very tough, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it can be heavy. You find very few ladies.”

An engineer herself, who spent seven years working as a process engineer for Emerson before being promoted to plant manager and beginning an upward trajectory, Lim says she tries not to bring gender into her career: “I always think, ‘Don’t put our gender into it’. Don’t keep reminding yourself that you’re different, because this is about business, and we are professionals, so let’s talk about work and talk about our objectives. That’s the way I have always approached it – I don’t demand to be treated differently because I’m a lady, and I don’t want to behave differently because I’m a woman.”

She adds, “When it comes to work, it’s just about the task in front of me, and that’s how I face those challenges.”

Lim has certainly earned her spurs, having spent her entire career in the one business, and she has moved from managing a team of eight to taking responsibility for a cast of hundred.

“In each role I got to see a bigger scope of our business,” she says, “and to develop different competencies. Then I was given this position as global supply chain leader, managing slightly more than USD200m of spend for the Asia region, including China and India. China and India are still the best cost countries in the world, other than sourcing for Asia plants, we export materials back into Europe and North America too.”

She loves both the big-picture perspective that comes with overseeing an entire supply chain, and the access she gets to so many plants across the region.

“When you’re a plant manager, you only manage your own plant,” says Lim. “When you’re a supply chain director, you get to see so many production plants, because most of your suppliers are running production plants themselves. You can’t expect all your suppliers to be as excellent in their operations as Emerson, and sometimes you source from smaller entrepreneurs and they are trying to grow, so you get to provide your experience to help them to be better, and that’s great.”

Lim is a firm believer in the importance of developing strong and enduring relationships with suppliers. “In a plant, it’s easy to say you can’t deliver because a supplier has let you down,” she says. “But in my current role, I have no one to blame, so I have to make sure my suppliers deliver. That brings a lot of challenges – I work with a lot of different business cultures, in different countries and with different organisational structures. You have to adjust your way of dealing with them to make the management of suppliers the most effective. There is no one formula for Indian suppliers or Chinese suppliers; every supplier is completely different.”

If she were to share one piece of advice with aspiring supply chain professionals, and particularly those seeking regional roles, it would be to keep an open mind. Lim says: “That’s what I always remind myself and my staff. Every company makes mistakes once in a while, and nobody is perfect. So when a supplier doesn’t deliver, don’t just walk away without thinking again. Every supplier has their own strengths and weaknesses, so you need to look at how you best use each one’s strengths to enhance your entire supply chain.”

Sometimes the smaller supplier may be more cost effective, but their lack of scale might produce other problems, if they are having difficulty recruiting the best operations manager, for example.

She also advises people to be alive to those cultural differences. Lim says: “When you’re in a regional role, respect the differences of culture between organisations and countries. They may not necessarily behave the same way as you. Walk in their shoes, and by doing that, it will become much easier to deal with people and win their respect. Just because you’re the customer, that doesn’t mean you can make demands and behave disrespectfully.”

The role of the senior supply chain professional now demands for more of those softer skills, such as good communications and strong team management. But finding the right talent is not always easy.

“For the last six years, when I’ve been recruiting, I would say I’ve never found the perfect fit,” says Lim. “There is never anyone that fits in a role totally, so you just have to search for the competencies and the qualities and then coach people into adjusting to the organisation and the way we do business.”

She adds, “The most difficult skills to find are those that relate to supply chain management; that’s something that’s not so easy to find. We have candidates that come in with negotiating skills that are very suitable for the job they’re coming from, but they need to relearn the way to manage supply chain when they join us. It is more than sourcing and price negotiation.”

The good news is that businesses like Emerson are increasingly taking supply chain far more seriously. Lim says: “The importance of my role for the organisation is definitely increasing, and more and more organisations do realise that supply chain can become a competitive advantage for the business.”

She says that strong relationships can also be the key to making those supply chains run smoothly: “When the customer’s requirements change, you need to be able to cascade that information down and develop your supplier base to be so nimble and so technically sound that they can immediately meet a customer’s new requirement. At the same time, pricing is very challenging, especially in Asia, where customers want to invest less in their equipment but demand more, from a safety and environmental perspective, for example. It is critical for the supply chain group in any organisation to be able to fulfil customer demand while protecting the margin.”

Encouragement is still needed to bring more young women into businesses like Emerson, says Lim. Only then might she start to see more senior females across her negotiating table.