There are not enough women working in senior roles in supply chain, says Nicola Mason, remembering a conference she attended recently where less than a third of the audience was female.

Originally published March 2017

And while she has never faced any challenges herself because of her gender, the former vice president in charge of international procurement and supply chain operations at Sony Pictures Entertainment says women need to stand up and be counted. An important thing to remember is that women bring something different to the party, she argues.

“The key thing for me is that you shouldn’t try to be like the men,” she says. “Be yourself and focus on what you bring to the table, whether that’s a different way of looking at something, or a softer, less aggressive approach to negotiations. It’s not about competing with the men, it’s about understanding what they bring, and realising that companies need a balance of both.”

Mason fell into a career on the supply side of computer gaming after leaving university and accepting a job with French games developer Ubisoft for no other reason than they wanted a fluent French speaking graduate. UbiSoft, which now employs 10,000 people across six continents, back then had just five people in the UK, and hired Mason to look after sales and operations. In such a small office, she got the chance not only to learn, but also to stand out, quickly.

“I really liked the industry,” she says. “The computer games market was growing phenomenally at the time, which was when the PlayStation had just come out. It was in its infancy, but clearly going places.”

After two years, an opportunity arose at another games maker, Eidos, where Mason spent seven years and rose to the position of procurement and production manager – “That was really where I cemented my enjoyment of moving goods around, and getting the best price for doing so,” she says.

Mason joined Sony Pictures in 2005, still the entertainment industry but this time within the Home Entertainment arena of DVD and Blu-Ray consumer goods. Over the course of 11 years she saw her career take off, being singled out for the company’s internal leadership programme and moving through roles as Senior production manager, supply chain director and Executive Director before becoming Vice President in 2014. But the Home Entertainment sector is now in decline and Mason left Sony last year.

“I have been responsible for all aspects of the end to end supply chain, from the purchasing side right through to delivery to the customer,” she says. “I like the purchasing piece because you feel like every time you save some money, or negotiate a better deal, or improve your service level, you are directly impacting the bottom line. I like to simplify things for people and make their lives easier, and just generally take the hassle out of everything for internal customers, and for the ultimate customer, whether that’s retail or consumer.”

She says she’s learned over the years that one of the best ways to make a supply chain flow is to focus on collaboration; a skillset women often excel at. “For me, collaboration is key,” she says. “If you want to be successful, you need to collaborate with both your suppliers and with your customers. If you can build long-term relationships with them, and it’s not an adversarial partnership, but rather one where you are both working together to drive costs out of the supply chain and make efficiencies, that’s definitely a better way of working.”

Mason qualified with the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply early on in her career, and would recommend that others do the same. She also advises upcoming talent not to sit around waiting to be told what to do, and to follow their guts, rather than rely on statistical analysis.

“Don’t be afraid to try things out,” she says. “In fact, you learn more from trying something and failing than you do from succeeding. I don’t mind if something goes wrong and I can justify why I made the decision to try it. If you try 10 things in a year and only six succeed, then I think that’s great, and shows innovation.”

Today, one of the biggest challenges for the supply chain function as a whole, she believes, is to demonstrate its value to the wider business.

Mason says: “Supply chain people need to get out there and show that they are not just contributing to the bottom line, and their roles are not just about efficiencies and cost savings. They can also contribute to the top line in just the same way as sales and marketing do.”

She points to the example of money tied up in inventory, which has a direct impact on the amount of cash available to the business. The whole supply chain process is about reducing the time that money is held up in raw materials and components, before the sale of goods can bring in the cash. But supply chain professionals don’t always highlight their contribution: “Sales people are very good, generally, at going out and selling themselves and shouting about what they have done,” says Mason. “Supply chain professionals are perhaps less inclined to do that, and women are even less inclined than men, but they shouldn’t be afraid to do so.”

She says raising the profile will also make it easier to hire talented individuals, which can be difficult in a function that is not seen as being as glamorous as some other functions.

But as supply chain increasingly secures recognition at boardroom level, things will improve: “As supply chain gets more seats at boardroom tables, the calibre of candidates will follow, but that’s actually quite a slow process,” says Mason. “There are a lot of companies where supply chain and procurement still don’t get that recognition, and until that happens, I think we’re going to struggle to entice more women into the function.”

It may be a while before those conference audiences are more evenly spread, even if change is on its way.

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