By Angel Newkirk, Vice President, Supply Chain Systems and Corporate Integration, Ann Brands of Ascena Retail Group
I’ve always loved problem solving. When I was young, my dad taught himself programming languages at home, writing programs to organize his “inventory” of home assets – including an impressive collection of logo golf balls! So perhaps it’s not surprising that I landed in IT. I guess you could say it’s in my blood!
I studied business in college with an emphasis on information systems. Right after graduation, I landed an entry-level job with an insurance company in its training program for application developers. It gave me the real hard-core technical training I didn’t get in college, and I loved it! I can be a little introverted at times, so working with computers fit my personality. I also like digging into things and finding solutions to problems.
I had been working in insurance for three years when an opportunity opened up at Ann Inc., the parent company of the Ann Taylor retail chain, in the Louisville Distribution Center. From the time I interviewed and took a tour, I was instantly hooked on supply chain. Coming from insurance, you don’t see the product and can’t touch what you do. It’s very ethereal—adding an endorsement to a declaration. At the Distribution Center, I saw the product moving through the building and the impact I could have. When I saw how technology worked together with process and the supply chain, I was in love from the start. Eighteen years later, I’m still here!
Letting Go of Your First Love
I started as a programmer, moved up to senior programmer, manager, director, and eventually vice president. But the funny thing was, when I was a senior programmer, I didn’t necessarily want to be a manager. I absolutely loved what I did. It challenged me every day. Always something new. But of course, when the opportunity presented itself, I wanted it in the worst way. It gave me that weird scared feeling. Maybe I wouldn’t be a good leader. Maybe it would be too much for me. Maybe I’ll miss not being down in the dirty details every day. It was a good, healthy fear though, the kind that keeps you on your toes and makes you want to push past the unknowns to the next level.
I still struggle with letting go of solving problems for my team or giving too much feedback on how I would fix an issue or approach a project. I know there’s more than one way to do something and my way isn’t the only way. I don’t want to always provide the guidelines or template for a solution or dictate an approach. I try to give my team members the space to come up with their own answers. But I still have to rein myself in from time to time; the problem solver in me sneaks back out. I haven’t been able to cure myself yet!
A Woman-Centric Workforce
When I worked in insurance, my first boss was a woman. It was good for me, as a young woman just starting her professional career, to see another woman in a leadership position, even if she was in the minority. When I first started working here at Ann Inc. in Louisville, the local workforce was also largely male. I was the only female on the IT team for a while, but given that it was a supply chain/distribution environment, that’s not uncommon.
Ann Inc. as an organization, however, is very different. There are women in leadership roles throughout the company. I’m working with women every day—leading large global and cross-functional teams, running strategic projects, making tough decisions —who also lead their families at night and figure out a way to juggle it all. Being able to work beside them and learn from them every day is inspiring.
I’m lucky to have a great partner on the business side with me at the Louisville Distribution Center. We have totally different personalities and leadership styles. She’s the extrovert to my introvert. I am always thinking strategically about what’s next and how we can achieve our goals and deliver value – I want to make it all happen and sometimes too intensely! She’s always open for a brainstorming session and a sanity check against my grand ideas. She helps me loosen and soften up a little and come out of my introvert shell. We have a respect and trust that enables us to give guidance without being critical of each other.
My most recent leader was probably the best I’ve had, a once-in-a-lifetime talent – strategic and creative, thoughtful and smart, with a sharp wit. I loved her sense of humor, which clicked with me instantly because I love sarcasm and laughing at work. She had a logical, calm approach to problems and difficult situations. She listened and gave guidance in a way that always came across as positive, even with tough messages. I don’t think I ever walked away after talking through an issue or obstacle that I didn’t feel better afterwards. I learned so much from her by watching her operate in meetings, how she built relationships, and navigated the politics and difficult situations.
I’ve never looked for official mentorship. But I’ve worked with great leaders—both men and women. I like to take the positive approaches I’ve seen leaders employ and pull those into my portfolio of how to lead and manage. In the same way, I look at behaviors that don’t produce positive results and try not to repeat those actions. You can learn valuable lessons from every leader and every style, both good and bad.
In the end, the very best leaders care about their teams on a personal level. They engage you in conversation that isn’t always related to the work. They know your families and your interests, and they realize those are priorities. They take time to express thanks for jobs well done. They encourage learning and professional development. Showing an interest in your team as people will ensure they feel valued and engaged.
I lead a global team with people in Kentucky, New York, and Hong Kong that has responsibility for end-to-end supply chain systems, from product design through distribution to stores. Here in Kentucky, my team manages distribution, transportation, and international trade systems. I also have a team managing corporate integration. I have a New York-based team that handles product development and sourcing systems. I have a Hong Kong team that supports our sourcing office in Asia.
Managing a globally distributed workforce can be tricky. But through the magic of technology, we can be in very different places and still have very productive, collaborative working relationships. For me, though, I like to establish the relationship in person. It helps to see someone’s body language, to match the inflection of their voice to the look on their face, to get to know them through lunch meetings or events after work. So I am in New York once or twice a month and in Hong Kong once a year. With that personal interaction, we can grow and maintain our relationship virtually. Once you have the relationship established and you are on other end of a phone, you have a better feel for what you’re hearing and the intent behind the words.
A Tall Order
Over the next 12 to 15 months, my team is working on several strategic, cross-functional projects with overlapping time lines. With the Ascena Retail Group acquisition of Ann Inc. last year, these integration projects are critical to the success of the transition, with supply chain being at the core.
Ann Inc. is a very lean organization, so it’s quite the juggling act to keep all of these projects on schedule and on budget. Luckily I have a great team of smart, creative, and dedicated folks who are committed to success. Most of them have been with Ann Inc. for 10 to 15 or more years, and we have been through many fires together. It’s a team of world-class and consummate professionals. Not only do they know their technology, but they also know our business inside and out. We are embedded with our business partners and have a strong functional knowledge of our processes. Our business partners see us as an extension of them and want us sitting at the table for the strategic conversations. I’m lucky and proud to be part of this team and all we have accomplished together.
In one respect, the work we are doing now is bittersweet and personally difficult to comprehend, as it will result in the closing of our Louisville Distribution Center. In the 20 years since it opened, we have cultivated an amazing culture of teamwork and family that is second to none – all while delivering a value-added supply chain that is efficient and flexible enough to meet the evolving and various needs of the Ann Inc. brands.
But on the other hand, this work is also an exciting and challenging opportunity that will stretch our team and develop new skills. We are getting to work with new teams at Ascena and building new relationships and networks. We are being exposed to new technology and supply chain processes. It will allow us to again show just how well we collaborate and come together to deliver value and results to our organization. And with this team, I have no doubt we will deliver!
When you lead a team, it’s important to let go of solving problems for the team or giving too much feedback on how you would approach a project. Remember that there’s more than one way to do something or solve a problem.
You don’t necessarily need an official mentor. If you work with great leaders, you can observe the positive approaches they use and pull those into your own portfolio of how to lead and manage. In the same way, take note of behaviors that don’t produce positive results and try not to repeat those actions.
Even if you manage a globally distributed workforce, you can still have productive, collaborative working relationships. Meet the people you work with in person whenever possible. Get to know their body language, the inflection of their voice. It will smooth communication channels later when you aren’t working face-to-face.