Podcast: EVP of Supply Chain, at Penguin Random House – Annette Danek

By Published On: September 8, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

We speak with Annette Danek-Akey, Executive VP of supply chain at Penguin Random House about how she discovered an interest in supply chain as she focused early on to discover her likes and dislikes. After teaching quality leadership to thousands of people at Sears Logistics, she found an opportunity that matched her love of books by going to what was at that time a small publishing company, but through much growth and acquisitions has become what we know today as Penguin Random House. Annette talks with us about hard skills such as analytics and process mapping, but also about soft skills like curiosity, listening, and teamwork. She emphasizes the importance of building team culture while building the team’s ability to deal with physical and process automation. Annette also provides her thoughts about mentorship, getting better at doing uncomfortable things, plus the value of even more frequent communication during busy and challenging times.

Annette Danek’s Bio:

Annette Danek-Akey has more than 25-years’ experience and is currently responsible for 2,000 employees within 3.7 million square feet of Operations Center space in multiple locations. Annette manages the distribution, transportation, customer service, engineering, ebook billings, fulfillment systems, reverse logistics, and remainder sales for PRH and more than 40 third-party publishers to more than 30,000 locations. Annette is an Adjunct Professor for Operations Management at Towson University. Most recently, Annette was elected to join the MHI Board of Governors. Annette has been featured in many different articles including being highlighted as one of the 7 Notable Women in Supply Chain & Logistics by Inbound Logistics in 2020, and was named one of DC Velocity’s 2019 Rainmakers, in recognition of her leadership in the supply-chain industry.


I really do think that one of the things that you have to know is know you, who are you? What do you like? If I go back to, what did you like when you were a kid? Cause sometimes when you’re a kid, those are the things you liked doing those and kept doing them. So, if I went back to what I liked as a kid, I really liked math. I liked science. And I lived in a library. I loved to read and I loved computers because they were just coming out. And I knew what I wasn’t good at. Like I love being part of a team. I love being on sports, but I was terrible at sports, but I did play them anyway.

I say all that because I picked a college that helped me figure out what I wanted to do. So, I went to Bradley University and at that point they had a very up and coming new program that was called the academic exploration program. And in that program, they were going to give you lots of tests and tell you, this is what you should do and what you should be when you grow up. So I did, I took all sorts of other personality tests. And what do I like? And they said, okay, based on all that, you are going to be good at accounting, I think it was really finance, but they said accounting and industrial engineering. They made me go talk to people who were doing those jobs and I liked the industrial engineering better. So I said, great, I’m going to be an industrial engineer. I really love the idea that I took tests and it basically said here’s what you would like.

When I graduated college, I decided that I wanted to teach as a profession. So, I went on and got my masters from Purdue University. I was actually starting my PhD because I was going to be a professor and I was going to teach industrial engineering and then I pivoted. I went to Sears Logistics. I’d worked there as an intern and they said, we need to do teach all of these retail distribution centers, we need to teach them quality leadership. I pivoted from being an academic and saying, I can teach, but I can teach in the corporate world. And I said, you know what, I’m still going to be a teacher. I’m not giving up that goal. And if you fast forward to life right now, I’m actually now an adjunct professor as well at Towson University and I teach a class.

I did that for a couple years. There’s a difference between sometimes you want to go to a big company and sometimes you might want to go to a small company. So here I was at Sears, very big company, a great company. I’m basically teaching 10,000 people, quality leadership, which is a huge goal and a huge thing. And you learn that very deeply.

But, I got a recruiter call and it was from a very small publishing company. And if

you remember, I said, I really liked reading as I grew up. So imagine you like process and you walk into a place where there’s all of these books. So, I was in love. At first sight. It was a very small company at that point. What was exciting to me is I was going to get to learn, to do a whole bunch of things. They were putting in a new warehouse management system. They were redoing all the conveyor systems. They had to do processes and procedures. And so, I was going to come in at a time where I got to learn all of that at once. So to me, I can learn the entire supply chain at the small company where I might not have been able to do that at a bigger company. So strategically in your career, you need to decide, do I stick to a couple of things that I really like, or do you want to learn the whole end to end?

In terms of the hard skills, what I see today is the need for analytical skills and process mapping and curiosity. What I mean by analytical, just to be very specific, you gotta know Excel really well. How to use PowerPoint or Microsoft Access or any of the visualization softwares out there, whether it’s Power BI or R, any of those ways to take data and to make it visual. Whatever that is, you got to know one of those. You need to be able to take a problem and make a model out of it. So, here’s my inputs. Here’s my assumptions. Here’s the productivity, the cost of whatever it is and make a model. So, in terms of supply chain, if you can create a model and get people to understand these are the assumptions in my model, then you’re going to be very successful wherever you go.

On the soft skills, curiosity. Not being afraid to ask questions, and saying, Hmm, I think I understand, but I don’t really understand. So please teach me and explain that a little bit more to me. That hunger to learn a little bit more like knowing what’s my SIPOC, your supplier, your input, your process, your output, your customer. You’re asking all those questions to know all those pieces so that you can create a good model. So being able to ask and speak up and get those answers.

We definitely have a person, when they interview, meet a bunch of different people. You’re gonna meet a whole group. That way we can all see is the person consistent with all of us, were they different with one person? And we’re also listening to see if the person listens. I think in an interview, sometimes you have to be careful not to talk too much and maybe ask a question back. So that’s what that would be my advice is if you’re looking for a job, make sure that you have some questions because you’re interviewing for the job too. The culture fit for you is so important. Sometimes people will be pitching themselves, but they really also need to be asking questions because that shows you’re engaged.

It’s still somewhat the same. It’s a little bit easier when you’re within your own company to build that trust and the rapport. But then when you’re talking to a customer, you’re talking to a supplier, how do you get to that level where you have that trust? You have different needs, different angles with which you look through the business or what you need. So, if your supplier doesn’t want to always do everything that you want them to do, so it’s a little bit of this back and forth. What I think’s important is to really put yourself in the shoes of the partner, whoever that partner is, the customer or the vendor. And so that’s a skill, that’s a soft skill. How do I put myself in that person’s shoes? That’s the important thing with suppliers and customers is to really understand what their needs are, because then it will make you a better communicator.

I did a really great job knowing my professors. Which is why I got a nice recommendation to go get a master’s degree. I see students struggle at the very last minute, like, oh shoot, I did not establish any relationships. Who am I going to go to for a recommendation? So, you really need to think about that early and find the professor who you have a connection to and cause at some point you might need a recommendation.

I’m a proponent of being in groups that help you learn and develop. I’m in a group called AWESOME, achieving women’s excellence and supply chain, operations management and education. I’m part of that. I joined Chief because it was higher level executives and is more around leadership development and I’m with people who are in legal, in chief marketing roles and chief sales roles. I joined that because of that. And then I’m also in Warehouse Education Research Council. I’m part of MHI. So, I joined different groups. Because that’s my way of learning and for professional development.

And that’s how I keep up. I keep up by joining these groups and reading and subscribing to newsletters, listening to podcasts like this. I also am taking online classes, took one or two classes and now I’m like, oh shoot. Now I should just complete the whole certificate. So, I’m working on completing a couple of certificates. So Chief and all those things, they’re all part of a larger mission for

myself is to learn and develop.

I’ve read a lot of books on mentorship because I’ve had people say, Hey, would you be my mentor? And there needs to be some personal connection. So, I would say if you’re looking for a mentor, it generally probably starts out with just talking to someone. And there’s someone who you feel has good advice or something that they could help you or learn from them. So, you really need to have kind of a personal connection. I have had people come and say, Hey, would you be my mentor? And it hasn’t really clicked. You need a little bit of that personal connection with someone.

And it could be at any different level. I have people who I would say are my mentors, they’ve started as either people I’ve worked with or colleagues or someone I worked with on a committee, and they end up being my mentor and I may go to them for internal politics or they’re really just good at communication. So how would you do this? I do have a couple of people who were more like formal mentorship. However, I think in the organic ones are the ones that lasts the longest.

I really think there’s one really big one. And it’s automation, whether it’s physical automation or system automation. There’s just so much coming down the pike in terms of just physical automation. My lens is a little bit more on the distribution and fulfillment side. There’s been a lot of automation on the manufacturing side and not as much money into the distribution side, but now there’s so many more vendors and so much more technology, and money and venture capital being put into equipment for distribution. So that’s huge. We’ve always been a very heavy piece pick operation. Now everyone’s moving to omni-channel. I’m like, oh, thank goodness. Now there’s a lot more things for us to buy and use. Whereas in the past, like maybe 20 years ago, there really weren’t so we had to maybe customize or things like that. You got to keep up. You have to know what’s coming, what’s out there and it’s changing like every six months. And then even just process automation. There’s so many systems and so much that can be done with robotic process automation and just workflow and end-to-end visibility. There’s just so many opportunities out there.

The running joke at our company is once you’re there, you never really leave. So, after you get to a few years, I would say at least for the folks that we hire, I’m going to talk to maybe like the management level, or the engineering level, or project-based level. If you can sell what’s in it for the person who’s applying, right? So, if you love books, It’s kind of a little bit of a shoe-in. We don’t have problem with people who really love to read. But I think what we’re looking for too is people who really want to work as part of a team. And we do find, sometimes people say, oh, I really want to do more independent research. Okay. Well then, we are not the company for you. Then you’d be better suited somewhere else. We’re a very collaborative team environment. So, if you like that, then this is a great place for you.

So, when someone comes on the job interview, I try to go last in the interview process. And the question I always ask is, tell me about the culture so far. Like tell me what you’ve seen. And I love to hear the answers because that’s my job. My job is to create the culture. I like when they tell me and I said, well, why did you feel that way? Or what is it? If you can make the culture fit with what you’re saying, then you’re going to get that talent.

I was thinking about this. And I was like, oh my gosh, I have had so many major challenges. I’ve put in a lot of warehouse management systems. I’ve put in automation and it somewhat goes okay, or the demand spikes and suddenly you’re backlogged, or suddenly you have this thing in the world called COVID and you have to figure out how to do that too. All of them are different types of challenges, but when I was thinking about them, what do I do that’s similar with all those. And the hardest thing to do is to stay calm and appear confident to stay calm, appear confident, even though inside you’re like, oh my gosh, it’s not working the way it should be, but that’s okay.

Stay calm, appear confident and make a bunch of lists. If you make lists. You will get this alignment. Sometimes people say if you’re really busy, you should have less meetings. I go the opposite way. Like when you’re really busy or when you’re in a crisis, you should have more meetings. Because then you’re getting that alignment and the hardest thing with any of those situations COVID or just backlogs, or system’s not working right. Or your supplier is not doing well. You need to create alignment. So how do you create alignment? I found the best way is you literally just say, here’s the situation, you write it out. And then you say, here’s the steps we are taking and you write those out. And then you say at the bottom, if anyone has any questions or care to contribute to this, please do so. And then you share that with as many people as possible and you would be surprised like something that’s simple creates that alignment. So that’s literally what I do. And then people are like, oh, you’re such a great leader. Oh, Annette, you have such great vision. Okay. I will tell you, I’m just making a list. So, I’m

listening to people. I’m basically summarizing the current situation, what we’re going to do and asking for input. So, if you can do that, you can go through anything.

I don’t know the right answers to the list I start out with. Okay. Here’s three things we could possibly do. And then what I’ve learned is don’t be the creator and don’t worry about if someone edits you. So, put something on a sheet of paper and a guarantee. If you have that open culture, then people will say no, Annette that’s not really it, really need this step, and then this step, and then when you really should do this. So, if you have that, your original list of four things will totally disappear. And it will be as another list of eight things that other people contributed to. But you know what? It doesn’t really matter because you created the original list. You got people to list those. I’m sorry if I don’t know the answers. You just have to be open to the feedback, right? So, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m good at saying to people, grab these things. Okay. If that’s not the list, then what is it?

In some cases you just need to get a job, right? The reality is you pick it, you pick a job. If you’re lucky, then go interview and look for the culture. We have this phrase now that we use, we say culture is a verb. What do I mean by culture is a verb? It’s not just a standalone thing. You have to do it every day. You have culture is something, every little thing. If you’re going to go work at a company, look at the culture and you may have to take a job. You may have to, the reality is you may say, well, I’m going to take that job because I don’t have another offer. That’s fine. So, you go along and you’ll learn something. So even if you’re in a culture that you’re not a good fit. You’ll at least learn the things that you don’t like so that when you look for your next job, you’ll say, ah, here’s the thing is I need to correct for. And here’s really what I like.

If you find that culture then you interview and you really like it, then you would go there. And on the flip side, if someone’s in charge of creating that culture, you get to create that so that you can bring more people in. So, I would look at that and culture is a verb. It’s always active. It’s never static. There’s going to be highs. There’s going to be lows. But look for that culture and where it is a fit for you.

Know yourself. Take as many tests as you possibly can about yourself. If I go back, the reason why I really liked my careers, because I took a bunch of tests, right. If I go full circle, all those tests I took back when I was in college and it led me towards this degree in which there was not even supply chain at that point, wasn’t even on my list. But I knew myself and I still know myself to this day. If you know yourself, then you’ll know what you’re good at and where you’re like, no, I’m not as good at this, but that’s okay. I’m going to get help from other people because that’s not really my strong suit, but if it’s your strong suit, then double down on it and do more of that.

The only other thing that I would say is in relation to the organizations, I’m a big

proponent of doing a talk or doing a presentation or doing a podcast. This is maybe my fifth podcast. I will tell you the first one, I was so nervous. I couldn’t sleep at night cause it’s not my natural, not something that I choose to do or want to do. But why do I do it? Well, because it makes you learn and it helps you self-reflect too. Of what’s important to you. And I also believe in giving back. And helping people along the journey because whatever I learned, hopefully you can learn it and not make the same mistakes.