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Podcast: Key Supply Chain Skills – with Mary Long, CEO of Abgility

By Published On: August 26, 2022

Hosts: Rodney Apple and Mike Ogle

In This Episode:

We speak with Mary Long, currently CEO of Abgility and a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee. Mary has multiple end-to-end executive supply chain roles and shares with us some of the critical soft and hard skills professionals and students need to succeed in supply chain careers.

Who is Mary Long?

Mary is a CEO of Abgility, a board advisor to the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), and a Lecturer at the University of Tennessee. Prior executive end-to-end supply chain roles at Domino’s and Campbell’s Soup. With early career roles at General Mills, Pillsbury, and Quaker Oats/Gatorade. Her areas of expertise include advancing digital supply chain agility, strategy, and customer-focused transformation. Additional areas of interest involve developing supply chain talent and accelerating public-private humanitarian supply chain partnerships. She has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of CSCMP and serves on the advisory board for AWESOMEleaders.org, and Hassett Logistics. Mary serves on the editorial board for Supply Chain Quarterly, and the review board for the Journal of Supply Chain Management, Logistics, and Procurement.

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Mike Ogle: [00:01:41] Mary, we’re happy to have you with us today on the Supply Chain Careers Podcast. Welcome.  

Mary Long: [00:01:46] Thanks Mike and Rodney, it’s a pleasure to join you.  

Mike Ogle: [00:01:48] So how did you get started in supply chain? What events or people influenced you the most?  

Mary Long: [00:01:55] I’m very analytical by nature and I took a very investigative approach. I knew that I liked solving problems and math oriented type of things. And I investigated careers that led to that, or would be a good segue. My undergrad was in quantitative business analysis. And so, I interviewed people in those fields that I had uncovered. Logistics was one of them and the other one was actuaries. And at first, I really thought I was gonna be an actuary because I just really loved that kind of math. The logistics guys were super engaging and yet they had complicated problems and it just immediately clicked for me. I’m like, this is my home. These are my people. They were great storytellers too. I think supply chain people by nature are good storytellers. Even whether they acknowledge it or not, they learn the skill over time of like this happened and then that related to this, and then that related to this, like they do have to bring things together for people and paint the picture. And so, I think that attracted me too. 

Rodney Apple: [00:03:08] Mary, you’ve got a fascinating career path. And I would say it’s very unique. I’ve looked at who knows how many thousands and thousands of resumes for supply chain professionals. I’d love to hear some of these major transitions you’ve had, moving in industry and academia. Don’t see that a whole lot, but I’d love to get your perspective on what led you to some of those changes. And some of the value or lessons learned along the way.  

Mary Long: [00:03:34] Well, thanks. For me, it did turn out really well, but I feel like I’m still on my journey. And I went through the phase of learn, and then earn, and now really, I’m focused on return. So that’s what’s led me to this shift into academia because it’s where I feel like I can make more of an impact on our future leaders, for the whole profession. From the transition standpoint, again, I was really pretty analytical in how I did things. I had a spreadsheet that I would keep track of like my values and what was important to me. And then what I was learning in each of the roles I had and what was checking the box in terms of skill sets and competencies. And then, when I was approached for a role or when I felt it was time for a new role, I evaluated those future roles and what they would get me in terms of development and skill sets. 

And then, I evaluated companies the same way. I was very quantitative in how I measured them. And then I would do forced pairs and rank my assessment of them and would try to take all the job searching and make it more quantitative and less subjective or just emotional, but more like, okay, these would be fact-based reasons why this might be a good approach. And not analysis paralysis, but just like, Hey, if you’re gonna change jobs from a really good job already and a really great company like Quaker or whoever, you don’t wanna just jump ship just cuz you’re pissed off at your manager or something. 

Rodney Apple: [00:05:27] I love that because we’ve been recording some podcasts, one in particular on this topic of making a job change. And I see it all the time in my seat, in supply chain recruitment, dangles out these carrots and people still don’t properly evaluate the opportunity using some type of analysis, really assessing and researching the company and making sure they understand the type of culture and the values that they can thrive in. And then oftentimes they chase the money or something else and they find out very quickly that they made a mistake. Would you happen to have a example you would wanna maybe share? Cause I think this is super critical, especially in today’s frequent job changes and the great reshuffle or great resignation or whatever the flavor of the day is.  

Mary Long: [00:06:13] Sure. I have many successes and failures, probably like a million that I could share, so we won’t have enough time, but I would say like one example is just to get through my MBA program. I was super goals focused and I had a gold card, which now they probably have apps for this, but back in the day, I had a gold card that I read every single day that said, by X date, a very specific date in April, I gave myself to April, you will accept a job with Walt Disney World or better. 

And at that time, because I had a two-year old, my husband and I were both in school together, the dream seemed to be like, Hey, take supply chain and work for a great company like Disney. I couldn’t think of anything better, but then I left the or better open because there was an opportunity starting with Quaker, like it was great and they, they really were amazing to the way they treated me. I don’t know if this answer to your question, but like one example specifically is that for family reasons, we were not going to move from Cincinnati. My father was in long term care and assisted living and we were very close to him and we didn’t wanna move. I worked for Pillsbury and Pillsbury offered me a role three times to move to Minneapolis and I kept turning it down. And the third, then the fourth time they called and they had hired someone to investigate assisted care facilities. They had a binder of all of these options for me and how comparable the care would be in Minneapolis compared to Cincinnati, and that they would move him and all this stuff. And they had upped the offer. Now at no time was I ever negotiating. I wasn’t even negotiating. I was like a firm, no, in my head and my, like with my family. And, I called my husband and I’m like, I think that we might be moving to Minneapolis because it was just incredible what they had done. And so we did end up doing that. And I think that’s an example where they went above and beyond and they continued that the whole way. That really painted the picture of the way they treated me the entire time. 

Rodney Apple: [00:08:41] That’s fascinating. You see companies jumping through hoops today for obvious reasons, with supply demand issues and supply chain in many other areas. That’s a remarkable thing for any employer to do, to go out of their way, to help entice that package. And also, relieve those anxieties you have around the healthcare side. That’s a great example.     

Mike Ogle: [00:08:59] And when you mentioned about having some of the personal check boxes, as far as your career was concerned, can you go into how much those changed over time, maybe how small they started out and as the list grew, what were you trying to take on? 

Mary Long: [00:09:15] That’s a great question. At first, I was learning things about logistics and supply chain focus, have I negotiated freight rates, did I get to run a bid? Did I check the box on things that you could do, activities more I would call it. And then over time that became, did I have direct reports? Did I have teams of teams, not just individual contributors, but did I have people who ran areas, operations, and, then had to get them all to collaborate together, like engineering, with logistics, with the supply chain systems teams, different teams, and get them to try to see each other’s world and come together for a common purpose. 

As I’m evaluating things now it’s more, will it teach me things about private equity and venture capital, investments within supply chain with still the goal of my personal mission of making a difference in our profession and in the world. And will it offer opportunities to advance people, to help lift people up?  

Mike Ogle: [00:10:24] I think that was a really great perspective on how those check boxes change over time.  And you’ve also been very involved in AWESOME, a great group that’s having an impact on women getting into supply chain and being able to advance their careers in supply chain.  Can you tell the audience about the group and its work and how others can get involved?  

Mary Long: [00:10:45] Sure. Thanks for bringing that up. AWESOME, it is close to my heart. It stands for achieving women’s excellence in supply chain, operations, management, and education. What Ann Drake, who was the founder, what she observed through her own personal experience, and then what really collectively a lot of us also experienced is that it can be lonely out there when you are trying to find a path. There are a lot of leadership books written about those things, but having someone who can be a guide and talk to you about that, or just to be a sounding board and help you, that kind of network didn’t exist really. I was a woman in supply chain. My first CSCMP conference, there were a thousand people, there were a hundred women and there weren’t a lot of executive women. And not that I didn’t have great mentors all over the place, but being able to have some people that you could go to where you can ask those kind of questions, and that then you can also help others. So, it’s both ways. It provides a network for executive women, but it also, is oriented toward helping make it easier for people coming up the ranks. 

So, I would say to get involved would be to go out and hit the website. Awesome leaders.org. There is a process for applying to membership and I’m not a part of that, but there are criteria that you have to meet, but there’s also content that is available for everyone. So, if you’re interested, I would definitely hit that website. 

Rodney Apple: [00:12:32] So Mary, shifting gears here a bit, we touched on indirectly some skills, you mentioned early on, highly analytical and enjoyed math. I’ve seen a shift over time with skills competencies that are required to be successful in supply chain. I’d love your perspective on that. How to straddle the boundary of working in industry and academia. But also factoring in the last, what two and a half years, pandemic, lots of disruptions. You heard the term burnout quite a bit and people shifting around. What do you think it takes today to be a successful supply chain person, factoring in, these elements, and rapid advancement in technology, automation, things like that. 

Mary Long: [00:13:11] All the news makes it seem like it’s a really different world in supply chain now, than it was. And I think definitely with all of the technology challenges and also all the disruptions that we couldn’t even make up this kind of stuff that’s happening to us. But the same thing that I looked for 10 years ago, 20 years ago, the same thing I looked for applies now, and that is, people who are even keeled. In supply chain, your highs can’t be too high and your lows can’t be too low. If you let all this chaos and disruption really bring you down and then you can miss the opportunities, like the obvious opportunities for you and your team and your company that are sitting right in front of you, because you’re too sucked down into the weeds. You have to be able to not let that happen to you. And at the same time, you can’t be the person who, when something great happens in supply chain and we save millions of dollars for a company, you can’t be the person who’s trying to take the laps for that all the time. And not giving contribution and credit to colleagues and others, because it’s those other areas, marketing, finance, sales, you’re gonna need them as you go forward. I saw too many people try to be like, I win and you lose. And that just didn’t ever work.  

And then I would say another characteristic is just being curious. Our problems are not written in a book with a prescribed answer to say, Hey, go to page 95. And that’s where it tells you how to do total delivered costs for your business. You have to figure it out and if you’re not naturally curious and you don’t like solving problems that aren’t clearly defined, if you hate ambiguity, then maybe accounting would be better.   

And then, this is a funny conversation I had once with a group. They had a longer list of what they looked for in people. And, they asked me this question, like what are characteristics that are really impactful for supply chain leaders? And I said, from a Domino’s perspective, what we looked for were people who were smart and nice. Because if you’re only one of those, if you’re only smart, then you can end up doing all those other bad things. But if you have a combination of both of those, then you balance out with being able to solve complicated problems, but also work it through people, which is exactly what supply chain is all about. 

Mike Ogle: [00:15:57] And are there any hard skills that you think deserve a little bit more emphasis these days?  

Mary Long: [00:16:04] That’s a great question. By nature, I like the analytics and so I think that if you’re not comfortable with using tools and technology and leaning into that, you’re continually going to have to learn new things related to how to apply your statistical understanding or anything that you got in your previous analytics courses to a whole new level. So, we’ll have AI and machine learning. And robotics that will run facilities, but who will understand whether those suggested solutions are actually a good fit? 

You have to have comfort that you can sit in that space. And question like, oh, is this really the right solution? Is this approach really going to line up with our strategy? Or there seems something off about this? You have to be able to bridge technology and people, still people are what get supply chain done. We’re not going to sit in a space where it’s all robots, even anywhere. Sure. There could be plants that are completely automated, but still someone in supply chain is designing that and making decisions about it, at least for now, until AI gets very far advanced, but I think we’re a little safer right now. 

 

[BREAK at 17:32] 

 

Mike Ogle: [00:18:00] Can you tell us about your work at the University of Tennessee and your thoughts about the incoming group of supply chain professionals? How are they different? What are they learning these days? How is it different from what you learned when you prepared for your own career?  

Mary Long: [00:18:15] There are a lot of questions there, in that one. I really feel like I won the lottery to be able to come into academia. Especially at this time when there’s now so much interest and need for supply chain people, and so that makes it be a space where it’s a really exciting time to be here. When so many students are interested and leaders, executive leaders wanna advance their careers and they all wanna learn more about supply chain. 

And then, at the same time companies are realizing that there’s a whole field of people that they had not paid attention to before. And now they realize that they really need these roles. So my role at UT is a lecturer and I teach the capstone course in our supply chain program to senior undergrads and I teach a projects course that is hands on semester long consulting project where they’re given a real world problem for a small group of companies that participate in it. It’s only 25 students in a class. They have to work a semester long on trying to come up with recommendations for that project. So, I love that. It’s very much like the teams I used to run at Domino’s or the solutions you’re trying to uncover in supply chain. And so, it feels very real life to me. And actually, at the end of it, that’s how the students feel about it. Like it really taught them real world skills and the companies love it for many reasons, too. So, that’s my role at UT. We have 1400 students in supply chain. It’s the largest major for UT, not just in the business college. Which is crazy to me when I compare my degree was in quantitative business analysis and I graduated from Cleveland State, a state school, and there were 18 of us, it’s just a vastly different environment.  

Mike Ogle: [00:20:26] How is it different than what you needed to learn, but maybe attached to that, you could say, these are some of the things that are fundamental, period, that continue. And maybe some things that are new, beyond what you did.  

Mary Long: [00:20:40] What I see with the current generation that we’re teaching. One thing I do wanna start off with is I really always rebelled against this idea of labeling characteristics against an entire generation, because it just never seemed to ring true to me. In that population, you always meet people who are different. And my fear would be that in this time where companies need to really go above and beyond to attract and retain talent, taking easy cookie cutter approaches is kind of like a death knell of really being able to find great talent and keep them.  

Without generalizing, I’d say it is going to be a lot more work for companies to try to figure that out. There’s going to need to be a greater sense of urgency and immediacy in getting back to people for many reasons. But also, just the expectations are much higher for that. Realistically, if you look at the differences in what people have lived through, Like that puts them in context. When you look at what this younger generation has lived through, For many reasons, there’s a lot more anxiety about the perception will be that they are very self-assured and confident and they can be definitely, but, there can also be at simultaneously held self-assurance and anxiety. 

And, I think that that is a nuance too, that companies are not necessarily great at, that we’re complicated people and we can be both at all in the same meeting. I think it puts a higher burden of the ability of people to really coach a play versus coach a game and coach a season. 

I think we have relied on easier, past tricks that don’t work in the kind of environment we are all in, in terms of the complexities, the visibility that supply chain now has at the board level, and even at the country level, governments, presidents, the president meets weekly on supply chain. That didn’t happen before. So, we just can’t use the same tools and expect that we’re gonna get there. We have to change as leaders.  

Rodney Apple: [00:23:17] Mary, we touched on coaching and you mentioned the different generations that have come up and some of the nuances, but some things never do change. They remain constant in terms of their importance, as it relates to professional development and trying to advance your career. I think one of these is mentorship. Would love to hear your perspective on that as a mentor and mentee and any advice you have to share. And if there’s anything else as you look at students in particular that are transitioning into their first supply chain role, any advice that they should consider seriously consider, for the betterment of their career.  

Mary Long: [00:23:53] I think that’s a really great point to spend time on, for all of us, for students especially. I think it seems daunting and overwhelming to them maybe. That is a thing that they have to consider, but I think it’s way easier in practice than it sounds like when you read about it, or Google it, because in practice, you find people who are equally passionate about what you care about. So, if you care about a career in supply chain, well, there are thousands of us out here who really care about a career in supply chain. And, you’ll be able to find someone that you can connect with. My avenue for finding a lot of my mentors happened to be CSCMP. They had sponsored me for a scholarship in college and wow, that $1,500 paid back in spades for that because I ended up volunteering a ton and then they gave back to me because I met people who coached and counseled me. It was much more casual, but then I did participate in a formal mentoring program through CSCMP where I was a mentor. And that evolved, and I’ve learned, it’s like the classic thing of, I learned more from the people who I have mentored than I feel like I even contribute.      

Rodney Apple: [00:25:18] No, that’s great, Mary, and I know what you mean, especially in today’s world where there’s so much change, it’s nonstop and disruptions. It’s crazy out there, especially for folks getting in their first job and they’re dealing with more stress and anxiety than a lot of people that grew up before them in supply chain. Was there anything else that you wanted to call out beyond mentorship as folks transition into their first real job?  

Mary Long: [00:25:40] In addition to mentorship, I think this has evolved for everyone the way that I found most productive to look at it is to think of it more as a chorus that you have multiple people, they have different voices that they can give to you, different roles that they play. You have many people, you don’t just have one mentor that is Uber important in your life. You have many people that you can reach out to. And, it’s easier with social media and with things like LinkedIn and everything, to just stay in touch with people and shoot them a message and check in with them. Also, it’s just fun. It is as part of that storytelling part of supply chain. I have heard some of the best updates ever, how people have navigated through some of this crazy that’s happened.  

Rodney Apple: [00:26:33] Yeah, that’s a great point, setting up and establishing that network. You mentioned earlier, people have, for some reason, this fear of, oh, I’ve gotta go out and talk to somebody at the executive level and get this formal mentorship relationship set up. That’s one way to do it, but as you mentioned, simply getting out there and building a network of folks that can offer different perspectives and bounce things by and help you solve those problems, so thanks for sharing that. 

Mike Ogle: [00:26:58] Mary, you’ve also had board level involvement in supply chain associations, and you’ve had a mix of other volunteer and paid roles as well. Why is it important to get involved in all these types of roles, both through your own career and for others that are trying to advance their supply chain careers? 

Mary Long: [00:27:16] Being able to impact at a broader level is why I’ve been attracted to the board roles, through professional associations, like CSCMP or, sitting on AWESOME’s advisory board, or the American Logistics Aid Network. I also sit on their advisory board. Each one has taught me in the past or is teaching me different things about how you connect our supply chain profession, and skill sets and competencies to make a difference to the world. So, with AWESOME, it’s advancing women, with ALAN it’s disaster relief and focused on humanitarian supply chain efforts. And that is synergistic to the role at UT in terms of educating and academia, because those experiences, on a board role, relate to what some of the students really care about too, is how to find a path that you can make a difference in the world.  

Being able to show them things about disaster relief and how that connects to supply chain, it all ends up going in the same direction. And then personally, to solve more different puzzles to put together that I find personally really interesting. And I’d say where it’s taken me is into learning things about the role of private equity and venture capital in supply chain that I had not really thought of when I was an analyst at Campbell’s or Quaker. And so, learning new things keeps me interested and curious, I guess it’s just that whole curiosity thing. I like it from that standpoint.  

What I see is there is an accelerated growth in companies who are realizing that they need to have supply chain as part of their board competencies. They got away with it before and they didn’t have it, but now companies are realizing that, Hey, actually, nothing ships if we don’t have someone with supply chain understanding. So, wow. Like our whole business is in jeopardy if we don’t know how to do this or cannot get better, like a clearer line of sight to it. But if it’s the lifeblood of your whole business, you are all of a sudden going to elevate the need for that kind of board level input in a supply chain role.     

Rodney Apple: [00:29:55] And Mary, do you have any advice for folks that may want to pursue a board position, whether it’s advisory or whatnot?  

Mary Long: [00:30:02] From my experience so far, it has really just been still very network oriented. It’s who you know and whether they know you’re interested in that kind of thing. For some people that can seem exhausting to do. And trust me, I don’t make it a day job to go after that. I’ve decided to focus on the ones that I really care a lot about or where I’ve a strong connection with that CEO and I feel like I can make a difference.  

I did get really good advice from my mentor at Campbell’s. She is on a few very big companies that are publicly traded and we meet occasionally when I get back to New York City. We’ll go out and have coffee together and she gave me really good advice about that whole journey. She pointed me toward resources that were available if you were curious to find what skills that are needed from a board position. And then, she also gave me advice that you have to be really choosy. You don’t want to just jump into a board role because you want a board role. That’s absolutely the worst thing to do because you can get yourself into a position where that was not the right board to be on at all. And these are longer term commitments. So, I thought that was really helpful. She gave me very specific examples from like her own experience of like how you navigate that. So, I would say it’s like the way I started with that whole investigative approach. If that is an area of interest, then talking to people who you’ve seen make that journey and they would be happy to share.  

Rodney Apple: [00:31:47] Great advice. Thanks for sharing. Speaking of advice, you’ve shared a lot of great advice today, Mary. Is there anything that if you reflect back in your career that you would call out as some of the best career advice that you’ve received, that you might wanna share with the audience?   

Mary Long: [00:32:04] I always liked this question, because when I could no longer listen to everything that people are saying, this kind of always hit home for me. So, I would say the very first piece of advice I got that really resonated with me was assume positive intent. And that can be when you get that email where the proverbial stuff has hit the fan and it’s all bad, and you want to just reply in a really snarky way, to pause and to think back, to reread what someone has sent you and to assume positive intent on their part, that they are just trying to do their job. And something has happened that has made their job really painful. And so they are not trying to dump on you, but they’re trying to solve it. Maybe their approach was absolutely the best approach, but get beyond like the flare up of being mad about it and figure out a way to answer that. So assume positive intent is something that really resonated with me and has resonated with my team. 

The other thing, I love a lot of the stoics and stoicism I think is like a very great philosophy for supply chain people. So, Epictetus talked about know what is in your control and out of your control. Steven Covey put it as, like the circle of influence, circle of concern, that type of thing, a really worked well in supply chain. You can be concerned or care about millions of things, but what you can directly control is a really small amount. And so, being able to process that at the end of the day, when the plant has shut down and you’ve got 40 trucks stopped on the freeway and you’ve gotta talk to the sheriff and they’re dropping F bombs at you, and you’re only 30 years old. you’re like, ah, I don’t know how to process this. It helps a lot.  

The one that I used to with my team a lot are facts are friendly. This was from the standpoint of that we would come to a meeting, supply chain. We would come with a lot of data and because we swim in data and that our numbers wouldn’t always match up with what maybe marketing or sales had to say. At first, my teams would sometimes see it as a battle of who could win, we can beat them with like this. We would regroup and we would go back to that facts are friendly. That if they saw it that way, they had collected this data. And to them, it painted this picture. What we had to do was address their concerns and be able to answer that in a way that reassured the entire organization that we could deliver on our commitment, reassure our customers that we were able to meet their expectations, or if we could not, by when. And so, integrity, building that trust and integrity, and those were always core values and principles at Campbell’s that have served well. 

Like Doug Conan at Campbell’s. I learned you keep track of your lessons of experience. And he continually fine-tuned his list and I saw him present over and over again, like what he has learned from a career in business. He had some things that were always the core. But then he continued to learn and he continued to add and revise and tweak his list.  

Rodney Apple: [00:35:54] And it goes back to what you said earlier. I wrote it down cuz I, I love it. Learn, earn and return.  

Mike Ogle: [00:36:01] Mary, thank you for a great conversation and all your insights about supply chain careers. 

Mary Long: [00:36:06] Thank you. It’s been awesome to talk with you both.