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Elizabeth McGuire: Lessons from a Veteran Supply Chain Leader

As part of our focus on Women’s History Month in March, I had the pleasure of chatting with Elizabeth McGuire, a veteran of the supply chain field with an illustrious career spanning more than 20 years.  Currently, she is the Senior Director of Global Sales, Inventory, and Operations Planning at HarbisonWalker International, the largest supplier of refractory products and services in the U.S.  For the last three years, she has led the effort to transform the company’s traditional safety stock methodology with leading materials requirements planning (MRP)-driven processes to create a truly demand-driven supply chain capability.  I hope you enjoy my conversation with Elizabeth.

Q: Nicole – Thanks for chatting with me.  Let’s start at the beginning.  Can you tell me about your background and how you started your career in supply chain?

A:  Elizabeth – I fell into supply chain by accident when I worked at McDonald’s as a young adult. I found that I had an aptitude for it, and I really liked it.  I am a bit of an anomaly.  I started college when I was 16.  I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but as you might imagine, I really had no idea.  Thinking I would be a mechanical engineer I soon found this was not what I liked, and at 19, I dropped out of college to get married. At 21, my child was born and by 22, I was divorced, with no college education and a young child.   Facing the uncertainty of how to take care of my child as well as myself, I started working at McDonald’s where I could work and still take care of my child.  I worked full-time, went to school full-time at night and finished my undergraduate degree in Business.

Q: Nicole – That’s really impressive! What about supply chain did you really like?

A:  Elizabeth – When I think back on high school, college, and even my younger years in business, I realized I was always asking “why” and wondering how things worked.  At McDonald’s, I learned I could solve problems in a fast-paced environment to make sure we had the products customers wanted.  It made sense to me, and it gave me a rush. 

Q: Nicole – That’s really interesting. How was it being a woman in supply chain back in the 80’s?

A:  Elizabeth – For me, I found that in the early 80s and 90s, women landed in procurement because people thought “women just go guy things.”  They were also  slotted into customer service and order fulfillment roles too.  After I left McDonald’s, those were the areas where I got jobs, and that didn’t make me happy.  Procurement didn’t satisfy my curiosity for figuring out how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.  However, I happened to work for a gentleman, and he saw that I had a different aptitude.  He took me out of procurement and taught me how to manually do MRP, which is the way that planning is done.  Supply chain is much more holistic and end-to-end.  It takes a very unique individual who can visualize that and understand how it all fits together … what levers you can pull to make things flow and work in more harmony.

Q: Nicole – Do you have any advice for women interested in supply chain today? 

A:  Elizabeth – It’s about solving problems and puzzles.  You have to find enjoyment in constant change because supply chain is always changing.  You also need to like processes.  Today, if I were to go back to school and start all over again, I would go into industrial engineering or a process manufacturing type of major in college.  As far as career paths, if you want lead a supply chain in a director or VP position, you need to understand the different functions so you can sit down at the table and have conversations with all of the different departments--finance, sales, manufacturing, and marketing.  What I encourage people to do is spend time learning about the different supply chain processes.  Doing a 6-month rotation in each functional area really gives you an appreciation for the people and roles so you can make better decisions.

As a woman in a supply chain leadership position, you have to know double what a man knows.  Right or wrong, that’s the way it is.  You have to be prepared and learn a lot on your own, but you also have to be very humble and self-aware.  This is what led me to returning to school and obtaining both my MBA as well as a Masters in Organizational Leadership and Change.

Q: Nicole – We’ve talked a lot about women in supply chain, but at the end of the day, you’re a woman in a leadership position.  Do you have advice about how a woman can become a leader?

A:  Elizabeth – You must have self-confidence for sure, and you must advocate for yourself and have good sponsorship and mentors.  You really need a sponsor inside the company that guides you, gives you feedback, and helps you understand how you are helping the business.  There are great opportunities for women as we see more and more women move up the corporate ladder into CEO and board positions.  As a woman, you need to be the one propelling yourself forward, promoting yourself, seeking that sponsorship, and advocating for what you want and where you want to go in your career.  One of the most important pieces of guidance I can give is the importance of being highly self-aware; seek out honest, constructive feedback; ponder what you have heard and pinpoint what changes can you take to improve.  It is also important to not take all the feedback you hear as a sign that you are personally lacking.  That is why I have made sure to have a trusted individual who is my sounding board, who is able to evaluate what has been said and how I have interpreted what I have heard.

Q: Nicole – That’s great. We’re there any women who have inspired you throughout your life?

A:  Elizabeth – My grandmother inspired me. She was a driven woman, and she didn’t let anything hold her back.  She told me I could be anything, and that’s what I’ve become.  I’ve done anything and everything I’ve wanted to do.

Q: Nicole – Ok, last question to wrap up. What does women’s history month mean to you?

A:  Elizabeth – It helps me reflect on the past, understand what woman have achieved, and inspire me to think about what women can achieve if we continue to persevere. 

Thanks so much for sharing your story Elizabeth.  It’s been such an inspiration to chat with you. 

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