Our Leading Women series highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of women we work with here in Asia.  

In this feature, Carol Lee, Chief Supply Chain Officer at KFC and Pizza Hut Malaysia (QSR Brands (M) Holdings Bhd), shares how the role of collaboration and differentiated communication styles are critical in building strong workplace relationships and resolving conflicts, especially when managing co-workers of different seniority in a male-dominated supply chain industry.  

In this video, Syaza Diyana, Consultant at Michael Page Malaysia, speaks with Carol Lee, Chief Supply Chain Officer at KFC and Pizza Hut Malaysia (QSR Brands (M) Holdings Bhd).  

Q: Were you always interested in the supply chain & industry? How does that connect with your career aspirations?

From being a fresh graduate in chemical engineering, I always thought my career would be around the technical ladder with the engineer titles. During the first two years of my career, I went through a management trainee programme, where I had the opportunity to explore different roles within the supply chain process.

And that gave me to have a more in-depth understanding of the supply chain industry and processes, and it helped set some direction for me and opened up more opportunities. I see supply chain as the backbone of any industry, where we ensure delivery of products to the consumer or customers.

Supply chain [processes] are always at the backend, ensuring that products are delivered at the right time, with the right quality at the right cost. So that’s how I started and began to like supply chain management and explore more within the industry.

Q: What kind of sacrifices have you made along the way to reach your level of success?  

I think many. So for women in the supply chain sector, first of all, depending on the industry, [at least for the companies I worked at], sometimes, they don’t have the chance to dress in nice officewear or heels. I sometimes have to join friends’ dinner in my uniform or safety shoes. 

Jokes aside, I think the No. 1 sacrifice is the time that you have with your family and friends. This is because many activities within supply chain processes operate around the clock [24 hours]. You tend to have to work longer hours. Dinners get cancelled when you have issues with the production, and you have to attend to these issues to ensure productivity. The sacrifices change along the way. 

At the early stage of your career, you tend to spend more time on the floor, being hands-on, getting to know the machines, people and processes. And it’s often, you have to spend more than 12 to 14 hours easily. But along the way, you learn to balance time spent on operational versus management strategies.

And then, work towards balancing the time you spend at the workplace and the network outside of work. So definitely, there are sacrifices, but one thing you cannot get back is the time spent - you may have to sacrifice your time at the early stage of a career.

Related: 8 must-have qualities of an effective leader

Q: How do you empower and engage with your team?   

I strongly believe in freedom, true responsibility. I think it’s important to clearly set the objective, the direction and the expected deliverables or the expectation of the project. And along the way, though, of course, there will be pulse checks to ensure alignment.

And there’s two-way communication if there are any issues. But most importantly in empowerment is to allow mistakes. Allow mistakes because when we empower someone, we have to bear in mind that we are taking certain calculated risks.

Making small mistakes is okay because that’s how we learn; how we grow talent. That’s how we take away the fear factor for people when it comes to making decisions. Sometimes, we often feel that the team members will fear making decisions when there's a blame culture. And that's where you need to empower your team.

So very important, it’s to allow mistakes, learn from the mistakes and move on. And that’s how we improve.

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Q: Have you experienced any barriers in the journey of becoming a leader?   

I think during the early stage of my career in supply chain to run production. So you can imagine if you have to manage a male subordinate, who’s been in the industry for 20 to 30 years, a veteran [in] machine usage, and here comes this young lady trying to be his superior. 

Sometimes, it is challenging to bring certain new ideas, explore new opportunities, or do new ways within the area. So, for me, I think it’s important to have differentiated communication with different people. So with challenges like what I had mentioned, sometimes I tend to use the “seeking advice” method where I come from an angle of seeking help or advice. 

I would ask him, in a very respectful manner, “Can we do it in this way?”, “What would happen if we try this?” This would get my colleague to think about my query and approach my suggestions more effectively. Therefore, in this way, you respect his seniority in the area and get advice on trying out certain methods.

So there’s how, because we need the team to deliver the results, there’s this much we can do with our own hands. And often in supply chain, you need the team to deliver the results. And you will be managing 200 to 300 people at a time.

So you need to differentiate your communication method, send the message across with different people, always respect people at all levels, and believe in their experience and expertise.

Related: How to manage a multi-generational workforce: A complete guide

Q: What strategies do you think can help women achieve a more prominent role in Supply Chain, an industry often seen as being more male-dominant? 

I always believe in strength from diversity. Everyone has different strengths. It’s important for us to work as a team and be good team players. And it is when we bring strength together to get synergy and get an ultimate outcome.  

There’s a saying that says, “If you want to go fast, you can go alone; but if you want to go far, you have to go together”. So in supply chain, there is always an interdependent series of activities, and it is linked against each other. And that you need everyone to actually align and understand and deliver to drive results. 

So you cannot work alone. So how I do it differently is I would always create an environment where it’s about team effort. And when we deliver results, it is always team results. We can give special recognition to certain people for the team leader who has gone the extra mile.

But when we celebrate, we always have to celebrate together. It is a team result. That's very important. [That way], people are willing to contribute and be part of a team.

Related: How to be more confident at work according to Asia’s female leaders

Q: What brings you joy and energises you the most after a hectic week?   

I enjoy networking. We learn from people within the organisation. Often, we also learn from people outside the organisation from different industries, from different levels. There are things that we learned with the different engagements that we have. So I enjoy doing that over nice meals. Eating is something I really enjoy. 

I also spent a lot of time helping and feeding stray animals over the weekends. I have a team of people on the street helping me with that. So it’s when you feel happy with the money you earn that is spent wisely and in the right manner. 

Q: What was the best advice you’ve gotten that made you persevere through your career?  

Always think win-win in your solutions. As in, it has to be a fair option for both parties. Be it between employer and employee, subordinate and superior, among peers, or the relationship between customer and supplier – even between husband and wife. 

It is only a sustainable relationship if it’s a win-win. And it is a fair deal, whatever decision you make, always think win-win, don’t just think of our own benefit. Always think of how we can win together. That’s very important. And I always believe that if we turn out to be good in one thing and bad in another, you always have to be fair. And always think win-win. 

One of my guiding principles is that if you’re not happy with something, always bring [the matter] to me. I like to give, and at the same time, I would say, if I give you this, what can I get in return, because it has to be a win-win situation.

We can provide resources, we can provide opportunities and any support needed. Therefore, they can then track results. So it has to be a win-win solution.

For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in the Asia Pacific, visit the official Leading Women page on the Page Executive website below: 

Read more:
Leading Women: Succeeding through grace and grit

How to manage performance reviews during the COVID-19 pandemic
The value of mentorship and sponsorship, and what it can do for your company

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