If transportation and supply chain technologies have helped advance civilization for millennia, they have also—in today’s global economy—become a “brittle web of interdependencies” in which the failure of one element can threaten the entire system, according to Ann M. Drake, President and Founder of Lincoln Road Enterprises.

Drake offered this observation as she delivered the 39th Annual William A. Patterson Transportation Lecture at Northwestern University on November 17, 2021, the first woman speaker in the history of the lecture series.

“We are finally waking up to the fact that the supply chain is how every tangible thing in this world happens,” said Drake, former Chairman and CEO of DSC Logistics, an innovative and dynamic leader in supply chain and logistics management and business partner to some of the world’s best-known companies. Over time, she pointed out, the supply chain has come to include all aspects of a complex process that can start with raw material coming out of the ground and end many months later and thousands of miles away with a finished product in the consumer’s hands or in a new house. Despite its importance, however, our entire supply chain “ecosystem” has become quite vulnerable, Drake emphasized.

This has happened, said Drake, because historically supply chain management has been regarded as a back-office function, engineered to deliver cost savings and just-in-time precision rather than being included in top-level business conversations with an equal seat at the leadership table. Doing so has now resulted in an inflexible global supply chain that’s particularly vulnerable to disruption, she said.

As Drake explained in her lecture—titled “Beyond Transportation Excellence: Lessons from the Pandemic”—those disruptions began on a massive scale in March 2020 when businesses shut down or curtailed operations in response to the spread of COVID-19. The result in 2021 has been crippling shortages of goods and material in key industries as well as a 6.2% increase in the consumer price index, the sharpest rise in 31 years.

“Simply, this has become the world’s most complicated problem,” said Drake.

While acknowledging her predecessors in delivering the Patterson lecture—many of them celebrated transportation industry executives—Drake pointed out that, during the pandemic, women leaders have been especially successful in dealing with supply chain issues. 

“What makes them good?” she asked. “It’s their ability to collaborate across borders, across departments, across oceans. They are boundary-less in their thinking. They are gifted at systems thinking, communicating, collaborating, consensus-building, and sharing information,” she added. Such qualities, she pointed out, could help explain why the most gender-diverse companies are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability.

A lifetime dedicated to helping women advance in business and supply chain management led Drake in 2013 to found AWESOME—Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education—a non-profit focused on advancing and transforming the future of supply chain leadership. Then, in 2019, Drake founded Lincoln Road Enterprises, also dedicated to advancing women’s leadership, but in public and private enterprise, global supply chain, engineering and technology, infrastructure and design, and astrophysics and space.

Of several lessons we can take from the pandemic, said Drake, a key one might be that we need new ways of thinking about and valuing our interconnectedness.  She pointed out that author Daniel Pink predicted over a decade ago that “... the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind”—more intuitive, collaborative, and context-sensitive.

The answers to our current supply chain challenges lie in working together, sharing information, and taking a total systems view, emphasized Drake.

“The pandemic has shown us just how interconnected we are, not just in all areas of the supply chain but across all supply chains,” she noted. “It’s no longer about being excellent at what we do, but excellent at what we do together. It’s how we’ll build a better world.”

To download a PDF of the lecture, please click here. To view video of Ms. Drake’s presentation, please click here.