Olena Kvashyna is the Global Supply Chain Excellence Head at Clariant in Basel, Switzerland. She previously held several positions over a ten-year period at Syngenta.
What is it like leading a Global Supply Chain Excellence team?
First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to have this discussion. Looking back into different roles that I’ve had so far in my career, this is probably one of the most interesting ones. It is very intellectually stimulating and it also fits well with my natural curiosity. In Supply Chain Excellence, we get to observe the latest thought process in the Supply Chain area and we build on that knowledge to co-develop internal practises for Clariant, together with our business stakeholders.
The role of Supply Chain Excellence is being that outside-in observer who brings additional knowledge to fuel continuous improvement within the function. Supply Chain leaders depend a lot on the ability to implement change. Nothing in this life is static; what worked well some years ago might not work well in a few years. We need to constantly be on the lookout of where we can still improve and where we can bring additional changes to enhance value. I like to think of that quote from Heraclitus, which was: ‘The only constant in life is change’. I believe this is going to be the moral of Supply Chain nowadays, as change is happening even faster. The fact that we must permanently reassess ourselves and readjust ourselves is what makes this job very interesting.
To what extent are you scanning externally what’s going on?
We are doing this on a regular basis… We have some partners we’re working with and we are frequently reaching out to other industry players. It is very interesting talking to people in other industries, because it brings more fresh perspectives and ideas.
What does risk mean within Supply Chain?
Things can go wrong and they will go wrong with a certain frequency - that’s unavoidable!
We, as Supply Chain professionals, need to be prepared to address these risks through our fallback procedures and structures. What we cannot afford to do is to freeze in the face of uncertainty. Good risk management practice is the ability to assess and re-adjust in an efficient and time appropriate manner. COVID-19 showed clearly that companies must prepare to face unprecedented or unexpected risks. Those companies who were well prepared to face risks were able to react in a fast manner. For example, in case of supply shortages, they knew which customers were affected, what alternatives to offer those customers and how quickly those could be organized. This required excellent visibility and efficient decision-making processes. Therefore, the risk today is not to have invested in those processes.
Organisations today have a lot of data, but it’s the question of how structured this data is, if people know how to access the right data. This is key to prepare a well-tailored response under changing circumstances we are facing and do it very quickly.
What is your motivation for choosing the industry in the first place and actually staying in it?
The chemical industry does not have the best reputation to the wider public. I would say there is a negative perception. But we forget that chemistry is essentially life; it sustains our life! What attracted me to this industry is the fact that it impacts our every day. Every object I have on my desk was produced with chemical process contributing to it. So, essentially, it is everywhere. This is not to deny that there are problems in the industry, but a lot of the solutions may come from within the industry as well. The topic of sustainability is becoming huge - it attracts a lot of attention and a lot of talent coming in with very positive intentions.
I think that, in the close future, we will see a lot of solutions to the current sustainability problems coming from within the chemical industry. How do we introduce that positive change? If you want to be in the forefront of it, that is through bringing your voice. If you want to solve a problem, be part of the solution.
What would you say is the biggest challenge facing leaders currently?
The topic of post-pandemic world and workplace is a million-dollar question. I believe that, emerging out of this pandemic, we have built much more trust in our teams and in their ability to collaborate and deliver. I can only hope that we continue building on this trust, with offering more flexibility and more power to people to take their own decisions. So, I am all in for more flexibility, which I think is where we’re heading.
The biggest challenge today is probably to reconcile the different preferences. There are people who want to just go back to how it was before, where we’d be in the office 100% of the time. There are people who don’t want to go back to the office at all, while others want a mix. How do we reconcile all of these? I believe trust is the key. We should empower people to figure this out; give them that freedom to experiment, freedom to try out the options. Our role is to try and help them out in this process and not to impose anything during this time of experimentation.
As well as the positions you’ve held within Supply Chain and Procurement, you’ve also had a role within M&A, leading projects in this area. How did you plan your career path?
I don’t think that I’ve ever had a very well predefined path in my mind. I had too many interests to be able to settle on just one. Since I’ve entered the corporate world, I was interested to understand how this corporate machine is really working. Early on, I would build dialogues with various departments to understand how they were functioning, how they affected each other, thus connecting the dots between functions. This approach exposed me to a number of different opportunities and basically brought to my attention a lot of new roles opening up in the company.
Coming back to the M&A example, I have learnt that, in an upcoming divestment project, there were concerns around impact on the Supply Chain set-up. This knowledge helped me position myself as the right expert to enter the team and to be able to contribute to the teamwork. It was a win-win situation, because they were gaining that additional experience needed at that point of time, while it gave me an opportunity to learn new skills. I believe this diverse experience helped me position myself better for my next roles.
I guess you can say that my career was more shaped by curiosity, rather than a pre-planned path.
Is there any advice that you would give to aspiring leaders?
Also, stop trying to be perfect at everything. I observe many high performers, often young and very motivated, very ambitious people, trying to excel at everything, which is just not possible. I think instead of trying to be perfect, it is important to find your unique style based on your unique strengths. It is important to seek feedback and stay conscious about your strengths and your weaknesses. If you’re aware of your weaknesses, you can try to counterbalance them, for example, with the support of other team members.
How can leaders create diverse teams?
This comes with awareness of the topic. When hiring, there’s a tendency to choose candidates similar to ourselves, because we find it easier to get along and we naturally like them. Be aware of this bias.
The very first time I hired a team member, I interviewed the candidates and picked out the person I wanted to offer the job to. I remembered the reaction of the HR BP [Human Resources Business Partner]: she laughed and basically told me: ‘You chose a mini-you, I can see how you guys are going to get along, but have you thought about how you’re going to generate new ideas?’. I still hired that candidate, because I was convinced it was a good fit. And it was, but in hindsight, I do see how coming from having the same background and work experience limited us seeing new opportunities and new ways of working.
Now, when I approach hiring, I first try to assess the team - if we have any weaknesses or gaps - and hire to counterbalance these. I also try to involve other team members in the hiring process, so they could help with my blind spots. For a team, it is important to be able to generate different opinions and views, to secure a more inspiring kind of environment.
What is the best book that you have read and why?
Honestly, there’s so many great books that it’s very difficult to make a choice. If I had to settle on something, it’s a book that helped me cope with the limitations of the last two years imposed by the pandemic. It is called A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden. As you can imagine from the title, it talks about constraints and how to deal with them. It builds on the old idea of making lemonade out of lemons, but takes it to a next level. It suggests a framework how to rewire yourself to be on the lookout for opportunities that come out of the constraints and how to excel in a constrained world. It talks about the importance of the open mindset, can-if attitude, and other ideas and methods to be applied in your daily life. It also provides several very inspiring examples of how people achieved their goals under very limited circumstances, so I think it’s a good read.
Thank you to Olena for speaking to Sienna Grey, Senior Consultant for Supply Chain and Operations recruitment in Switzerland.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.