Leading through Turbulence
The former Chief Procurement Officer of Lufthansa shares learnings from leading during challenging times.
Published: March 8, 2023
Angela Qu, a former Chief Procurement Officer at Lufthansa, is no stranger to crises. Having led the airliner’s procurement department through the heat of the pandemic, Angela joined the aim10x Executive Council to share her learnings from the experience, with lessons on leadership, technology, and diversity in the workplace.
How do you prepare yourself to deal with recurring supply chain crises?
Personal learning through first-hand experience over the past few years has been invaluable. We practiced a lot to be prepared for crises, and when COVID hit the aviation industry, we were ready to navigate the storm. This is because we had put in the work during the good times and could rely on our autopilot mode.
How do you help your teams navigate turbulent times?
First, staying calm and professional is critical. When crises strike, everyone becomes nervous. That’s why communication and transparency are vital. Your team needs to know where they stand, what challenges they’re facing, and how to deal with them. Second, it’s important to stabilize your value chain partners. When the whole value chain is suffering, you can’t just take care of yourself. You have to look after those in a weaker position than you, too. Finally, it’s important to remember not to abandon your legal and corporate responsibilities during a crisis. This demonstrates how professional an organization truly is and how well it supports its partners and ecosystem.
How does a company like Lufthansa proactively prepare for crises?
Across all companies in the industry, constant employee training is essential. Employees need to know the processes and procedures to follow when things go sideways. Training them to have a better awareness of red flags and how to respond accordingly is important, but it’s equally important to enhance their capabilities on a regular basis.
I’ve always been passionate about training people and helping them grow during my twenty-plus years in the industry. As a head of procurement or supply chain, it’s not enough that I’m the best negotiator in the world. My entire team needs to act and represent the company professionally. That’s why investing in people and building their capabilities is worthwhile.
This is especially important during moments of crisis. It’s important to simplify processes, standardize, and reduce complexities to make the supply chain more efficient. I always ask my suppliers how we can support them to become leaner and more cost-efficient. This can lead to win-win scenarios during both good and bad times.
How does technology support decision-making in good and bad times?
Data transparency is essential for procurement or supply chain managers. Without data, they won’t be able to make clear decisions. That’s why I’m glad that companies like o9 Solutions and others are promoting transparency in the supply chain and ensuring that digitalization helps business leaders make the right decisions during good and bad times.
Technology can help with transparency, but there is often a fear of the unknown regarding data and how to unlock it. I advise people going through this decision process to communicate with their stakeholders. When it comes to transformation, particularly the digitalization and automation of specific processes, it’s essential to understand what’s in it for the users and partners affected by the new process or tools.
Proper communication and buy-in from stakeholders are critical, especially in the conceptual phase. Involve them in the partner selection phase, in the first pilot phase, so they can provide feedback to service providers and have the tools tailored to their needs. A successful transformation requires buy-in from stakeholders and proper training sessions with power users who can help provide support. These are the practical experiences that have worked for me in the past.
What role does technology play in upskilling?
Technology, for us, is an enabler. First, you need to know the objectives; then, you can use technology to simplify the process to achieve those targets. Secondly, technology enables procurement managers to make more efficient decisions by providing real-time information about their work, supply chain setups, shortages, and future predictions.
I’m not a person who only looks at past data. New technology should also help us predict what’s coming in the next month or year, as this information and forward-looking thinking can help business leaders make better and faster decisions than their competitors in the market.
What role does technology play in that talent war?
The talent war has several aspects, including the current workforce. After the COVID-19 pandemic, people are rethinking their purpose in life and whether they can align it with the purpose of the company they work for. Companies that significantly impact sustainability, global innovation, and climate change will likely attract more talent as they align with their values.
Technological advancements, particularly the ability to work from home, have allowed for a better work-life balance, which is a global trend. Technology also enables data-driven decision-making, making it easier for people to process large amounts of information and save time for more strategic tasks. This can lead to more opportunities for companies to partner with their suppliers.
What is the role of supply chain and procurement in sustainability?
First, many of the biggest brands are still doing greenwashing, which I find unacceptable. And second, procurement and supply chain leaders are not just shouting around but really taking action. In some of my former companies, we implemented a decision matrix with a CO2 emission impact. That means whenever we decide to procure, we already see the impact or reduction of different alternatives.
“Why are you going to source it?” I think asking that question is a great step toward full transparency and measuring improvement. Everyone can contribute, both professionally and personally. Professionally, we have the mandate and authorization to source from environmentally-responsible partners and support minority-owned suppliers. Personally, I am writing a book called “The World is Green” because I think sustainability is not just about talking but about putting it into action. Innovation is another key aspect of achieving sustainability. Companies like o9 refer to integrated business planning; if you have a sound planning system, you can efficiently use materials and services.
Lastly, we should look beyond borders, beyond our quarterly and yearly targets, and work together toward a sustainable planet. A sustainable world is not just about saving the earth but also about saving us as humans.
Why is diversity so important?
People from the outside might view procurement and supply chain as typical buying roles focused on data and negotiations. But my organizations hire people from diverse backgrounds, such as project management, design, technology, and finance. This makes the function more attractive and provides a rotation of different talents in the company.
Those who work in procurement and supply chain for a few years often get promoted to other functions or become business leaders. That’s why bringing in diverse talents in procurement and supply chain can contribute more value to the company because they can speak the same language as shareholders and stakeholders. When speaking to the C-suite, it’s important to discuss value in terms they understand.
Lastly, procurement and supply chain are excellent professions for many female talents. Women tend to have strong communication skills and a focus on finding solutions that benefit both parties. They are also patient and prefer collaboration over competition. This makes it a great profession for women.
If you had to give CPOs or CSCOs one piece of advice, what would you tell them?
This goes back to the essential: be a good human being. Be honest, transparent, and fair to the people around you. When I say “people,” in this case, it’s really about customers, suppliers, ecosystem partners, and employees. If you keep that in mind, you can be a great procurement or supply chain leader.