DSC Logistics CEO Ann Drake: AWESOME Outlook
Ann Drake studies people for a living. Join her team at DSC Logistics, and she’ll soon discover what makes you tick. Then she’ll make sure to assign you projects that mesh with your interests and play to your strengths.
Drake has served as CEO of DSC Logistics in Des Plaines, Ill., since 1994, when she brought together the 22 entities that made up the Dry Storage network to create a unified company. Inbound Logistics recently talked with Drake about her leadership style, her drive to foster collaboration and innovation, and why she works so hard to increase opportunities for women in supply chain management.
IL: What early experiences in your career helped to make you the leader you are today?
Before I started in business, I spent eight years teaching freshman and sophomore English in high school. One lesson I learned was the importance of helping people understand where you want them to go. For example, if we were reading a play, I had to give the students a good reason to want to engage with that material. I had to be a full-time cheerleader and relater, making the classes meaningful to their wants, needs, and desires. I do the same in business. One of my favorite definitions of leadership is taking people where they wouldn’t go themselves.
Another lesson learned from those early days is “communicate, communicate, communicate.” You need to understand the other person’s point of view. It’s not just a matter of what they’re saying; what they’re not saying is also important. You also need to communicate back to them so they can relate to what you’re saying. Teaching and business leadership are both about moving people in particular directions.
IL: Why do you think you’ve been successful as an executive?
It’s because I care about people, and they know it. I’m a visible CEO: I talk to people and find out how things are going with them and their families. Also, I was raised by a father whose motto was, “Do a better job tomorrow than you did today.” Nothing is ever good enough; it can always be improved. I’m open minded about finding new and better processes, and I try to drive that in my organization. We can’t rest on our laurels for one second. I tell people they can celebrate tonight, but then they’ve got to move on and make new strides tomorrow.
IL: How has your leadership style evolved over the years?
Early in my business career, organizations were much more siloed than I thought they should be. I found it hard to gain the courage to knock down those walls. It seemed like a giant, scary project. Today, the supply chain field is constantly knocking down barriers between companies, between people, and between departments. I hesitated about doing that at all as a leader in the early years. Now, it’s what we do all day, inside and outside the company.
IL: You have started an initiative to promote the inclusion of both men and women at DSC. Why is this so important?
We continually need to develop new points of view. I think men and women notice and value different qualities. The difference is subtle, but it’s real. Gaining diverse points of view and moving the industry in a more comprehensive way promotes stronger innovation—stronger everything. That will give you a competitive advantage.
IL: What do you do to cultivate female talent within the company?
I put some focus groups together, talking with our men—because the company is mostly men—to learn what actions foster more inclusionary leadership. We all became convinced that the issue was invisible, and no one was being exclusionary on purpose. I had them read a book, Work with Me, by Barbara Annis and John Gray, which discusses the differences between men’s and women’s styles. Then we created a women’s leadership council inside our company and selected key women—all high-potential middle managers—to help move it along, so women can play an equal role and become part of the leadership within our male-dominated organization.
IL: You also promote women’s empowerment outside DSC. Tell us about that.
For some years, I’d been participating in several women’s organizations that work in this area. Then, in 2013, I founded AWESOME (Achieving Women’s Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education). That organization is moving the needle in incredible ways. We have built a network of more than 700 senior women in supply chain. Through them, we have raised awareness of the opportunities to advance women leaders, as well as the challenges we face. We’ve celebrated success, given visibility to the accomplishments of successful women in the field, and provided opportunities for emerging leaders and young professionals to learn from role models and develop their leadership skills. When we bring together these women leaders in various supply chain roles, they are thrilled to find themselves in the same room with other smart women in our field, where they have a chance to network and exchange ideas.
IL: What makes you excited to get up and go to work in the morning?
It’s definitely AWESOME. This group is the confluence of four topics that have been important to me over the past 20 years: the principles of leadership, women’s leadership, the supply chain, and what’s needed in the future for America to succeed. AWESOME is about leadership in the 21st century. The collaboration skills, visionary skills, and transformational skills that women are particularly good at are what America needs today and tomorrow.
IL: What do you enjoy about going to work?
I love winning and overcoming challenges. I enjoy envisioning and articulating what we can be as an organization, maybe seeing what others can’t see, helping people convert possibilities into realities, and executing upon those realities.
IL: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Gain confidence more quickly. Developing networks and friends outside your company helps a great deal in that regard. I’d tell myself to focus on gaining assertiveness, developing as a leader, and breaking out of the mold. “Group think” drives me crazy. You need to aggressively, happily follow your own path.
When you’re young and a high achiever, you may think you have to do everything on your own, and using a network is like cheating. I don’t know where that point of view comes from. Networking helps you gain confidence, new thinking, and additional resources.
IL: Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
I spend as much time as possible with my four wonderful granddaughters. I play golf, but not as often as I’d like. And I like to go on special trips when I can. Some of those trips—for instance, a recent one to the Czech Republic—are built around my interest in art glass, which I started collecting about six years ago.
The leader who inspires Ann Drake the most is Hillary Clinton, and that admiration started long before most of us ever heard of the former First Lady, senator, Secretary of State, and current presidential candidate.
“We grew up together. I’ve known her since we were eight years old,” Drake says.
One of the qualities Drake most admires in her childhood friend is her staying power. “I’m tenacious, but she sets the bar,” Drake says. “Also, she stays positive. And to be as visible as she is—I can’t imagine what that’s like.” Clinton’s multitasking powers are admirable as well, she adds.
“It’s fun for me to see how this highly visible person interacts with the public and the media, and know that she’s the real deal.”