LeaderSHIP Profile: “I Am Never Giving Up”
Despite the exhausting challenges of helping demanding customers with small but important supply chain problems, Katherina-Olivia Lacey puts on a brave face, holds it together, and constantly drives new solutions.
Born in Bolivia and raised in the United States, Cameroon, and France, Katherina-Olivia Lacey took a world-circling route to her current position in supply chain technology. Lacey is co-founder and chief product officer at Quincus, a Singapore-based logistics software firm that serves industries such as food delivery, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, retail, and e-commerce. We recently talked with Lacey about her history, leadership approach, and current business concerns.
IL: How did you come to co-found a logistics IT company based in Singapore?
I was preparing to start on my doctorate in business at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, and my co-founder, Jonathan Savoir, was already working on his doctorate at that institution. We concluded at about the same time that we would not continue our work toward those degrees.
But we didn’t want 9-to-5 jobs, either. We wanted to start something that was meaningful and solve problems in countries where the solutions weren’t obvious. That led to our first version of Quincus, which began as a B2B intra-city delivery logistics player in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
After Brazil imploded due to the problems surrounding Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, we decided to go to Singapore, which was heavily investing in nurturing startups. Beginning again from nothing, we used our technical solutions to consult and help companies use optimization tools to improve their logistics operations. But our customers told us they wanted a product they could implement themselves. We now have four solutions adapted to different industries, and we operate globally, including in the United States.
IL: How did your early career help shape you as a leader?
When I completed my MBA, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was lucky to get a job with a small B2B e-commerce company that sold plus-sized swimwear. I worked there for no more than one year, but I did everything—inventory, packaging, handing boxes to drivers, climbing around in the warehouse.
I saw how difficult it is to focus on just one thing. You always have things that are backlogged or problems coming forward. Weirdly, I loved all that. There was never a dull moment. At the same time, I loved my experience in academia, including the time I spent assisting one of the professors. My desire to be both an entrepreneur and an educator-leader helped to shape me.
IL: What keeps your customers awake at night these days?
It’s the margins they’re faced with. Customers want their products now. Logistics players pay a heavy price to fulfill that wish, for example by paying drivers to deliver seven days a week. They stay awake wondering how they can make their routes smarter and how to improve operations on the floor.
IL: How does Quincus help with those challenges?
Small things can impact the entire supply chain. Say a customer asks a delivery company to hold their package. You need to make sure the warehouse can handle that, and for how long. Where should it be stored? Is there a weight limit? Who will send a reminder once the customer is ready for the delivery? If a customer changes an address, does the delivery now go to a different part of town? How do I shift it to another driver? We solve all these small but important problems.
IL: How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m always trying to become better at what I do. When people work with me, I want to teach them and also challenge them. I use a lot of trial-and-error. I’m fair, but I’m also strict.
When it comes to nurturing talent, I need to show that I’m okay with uncertainty. Sometimes I have to put on a brave face to show people that it’s okay when things go wrong. Organizations go through a lot of growing pains, especially at our stage. We have to reward people who stay, but also make sure they understand why they’re there, despite the changes.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda these days?
I’m thoroughly focused on process structures and workflows. I’m looking at how certain departments interact and how we can automate some of the mundane tasks that slow us down.
IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
Holding things together. When stuff hits the fan, you can’t panic or let people think that you won’t be able to bring a solution to the table. Over time, you learn to drive solutions constantly. I like that, but sometimes it’s exhausting.
When everyone looks to me for a solution, I want to say, “I need two minutes to think. I need to go to a quiet place.”
IL: When you get up in the morning, what excites you about going to work?
Oddly enough, it’s the random things that get thrown at me. Also, it’s the thought of how hard Jonathan and I have been working at this since 2014. We’ve lived too many lives, gone through too many chapters. All this wakes me up, because no matter what challenges come along, there’s no way I’m going to give up.
IL: What piece of advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Don’t underestimate who you want to be and what you can do. If you say to yourself, “I can,” you will. You need to find the door and create the solution. And if there’s no door, you need to create one.
IL: How do you spend your time when you’re not working?
I travel for work and pleasure at the same time. I like to play golf; the golf course is the only place where I can shut off my phone for a few hours. The silence is rewarding. I like to hang out with my Old English Sheepdog. I look for calm when I’m alone. n
You’re Uncomfortable? Great!
The upheaval of leaving Brazil with her Quincus co-founder in the wake of the Petrobras scandal hit Katherina-Olivia Lacey hard. “It took me a long time to regain the assertiveness I needed to be able to lead people,” she says.
No one likes that kind of unease, and at one time Lacey was reluctant to force her employees outside their own comfort zones. But Lacey has changed her mind on that point. “I realized that being uncomfortable is fun,” she says. “When the job becomes too easy for someone, you push them.”
Employees need space to figure out solutions for themselves, and they need to take credit for their accomplishments, Lacey says. So, for example, she recently gathered Quincus engineers—who generally don’t enjoy public speaking—to give a demonstration to their peers and the company’s product managers. “They should be able to say, ‘Hey, I did this!’” she says. “And that’s uncomfortable.”