Anne-Laure Descours is Chief Sourcing Officer at Puma and Member of the Management Board. FashionUnited spoke to her via video call in her office in Hong Kong about the management style of women versus men, the challenges facing the supply chain in times Covid-19 and the message she has for recent graduates.
Please describe your career up to this point in your own words.
I have always been curious and, in a certain way, also a bit simple. I moved to Hong Kong 25 years ago, after working as a buyer for a company owned by the Otto Group in France. I fell in love with the city and I decided I wanted to work in Hong Kong. I thought: Ok, I will be here for a few years, gain experience and then go back to Europe. That was in 1994 and I’m still here.
From a career standpoint, I stayed in Hong Kong for two reasons: You have so much support as a working mom that it becomes possible to develop your career and second, in Hong Kong and in China, people see you not as a woman, but as a person. If you look around here, you see a very high percentage of women in leading roles in business. As a woman, here you have space to develop yourself.
I changed roles and companies a few times and it was always because I wanted to develop myself, not because of a great career masterplan. I took the opportunities that came my way, and I think this simplicity helped me a lot. If it is possible, then why not try it? You have to try in life. You learn so much from failure.
How do you deal with failures?
Like everybody, I have had lots of failures in my life. You try and if it works then great, if it doesn't you move on. Very pragmatic. Very common sense. Don’t overthink it, just try.
You have to have a dream and allow yourself to try and fail. When you fail, you learn. And you become stronger, failure after failure. As women, sometimes we are too shy and too scared and we lack confidence in our capabilities, myself included.
I think for women it is harder, because of this lack of confidence. We grew up with dreams of a fairy tale or of being superwoman. There are no superwomen, just women. The secret for success for me has been to find a group of girlfriends who support and help each other. My group of girlfriends and me - a very diverse group by the way, French, English, Chinese, Australian, single, married, with kids and without - decided to meet every Friday from 6 until 9 o’clock - and the only rule is „we never talk about the kids“ we only talk about ourselves and what happened to us this week. And we soon realized: It’s ok not to be ok. One week it was a good week and you feel fine, you can help the others. And another week the others help you go through whatever you’re going through.
As women, one key asset is our girlfriends, who are getting us through tough times. Helping with the kids, helping with your self-doubts. Men tend to be less open about their failures, their weaknesses and their fears. Women care less and having my girlfriends around me has helped to make me stronger and successful.
Comparing France, Germany and Hong Kong, what do you think has to change structurally to help women in business?
I grew up in France and, compared to Germany, encouraging women to work was very prevalent there in the sixties and seventies. So, my parents urged me to choose a career. The support in the French system helped free women from the guilt of leaving the house and going back to work after having children.
Part of the challenge in Germany is that the environment is less favorable for working mums. None of my French friends stopped working in order to have children. None of them considered staying at home after graduating.
At the same time, you cannot dream of having it all.
The more responsibility you take on, the more people are dependent on you and the more a company relies on you, so you need to be present. Being a working mom is challenging. You try to balance family and career the best way possible, but at times you will feel guilty. Men in my generation did not feel the same guilt. I missed a lot of birthdays and Christmas parties in school when my kids were growing up. I tried to be there, but if I wasn’t there, then I wasn’t there. But when I ask my children today, as grown-ups, they say: „Yes, you travelled and you worked a lot but in the end we had a great childhood and you were a wonderful mom.“
How has 2020 influenced your daily work in Supply Chain Management?
Supply chain and sourcing are a complex part of the organization, and as such, used to dealing with problems and adapting. I see myself as a bit of a problem manager. There is always something that doesn’t go according to plan in this job. Yes, Covid-19 is an extreme crisis, but in this part of the organization we are used to manage problems, to deal with uncertainty and changes. People in sourcing are very agile and flexible in the way they manage business day to day.
What Covid-19 has highlighted, not changed, is the need for collaboration. Being very close to our suppliers allowed us to weather this storm together, as a team. And not only with the suppliers, also with our partners on the retail side. If I had to find a positive side of this crisis, it would be that: everybody supporting each other. Because if one of us doesn’t come through the storm, everybody is at risk of collapsing. I am hopeful that this collaboration and support for each other will outlast the crisis.
Would you say that that’s a female perspective on leadership?
Yes, maybe that is the mother in me speaking. Women have a different level of empathy. They consider the people, the team, trying to bring everybody together and make them stronger. Many countries that did well during the pandemic are the ones that were led by women: Engaging with others, seeking other opinions, having a collaborative discussion before making a decision. It may sound naive. But if you’ve given birth to a baby, you know that life is precious. In the end, it’s all about people. Our suppliers are people, our team are people and our customers are also people and we care about them. They are at the center of everything we do every day.
What advice would you give your younger self and/or recent graduates?
Never trade your values, never compromise on that. When you age you realize: The only person you cannot lie to is yourself. Stick to your values, be true to yourself, be honest and care about others. That for me is the recipe for happiness.
For graduates this year, it’s not going to be easy. My advice would be even if your first job is not your dream job, you get the chance to learn something. Stick to the positive. Don’t go down the road of negativity. Find the bright side of things. It’s not a 100-meter race, it’s a marathon. Engage with people, be open, there is always something that is good in life. Things are never certain. Don’t expect life to be pre-written and pre-defined. I think Covid-19 gives us the chance to reset somehow, to focus and to be grateful for what we have and what we can do.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE, translated and edited to English.
Image: Puma, Anne-Laure Descours