Barb Ardell: Women in Procurement

Barb Ardell

Barb Ardell calls her career a “Carly Fiorina story.” She started in an entry-level job at a corporation and rose to hold a leadership position. But what’s most impressive about Barb’s career is not just how she climbed the ladder but the time in American history she did so.

Barb, now vice president and Influencing Change Practice Leader at Paladin Associates, a sourcing and procurement consulting firm, entered the workforce in the midst of the feminist movement of the early ‘70s, when a number of federal regulations were emerging to make businesses more equitable for women and minorities. She was working before women were legally granted the right to take time off to have a baby or care for a family member, even before the federal government made it illegal to discriminate against a woman for being pregnant. Despite the challenges, by the late 1970s, Barb held a management position at Procter & Gamble, what is now the one of the world’s largest consumer products manufacturers and a Fortune 500 company with near $80 billion in annual sales.

A Pioneer in Procurement

Barb started working for P&G as a receptionist. Thanks to what she calls “luck,” but was clearly due to her capabilities, determination and growing personal interest in the procurement field, she was promoted to the job of a purchasing manager in 1978, where she was in charge of a team purchasing more than $250 million a year in raw material. When she took the position, Barb was one of the “very, very early” women in procurement management at P&G.

“We were a bit of a rare breed at that point,” she said.

Yet the challenges Barb said she faced as a manager in procurement at P&G were probably not any different than what a man would have experienced: a rarely present boss, a poorly designed role managing a new group of products she had no prior experience with, all at the time the company was moving away from brand management into category management. This meant Barb was serving on two seperate category teams — what she called a “time sink” — along with managing about two dozen employees and undertaking her regular purchasing manager job duties.

What was different for Barb at this time as a woman was her family demands. Her husband was working full-time as well and they had two young children. She simply couldn’t manage taking care of her children and working the long hours her job, which had become associate director of purchasing at P&G, demanded. She asked to switch to a part-time schedule, which P&G allowed, at least for a bit.

Her bosses didn’t seem to be her harshest critics of moving to a 60% work schedule at that time — she was. She didn’t want to let down other women.

However, other women at P&G applauded her move to go part-time, even thanked her for being a role model to an alternative work schedule. That was encouraging, Barb said. While many women have bought into the myth that “you can have it all,” the reality is “you can have it all, but just not all at the same time.”

Shifting Priorities and Influencing Change

Barb’s career extends beyond P&G. She left the company in 1990 after her bosses wanted her to return to work full time. (She would return to the company later for a brief period.) After taking some time off, Barb got involved in some contract work as a diversity instructor. She became certified to teach more than 60 leadership courses and later was selected by General Electric to be a certified Six Sigma Quality trainer.

At Paladin Associates, where she serves as vice president, Barb has taken an interest in the influencing change training approach taught by VitalSmarts, a company offering corporate and leadership training. VitalSmarts Influencer Training program teaches data-based strategies people can use to help create behavioral changes at companies, something Barb has since applied to women specifically and the procurement and supply chain industry. Paladin Associates is now a licensed partner of the VitalSmarts Influencer training program and Barb serves as the “Influencing Change Practice Leader” for Paladin, working with clients to implement positive changes within their organization. After spending years working and talking to procurement organizations at Paladin, Barb said being able to spark positive change was something the industry lacked.

Barb has also specifically focused this influencing change training on women in procurement — she recently gave a presentation on it at the annual Institute of Supply Management New Jersey affiliate Women & Leadership conference in October.

“Our profession really needs to get better at influencing change if we are going to survive and thrive,” she said. “And, I think also women, in particular, need to get better at influencing change if we want to continue to progress.”

In 2016, Paladin will be offering a Influencing Change for Women class, though no specific date has been set. She said she receives positive feedback on the influencing change training she offers her clients, specifically from women — they can talk to her in “shorthand,” and don’t need to explain the context behind a specific challenge. That’s because she has decades of experience as a woman in the professional and the procurement world.

Talking to other women and sharing experiences has been incredibly helpful for Barb throughout her own career, she said. Though, she has noticed, when she talks to other women today, many of the issues they are dealing with are the same issues she experienced in the ‘70s. Women have made incredible strides, Barb said. When she joined the workforce, college-educated women were being hired as clerks while college-educated men were put into management positions. That has changed today, and the opportunities for women have greatly increased over the years, Barb said.

“But there is still a lot to do to be able to achieve highest potentials,” she added, “and I think there still are barriers at the highest level of organizations.”

Her advice to women in procurement:

  • Watch the way you dress: Men are very visual, and while it may be unfortunate we have to take them into consideration when we decide what to wear, they will react differently depending on what we have on. This makes her mad, too, but it’s a reality women need to be aware of.
  • Learn how to frame your communication: This is part of the influencing change training. Adding a “frame” to certain language up front can dramatically change judgements around what a woman says in the workplace. For example, if you are planning to express a strong, forceful opinion, explain your intent to your audience before diving in. “I’m going to express my opinion very directly,” is one such frame, women could use, Barb explained in her ISM-NJ presentation in October.
  • Support other women: Women need to be supportive of one another and collaborate together. “I am really a believer in that we need to make the pie bigger, it’s not a zero sum game,” Barb said. “We need to create opportunities for one another.”

Women in Procurement Today

The number of women in procurement has increased since Barb started in the field. However, while there are more women working in procurement and supply chain, she said too few are being promoted to leadership roles.

“That’s more the issue than the recruiting — you are getting the women in the door, they are just not getting up the ladder and staying,” Barb said.

Barb is passionate about the procurement field, as if that wasn’t already apparent from her impressive resume of more than 40 successful years in the industry. And, she believes it offers a wealth of opportunity for both men and women.

“I love procurement personally — sourcing, working with suppliers, learning about the technology, working within interim stakeholders — I think it is an incredibly exciting field for anybody and for women,” she said.

First Voice

  1. Barb Ardell:

    Thanks for the kind words, Kaitlyn! Although I feel like a bit of a dinosaur, I hope my experiences will be helpful to others.

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