This feature is part of a quarterly series highlighting the contributions and career paths of the women leaders making their mark in warehouse automation and the supply chain field. While supply chain has traditionally been a male-dominated industry, promoting a gender-diverse workforce is not only the right thing to do but also drives higher performance. By sharing these stories, we hope to broaden the awareness of the opportunities and accomplishments of women leading the supply chain.
Marie McCarthy is Chief Operations Officer at L.L.Bean and has been with the company since 1993. Working primarily in human resources throughout her career, McCarthy’s role with L.L.Bean has evolved in recent years to include current oversight of Operations, including Fulfillment, Returns, Manufacturing, Customer Satisfaction, and Corporate Facilities and Real Estate. She’s seen a lot of change and disruption in her time and knows what works for people and operations. Here she shares with us her experience leading supply chain and automation and key tips for creating opportunities for diversity and inclusion.
My current title is Chief Operations Officer, but my path was through human resources, facilities and now operations. I was hired directly out of grad school into L.L.Bean, and this June it will be 30 years with the organization.
We are a purpose-driven, values-based organization and I’ve had the opportunity to grow my career in this fantastic company, offering me a path to learning and leadership.
About eight years ago, I was asked to take over responsibility for our facilities function, which included real estate. And then a few years after that I was asked to oversee our contact center. We’re known for really high-level customer service delivery, and we have a phenomenal woman who runs that division.
About four years ago, I was asked to look after our other operational areas, including fulfillment, returns, manufacturing and logistics, and now oversee these parts of our business.
I think many of us have heard the expression that men think they’re prepared for the job when they’re 60% ready. Women think they need to be 120% ready.
Because my career has been so much about people leadership, I don’t always have a great depth of technical expertise in the different areas I manage when given additional responsibilities, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn them over time.
And so I’ve found my own path — learning how to lead some functions, where I’m really relying upon others’ technical expertise, combined with my orientation around strategy, collaboration and communication, and working to establish cultures where you can develop talent.
Allowing subject matter experts to act on their insights offers a level of autonomy to the people you rely on. My path has been around collaboration, freedom of decision making and trust that my team is accountable.
That’s been fairly effective for me over time and I feel very, very fortunate to have the opportunities I’ve had.
One of the things we find ourselves saying when we do presentations across the organization is we don’t feel like we’re new to automation. We have about a 1.2 million square foot fulfillment center, with about seven miles of conveyor belts running through it, autopack capabilities, auto-box-cutting machines, etc. — all sorts of automation already exist.
What we’re doing as the next step is much more about robotics and artificial intelligence, and really the sophistication that comes along with that. Taking the technological component to the next level, tapping into the expertise that’s going to drive the best workflows and results.
The environment is always top of mind for us. Right now, our team is experimenting with paper packaging as part of our environmental sustainability efforts. We already use recyclable and reusable packaging and corrugate for half of all shipments, but the goal is to use paper and corrugated cardboard for nearly all of our shipments, so we’re exploring and planning to utilize automation and auto-pack machines that can run paper through them instead of plastics. Within the next 6 to 12 months, we plan to launch a sustainable way to reduce single-use plastic from shipments.
I think most companies in fulfillment have seen shortages across different areas of their business — an inability to hire and a lack of available labor.
Our contact centers are all supported by home-based agents. We were trying to hire a thousand people for a peak period, and we got 3000 applicants, with relatively little effort. The appetite for working from home was very high this past peak season.
However, for warehouse jobs, we’ve been short by hundreds of people the last couple of years, and frankly, in the state of Maine, we’re one of the oldest states in the U.S., so we’ve been seeing a decline in attracting people to our warehouse jobs.
And so a big part of what we’re looking at is what automation brings to that, to remove monotonous and stressful warehouse work. We have an aging population, and to be able to reduce the amount of walking that people are doing and make the job easier has been quite well received by our employee population.
We’ve also wanted to tap into different underrepresented groups where English might not be somebody’s first language. And some of the automation tools convey information in multiple languages, and the jobs are so learnable, that we can envision it giving us ways to continue to tap into different labor markets.
I think many companies are going to be looking for unique solutions for rising fuel costs, as well as new ways to ensure they have an engaged, supported labor force in fulfillment, returns and manufacturing.
These roles are often physically demanding roles, which is part of why we’ve turned to automation to help reduce the physical demand on our fulfillment and returns teams. There are certainly productivity gains, but robotic automation really helps preserve people’s energy and physical health.
We have real-time visibility into inventory management and movements across the warehouse, plus robots doing the heavy lifting and repetitive tasks. And now workers have the opportunity to upskill and work with technology, using software to create the excellent customer experiences that L.L.Bean is known for, whether it’s getting an order out the door or processing a return or exchange seamlessly.
We also address the labor crunch with an initiative we’ve had for years called “Extra Milers”, which encourages employees from non-operational areas of the company to help us meet peak needs in operations. For fulfillment and retail, we have many roles that require minimal training and allow “Extra Milers” (including our leadership team members) to pitch in and work short shifts around their primary job responsibilities.
We’ve found that our employees feel good about playing a critical role in the success of our peak periods, some of the most important and exciting weeks of the year.
It’s helpful to have diversity of thought and there’s so much evidence about organizations that have more diversity and are more successful. There’s also just the really basic question: why would you not have someone in your pool of candidates if you could? And why would you ever restrict who you could bring into roles? There are so many bright and capable women — why would you ignore a part of your base? And I think that’s true for all aspects of diversity, talking about BIPOC, and why you would want to be inclusive in every way that you could.
One thing I would say is if you are not part of a board — a nonprofit or a for-profit board — I would heavily encourage it.
My first nonprofit board assignment, I think I was in my late twenties. And it was phenomenally helpful to me to just see what it’s like to look at an organization across the board. You get that purview of what executives look at, but really you make a lot of connections and it’s an excellent way to network.
And I feel like it’s been very beneficial to my career. There are numerous women I’ve met over time that have been great role models, strong, willing to ask thoughtful and provocative questions in respectful ways. One of the primary things boards do is select their new CEO, they select their new executive director and so on, and they also select the other board members.
So I’ve witnessed quite directly the ability to embrace a diverse candidate pool so that different people get considered for roles. You never know who lands in those spots, but just to be aware of who is considered for those roles.
One nonprofit board that I’ve been a part of for the last few years is very deliberately directed toward developing high school girls into female leaders in the state of Maine. It’s quite an inspiring program where they start working with girls in 10th grade, and they work on vision, values and voice over time.
So I would just highly encourage it. I feel like many of the women I’ve met have helped to shape how I think about my career. And they’ve helped to guide me. Many of them are senior to me, so I will schedule walks and just ask them, what were you thinking about when you were my age? What were you considering as coming next? And they’ve been phenomenally generous and I’ve tried to pass along the same to others.