The Big Interview with Joanne Barlow

With twenty years of experience as a Procurement professional and a background in Law, Jo has experience across both the direct and indirect Procurement functions building and leading high-performing professional teams across multiple geographies and spend categories.

Jo has a proven track record in delivering value, improving processes and managing risk. Most recently she built the Cochlear indirect procurement function covering all aspects of the end-to-end strategic procurement process.

Originally from the UK Jo moved to Australia 12 years ago with her now-husband.

They have two daughters and live on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and spend most of their free time at the beach.

She spoke with Procurement Heads about her career.

How did you get into Procurement?

Sadly, it’s the usual story, I didn’t seek a Procurement Career, I stumbled across it, I studied law and decided at the very last minute it wasn’t for me and somehow Procurement seemed to be the place to go. 

It had all the elements of my legal study that I enjoyed plus the added benefit of spending other people’s money and the opportunity to travel.

How do you split the function out at Cochlear?

Procurement sits in the Supply Chain and Operational Excellence group and we split out direct and indirect spend deliberately given the nature of what we do.

We are a class three medical device company and so naturally our direct Procurement is focussed on safety and minimising risk. So, whilst we are separate groups, each team has a global responsibility, head officed in Australia, with teams across the globe. 

Our Procurement groups are exceptionally innovative given the nature of our business, we are asking vendors in the upfront space in some cases to come on a journey with us and develop technology that doesn’t exist today.

In terms of your current challenges, what do you face?

Given the current climate, there are many! But personally, I’m constantly exploring how we continue to deliver value and good governance in a customer-centric way. 

The other challenge is risk and how we minimise it, whether that is within our own supply chain or with our suppliers. We ask our teams to always come to work with minimising risk front and centre.

How are you managing Brexit?

That is managed within our European region. We are a global business and we have distribution points across the world – in the US, in Asia Pacific and specifically in the UK. 

We are ready, we understand the risks and our position, and we have great expertise on the ground from our team in Europe and our suppliers in that space. We have had some great support.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to Procurement?

Continuing to deliver results in a sustainable, customer-centric way, driving a flexible approach to spend governance, being able to pivot when the business needs it, developing talent, championing diversity and really leading loud. 

There could be more women in this industry at a senior level. I am passionate about getting a diverse range of people, including females through that hump and into the more senior roles. 

What do you think are the key focus areas for Procurement right now?

If I think beyond the things that make procurement easier, for me it is sustainability, supply relationships, partnerships, risk mitigation, strong processes and talent management. These are the things I am constantly thinking about.

What are you and the team doing in terms of sustainability?

As a business, we are committed to improving the lives of our recipients every day and driving technological innovation within our industry. 

Cochlear’s brand line is “Hear now. And always”, a recognition of how essential hearing is and how it enables people to make the most of life’s opportunities. It also represents our commitment to connect them to the experiences that hearing offers and support them on their hearing journey, no matter how their lives or the world around them changes.

We have a commitment not only to our customers, but also a long-term commitment to the environment we live in. Specifically, around the consideration of the environmental impact of our products. At all stages of their lifecycle, we endeavour to be energy efficient, reduce greenhouse gases, make continual improvements to waste management practices and promote efficient use of materials and resources throughout our facilities.

We spend a lot of time with suppliers managing negative impacts on the environment. We have a robust code of conduct and we specifically address labour practices, environmental and ethical trading. We have a corrective action process and really believe in actively working alongside our partners and suppliers to achieve good outcomes. 

What are the biggest achievements of your Procurement career?

Probably being the first female on the Supply Chain leadership team.

What is the biggest risk you have taken?

Moving to the other side of the world without knowing anybody! 

A close second would be taking on an indirect procurement function and building it from the ground up. I was in a category management role prior and had worked across our direct procurement business managing the Australian-based teams, but I was promoted on potential, which is amazing.

When I started the role, I was on maternity leave. I was asked to lead that piece of work as I returned to office. Certainly, I like to think I lead in the same way my SVP has and really focus on hiring for potential rather than a specific skill set. I genuinely believe this is how we will get diverse talent at a leadership level.

What inspires you as a Procurement leader?

It is rewarding to develop others and watch their careers grow. I am also inspired by the opportunity I see for Procurement moving forward. There are always so many new angles to explore. 

Who has had the most influence on your Procurement career and why?

I had a female Procurement lead in the UK many years ago who taught me the value of full-circle thinking, working through a problem and having thought about a possible solution. Not necessarily having the right answer but have at least done the thinking. At the time it was a harsh lesson, but it was a valuable one. 

My biggest inspiration is Cochlear’s Senior Vice President of Supply Chain and Operational Excellence. He is an exceptional leader, he walks his talk and has provided a safe environment for me to grow and sometimes fail, but continually learn and develop. He is a tremendous example of an inclusive leader and mentor and I hope I’m leading in his footsteps. 

What advice would you give someone who is embarking on a Procurement career?

Don’t be put off, it takes time to find your lane and learn the fundamentals. Procurement is different in every environment, so my advice is to look at the industries that interest you, not just Procurement as a function. 

Historically we have been seen as a back-office department and a little bit of a necessary evil, but I think if you work in the right environment, it is the most rewarding career you can have. I have been fortunate enough to work on a huge variety of categories across FMCG, Manufacturing and Luxury goods and travelled the world in the process. 

I have walked to the top of the Swiss mountains to deliver key components, completed product inspections in Paris, undertaken factory audits and negotiated construction contracts in China, delivered logistics solutions in South America and worked on professional service contracts in Malaysia to name a few. It is such a rewarding career in terms of personal development and cultural awareness.

What role have you and the Procurement function had on enabling the company to face the pandemic?

We have played a couple of roles, firstly how do we protect the business, manage our risk profile and protect our vendors. Predominantly though our role as Business Partner, the message is let’s “Spend better and buy better”. In this environment, how do we do more for the same, enabling the business and our supply partners to come through the pandemic in the best possible way.

What have been the major challenges you and the team have had to navigate through the pandemic?

Risk is number one.

We must protect against any potential disruption – which has been especially important since January when COVID-19 hit. The focus for me was on logistics and freight. 

Our role is very much that of risk management: What next? Where next? What could happen? What are our suppliers’ risks? Do we understand them? And how do we get on the front foot and support those vendors? It literally is one-by-one. SRM is key. It is essential you really know where your relationships sit at times like these.

I never had to fight for space on an aircraft in those early days because our relationships are strong and when I needed to call on them, they were there. 

How has the business changed since lockdown?

We are exceptionally well connected, even though we have been locked down for varying time periods and in varying ways. As a business, we travel a lot, but we have adapted very well to online video conferencing. It is now second nature. 

It brings a business closer together. You are all fighting in the same direction for the same cause, albeit everyone’s experience of it is different. Acknowledging that and being supportive of each other’s situations has been really important and I believe it has brought our global teams together. 

What worked well and is there anything you would do differently with the benefit of hindsight?

The major challenges to me and my team have been distance. I have a global team, but I can’t get to them physically. 

We are used to being together more, and it is hard to plan for events. For me, the biggest challenge is making sure everybody is safe – not just physically safe but mentally well. 

In Australia, we recognise “RUOK?” Day. It is a day where you check-in with one another and simply ask RUOK? and I think that is just so important. COVID has highlighted the need to ask how people are and understand how we can help them. It’s not enough to say ‘are you ok’ though – we have to listen and then check back in, and that certainly has been the message of “RUOK?” this year.

I have an amazingly strong team who look out for each other. We try to keep each other mentally engaged. It is up to me as the leader of that group to champion that it is ok not to be ok. I have said it to my group more than once, but it is all about keeping it real but also admitting that some days it is not ok.

How do you see Procurement changing as a result of COVID?

If anything, COVID has taught me that as a group, we are capable of doing things much more quickly if we have the burning platform. 

I would love to see us keep that momentum as it is refreshing. I think it is really important that we hold on to that, Procurement will be about how well we continue to manage potential risk but also flex and pivot with the quick change in business strategy.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in Procurement?

Nothing overt in the industry. I probably face more unconscious bias than anything else.

I think it took me a long time to have a voice and call it out. You could say that was a confidence thing, but I did feel that Procurement was very heavily male-dominated at a senior level and I found that very intimidating especially when I was made to feel guilty for travelling. “Your poor children must miss you.” “How on earth do you do your job with children at home?” I have yet to hear that said to any of my male colleagues.

I found my voice and confidence later in my career and that was through a mentor of mine who said to me that the best thing I could do was build my network. 

I am not the best with small talk. I do find it a challenge, but I set to it!

The biggest challenge I have had as a female was how do I get to a senior level and have a family with no family support other than my husband in Australia. 

It was a juggling act, and I felt that was a barrier to me. I do travel a fair amount. But I am exceptionally lucky to have a husband who can take the strain at home so that I can do what I do. 

I also have an incredibly supportive leadership team and senior leader who not only operates on trust but also measures outcomes not by how many hours I’m sitting at a desk.  

I also learnt that there is no such thing as work-life balance. There is, however, balance — and some weeks that’s heavily focused on my work and other weeks it’s very much home focussed. Once I had worked this out and stopped feeling guilty about it (and it does creep back in now and again, especially during homeschooling!), I found I removed some of my barriers.

How can we encourage more women into Procurement?

I don’t believe there is an issue with women moving into Procurement as a career, I see a good balance but where I see the disparity is at the next level. 

My role and the role of all leaders is to create a good bench of talent from diverse backgrounds including females at that senior level and that is all about hiring for potential and managing outcomes. 

I think at entry level there are as many males as females. 

What I find is that males tend to be more likely to apply for a role with less experience, but a female won’t usually apply unless they can tick all the boxes. So, I’m focused on the potential and creating a flexible environment for everyone.

Do you see a difference between the UK and Australia in terms of females in the business?

I can only really talk about roles I have hired in the UK given I haven’t worked in the industry in the UK for some years, but when I have hired, I have really struggled to get great female CVs, and that’s also on me to look at why. What I can say is I am starting to see a shift generally into a more flexible approach to the way job descriptions are written, advertised and recruited, removing and addressing unconscious bias.

What advice would you give to a female starting out in Procurement?

Traditionally the industry in my experience has been obsessed with acronyms and following formulaic responses to commercial issues. 

That creates barriers to growth, it can be overwhelming and certainly was for me. However, I would say bring passion and creative flair — be yourself, be a good listener and find the industry that suits you best. Try lots of things, don’t say no to opportunity even if it scares you to death and have a go. You won’t always get it right, but that is the best learning.

Are there any women in particular who inspire you?

I come from a very long line of strong females! 

My grandmother worked full time for the local government in Barnsley in the 1950s. It certainly wasn’t a popular choice back then with a small child at home but she was determined to have a career.

My mum raised my sister and I single-handedly, whilst working full time, completing her degree, then her masters and then on to university lecturing. I often look back having had children of my own and wonder how on earth she did it. These are the women that inspire me, that gave up so much and faced much more adversity than I ever will, so that gives me drive, passion and determination to do more.

What is your view on how women are represented in the industry?

I think better. There are a number of forums in Australia that are very well represented by females now, but you do start to see the same faces. However, I think we are becoming more visible. I still think it will take a bit of time.

Is there anything that you would have done differently during your career?

I had to grow a thicker skin for sure and I wish I had learned that earlier on. I also wish I had confidence earlier in my career in my ability and backed myself. It took me a long time and some amazing mentors to help me with that, but that said I’m still comfortable with the path I chose.

What skills are essential for a good Procurement leader?

You have to be an exceptional listener and a champion of your people and for me, it is about trust. I have to trust my team and they have to trust me. 

One size does not fit all, you need to be flexible, patient and open to ideas and opportunities.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I am not embarrassed to say I like a bit of Netflix! Quite honestly, I don’t get much downtime with two young girls, but we live in a beautiful part of the world by the beach so we spend a lot of time there, or cycling and bushwalking.

What do you hope and foresee for your daughters?

We hope that they become young women living their values, have a purpose and a well-balanced approach to life. We hope they feel safe and empowered to achieve their full potential.

We talk openly at home about the work I do, the people I meet and the places I go to so that they understand if I’m not at home what I am doing and the purpose it has. I believe my 7-year-old could well be a better negotiator than I am!

If you could give any advice to your younger self what would it be?

Have confidence in your own ability and trust your gut.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself

My first job was at Manchester United Football Club. I was a waitress in the players’ lounge.

Do you have a personal motto that you live by?

However bad a situation is, it could always be worse. 

You have got to find the positive in everything.

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