10 Minutes with Laura Berry, CEO of Supply Nation

Laura Berry, CEO of Supply Nation

She describes herself as an introverted leader but Laura Berry, CEO of Supply Nation, isn’t shy about pushing for change.

How do you define good leadership?

Good leadership starts by taking the time to understand the people you’re leading. You have to lead from the heart, you have to lead with integrity and you have to have a vision and a style that makes people want to follow you.

You’re a very empathetic leader. Is that important to you?

I’ve always led my team the way I would like to be led. That’s really about putting people first. I make sure I’m getting the best out of people by understanding who they are rather than just names on an org chart.

How do you balance that people-first approach with what are sometimes quite hard business realities?

I empower my staff as experts in their jobs to get the job done but that still has to align with the company’s vision and strategic direction. I always say to new staff, “You’ll be given a long rope and the empowerment to go off and be the best you can in the role but when you’re not doing that, that’s when you’ll hear from me.”

Supply Nation now has a database of more than 3000 Indigenous suppliers and 500 corporate, government and not-for-profit member organisations. To what do you attribute the growth?

In 2015, the federal government launched a national policy around Indigenous procurement and within that policy are provisions that engage corporate Australia as well. So while we’d seen gradual growth in the organisation up until that point, we really started to see exponential growth after 2015. Increasingly people are seeing that working with Aboriginal businesses, diversifying their supply chain and bringing in new suppliers of new products and services makes a massive difference in their organisation as well as to the business owner and their community… It isn’t about charity. It’s about giving Indigenous business owners a seat at the table. They have to do the work after that.

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What sort of impact does it have on communities?

The impact is huge. We’re seeing money flow back into communities. So we see our Indigenous business owners sponsoring local football teams, buying their first homes and being role models for younger generations. Obviously there’s an ethical and a moral obligation to support supply diversity but are there positive commercial outcomes for businesses? Supply diversity has been in operation in countries like the United States for more than 45 years and countless studies have been done about the return to corporate organisations. Having diversity in supply chains brings innovation, you have more responsive suppliers and you can bring in new products and services that you hadn’t seen before. It can increase the bottom line result for organisations.

You work with Indigenous communities, government, big corporates – these are wildly different stakeholders. How have you learnt to successfully navigate that?

I try to bring honesty and integrity to conversations and I am willing to listen and incorporate different viewpoints. You’re never going to have everybody agree on everything but we have a common goal and the people who don’t align with that drop away fairly quickly.

What’s the biggest barrier in your control that is holding your organisation back from reaching its full potential?

Money [laughs].

Is that in your control? It is if your role is to lobby for more money. Are you a good networker?

I’m naturally an introvert so I have to work at it. I’m not the sort of person who goes into a room and just marches up to someone and starts chatting and prompting conversation.

There’s probably never been a better time to be an introverted leader.

It has pluses and minuses. An introverted leader really needs a lot of down time to balance out all the public-facing stuff. I’ve continued to achieve – almost excel – in lockdown, despite all of the other challenges, because of some of the benefits that it brings. But it can’t go on for too long because then you don’t want to walk into a room again.

I want to come back to diversity. There’s been so much focus on gender diversity. Have we missed a trick on cultural diversity?

There has been – and rightly so – a strong focus on gender diversity and I think we’re starting to make much better inroads there but it’s taken a lot of work. Now, organisations are increasingly saying, “Okay, what are we doing about cultural diversity?” That’s progression but we still have a long way to go. We have to challenge people to think about their own circle of influence, which may include no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. They need to start thinking, “How do I reach outside my network?”

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You’ve described yourself as highly emotional. Is that a good thing or a bad thing when you’re leading a team?

It’s fine to be emotional, it’s just how you manage it. I don’t respond well to ego or to really hard-headed approaches to things. We’re not very hierarchical here and I think it helps the team understand that I might be the CEO but things go right and things go wrong and I have good days and bad days. In the early days I felt I had to keep up a bit of a façade about everything being okay all the time but I’ve found that being really honest with my team about how I feel helps them understand that I’m not a robot.

You’ve also talked about how sometimes you’re plagued by self-doubt. We think of that as more common among female leaders but you believe it applies to both genders.

Last week a man said to me, “I don’t think I can do the job they’re pegging me to do.” I said, “Of course you can do the job. We all think we can’t do the job. Everyone feels like an imposter at some point.” In the past 18 months or so, I’ve had conversations with men in very senior business positions about imposter syndrome and they say, “Don’t worry, I felt exactly the same way.”

So much is about just showing up and getting through it.

[Laughs] The amount of times I’ve almost not shown up! Every time I’ve been nervous or felt really anxious about something but shown up anyway, I’ve actually thought, “Thank God I showed up that day.”

How much of your success is due to sheer hard work?

Hard work sits behind everything. Both my parents worked full-time and I developed a very strong work ethic from them. My journey into the workforce and into this role wasn’t a textbook “leave school, go to university, start in lower levels of management”. It was literally a mailroom to CEO journey over 20 years. I always felt that I really had to prove myself by showing up, working hard and being humble. And saying yes to opportunity when opportunity arises.

Leaders in small businesses can often struggle with being in the weeds versus the big picture. How do you balance that?

In the early days, it was really hard. I was always in the weeds and it was becoming increasingly difficult to look at the big picture. But as our organisation grew, I was able to start delegating more and then I just carved out time to really think about that.

What advice would you give a brand new CEO?

If they’re saying, “I don’t know if I can do this”, the first thing I would say is, “Yes, you can.” Reach out to your broader network – there is always somebody who is willing to offer support and advice – and remember why you’re in that role and what your purpose is. You’re only as good as the people you have underneath you so you need to make sure you nurture and develop great people. It’s not about you doing it all or it being all about you.

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Illustration by Marc Nemorin

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