In today’s DIVE In blog Professor Omera Khan, Strategic Supply Chain Risk Expert, explores the topic of mentorship. Omera is an inspiring and visionary thought leader in supply chain risk management. She is also a highly-acclaimed speaker and a passionate educator, working as a professor at the Royal Holloway University of London. She draws from her experience to define what it takes to be an effective mentor, as well as how you can select a suitable mentor(s).

Who has been your biggest mentor/inspiration?

Mentorship has been pivotal in my career and without having such great mentors, as well as role models, I wouldn’t have achieved some of the great successes I’ve had in my life. Many come to mind, but Professor Martin Christopher has been pivotal; he has been the guiding star in my career. And of course, several others such as Dr. John Gattorna and Professor Alan Braithwaite who are leading senior figures in logistics and supply chain.

What is the value and importance of mentors?

Not everything is straight forward, my career has been unpredictable. I didn’t set out to become a professor, I believe a lot of my success comes down to embracing opportunities. I have always been someone who strives for success and exerts passion and enthusiasm into my work, and I think my mentors really recognized this. They acted as guides and supported my dreams and goals, encouraging me to take relevant stepping stones to success. Also, time spent sparring and conversing with them about challenges really helped me feel less alone in the field. It is also important to note the difference between roles models and mentors. Role models tend to be someone were inspired by and look up too, but have never spoken too, mine is a star from the Bollywood industry, so it could be anybody! Whereas with mentors, we have access to them, and they tend to share our specific subject field. I have managed to surround myself with a combination of both.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to reaching a diversified workplace?

Personally, I don’t feel I’ve experienced any obstacles in terms of diversity. I think it’s my mindset not focusing on issues that may have made me feel uncomfortable at times, I most likely made my point and moved on! Often obstacles are created within the least expected circles and networks, and we must break those barriers. Women should focus on supporting each other, rather than focusing on how can we be better than men. I think it is important to recognize that adversity can come from women to other women, not just necessarily between men and women. 

What advice would you like to share with other women out there, that might help them reach their goals and become boundary pushers themselves, choosing to challenge? 

I would encourage them to not be afraid to reach out and hold back from support. Some view it as a sign of weakness, particularly when you reach certain positions in your career. But I don’t feel like that. There will always be a time when you need/should reach out to someone. Women deserve the confidence to be the sole voice in a boardroom or a difficult meeting. You can’t succeed without determination, passion, and motivation – believe in yourself and trust the process. At the same time, remember to be humble and authentic. I’ve been challenged on my northern English accent, but I refuse to let that affect me. Ultimately, have courage to step out of your comfort zone from time-to-time, stand by your ideas no matter how creative; be curious, listen and be heard.

Are you a mentor to other people? Including women?

As a professor of logistics and supply chain teaching students all around the world, it has been a real pleasure to see the number of women in these programs increase in the last 15 years. I have seen a really big change from the days when I started my career, often being the only female in the classroom. I am a public speaker and would often find myself to be the only women at these large logistics trade fairs and conferences, whereas now the gender dynamics are shifting. Currently, I am mentoring not only my students who attend my master’s program at Royal Holloway University of London, but also the wider community. I will always willingly offer my service and leadership to individuals in the supply chain and logistics management field who reach out to me. And recently, I have noticed far more women reaching out, which is great to see. In my day, there weren’t many female role models or mentors to reach out to so I think we must be present now for all of those women who are doubting themselves entering what was traditionally a male-dominated industry.

With your own experience as a mentor, how have you supported women to navigate difficult situations?

In my experience, I have often had women coming to me, seeking help with issues surrounding self- doubt. I have encouraged these individuals to be their authentic selves and to truly believe in this version of themselves. I have also supported women who know exactly where they want to take their career but don’t quite know how to get there and seek reassurance. For example, students who have completed a bachelor’s or a master’s, often seek guidance on what jobs to search for, which I can assist them with. While, at the same time, I have also had professionals come to me, asking me to share my experiences, including my challenges and my successes, which I am always grateful to share.

Looking back at your career, what would you say are the biggest challenges you have faced?

I have learned a lot more from challenges and failures. I am someone who doesn’t necessarily celebrate my wins. For example, the process of writing my book seemed much more rewarding than having the final printed copy. Once I had finished it, I was already focusing on the next thing. One of my biggest challenges was to not doubt myself. I particularly struggled when I had people around me telling me, “You can’t do that because you lack experience” or ”You’re too young to become a leader.” It wasn’t about proving them wrong but rather more about proving it to myself. This is what I’m doing for the community right now; learning from these experiences and being able to advise others to be their authentic self and to never doubt that there is a leader in them.

How should one pick the right mentor?

I don’t actually think I picked the mentors; I think the mentors picked me. I have been very fortunate to have mentors embrace me and help me. If you are seeking a mentor, I would advise you to take advantage of social media; having full access to profiles of potential mentors, allows you to select someone who resonates with you. You might get it wrong, but that’s okay, you can always pick again; not everyone will be the perfect mentor for you. I would say the attributes of a good mentor are those who don’t tell you what to do but guide you through the journey. They help you to be a better version of yourself. Sometimes, as I’ve said, the biggest challenge can be the self-doubt, so having a mentor who can help you reach your north star, is a valuable mentor.

What are the conversation starters for mentorship?

Simply being straight to the point and explain why you think the person would be good mentor for you, how they can help you, and where you can benefit from their advice and guidance. Transparency is so important.

Watch Blue Yonder’s recent LinkedIn live session with Omera Khan.