When Marie Robinson was very young, her father told her early and often that she was the smartest girl he had ever known. And he continued to tell her that as she grew and learned. He encouraged her to work hard at school, aim for scholarships and reach the potential he saw in her. And she became, in his words, the smartest woman that he had ever known — and that she could do anything. And she did.
Today, Robinson is the executive vice president and chief supply chain officer of Sysco, a global leader in selling, marketing and distributing food and non-food products to restaurants, but scroll through her LinkedIn profile, and you’ll see huge career milestones that would impress and inspire anyone. We wanted to know what she learned from each of those experiences.
Right out of college, Robinson started out as a logistics officer in the U.S. Army, getting deployed to Saudi Arabia. Her very first job was leading a platoon of truck drivers, which is how she learned the importance of those front-line workers.
“Nothing moves in a war zone without truck drivers,” Robinson notes.
After 11 years, Robinson then took up a post as the vice president, logistics at Wal-Mart, during the time when the retail giant was first launching its supercenters in the mid-1990s. During this time, she got to “do some really fun things,” she notes, such as working with the first e-commerce fulfillment centers at Wal-Mart.
“I can truly say I’ve been doing e-commerce since the day it was born, and we learned so much along the way,” she says. “You can think you know what a customer wants to buy in those early days online, and then you learn what they actually want to buy online.”
Over the next two decades, Robison did tours with Toys R Us, Smart and Final, The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Michael Kors and Capri Holdings. During these gigs, she gained experience building and managing supply chains, fleets and more.
Fast forward to March 2020, when Robinson joined Sysco … the last week before the office closed for the pandemic.
“The first few months, as I look back on it, I actually think, from an onboarding speed, it was just everything at warp speed. I had to learn at a pace just to get us through and to add value in a certain way,” she recalls.
As for what she’s learned from Sysco so far, she states, “Leadership is always the most important thing, and making sure that you know the names, you know the birthdays. It’s not just a transactional, ‘You’re here at work today, here’s what you’re expected to do.’”
To hear more about what Robinson learned throughout her career, watch the video below.
Being the “first” or being the “only” can be as much of a challenge as it is an achievement. Trail-blazing Robinson has been in situations that have earned her both of those challenging accolades — sometimes at the same time — as the first and/or only woman in the room.
Like a true rockstar, Robinson steps up in big moments and performs at a high level. We’ve seen that from the lessons she’s learned throughout her career, but we wanted to know how she does it and what advice she’d give to anyone who has to be the first, the only or even the best professional they can be.
“I was the first female vice president in logistics at Walmart. Being the first and the only was lonely. It really was. And I think that the advice that I give is to really know who you are. Know who you are; learn how important your voice is; but it’s also important to know when to be quiet,” she explains. “I’ve learned that there’s a danger in talking too much too, right? Men or women, I think this is universal guidance and almost seeing your voice as a currency and when do you want to spend it and when do you want to save it?”
Robinson relays from her time at Wal-Mart that every vice president in the company was required to be in an auditorium every Friday. David Glass, the first CEO after Sam Walton passed, would ask the same, singular question, week after week: “How much time is it going to take a new supercenter to reach profitability?”
“And he wasn’t really happy with, ‘Let’s wait a few years and figure that out.’ He wanted that answer, and they did eventually answer his question,” Robinson says.
She clearly learned a lot from her leadership role models, but she’s brought her own perspective, intelligence and ability to make really complicated things like global transportation logistics simple for people to understand.
But that level of leadership isn’t easy.
“It gets lonelier as you progress. I’ve often said, this is my dream job. I never really wanted to be a CEO of a publicly traded company. I have such admiration for my boss and what he lives through and the impacts and the levels of decision that he has to make.
“For me, yes, there are always times when you have to do things that you wouldn’t necessarily want to do, but it’s being really clear about what are those fundamental things that you protect? What are those parts of the organization that I’m willing to actually fight for? And I work with a wonderful team,” she notes.
To learn more about Robinson’s experience as a female executive, check out the video below.
It could be said that you can judge the success of a person by the success of the people working with her. For Robinson, working with her field teams and getting involved at the ground level is one of the things that invigorates her in her professional life. She credits much of her success to her ability to, as she puts it, “attract great talent that’s smarter than her.” A tall order, to be sure.
Even so, she aims to ensure that the people she works with know that she really, truly cares about them.
That was on display when we asked her what makes the people she works with rock stars. Robinson upped the ante with the sentiment that they’re not just rock stars — they’re superheroes with super powers.
Be sure to watch the video below to see what Robinson and her co-workers had to say.
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