With over 20 years’ experience as a consultant in supply chain, Elizabeth Couzineau now works as a Lecturer in Innovation at Pôle Paris Alternance (PPA). In this interview, the second installment of our Women in Supply Chain series, Elizabeth talks to PARC’s Katy Huckle about the challenges of managing your own business through a financial crisis, getting a PhD whilst taking care of twins, and how to stay grounded and keep smiling through all of it.
Katy: Hi Elizabeth and thank you for taking part in our Women in Supply Chain series.
Elizabeth: You are very welcome!
K: To start us off, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
Of course! I was born in 1973 and I grew up near Lyon, in France. I consider myself lucky because, although the French are not generally known for foreign languages, my mother sent me to an English school as a child – so I already developed some insight and interest into other cultures.
K: What were you like at school?
I went to a regular school – nothing fancy. I loved literature and languages, but in France it’s much better to take science-based (STEM) courses through to the baccalaureate, so I studied mathematics. A scientific baccalaureate opens lots of doors for university studies.
With literature and mathematics, I automatically qualified for undergraduate studies in business. I left university with a double Masters; one in Energy, Sustainable Economics and Policy, the other in Econometrics.
To be honest, after that, I’m still not too convinced about data modelling! At the end of my Masters (in 1996) I was making energy forecasts for 2040 – what’s the point?! It’s absolutely an exercise in intellectual pleasure (which has value in itself) but it definitely cannot generate correct answers.
K: Where did you post-university career take you? Have you always worked in supply chain?
After the Masters, I started to work for the French government as a contractor in EU projects related to ‘alternative energy vehicles’; aka, electric vehicles. So yes, this was linked to supply chain. To be honest, in the twenty years since I started to work on this topic, not much has really changed – they are still reinventing the same wheel!
From 1996 to 2004, I was in the French transport ministry working on various EU projects. After that I became a technical manager for an urban and smart delivery consultancy. Our major customers were governments who were interested in national regulation of new technologies. They would usually come to us and ask “what is the future?” – it was usually the same question!
K: And you enjoyed life as a consultant?
The contract was extremely interesting – I had the chance to work on last mile delivery, based on mobility in the city, which actually came down to goods delivery. People mobility in cities is actually useless without goods mobility; a city can’t survive without goods.
On a personal level though, that time was hell for me. Unfortunately, my boss (the owner), was constantly criticising me on a very personal level. It got worse and worse over time and really destroyed a lot of my confidence. In the end it was my GP who ‘diagnosed’ harassment after talking things through. We eventually went to court and it was a very difficult time for me.
Fortunately that was the only difficult experience in my career with male colleagues. I could no longer work for that company for obvious reasons – and I had been considering going independent for a while.
K: So you started your own company? How was that?
After everything was resolved I started my own consultancy with a focus on mobility and alternative fuels. These had become my regular topics at that point, so I knew my way around them.
I managed the company alone for five years. Everything was great – until 2008 and the arrival of the financial crisis. This made it a lot more difficult to operate. I had already made contact with another consultancy company; they were 20 years old and dedicated to strategy and senior consulting, mainly in energy industry. The CEO was much more experienced than I was, but we were a really good fit; so I decided to sell him my company.
Things went very well and I became CEO when the previous CEO retired.
K: What were your main activities as CEO?
There were many more responsibilities and I started to work on more varied, less technical subjects, developing a more strategic view. At this point I was learning a lot and growing mentally. The company had its own research centre and we had some very large energy customers (primarily oil and gas).
We operated in an extremely scientific manner; our main activities were reading through scientific papers; I really enjoyed reading and writing. It gave me a great deal of pleasure intellectually to read and write. In the end I was advised to look into a research project of my own.
K: So you were already keen on academia?
I hadn’t thought about it before! No one in my family was particularly academic – we didn’t have any researchers. My father was a vet and my mother was an executive in a bank; I was one of the first to have a Master’s degree. We were just regular French people!
However, I was happy and excited to take this next step, so I started my PhD in Management Sciences in 2013. The topic I chose was the legitimating process of a family group in the frame of disruptive innovation.
K: How was the PhD?
Hard work! I received the PhD in 2017 after 4 years’ of study and I gave birth to my twins during the same period. I hadn’t planned it quite like that – the university initially told me not to worry about pregnancy and that I could put my PhD thesis on hold until I returned from maternity leave. However, the management changed during my pregnancy, and eventually I was not allowed to postpone the PhD, despite the twins!
This was a challenge, to say the least. My twins were born in April 2016, I lost my father in February 2017, and I was awarded the PhD in December 2017. This was one of the hardest phases of my life, but I genuinely believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
K: And what did you decide to do after the PhD?
I didn’t really want to be in consultancy after my PhD – we saw quite a few changes in mentality amongst our customers following the financial crisis. Before the crisis, customers expected high quality, in-depth studies. After the crisis, what they wanted was more communications and fancy infographics. I started to see it as social-media driven business to be honest, it wasn’t in-depth research any more.
Huge consultancies can sell research studies at a very low cost by utilising junior members of staff. We went through a quotation period once where we lost out to KPMG; it is much easier for a company like that to go through the procurement process and dedicate resources to customer acquisition. For us as a small company, we had to dedicate 2 months’ worth of work for one quotation, which we didn’t win. The entire customer relationship was changing.
By this point I realised that I really wanted to be teaching and doing research.
K: How did you make the change from industry to academia?
In April 2018 I was contacted by a Parisian business school (PPA Business School). It is one of the larger business schools offering sandwich courses and apprenticeships in Paris, but the research element was still under construction.
The school recognised me as a consultant with a lot of industry knowledge – I had over 20 years’ experience in management consultancy at that time, in addition to my PhD. The students at the school are in enterprise – they really spend time at companies as well as at school. They need pragmatic people to teach them, so it was quite a good fit.
Supply chain management was an obvious choice for me based on all the subjects I’ve worked on throughout my career. There is a SCM master in the school, so I could work with both the programme director and students. I have several papers ongoing at the moment; and I’m publishing my first book in 6 months – ‘500 Words in Supply Chain Management’ – which will be published in French. I am now professor-researcher, and I’m head of the SCM research program at PPA Business School.
K: Describe your work personality
I’m a multi-tasker. I like to work on many different topics simultaneously; my desk is a mess – I’m not a tidy person! However, I’m extremely well organised in my head and I can process lots of information at the same time. I’ve always been attracted to books, literature, languages, and I love grammar. When you read and look at written language it allows a much deeper understanding of the culture behind that language.
I also like arts and I need to have very clear, precise goals. The approach I have in my head allows me to manage various topics and I can work pretty fast. I must admit that I never follow the easy path; I really had to fight for what I wanted. It was never easy – I didn’t get much career support, possibly because I didn’t really think to ask for it! I just got on with things and did everything by myself, which is rewarding now but was hard work!
K: What have you learnt in your career so far?
I can accept my failures now, I was not able to do that in the past. When you have your own company, it’s very hard to think about the middle or long term. You are living in the moment from day-to-day. You never really know how the economic situation will change, or if customers will move, or anything else that could disrupt your business.
As a professional researcher, I’m an employee now – teaching students is rewarding most of the time; although can be more challenging with some of the younger students, which can get frustrating, but overall I love teaching and working with students, particularly Masters’ and PhD students.
I also very much enjoy being my own master – my research is my work. I can be wrong, and I accept that, but I do the best for myself and for the research, not simply because I’m paid for it.
K: What’s next for you?
My next objective is to get my HDR (habilitation à diriger des recherches). This is only available in France and it awards the ability to direct other PhD Doctorates. With the HDR, I would be authorised to manage PhD students. It’s the highest diploma in France and it’s a goal for me to get it before I turn 50. The HDR requires a great deal of knowledge, particularly of your own limits and visions. I think that’s the main reason I want it.
Managing the twins and PhD was tough but made easier by an extremely supportive mother and husband. The kids are only 3 years’ old now, and I want a stable future for them.
Supply Chain Management bridges the gap between business schools and industry. And I love this so I will stick with this subject. My goal right now is to implement more of an engineering culture – and to go through the teaching process with PhD students. If I want the HDR then I will need to write another thesis; to present all papers and consistency of my research. So I still have some work to do!
K: What are your personal highlights from your career so far?
Despite all the changes I’ve gone through in my career, my husband was always near me and very accepting and supportive. We currently are going through a period of some work-uncertainty and we will deal with the outcome together.
My career has been exhilarating. I have a lot of highlights so far, but to be honest they are a collection of small moments: the first time I won contract as consultant, the first time someone said I did a great job, the first article I had accepted for publication. Things like that. One that strikes my particularly was during my PhD thesis when I was almost overwhelmed by the volume of data I had. I was feeding my son and was just struck by a new idea on emergence – it came out of nowhere – that was a great moment.
Getting my PhD was a huge moment for me after everything I went through with the twins and with my father. When the assessor told me that I’d done an amazing job – that was an emotional moment. It really meant a lot.
I cherish those memories. I don’t really feel an overall sense of achievement per se; for me, there is a series of simple moments where I knew I succeeded in something. This knowledge can come from recognition from another or little victories when you do research.
K: This series is dedicated to Women in Supply Chain; do you have any specific comments or messages on that?
Gender equality is currently a very passionate subject for many of us, but I sometimes have the feeling that the fight is not the correct one. Blaming men for all the professional issues we have as women is sometimes the easy way. I’ve always been in industry and working with men. You will find assholes everywhere; at home, in industry, anywhere.
Sometimes blaming men for failure to progress isn’t the right approach. I’m just speaking from my own experience and my own culture here; I know France, and this only applies in France. Here you might have to fight a bit more to achieve your goals, but it doesn’t help to fight against anyone, or against men; you just need to be good at what you do and focus on fighting to improve yourself.
I think the most important thing to remember is that if you are very good at something, it will be recognised. I think that everyone should fight for themselves, for their own goals, for what they want to achieve.
K: What are you fighting for?
I never really sought recognition or praise in the eyes of others. Whatever I achieve is just for me and those I love. I don’t do anything to win recognition from others – only from myself and my family.
I’m a definite believer that everyone should do what they want to do, without judgement! I really hate stereotypes and our society seems to be full of stereotypes. Everything is categorised and put in to a box. It’s not easy to get out of that mindset.
I’m old enough now to be open and relaxed. If someone has a problem with me, that’s not my problem! Obviously things can get more difficult in professional areas. But my advice to others would be not to worry – it will pass. Most issues and problems will always pass. It’s nothing. Work hard and stay focused; you will get there!
- Transport, logistics and Supply Chain Management
- Automotive industry
- Energy sector
- Innovation as perturbating factor in organizations : management, Go to Market, family business ; intercultural management
- New practices in innovation : open innovation ; alliance and cooperation strategies
- Epistemology and research in the Grounded Theory Methodology
Major scientific domain
- Management and strategy
- Sociology of sciences
- Philosophy of sciences
Supply Chain Applied Research Program
- Axis 1: evolution of the Supply Chain Management role within corporate governance
- Axis 2: the smartisation of the supply chain
- Axis 3: The social capital in the supply chain:
the role of intercultural management in the globalized environment
- Management style comparison
- Intercultural relationship between French and German companies (not people) (based on issue to implement products in France) anonymous – only seller was in France, interviews with French people involved (not the dark side) – enough elements to create a case.
- Book: 500 words in supply chain management
- scientific paper on intercultural management (Panalpina study)
- November publication: comparison between the different trends in the grounded theory, theoretical paper, qualitative methodology, NPSS Canada
- Scientific paper : Long way to grounded theory in the frame of PhD (working on this for one year) will try to publish in A level review. Needs correction from a native speaker.