Legacy Of A Lifetime
PPAI’s 2015 Woman of Achievement recipient, Sherri C. Lennarson, MAS, shares her wisdom gleaned from decades of learning and loving the industry and its people.
As winner of the PPAI 2015 Woman Of Achievement award, Sherri C. Lennarson, MAS, exemplifies a life well lived and a leader much loved. A former member of the PPAI Board of Directors (2006-2011) and PPAI Board Chair (2009-2010) as well as a winner of PPAI’s 2013 Distinguished Service Award, Lennarson has spent much of her 30 years in the industry giving back through volunteer service and mentoring others.
“I’ve always thought if you’re not giving back, you’re living in a vacuum and life is not very fulfilling,” Lennarson says. “You get back so much more when you volunteer. I think all of us change, we grow, we leave a footprint, and we’re also impacted by other people’s footprints. Most importantly, we help somebody along the way.”
Lennarson has held a host of volunteer leadership positions on numerous industry task forces and committees. Of all Lennarson’s accomplishments, perhaps her most far-reaching achievement is the instrumental role she played in the formation of PPAI’s Government Relations Action Council in 2009.
“Sherri could be considered the mother of PPAI’s legislative movement,” says Margie Price, MAS, owner of distributor Premiums Plus Incorporated. “Today we have representatives of every state visit Washington, D.C. annually to meet with their elected officials during Legislative Education Action Day. Her initial visits in Iowa have had an incredible effect on the way we do business and how we communicate with our legislatures.”
Teresa Moisant, MAS, owner of distributor Moisant Promotional Products, and Maribeth Sandford, MAS, owner of supplier BAG MAKERS, Inc., nominated Lennarson for the 2015 PPAI Woman of Achievement Award.
“Sherri is the ultimate teacher,” Moisant says of Lennarson. “She shares her knowledge. When answers aren't there, she immediately goes the extra mile to secure the information for the group. Sherri, like so many teachers, does not seek the credit. She wants her students and counterparts to shine. I personally have benefitted from the knowledge she shared.”
Bruce Perryman, MAS+, president of Embroidery Unlimited, Inc., met Lennarson at a PPAI Leadership Development workshop, and their paths crossed again when he became a member of the PPAI board. “Sherri is an advocate for our profession, a successful business woman and a very compassionate human being, evidenced by her appetite for volunteering,” he says. “Her energy was constant as she was deeply committed to do what was necessary to lead the board and benefit the association she represented.
Lennarson’s career in the promotional products industry began in the 1980s, at a time when there were fewer women in the industry.
Afterearning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Arizona State University in 1979, Lennarson spent her first year out of school as a traveling graduate consultant for the national fraternity Pi Beta Phi. She then came home to Iowa, where her family lives, and knew she needed a job. When she realized her local school district was “closed,” she took a position for minimum wage at a dentist’s office where she performed administrative work and, most importantly, met her future husband.
But fate had other plans for Lennarson, whose introduction to the promotional products industry came in the form of a chance encounter with Bill Bywater, then president and currently chairman of Iowa City, Iowa, distributor Bankers Advertising (UPIC: BACADV). The two met each other while sitting side by side on a plane flight.
About a year after the chance encounter, Lennarson got a call from Bywater, who remembered their conversation during that plane flight.
“Apparently I made an impression on him because he said he wanted to offer me a position as executive assistant to the president,” Lennarson recalls. “Certainly that experience emphasized for me the importance of a first impression.”
Lennarson joined Bankers Advertising Company as the executive assistant to the president in 1981, and she continued to advance in responsibility and titles. By 2003, she was named president of the company.
“I was very lucky to have not only a mentor but a rabbi in Bill Bywater,” Lennarson says. “I learned in my early career the importance of supporting folks out in the field. Everything revolves around the sale; no matter what position you have in the company, everybody needs to remember that.”
Lennarson says she learned important lessons while moving up the ranks at Bankers.
“I learned the importance of understanding what motivates each individual and how best to fulfill their needs,” Lennarson says. “I learned to concentrate on others and recognize what their goals were. This was what really enabled me to grow and prosper because as the people I worked with prospered, so did I.”
With her background in education, Lennarson approached the promotional products industry as a student hungry to learn. She leveraged her love of learning by asking lots of questions and building her industry knowledge step by step.
“I learned the importance of great communication because as a distributor you’re that party in the middle who puts everything together,” she says. “In our industry, I think you have to really know and understand two things—the importance of attention to detail and having a sense of urgency. That’s even more critical today because everybody wants something yesterday.”
As she blossomed into the savvy industry professional she is today, Lennarson developed her own personal motto: Having fun and getting things done. “I really feel if you’re not having fun, then get out,” she says. “Why expend energy, time or effort on something that isn’t fun to you? And if you’re not getting things done, get moving. It’s got to be that combination—have some fun but also get things done.”
Today, Lennarson and her husband, John, live in sunny Tucson, Arizona. While she considers herself semi-retired, she stays busy as owner of distributor firm Having Fun Promotions, a company named after her personal motto.
In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman emphasize how important it is for women to achieve confidence at all stages of their career and outline steps they can take to accomplish this goal. Clearly, confidence doesn’t come naturally to many women. So how did Lennarson develop confidence as a leader and public speaker?
“I watched people who I felt were good leaders and I tried to emulate them,” she says. “I also believe in the power of positive thinking and visualization. For me, preparation has always been the name of the game. I was always really committed to knowing the material.”
She practiced her presentations before she gave them, many times giving her speech to an empty room again and again prior to the actual presentation. She also made an effort to concentrate on other people, discerning what they wanted to accomplish.
“I found that the more I concentrated on others, the easier it was to accomplish my own goals,” she says. “Then you’re not as nervous about doing those things because you’re thinking about somebody else.”
Putting others first is something Lennarson has done throughout her life. Her advice to other industry women is to expand their circle and build their network. “You never know when a casual conversation could lead to something life changing,” she adds.
Also, never stop learning, she says. “You can never take in too much information or read enough,” Lennarson says. “Stay hungry. Stay captivated by life. Stay curious. Go out and seek because when you seek, you find.”
Most important of all is remembering to stay positive and “believe attitude counts,” Lennarson says.
“I can’t control what anybody else does or the circumstances of my life,” she says. “But I can control how I respond. We need to remember that we’re always out in the light and people are watching. What do you want them to see that they might incorporate into their life as well?”
In her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg spends an entire chapter discussing how important it is for women to mentor other women and emphasizing that women mentoring other women should occur more frequently than it does.
But for Lennarson, who genuinely loves people, mentoring has always come naturally.
While at Bankers, Lennarson served as a personal and professional mentor to Marie Young, who began her career in the industry fresh out of college.
“She took the time to get to know me and helped me find my top strengths and skills and make them shine,” Young says of Lennarson. “As a recent college grad, I found myself lacking self-confidence, and Sherri helped me focus on the things I did best. She also allowed me to take on projects autonomously and provided positive reinforcement along the way.”
Lennarson is now modeling the magic of mentoring through her relationship with her niece, Abigail Brown, who recently joined the industry in sales.
“It has been so incredible for me to see her get involved in this industry,” Lennarson says of her niece. “I am transformed and invigorated when I work with somebody new to our industry. It really reminds me of all the reasons why I believe we offer the most engaging, most cost-effective and most results-producing form of marketing and advertising.”
Mentoring is not just about what you reap but also about what you sow, Lennarson emphasizes. “As we succeed, we have an obligation to pass on our knowledge and experience from one generation to the next,” she says. “If we don’t, where will our industry be in 10, 20 or 50 years? We want it to be strong and healthy. So we need to cultivate that within the industry.”
Lennarson’s philosophy seems contrary to the scarcity-driven mindset that is prevalent in other industries such as finance, where the “I’ll be gone you’ll be gone” philosophy took shape, made famous by Wall Street hedge fund managers who lacked accountability.
“Sharing is one of the great hallmarks of our industry,” Lennarson says. “You see it all the time—colleagues helping colleagues, competitors actually helping each other. The great thing about our industry is that any company is a potential client for us, so there is no way that one of us could write all the business out there. So why not help everybody to be successful? We all have something to share, and we have an obligation to share it as well.”
Brittany Glenn is a former associate editor for PPB magazine and a former full-time freelance writer. Currently, she serves as corporate communications manager at a national mortgage lender.
PPAI Woman of Achievement Award
The PPAI Woman of Achievement award is given each year during the PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference to women who have exhibited outstanding leadership and made significant contributions to the industry and community. Those selected for the honor consistently go above and beyond in setting the standard for excellence and serving as a role model, mentor and an inspiration to others.
Named the 2015 PPAI Woman of Achievement recipient, Sherri C. Lennarson, MAS, is the ninth recipient of the award. Previous winners are Carol Aastad, MAS; Margaret Custer Ford, MAS; Margie Price, MAS; Mary Ann Farmer, MAS; Janelle Nevins; Roni Wright, MAS; Jo-an Lantz, MAS; and Maribeth Sandford, CAS.
“It’s very humbling to be recognized with this honor, particularly as I look at the women who were honored before me,” Lennarson says. “It’s a great exclamation point on a career that’s molded and shaped me. It also makes me think of the women who came before my generation and the sacrifices they made.
“Grandmothers, mothers, aunts and friends—they all marked this trail,” she adds. “So now it’s time for us all to do the same. The award reminds me of the continued responsibility that each of us and I have to help others achieve their dreams.”