Whether it’s an economic downturn or a global pandemic, all managers and leaders must, at some point, face challenging times and make difficult decisions. During The PPAI Expo general session on Monday, “Leading Through Adversity,” PPAI President and CEO Dale Denham, MAS, hosted a panel of industry leaders to share how they’ve led during tough times.

On stage, discussing mistakes and lessons learned, were Dawn Olds, MAS, senior vice president of operations at distributor HALO and incoming PPAI board chair; David Nicholson, president of supplier PCNA; Rosanne Webster, chief information officer at SnugZ USA; and Thomas Goos, MAS, president of distributor Image Source.

Diving right in, Denham asked each panelist: What was the biggest mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it? For Nicholson, it was how he was trying to improve a company, Bullet Line Promos, after its acquisition 15 years ago. “Bullet was doing well but was having consistent quality and service challenges. We never could seem to get it on track,” said Nicholson. After a tremendous effort of trying to improve processes and systems, Nicholson said it wasn’t getting better. “What I learned from that and what ultimately got us on track is, rather than focusing on the process and system, we weren’t focusing enough on the people. Start with the people.”

Rephrasing his question, Denham asked the panelists to share the most expensive lesson they’ve had to learn. The launch of a new ERP, enterprise resource planning, system took the cake for Webster. “As most of you know, ERP systems never go well,” she said. “Our plan was to not do a dual system. We were just going to rip off the Band-Aid and go live with the new system that weekend.” Even with staff training and subject matter experts, the learning curve put all orders behind. “We really struggled. A few of us had cardboard desks set up next to the shipping lines, and we were expediting orders,” said Webster. “It was really expensive for us, not just financially, but also emotionally for our employees. That was the unforeseen expense.” When it comes to switching systems, Webster’s advice is to test and train on a large scale.

A budding focus within the past two years for many large businesses is diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (DEI) under the larger corporate social responsibility (CSR) umbrella. Denham asked, “Is this important to us in this industry? If so, why?” Without hesitation, Olds said, “Absolutely!” While serving as a board member, Olds said she enjoys learning different perspectives. “Having different ways to come about a decision is a good thing. If you are operating in an echo chamber, where everyone else looks like you, that’s not a good.” Goos agreed, saying it’s important to hire people different from yourself. He said, “In interviews, we tend to hire people who are us. We hire us, thinking a person is amazing because they’re just like you. You’ve got to do the opposite. That’s been a great lesson for me as the business grew.”

The panelists also shared how they resolve cash flow issues, firing employees and changing a core business strategy. Ending the general session, Denham asked, “What is your leadership philosophy?” For Olds, it’s making things easier for her team. “I tell new hires, ‘I am the lawnmower that’s running in front of you, trying to make sure it’s all clear, so you can run really fast.’ That’s my job. I want to do everything I can to make to help you be successful. As a leader, it’s not about dragging people along. It’s inspiring them to do great things.”