CHICAGO — For David Potack, president of Unitex, a medical uniform and linen service headquartered in Elmsford, New York, a leader is someone who understands how to build a team with a common culture and vision for the future of the business.
“A leader needs to be well-versed in understanding the group dynamic they have fostered and how to position members of the team to be successful,” he continues. “A leader cannot or should not feel they are the only person who can make decisions but at the same time, needs to identify when the required decision should be theirs to make.
“Accountability, self-awareness and courage of conviction are important characteristics of any successful leader.”
Noël Hammer Richardson, president of Shasta Linen Supply serving the Sacramento and San Juaquin Valleys in California, says the leader of a small, independent laundry and a leader of a large national chain have some very different challenges.
“Ultimately, both need to stay focused on the company’s core values but be open to new ideas and listen,” she says. “What I mean by listening, hear what employees are saying, what new trends suppliers are working on or what governmental regulations are being discussed.
“A leader today must be able to understand the world around them. Where are we headed not just as linen operators, but trends beyond the commercial linen world and how they will affect us down the road.”
When Chris Welch, president of Prudential Overall Supply based in Irvine, California, pictures a laundry leader, he envisions a person with a solid understanding of his/her customers and employees and what the company’s value proposition to both groups is.
“I think it’s important to have clear channels of communication flowing in all directions within the business and encourage idea generation; even if every idea won’t be acted upon, it will be actively listened to,” he says.
“Also, being worthy of others’ trust and executing on your commitments to them and having a vision of the future that inspires others to help bring the vision to fruition.”
While laundry leaders need to embrace the qualities all three mentioned, COVID-19 has affected what makes a good leader today and what future leadership needs to understand.
NEW CHALLENGES, SKILLS
Welch says today’s laundry leaders need to be able to find ways to better automate processes that are labor-intensive or modifying the work to make it more appealing to those that perform it.
“It’s critical to indoctrinate new hires as effectively as possible in an effort to make them feel that they have an opportunity to make a career with a purpose, not just that they have a job,” he points out.
He adds that leaders need to make technology more forward in the laundry service experience to fulfill the expectations customers have from using other well-known companies, like Amazon.
Engagement with team members needs to be an everyday activity and needs to be authentic, Potack agrees.
“Managing by walking around is still a very successful method, as is digital communication to large groups of employees,” he points out. “Also, ask questions and never lose sight of what’s important to your employees.”
Richardson goes back to the need for leadership to listen to their employees.
“Employees do not want to feel as if they are a number,” she says. “When that happens, you just have a revolving door in your plant. People want to make a fair living, but equally important is being a part of a team.
“Every job in your facility is important and our employees need to see their value and take ownership of their work. Communication and training are tools that leadership must use to better engage their employees.”
“Be actively listening to what they are telling you with multiple layers of listening posts available,” Welch says. “Once you get a decent understanding of what the issues are, take action.
“Then, listen some more, ‘squint with your ears,’ and see if you are scratching their itch. If you don’t ask, it’s likely you will never know.”
As the world emerges from the pandemic, Potack says laundry leaders need to have enhanced responsiveness, transparency and support to increase customer satisfaction.
“Building resilient and redundant systems and processes allowed us to maintain continuity of service through the pandemic and going forward,” he shares.
“Everyone is feeling a bit fragile right now and maintaining customer satisfaction is so important,” says Richardson. “Again, I think it starts with communication.”
She points out that not only is the laundry industry is struggling with staffing, but so is the hospitality industry.
“So, when a route goes out with shortages, talk to the customer; they get it and are willing to work with you,” Richardson says. “Not communicating creates dissatisfaction. When someone is trying to solve a problem, that builds customer loyalty and satisfaction.”
Satisfaction comes down to delivering quality goods, and Potack says to ensure quality processed linens, laundry leaders need to rely on the same best practices implementation, measurement, validation and accountability.
“In our industry, the Hygienically Clean standard is what we use to guide us, along with regulatory requirements,” he shares.
“Today or yesterday, to ensure quality processed goods starts with the company’s vision of what type of plant they want to operate,” Richarson says.
“Quality goods may not be important to some laundries, it might be volume and low prices, but you cannot take the time and resources to produce quality goods and still be the low-price leader.”
She says quality starts with not cutting corners, from loading the washers at the correct weights, spending the money on the chemicals, ironing and rejecting goods that are not the desired quality, to training employees to follow through on quality control.
“All these steps are not new,” points out Richardson. “It really comes down to what is the company’s culture and there really isn’t a right or wrong, it’s just a matter of one’s business philosophy.”
“Set a high standard,” Welch agrees. “Be active in the business; don’t just be at the plant but be on the floor in production from soil to delivery, talking to the employees doing the work, seeing what the customers receive.
“Standardize training and processes to ensure consistency across multiple locations and reduce the gaps created by turnover and lack of experience.”
LAUNDRY LEADERSHIP TOMORROW
Leadership is about evolution and change, but it’s also about adherence to core principles, Welch says.
“You have to know who you are in order to effectively translate that to your audience,” he points out. “The right people want to have a sense of purpose or mission. They want to feel a part of something greater than themselves and make a contribution to it.
“Doing the right thing for the right reasons and treating others the right way should never go out of style.”
“I think the leadership qualities of today will resonate for many years to come,” Potack says. “Successful leaders invest the time and effort to understand the culture they need to create, foster and encourage.”
“Leadership is not easy, and no one is perfect at it,” explains Richardson. “I think a good leader has a clear vision for the company, passion for the work, empathy for the employees and strong communication skills.
“Some days these all fall into place and other days, vision can be momentarily blurred by a pandemic or empathy for employees lost after a difficult union meeting, but the core values are there and as a leader one needs to continually look in the mirror and make sure one is following their vision for their company.”
Potack reiterates that leaders need to focus on building a culture of excellence and success through engagement, transparency, collaborative thinking and shared rewards.
“Any successful leader understands that the team dynamic is critical and that they are a facilitator who provides resources and guidance to help the team reach its goals,” he says.
“Know yourself first—all of it, the good and the bad,” adds Welch. “If you can’t be honest with yourself, you will never be able to truly be honest with anyone else and thus won’t be able to be the leader that they most need you to be for them to be successful.”
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