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Laundry Leadership Today, Tomorrow (Part 1)

Three leaders share how COVID-19 has changed laundry leadership

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.

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David Potack

David Potack

“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.

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Noël Hammer Richardson

Noël Hammer Richardson

“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.

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Chris Welch

Chris Welch

“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.

CHANGES

Richardson agrees that COVID-19 has changed the world, and, in many respects, things are getting back to a more normal environment. Many states have lifted the mandatory precautions and business is picking up.

However, she says that laundry leadership has many new and unforeseen issues to navigate like employee shortages and supply chain delivery times.

“Both of those cases have been issues in the past, but COVID has put a new spin on how we will have to handle them,” she points out. “For example, employees have seen the salaries being offered by Amazon, etc., and their job expectations will reflect the changes that have occurred over the last year and a half.

“I think anyone in a management position today would agree that this is one of the most difficult periods that a leader has had to face.”

Welch says that employees have to trust that leaders are doing what they can to protect them and making adjustments to “business as usual” that reflect a rapidly changing and uncertain environment.

“Also, being flexible with customers’ rapidly changing needs based on the regulatory space they inhabit as well as demonstrating to them that you value the long-term potential of their partnership and are not simply trying to make your quarterly financial statement,” he points out.

“COVID-19 will end, and it’s critical that the business is properly prepared for what comes next.”

“I don’t know that COVID-19 has changed what it means to be a leader as much as it reinforced what is important to be a successful leader,” adds Potack. “Great communication and collaboration are always important but feel even more so in the most challenging times.”

He points out that communication and engagement with team members proved to be invaluable during the peak periods of the pandemic.

“Employees seeing and hearing every day that we cared about their safety in the work environment and at home was fundamental to reinforce the trust we have with our team,” Potack shares.

Richardson agrees that the key skills laundry leaders need haven’t changed.

“A leader still needs to look at how their operation is run through their management tools,” she shares. “What are the labor costs, goods purchased, fleet maintenance, etc.

“But what has changed is how we will manage our workforce going forward. We know our labor costs are particularly high now as we try to bring people through the front door, but what will we do when people get back to work and their demands have changed? These are some of the new challenges that laundry management will have to face.

“The pandemic and the time people have had to reevaluate their work lives will be the most challenging part of managing going forward.”

“Listening and being willing to engage new ideas and concepts without losing the core of who you are as a business continues to grow in importance, both with employees and with customers,” says Welch.

“The days of ‘this is just the way we do it’ are quickly becoming a thing of the past. This is especially true as we experience generational change and groups younger than GenX continue to represent a much larger percentage of the workforce.

“You have to be able to balance excellence in execution for today’s business environment while constantly keeping one eye on all the possibilities of what a future environment might be and be ready and able to pivot hard and in a hurry.”

Check back next Tuesday for the conclusion on new challenges and skills needed and laundry leadership of tomorrow.