How Young Leaders Can Stay Resilient

By Tim O’Connor
Managing Editor

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, Eric Schmitt had just started working at Honeywell and quickly found himself uncertain about his future. Like other companies at the time, Honeywell was striving to figure out how to do more with less. Realizing that panic wasn’t going to help him, Schmitt put his head down and identified ways to contribute to the business. Soon, his job description expanded by 50 percent as more and more responsibilities were divided among fewer and fewer people, but Schmitt proved his versatility in handling the load and demonstrated his value.

It’s not clear yet how far-reaching or lasting the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak will be on the economy. But young employees in today’s foodservice equipment industry can learn from Schmitt – now the vice president of Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design – and others who were in their shoes 13 years ago, all starting a career with an uncertain future. Just as now, times were tough, but Schmitt says it gave him a chance to prove himself and quickly develop.

Most importantly, the economy will get better and businesses will come back stronger than before, he stresses: “There’s always another side of these things,” he says. “There’s always a recovery, and in recovery there’s always opportunity.”

Finding Opportunities

With all the uncertainty ahead, executives and managers right now are looking for employees who are creative problem solvers and who will knuckle down, dig in, and work hard, Schmitt explains. Young leaders who possess these traits have a chance to really stand out to their superiors and serve as an example to their peers.

Drew O’Quinn, vice president at Thompson & Little, agrees that young employees need to rapidly adapt to the changing environment to succeed. “Stay under control and display a positive attitude,” he suggests. “Be honest with your fellow staffers and management on what you’re seeing in the field, be honest to your customers, and don’t oversell or overcommit in this unreliable climate. Set the right expectations for all involved.”

Although restaurants are struggling, with many across the country closed to dine-in customers, most are still in operation – which  means they still have needs. Schmitt notes that many operators were already working to become more take-out driven in recent years as the customer trend shifted toward delivery services like GrubHub and DoorDash, requiring dedicated spaces and new processes to handle those customers. “In a two-week span, they’ve instantaneously changed their business model and become take-out only businesses,” he says.

Other restaurants and venues are using this downtime to complete long-planned projects without disruption to their diners. Rapids Foodservice completes a lot of project-based work and design jobs, which typically carry lead times as long as a year. So those investments are still moving forward while other opportunities are popping up, such as mobile food tents.

The challenge for salespeople, Schmitt says, is to identify markets that are still in dire need – some schools, for example, are still serving children lunches even as classes go virtual – and develop creative ways to approach those customers in this new environment.

Required Skills

As they work to demonstrate their versatility and creativity, young employees have a natural advantage over longer-tenured workers. Millennials and so called zoomers grew up with technology and are used to every aspect of their lives being connected to the internet. In this new remote working reality, they are more familiar with the technologies being used and have more experience working from home. “If you’re good with the use of these collaboration platforms, you’ll have a big advantage over your peers,” Schmitt says.

A 2018 survey from consulting firm Korn Ferry found that only 14 percent of millennial bosses favored in-person communication, while 55 percent said online messaging was the most common way to communicate with their direct reports. Senior-level executives, managers, and trainers have long lamented the reluctance for face-to-face communication in their younger employees, but as Schmitt notes, that disinclination has suddenly become an asset. With social-distancing measures in place, companies need employees that can set up their own workspace and work efficiently from home. Team members that are used to using text messaging and other quick forms of communication are better able to stay in touch with each other and their customers.

O’Quinn added that young employees can help their more senior peers make this transition. “Young industry leaders can certainly help the older generation of dealer reps become more versatile in their ability to work remote. Now more than ever, virtual work stations will be vital over the next number of months to stay in the game. The younger staff can help those that aren’t technologically savvy in setting up their virtual stations and work flows, and provide some calm in the rapidly changing climate we are in.”

Not having all their employees in one place where they can see what everyone is up to may make some managers nervous. Schmitt says good young leaders can help here as well, by explaining to their teams how digital collaborative platforms can track workflow and provide instant updates on projects. He points to the “COVID-19 Employer Resources” link under the “Education” tab on feda.com as a source for distributors looking for information on digital collaboration.

Staying Resilient

Technology can do a lot to help businesses continue operations, but attitude is just as important, Schmitt says. Young leaders that stay positive are more likely to help their companies navigate the impact of COVID-19. “Instead of focusing on all the things you don’t control, remind people to focus on what they can control right in front of them,” he explains.

Many businesses are already cutting back and that’s likely to continue until the spread of the virus comes under control. During this time, it will be easy for negativity to pervade an organization, but Schmitt encourages young professionals to stay positive, take the time to tell a joke, and find ways to have fun with fellow employees. That will help improve the company atmosphere and prevent things from feeling too morose.

O’Quinn’s advice is for young employees to be flexible while the industry works to recover. “Dealerships have done a great job of listening to the younger generation and adapting to new technologies and work processes that fit the younger generation’s style,” he says. “In the pandemic climate we’re in, I think the younger staffers can show leadership by showing their decisiveness and adaptability to what management is requesting. There probably won’t be as much autonomy to work, and every process will be examined to conserve overhead. The younger crowd will need to be flexible as well to understand times are tight and to trust their leaders.” 

YIL Steering Committee Leadership Updates
Eric Schmitt, vice president of Rapids Foodservice Contract and Design, and Drew O’Quinn, vice president of Thompson & Little, were recently named co-chairs of the Young Industry Leaders Steering Committee. They succeed Gene Clark, CEO of Clark Associates.

Additionally, Carly Saad, vice president of design, contracts, and sales support at TriMark SS Kemp, has joined the steering committee.