Talk to your customers, understand your market — We endured a pandemic, the worst-case scenario for a business dependent on in-person gatherings, and came out the other side with new life. The only direction we could go was up, and we did, because we had the ability to take risks and we knew our customers depended on us. We accelerated through a transformation that could have taken five years in mere months.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Freeman’s President and COO, Janet Dell.
Janet Dell joined Freeman, a world-wide leader in event management, in 2018 as EVP and first-ever Chief Growth Officer. Prior to that, she served as CEO of Marsh ClearSight, a global leader in risk, safety and claims management software. Janet also previously held the position of Chief Operating Officer of Global Sales at Marsh. Janet has been recognized as a Woman to Watch by Business Insurance magazine and has received several awards for product technology innovation.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Yes, absolutely. My career journey has included executive leadership roles in global sales, digital transformation, process improvement, and worldwide client management across diverse industries — from insurance and risk, safety and claims management, to technology and software and now global event production and management.
I began my career path with a business degree in finance, investment, and banking from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My education provided me with a solid foundation in business. I think that, combined with my passion for people, has been a key ingredient to my success.
I joined Freeman in 2018 as EVP and the first-ever Chief Growth Officer. I was brought on board to help an already successful company refine business processes, streamline systems, and adapt go-to-market strategies for a digital-first world, positioning the company for continued growth.
Before Freeman, I served as CEO of Marsh ClearSight, a global leader in risk, safety, and claims management software. Prior to leading Marsh ClearSight, I served as Marsh’s chief operating officer of global sales and was responsible for driving organic growth.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While I’ve been fortunate to have lots of interesting experiences and opportunities in my career, I think these last couple years have presented the most unique challenges and also opportunity.
At the beginning of 2020, we had no idea what was to come, that live events around the world would cancel and the entire industry would need to pivot. Many of us thought it would last a couple months, not well over a year.
There was no playbook for a pandemic. We had to reinvent the company and essentially view ourselves as a start-up operation. In many ways it was devastating — to our people, to our customers, to our partners.
There were countless lessons learned and I think the biggest takeaway is that as my team and I assessed the situation, we identified opportunities and made changes that could be implemented immediately. And from that we were able to implement new programs and offerings for our customers. When you have nothing else to lose, it can open you up to new opportunities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Freeman has a 94-year legacy as a global leader in event management. I think that speaks volumes — to be a successful business over the span of so many years. We are one of the only single source event providers for strategy, creative services, data, event technology, audio visual and logistics in support of live, digital and hybrid brand experiences. We are proud to serve our clients literally every step of the way through the event experience.
Also, our team is incredible. I believe that without a great team, there is no success. When the pandemic hit, we had to basically take the company down to the studs. And it was interesting, because the team knew what we needed to do, they had the ideas and the solutions, all we had to do was focus, upskill and enable our resources. As a leadership team, as a company, as a team, we just needed to support each other through this. We tried a lot of things and came up with many great solutions.
We also partnered with our clients — we helped them navigate the changing waters of digital, live and hybrid experiences, by providing data, insights and innovative solutions. Companies needed to keep connecting to customers, so we worked together to find ways to keep them connected. We implemented new offerings in a matter of weeks, what may have taken years to introduce before the pandemic.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents instilled in me at a young age to always do your best, and then do better! So of course, I am grateful to them. And I have been fortunate to have many influential mentors throughout my career. One offered a helpful activity for problem solving that I continue to use to this day with my teams. They encouraged me to “work the problem”.
First, imagine everything that could go wrong. Write it down, then go through each item and solve for it. Answer every objection, every question. By breaking down problems we can identify solutions and address and mitigate risk without getting overwhelmed. The pandemic identified a lot of problems that could have been paralyzing, this process helped us build resilience on the path to recovery.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Over the course of my career, I have learned that resilience is essential to success. It’s also a choice. The traits of resilient people I admire all share common elements:
– A positive, ‘can do’ attitude and the ability to bounce back quickly from adversity or set-backs
– The skill to assess a situation and identify opportunities
– Persistence, and never giving up, finding a course of action that will be successful
– Working a plan, but also remaining flexible to change direction, based on feedback and results
It’s also important to practice self-monitoring and care. Resilient people know when to tag out, take a break and put things in perspective. I’m not always good at self-monitoring, so it’s also good to check in with trusted advisors who can help you monitor yourself. Especially during the times we are in right now, I recommend if you find yourself in a tough situation, it’s often better to walk away, give it some space. Miscommunication doesn’t do any good. Hydrate and go to bed, sleep on it and pick it up tomorrow. That gives you perspective. The issue at hand may not be as big, or maybe you need to stop and focus elsewhere. That’s what the best, most resilient people are skilled at doing.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
I define courage as having the inner strength to put aside doubts and fears, strategize based on your assessment of a particular situation and then move forward with your decision, even if it is not the popular one. Courage is putting aside fear, having faith in yourself, taking risks and learning from failure. Never being afraid to fail, that is where we learn and grow.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
There are many everyday people who exemplify resilience. Our military heroes who serve our country and demonstrate selflessness; that ‘can do’ determination and grit never fail to inspire me.
World leaders, like Nelson Mandela, who demonstrate resilience over time and with quiet strength, patience and empathy. President Mandela was quoted as saying, “I like friends who have independent minds because they tend to make you see problems from all angles.”
That resonates with me because I like to surround myself, to build my teams with people who will say what they think, who will challenge me and bring big ideas, solve problems. People who themselves are resilient.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When the pandemic hit, in-person and live events began to postpone and cancel. As you can imagine, we were all adapting to keep pace with our customers and learn with them. To accelerate where needed. To offer alternatives. Everyone wondered what the future of events would look like.
As a company, our teams were resilient, we knew we had ideas and solutions, we just needed to find partners and tools and ensure we could implement them. We had to act fast, be smart and reinvent the company. We transformed our way of business nearly overnight and created systems and protocols that normally would take years to develop. We accelerated our digital roadmap, consolidated our inventory, and carefully managed cash flow.
That’s where courage and resilience are key. You need to implement change quickly, take risks and view your company as a start-up. If we had been passive and slow to react, most certainly we would fail. We could not afford to rely on the systems and ways of doing business that had worked for us for the last 94 years.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I was in line for a promotion at work. I didn’t get it. It was discouraging, but my mentor said to me, “sometimes you have to go down to go up.”
I ended up making a lateral move in another area of the company that propelled my career. Even setbacks can change your trajectory, it’s up to you on what you do with them, what you take from it.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Whether as a kid, a parent or an executive leader, I tended to get thrown into challenges that allowed great growth opportunities and helped me build my resilience. I didn’t have a traditional path. In my career, I’ve had to wear many hats and move across and between industries. As an example, in a priority company, I was working for a completely different area of the software company and kept sort of complaining about the functionality of the software product. After months of my comments and continued suggestions, the CEO suggested I move roles and run the division even though I knew nothing about software development. It was scary but it came down to two things; one, I had to get through it, just break it down and two, I had to have faith. Faith and resilience. I could see the path, the way through, and knew that we’d get through it. Resilience is an attitude, a mindset, a choice. It’s been one for me.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ve worked with teams through transformations of all kinds, the last year was like none other of course. If you’re working through a transformation or organizational challenge, here are a few strategies that can be implemented to help maintain resilience with your team and your customers.
1. Talk to your customers, understand your market
We endured a pandemic, the worst-case scenario for a business dependent on in-person gatherings, and came out the other side with new life. The only direction we could go was up, and we did, because we had the ability to take risks and we knew our customers depended on us. We accelerated through a transformation that could have taken five years in mere months.
Take a fresh look at older projects you didn’t have time for. Carefully analyze perceived obstacles: is there a way around them?
Act like you’re starting a new business. How can you stand out? Can you change things up or create new prospects by trying something different? Can you reassess your customers and their needs?
2. Consult Everyone, from Executives to Employees
Whether your company is evolving or enduring a challenge, you must stay close to the people who matter — employees, executives, middle-management — everyone who earns a paycheck. Ask your employees for guidance and take charge leading them through whatever changes need to be made. Make changes quickly where possible; change is easier for employees when it happens expediently.
3. Keep Channels Open
Make sure your employees are well-informed and thus well-adjusted for change. If you keep them in the loop, they’ll better understand how the company’s evolution can benefit them personally and professionally. Use town halls, 360’s, and all manner of communication to align your company for the future. Correct employees gently, in the moment, to make sure everyone is headed in the same direction.
4. Be Real
No one likes insincere corporate speeches. The more authentic you are, the more people will trust you. Empathy and a willingness to get your hands dirty will help people adjust to change. Walk the walk yourself, and employees will follow. If they can see that you believe in the same goal, they’ll trust you and walk the walk with you.
5. Do What’s Right, Even if It’s Difficult
There’s often a grey area when it comes to making decisions. But it is better to be confident in a decision that could be wrong than indecisive about whether you did the right thing. Your employees should feel free to speak up if they have questions. The buck still stops with you, but if employees know why you’re doing something, they’re more likely to adapt.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am passionate about working mothers and making it possible, now more than ever, for them to succeed in their careers and be rewarded equally for their contributions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 10 million moms with school-age children were unemployed in January of this year. That’s 1.4 million more than January of 2020. It’s incredible to me that we might lose the gains we’ve made; I’m passionate to ensure women have every opportunity to maximize their potential and contribute to the workforce. Diversity across the board is important. We’re all better off when we have equal representation and match that up with the markets we serve. That’s a change I want to see and fully support.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi inspires me. She exemplifies a woman executive breaking barriers and leading others to do the same. She took a great brand and helped the company achieve greater results and understands the challenges women face in the workplace. As an executive leader, I appreciate and support her perspective, we simply can’t have it all.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!