A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 4 – Sealstrip President Heather Chandler on Leadership Lessons as a First-time CEO
In this episode of A Life of Climb podcast, Sealstrip President Heather Chandler shares how she reinforced a great company culture in difficult times and leadership lessons she gained as a first-time CEO. Then Vistage CEO Sam Reese talks with Heather’s executive mentor and Vistage Chair Joni Naugle about the art of balancing theoretical leadership learnings with actually getting things done.
Sam Reese (00:16):
Hi, and welcome to A Life of Climb Podcast. I’m Sam Reese, your host, and CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and mid-sized businesses. Coming up, you’ll be hearing from Heather Chandler, who runs a major packaging company whose products you’ve almost certainly used, although you probably didn’t even know it. We’ll be talking with Heather about her journey, which includes taking over the company from her mother. Plus she has some great tips on maintaining company culture that every CEO should hear.
Sam Reese (00:45):
Leading the conversation with Heather is veteran Vistage Chair, Joni Naugle. Later in the episode, I’ll talk with Joni about how she advises leaders who are running family businesses, and the art of balancing theoretical leadership learnings with actually getting things done. Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb Podcast. Here’s Heather and Joni.
Joni Naugle (01:10):
Hello, everyone. I’m Joni Naugle, a Master Vistage Chair. And I’m pleased to introduce and welcome Heather Chandler, President of Sealstrip Corporation.
Heather Chandler (01:19):
Hi, Joni. Thanks for having me.
Joni Naugle (01:21):
Oh, I’m so glad that you are able to join us today. Why don’t we get started, Heather, and why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about Sealstrip?
Heather Chandler (01:29):
Sealstrip is a manufacturer, and we are located about an hour outside of Philadelphia. And our mission is, we make packaging easier. So we invent, design, build, resealable and easy open features for packaging. And then we sell both the machinery and the tapes that make the package resealable to some of the world’s largest global brands, like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Fresh Express, Mission, those kind of large consumer food brands. We help them make their packaging easier by making it resealable and easy to open.
Joni Naugle (02:07):
That’s right. So my guess is that probably everybody listening to this podcast has touched your resealable tape. And I think that’s pretty exciting.
Heather Chandler (02:16):
That’s great. One of our big, hairy, audacious goals, probably about 10 years ago, was to have a Sealstrip package in every home.
Journey to First Time CEO
Joni Naugle (02:25):
There you go. And I can’t believe that you haven’t already achieved that. But what we want to share with everyone today is a little bit about your Life of Climb. The journey that you’ve been on. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your path and how you got to the chair that you currently sit in?
Heather Chandler (02:45):
Well, it was certainly an unexpected climb, an unexpected path. I graduated from … undergraduate from Penn State. And I decided … my undergraduate degree was in elementary education. Which I’ve ended up using quite a bit, although you wouldn’t expect it. I decided that I didn’t want to be a teacher. While I was student teaching, I found out that really was not at all for me. And so I called up my mom and said, hey, I think I’m going to travel for the next six months, figure out what I’m going to do with my life since I’m not going to teach. And she said, well, who’s going to pay your bills? And I’m like, well, you were doing it while I was in college. And she’s like, okay. I’ll see you at the office on Monday. And that was my very first day at Sealstrip, 29 years ago.
Heather Chandler (03:32):
And while at Sealstrip, I, at night, went got my MBA as well as got my law degree. And as I was doing both of those, I realized that leadership is really what I was about, and what was really my calling and where I could really make a difference in the most number of people’s lives. Because that’s really what I wanted to do, is make a big difference. And I feel like leadership in any form is really the huge opportunity and responsibility in impacting lives of not just the people that work at Sealstrip, but all of their family’s lives are impacted by the decisions I make and the way our company is led.
Joni Naugle (04:14):
Why don’t you tell everyone … you’re a family-owned business. Obviously, you’ve worked with family. So why don’t you give everyone a little insight into the family that you worked with at Sealstrip?
Heather Chandler (04:24):
Well, over the years, there’s been quite a few that have come and gone. My stepfather, who passed away several years ago, he founded the company in the early 70s, and then my mom joined the company in the mid-80s. And then her sister, my aunt, joined the company a few years after my mom did. And then I joined the company, of course, a few years after that. But we’ve had lots of variety of cousins and that sort of thing. I say, so many people don’t enjoy their coworkers, and getting to work with some of the people that I love the most in the world, really is extremely fulfilling.
Heather Chandler (05:02):
It has its pitfalls, of course. And I think coming into the business as the child of the owner, it’s often thought of, oh, the daughter comes into the business so that she can have flexible hours so she can get married and have children. Which is really unfortunate, because I felt … I actually never told anyone that it was a family business. I was in sales. I would never say that I was a family member or that it was a family business because I actually thought it took away credibility from me, like I had been given my job. When in reality, I found that working for my parents, I was certainly held to a higher standard than other employees were.
Theoretical Business Learning vs. On the Job Execution
Joni Naugle (05:43):
Right. That’s a great lesson to learn. You mentioned just a little while ago about when you go for your education, you can learn what to do, but you don’t really learn how to do it. How did that really unfold you as you evolved in your journey and you took over the organization?
Heather Chandler (06:04):
My education is what allowed me to be in the role, but my choice to remain a lifelong learner is what has made me successful in the role. Learning in school, how to do a SWOT analysis, how to do strategic planning, learning that you need to have a leadership team, learning that you need mentors and you need proteges. You learn all of those things in school. But the real meat and potatoes of doing those things are more about relationships and about your EQ and understanding your interactions with other people.
Heather Chandler (06:38):
Understanding things like “The Four Agreements,” where understanding most of what people say and do is about them. Really understanding human nature and building relationships, I think is not something that can be taught. And all of that needs to be actually the foundation upon which you then build stuff like your SWOT analysis and your strategic plan. And all of those things come out of and grow and flourish when you’ve got that self-awareness and that EQ and the ability to make and maintain relationships.
Heather Chandler (07:12):
I think another aspect of family business is that relationship. Particularly when it’s intergenerational, the communication norms, generationally, have evolved. When you’re in business with family, you bring your childhood along with you. And I’ll never forget, probably I was working in the office for about two years, and Pat and Joanne, my parents and I, were standing in the office. And something happened and I was getting really irritated and I stomped my foot. And as soon as I did it, everybody bust out laughing.
Heather Chandler (07:46):
But sometimes you just slip back into that. And I think having grace with each other to realize … and to me, that’s part of where the love comes in. In that it’s much easier to have grace for other people and for yourself when you know where things are coming from and they’re coming from good intentions. I never have a doubt that my business partners want the absolute best for me, personally. They know that about me as well. And knowing that intent makes the communication, even when it’s hard, so much better and richer and more open because we all know we come to it with no ulterior motives other than our collective success.
Maintaining Great Culture in Hybrid Workforce
Joni Naugle (08:32):
That’s great. Now, one of the biggest challenges that leaders are facing right now is around culture. And how to maintain it with hybrid situations and all the craziness that we’ve gone through in the pandemic. You’ve worked very, very hard to have a solid culture at Sealstrip, and you’ve done some pretty unique things. So what have been your big takeaways about culture from what we’ve lived through in the past year, plus?
Heather Chandler (09:00):
I feel like the theme of this is communication. Because people, when they’re apart, physically, you lose that water cooler talk, you lose the walking by each other in the office and saying, hi. The people who are onsite in production wonder what the heck the people who are working at home are doing. Are they binging Netflix while they’re pretending to work, kind of thing. And so I think the over-communication about what everybody’s up to, what’s happening in the company … the main thing I think that has really been a lot of the glue that’s helped at Sealstrip is that about a week into the pandemic, I started doing video updates.
Heather Chandler (09:37):
And for probably the first, at least three months, I did a video update every single day. Some were as short as three to four minutes, and some were as long as 15, 20 minutes, letting them know what’s going on. Both as far as what government mandates were, what the rules were. I was keeping track of case counts and things like that, and reporting on them in my videos. As well as reporting on things going on in the company, birthdays and anniversaries and sales opportunities and those kinds of things.
Heather Chandler (10:09):
And I think people seeing my face regularly like that … because we’re back to a hybrid environment and I see people a lot more, I’m down to once a week videos. But I still never missed a week of videos. And even if I’m not going to be in the office, I’ll go ahead and do a video a day early or a day late in order to continually keep people informed. Every video, I remind them that they can reach out to me by phone, by text, by email. And every single video since the first one, I finish with, be safe, be well, and much love. And every single video I’ve ended with that for the year and a half, however long it’s been.
Heather Chandler (10:50):
And I think, again, just that consistency and people knowing that they’re cared about in times when there’s so much out of our control and so much upheaval. And someone said to me once who also runs company, that I would never say love to the people that work at my company. But I think that’s part of my personal style as well. And I do love all of the people at Sealstrip. They’re my Sealstrip family. And I feel like for them to feel that from me and to know that they’re cared about, because this is their livelihood.
Joni Naugle (11:22):
As we wind up. What other words of wisdom about your Life of Climb would you like to share with the audience today?
Heather Chandler (11:29):
When I was very young, I didn’t think that for-profit business was making a difference in people’s lives. I thought I needed to be a nonprofit or education or something like that in order to make a difference. But I know now that by being a good, and someday hopefully great leader, I’m able to impact the lives of every family that works at Sealstrip. Even with our vendors that we come in contact with, our customers, all of those. I get to impact people’s lives by the decisions I make and my choice to have empathy and to be kind and to do the right thing.
Joni Naugle (12:09):
Well, let me tell you, you have had a fabulous climb so far. And there is no doubt in my mind, Heather, that your ongoing climb is going to be spectacular. So thank you so much today for sharing a little bit of your story with everyone. And we wish everybody the best.
Heather Chandler (12:27):
Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.