As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Hansen. Tracy is President of North America and Global CMO for ProGlove, maker of wearable barcode scanning solutions and operations analytics for industry. The company was recently named in the 2020 Gartner Cool Vendors in Manufacturing Solutions report. Tracy brings more than two decades of strategic brand-building experience at startups, scale-ups, and Fortune 500 firms to her role at ProGlove. She is a student of “disruptive innovation,” championing ideas that stretch boundaries, mobilizes teams, and deliver business breakthroughs.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thankfully, my passion for process, data and communications collided early in my career. I was working at a small startup, NetApp, helping to get the company certified for ISO 9000, the topic of my graduate thesis. The assignment at the storage company was completed well with the project timeline and I was asked, casually, if I knew anything about the internet. Of course, I said, and then immediately went to Barnes & Noble to get a book on “How to Code HTML.” I never looked back. Digital, digital transformation, and data propelled me forward into a career that has spanned 20 years, 3 continents and global 100 companies, startups and scale-ups.
Andreas Koenig, ProGlove’s CEO, and I worked together at NetApp for more than a decade. While I worked on global processes and strategies, he led the European-division company from a fledgling startup to a multi-billion-dollar powerhouse. So, when he called and asked what I thought about joining him at ProGlove, there was no question — I needed to be a part of this amazing company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I have made so many mistakes over the years. Most of them are only funny in hindsight, because when you are in the moment, it’s so difficult to see past the embarrassment or the pain. I made the decision, and it really was a decision, to take the time to reflect on the things that I have accomplished each week, good and bad, and figure out what I can learn and do better. It’s not always easy, that intentional reflection but it pays off.
But okay, if you have to know about one of the funny things it would be when I showed up late to a very important meeting because I was locked in my hotel room. Yes, in my hotel room. I could not get out. It was Bangalore, India. It was my first time in the country, I was unfamiliar to a number of local customs and had a challenging time explaining to the front desk that I couldn’t get out of my room. For years later, I was reminded about it. This incident is only slightly funnier than when I showed up to a very important meeting in the wrong country. But that’s a totally different article.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have been and continue to be an avid reader. One of the books that I keep going back to is John Maxwell’s “The Maxwell Daily Reader.” No matter if I feel stressed or pressed for time, I can always find the time to read a paragraph or two from this book.
The one book that totally transformed me as a leader and a team member is “Fake Work” by Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson. This book rocked my world. It changed the way I approached everything, professionally and personally. I read ‘Fake Work” when it was first published, more than 10 years ago, and still refer back to it. The authors laid out clearly how to identify effort that has true impact versus the endless cycle of busy work that drains the soul. I read it at a time when action when valued more than impact and I felt lost. Adjusting my attitude and then asking those on my team to adjust was hard. Painful at times. But the end result was so powerful, so rewarding that I have continued to use the tenants to this day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The founders of ProGlove believe that humans are the center of the workforce and it is among the key reasons I joined ProGlove. From the revolutionary ergonomic properties of the solutions we create to the easy fluid data capture about the objects being built or transported to the insights available from workflows throughout the physical operation, our mission is to elevate that worker with the essentials to work smarter, not harder. There is a lot of talk about replacing humans with robots when it comes to manufacturing, distribution, transportation, and logistics but we’re of the mindset that if you augment the humans with what they want and need to do great work you’re better off in the long run. In most every case there is still nothing better than a human brain to trouble shoot the exceptions and flex with the opportunities.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Stay positive. That’s my number one principle. There are always ups and downs. There are bad days, when projects slip, customers are upset, shipments are delayed. There are good days, when everything is humming, and people are coming together delivering better than expected results. And there are great days, when things feel like they couldn’t be better. No matter what type of day it is, I focus on what can we learn from it, what is the positive we can take away from this and how can we leverage that for the whole.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Two family members have died from COVID-19. I have several nurses in my family who are out there on the front lines, one of whom tested positive. My father, thankfully, is in a senior community that remains unaffected, but he is in a different state and I haven’t been able to see him since March. Trying to ensure he has all the right supplies and remains safe is stressful from a great distance. We employ many techniques to stay connected, FaceTime and Zoom for example, but it’s not the same as being able to visit and help in person. The emotional ups-and-downs can be daunting. But true to how I approach business, I bring the same philosophy to my personal life — what is the positive and how can I bring that forward.
Still, we are fortunate to have a strong family, friends we can connect with and neighbors who help each. We know that this is not true for everyone and will continue to find ways to give back that has meaning to our community. This our priority and focus.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As with most every business, we had to do everything we could to keep our workers safe and to comply with government regulations. We’re an international business, so that meant juggling the requirements of different territories and finding the common denominators. I think that this breadth of guidance helped us formulate our own response quickly. Because of our role in supply chains, and the immediate demands of our customers for personal wearable data capture tools to replace shared handheld tools, we were fortunate enough to qualify as an essential business and remain operational.
For our global staff, anyone who wasn’t in assembly was asked to work from home. We assisted with bandwidth and such where needed, and we all became super pros on videoconferencing with not just meetings but also dedicated casual time for lunch or happy hour to connect without a work agenda. For our assembly workers still using the office we instituted several safety protocols with their participation. Over the course of a few days we divided the production area into different work lines and split the team into different work groups with their own entrances, arrival hours, restrooms, and PPE. The different work groups weren’t allowed to mingle together, and even packages arrivals passed between them needed to go into quarantine for a minimum of 24 hours. We also assisted team members on safety procedures for travel to and from the office and created ‘hands free’ means of opening entry doors. When it came to masks — hard to get at the time — the production team rapidly prototyped solutions with the materials on hand. We make wearable barcode scanners, so we had the tools to do this.
For our business, the biggest challenge was the unknown. We had no idea how orders would be impacted and how our customers would be impacted. We had to shore up. We obviously had to cancel all event plans, and rapidly pivot the team to a 100% digital means of communications. This was particularly tough on our sales staff who are accustomed to bringing our wearables directly to new prospects to try them on and personally test ease of use. Usually when someone gets them on they don’t want to take them off — you feel like a superhero with the new capabilities right on the back of your hand. We had to come up with a way to supply that same experience via direct mail, and perhaps to someone’s home instead of the shop floor. The abstraction is not ideal, but we still managed to get the message across.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I am a risk taker by nature and tend to be pragmatic about news cycles. I was mainly focused on our supply chain and ensuring shipments would be made on time. But an incident at Walmart changed my perspective on how to approach Covid-19. I shifted from solely focusing on business and China supply chains to how will this affect my family and how we need to prepare. The first week of March I was visiting a customer in Massachusetts and stopped in to pick-up an off-the-shelf cleaning solution so I could demonstrate how to sanitize the ProGlove device. I went to the household cleaning section in Walmart and it was wiped bare. Everything was gone. It was an unsettling experience and a stark wake-up call that people were getting panicked. It was the earliest days of “hoarding” and what was going to happen in the next couple of weeks would be life altering. I hadn’t realized even then to what extent.
It was after this experience that I spoke with my husband about building out a home and family safety plan. We moved to Chicago from San Francisco, where we’d done earthquake planning for years. We leveraged those experiences to figure out what to do. Like with business, thoughtful planning helped us avoid panic and provided a framework to ensure what we needed to be safe and secure.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I appreciate what we can learn from the past and how it helps shape our future. It is inevitable that our world will change because of Covid-19. Reflecting on the past, we can see seismic shifts in industry, arts and culture. If we step back and observe, even on the most macro-level, the travel, retail, hospitality and events industries will be dramatically different. Storefronts are disappearing, hotels are at minimum capacity, events are cancelled or moved online.
I feel fortunate to be working in a sector that will be part of envisioning a new future. ProGlove is at the center of the supply and deeply committed to the essential resource keeping it going — humans. Our deep roots and firm commitment to essential workers helps us see the opportunity to define what is safe, ergonomic and fast. Moreover, we see the opportunity to help our customers visualize what is happening in their operations and how to provide better, deeper and enriched data for decision making.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Working from home and the ability to work remotely will be a leading practice moving forward. Access to broadband will enable a more geographically distributed workforce where people can work in less urban settings. This results in a cascading series of changes across housing, education, health care and supply chain. A mind map of these changes demonstrates that our world is rocked.
Let’s look at this both professionally and personally. Quickly, these two lenses collide. Working from home is now common-place, and the assumption that this practice will continue well into 2021 prevails. This simple shift may alter our professional lives forever. We need to rethink how we work, build relationships, collaborate and achieve goals. We have to change decades formed work patterns, adopt new technologies and test communication approaches. It’s stressful, frustrating and liberating all at the same time.
Personally, we have less commute time, fewer days traveling for business and shifts in how we engage with our community. How we interact with our family, friends and large circles is at times awkward and stilted. Wearing masks in the supermarket? Standing 6 feet apart while having a conversation? These are new patterns, new behaviors that we need to work through and adapt to. Trips have been cancelled; concerts shifted to live streams and restaurants at 25 percent capacity. It’s all new, unchartered. I am certain we will find the pendulum swings back and forth in our ability to adhere to new norms and rebel against constraints. Eventually, we will find balance, if not peace with a new approaches to interactions and engagements.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have four critical things to focus on: our employees, our customers, our investors and our community. Our strategies, innovations and priorities need to continuously be challenged by what is best for these constituents.
For example, we made a decision to keep our production lines open, even though we decided to shift all non-production team members to home offices. In making that decision, our priority was to answer “can we do this while keeping our onsite staff safe and healthy?” Until we could answer that fundamental question we could not move forward. Next, though we were confident that we had done everything right to ensure their safety, we questioned whether we could do more. Born out of that line of questioning, we invented a Proximity Sensor capability built into our software and scanner. The combined solution alerts team members if they are too close to one another via audio or vibration.
We didn’t stop at rolling it out to our own team, we asked if it was what we needed might our customers need it also? The answer is a resounding yes. We let our customers know about it and made it available for no additional cost. This is something that protects humans. This is our purpose. This is our mission. We want people to have it on their shop floors so their team members are safe. Just like ours.
So long as we continue innovating and questions how we are staying true to our purpose and drive towards getting solutions to our customers so they can swiftly use, we are on the right path.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Nothing is more profoundly rewarding than engaging deeply with your customers and employees. Engage in intentional dialog about what they are experiencing and what challenges they are facing.
I also encourage others to be open to all possibilities. It is likely time to abandon the decades test processes that worked before, to rethink the status quo and to take part in a series of “what if…” idealizations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everything you can imagine is real.”― Pablo Picasso
Early in my career I limited myself to things that I knew, with certainty, could be accomplished. I didn’t dream big enough and I was able to accomplish a lot of small things. Then, one day, a software developer said “if you can dream it I can code it.” It was like a splash of cold water. I had limited myself, hadn’t dreamed, hadn’t imagined and he knew it. That was a turning point. Now, whenever I catch myself setting limits or not thinking beyond what’s in front of me, I remember that if I can imagine it, I can make it real. Including unicorns.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I hope to hear from your readers and share more about ProGlove and my journeys. They can start by following me and ProGlove on Linkedin. I also post on ProGlove.com.