Millennial leaders discuss communication, networking

Editor’s note: “Mind of a Millennial” is CMN’s segment tapping into the unique perspectives of dairy industry professionals born between 1981 and 1996. As this segment of the population begins to take on increasing leadership roles at companies across the industry, we delve into the challenges millennials face in today’s fast-paced workforce, from communication to management style to work/life balance.

MADISON, Wis. — With more people than ever working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, millennial leaders are sharing their strategies for communication, networking and conflict resolution.

In the latest round of our series exploring millennials’ role in the workplace, participants discuss how they work across national and international offices to effectively communicate and work as a team, as well as the various challenges their companies are facing as the world continues to grapple with COVID-19. Participants also touch on networking and marketing in the absence of traditional trade shows this year.

This round’s participants are:
• Brian Fletcher, vice president of commercial services, Rice Dairy LLC, Chicago
• Ursula Guggisberg-Bennett, marketing coordinator, Guggisberg Cheese Inc., Millersburg, Ohio
• Daniel Jacoby, dairy industry solutions specialist, Malisko Engineering, St. Louis
• Ben Laine, vice president, RaboResearch Dairy, Rabo AgriFinance, St. Louis
• Kirsten Strohmenger, events manager, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Madison, Wisconsin

1. The millennial workforce tends to value work/life balance heavily, with more people than ever telecommuting or working from home or on the road (especially right now with COVID-19). At the same time, with technological advancements and a 24-hour news cycle, communication never stops. How do you balance the constant flow of news and being reachable nearly anywhere with personal/family time?

Brian Fletcher
Rice Dairy LLC

Fletcher: It is no surprise to anyone reading Cheese Market News that the volatility of the supply, demand and price changes of the U.S. cheese market over the last five months has been the highest the market has ever been through. Our job is to be there for our customers and advise them on the best practices of price risk management during quiet times and also during highly volatile times. The supply chain of milk never stops moving; however, the derivative/financial world tends to pause during the weekend hours. So, my general philosophy is I am plugged in to my customers and company from Sunday evening (market open) through Friday afternoon (market close) with weekend time dedicated to family and personal time, except for extreme circumstances.

Guggisberg-Bennett: In line with my generation, I place great value in personal/family time and try to leave work at work. While the capability of receiving emails 24/7 on my phone offers the convenience of working from home if necessary, it does make the work/personal life separation a little more difficult during days off. If I hear an email or voicemail notification come through, it’s hard to ignore it, and I usually end up checking and attending to it. If I truly want to separate myself for vacation or family time, I will turn the notification setting off.

Jacoby: I started my career out working in a dairy processing plant. There was always that expectation that you would pick up your phone if the plant needed you, night or day. There was a saying everyone would say: “Cows do not know that a separator is down.” I now work on the other side providing engineering services to the plants. So essentially it’s the same thing — if they need to reach me, it’s usually important.

Internally, we are an engineering firm specializing in automation. So naturally we stay on the cutting edge when it comes to technology. We leverage Microsoft Office 365 and Cisco Webex. During the onset of the pandemic, I worked from home for two months. I still work from home mostly. With Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams, it’s almost as if I never left the office. Video chat is the way of life now.

I am married with three daughters. It’s been great being able to see them more often now that I do not have to commute into the city each morning and fight with traffic. My wife has always worked from home, so now we can eat lunch together more often. It was tough when the girls were home from school during the beginning, but now their school has opened and they get to enjoy spending time with their friends during the day while mommy and daddy work. I now take them to school most of the time, so that little extra time I spend with them is great. I travel often, so the more I get to see them, the better.

Ben Laine
Rabo AgriFinance

Laine: The ease of being reachable at all times is a mixed blessing. It means work can follow me just about anywhere, but it also means that if I need to travel for work, I can FaceTime with my family from hotels and step away from an event to say goodnight to my kids.

Strohmenger: I’m fortunate to have a separate space for my office at home, so I’m able to better compartmentalize my working hours and personal time. I do check my email outside of work hours, but I turn off the email notifications, so my personal time doesn’t feel interrupted or distracted.

I start my mornings by listening to a few different news and current events podcasts, and then after work I’ll watch a couple different news channels to get an overview of the day. I try not to access too much news through social media, but of course it’s inevitable. I do try to make a point to learn through multiple mediums in order to best balance topics and sources.

2. Do you feel your input and opinions are taken seriously, particularly by coworkers from different generations?

Fletcher: Fortunately, yes! Over 11 years of employment at Rice Dairy has given me the opportunity to live through several economic cycles within the dairy market. This helps me relate to those who predate me in the market but also helps me educate those who are more junior. I will be the first to admit that I have learned from both those who have more and those who have less experience than I do. I feel fortunate to be a part of a company culture that values opinions regardless of tenure or industry experience.

Ursula Guggisberg-
Guggisberg Cheese

Guggisberg-Bennett: For the most part, yes. In my experience, it’s all about approach, respect and hard work. Our generation is often labeled as one which demands rewards without the willingness to put in the work, and I think this view is partially responsible for millennials not being taken seriously. If we show that we place value in working hard to reach our goals and taking the time to research our topics of discussion, we are more credible in the eyes of those we’re speaking to, regardless of generation.

Jacoby: In my line of work, any input/opinions you provide are more valuable if you can back them up with facts or examples of where they have been provided in the past with success. People tend to trust someone that is more seasoned. When I started out of college working in the plant, I had no experience. So any time I provided input about changing a process or why something was happening, I would have to back it up with research. I would present my research to management and give them all the information they required to make a decision.

Laine: There is a lot to be gained by good communication and an openness to ideas in both directions. I have been fortunate to have my ideas for changing or improving things throughout my career generally well received and given a chance. What seems counterproductive to me is when I see someone from a younger generation thinking that the old way of doing things is inherently obsolete, or someone from an older generation in a leadership position taking the view that they have already tried everything and determined the best way for things to be done. There are lessons to be learned in both directions, and it’s important to be open to them.

Strohmenger: I do feel like my input and opinion matters and is taken seriously. I can say with all honesty that our team at WCMA works really well together. We have a lot of trust and respect for one another and all value each other’s different perspectives and experiences. I can admit that I’ve felt intimidated in some scenarios because of being a millennial among other generations with more industry experience. But, in my work with WCMA’s Contest Committee and Dairy Food Safety Alliance, I’ve learned that passion, interest and hard work can bridge any possible gap between generations.

3. What is your preferred method in dealing with confrontation? Some say millennials “hide behind a screen.” Do you think it’s important to hash things out face to face, or is dealing with conflict resolution over phone/email accepted in today’s workforce?

Fletcher: Communicating is as easy and efficient as it’s ever been with phone, email, instant messaging and social media ingrained in most modern businesses. If anything, there are so many different means of communication that I find myself having to simplify and reduce the tools available to be effective, especially in times of confrontation. I would also say that face to face is the preferred and most effective means in resolving confrontation. It is the most respectful way to get a point across. With today’s environment where that is not always possible, I would say second most effective is phone and/or video call.

Guggisberg-Bennett: It’s definitely situational. Face-to-face interaction allows for clear, direct communication, leaving little room for misinterpretation and encouraging immediate dialogue. However, it can also produce reactive, hyper-emotional responses, whereas the calm, thought-through message produced by an email can be better received and perhaps deliver your thoughts more accurately. While both methods can be effective means of communication, I’m partial to email for this reason. Additionally, I like the traceability and visual reference it provides, as details of conversation can be forgotten. I can understand how some might see the ability to communicate something via email that they may not have the courage to say in person as “hiding behind a screen,” but in the right circumstance, this can be a positive way to obtain honest feedback. While I don’t seek out confrontation, I don’t necessarily avoid it, and I feel it’s important to note the difference between “hiding” from it and taking the time to communicate your thoughts effectively.

Daniel Jacoby
Malisko Engineering

Jacoby: I always had to deal with people head-on. In dairy processing, things can happen very fast, so you have to work with people closely. If something broke down, you worked hand in hand with maintenance and operations to get it back up and running, as well as quality and sanitation to get things released back into production. No time to send an email. In my current position, I deal with customers (dairy processors) daily.

When working on projects, important details can get lost if they are not put into some sort of repository. That can be an email or a document on a SharePoint site. So it’s important to use technology to capture those details. With emails you always have a paper trail to go back to. So, a combination of emails/phone/SharePoint team sites are all important.

Laine: When possible, my preference is to deal with things face to face, but that is becoming less feasible with the current situation. In some ways, the pace of conversation over email, or even instant messages, can be beneficial by giving people time to craft a more thoughtful response. But it’s important to be clear and careful in those communications since there is heightened risk of being misinterpreted without the aid of visual cues like body language and facial expressions, if not written carefully.

Strohmenger: Conflict will often stem from a miscommunication or a misunderstanding. In that situation, email may further complicate the issue. Hearing someone’s tone of voice and inflection is important to understand and solve the issue. Face-to-face conversation would be ideal, but a phone call can also offer a similar connection.

4. Describe a good day in the office. How are you spending your time? Where are you?

Fletcher: During the peak crisis our company went 100% virtual with all employees working from home. We are now at a state where it is optional to work from the office. During these times, I have worked “virtually” at my condo in Chicago and our office in Chicago, at my parents’ home in Idaho and briefly in Colorado. The way I spend my day really hasn’t changed much; I’m still fully plugged in for the U.S. trading hours utilizing the same technology that we use in our office. The main difference is when I am not in the office, my team and I are plugged in on a video chat throughout the day, which is our attempt to emulate a trade desk and encourage collaboration. This has been a great way for us to communicate throughout the day and make sure we don’t let any detail slip through the cracks.

Guggisberg-Bennett: A normal day in my position consists of monitoring our online presence, coordinating website updates, working with our graphic designer on advertising/signage/print projects, monitoring online sales, working on upcoming marketing strategies, coordinating all advertising for the company, and checking in with our retail store and restaurant. I look forward to any meetings that may be scheduled for the day, as I enjoy social interaction and networking. I like a structured, busy day that allows the flexibility of spending more or less time on a project or person, as needed. I love the busyness and many different aspects of my job, as every day is different and full of opportunities to help to grow the company.

Jacoby: Sometimes, I can spend a lot of my time getting caught up on emails! Imagine that! A good day in the office is when I have time to work on the important tasks that bring value to my customers. Most of the time that is solving a problem of theirs and providing a solution. I can do that at home or physically in the office. We have multiple offices across the country, and I usually am working with individuals at each office. As long as I have an internet connection, I can access my team from anywhere.

Laine: To me (no offense to my office mates) the best days in the office are spent out of the office. My favorite part of the job is traveling to different parts of the country and meeting our clients. Seeing the variety in types of dairies around the country and hearing the innovative plans they have for the future are insightful and inspirational. Some of the best advice I received early in my career was that you’re not going to come up with any new ideas by sitting in the same office talking to the same people every day.

Kirsten Strohmenger
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

Strohmenger: Currently, I’m working from home in Monroe, Wisconsin. My home office setup is a miniature replica of my desk at the WCMA office. I’m fortunate to be able to work typical “office hours” from home; this continuity allows me to stay in a steady workflow and mindset during my workdays.

A good day at the office is when I work on our Championship Cheese Contests; I love poring over contest data and researching ways to keep improving the event. I also find that my days are so much brighter when I have been able to connect with others over a phone or video meeting.

5. How have trade shows evolved in an industry that has traditionally used them as a key connection and marketing tool? In an age where news about a new product or service might come online long before a show booth is set up, how is the millennial generation utilizing trade shows differently? Related, how has the lack of trade shows during COVID-19 impacted your company?

Fletcher: Most of the conferences and trade shows I would normally attend have transitioned to virtual events. There are definitely pros and cons of a virtual conference. Some of the benefits are the convenience, the cost effectiveness and the educational opportunities if you dedicate the time to tune in. Alternatively, by eliminating the in-person conferences, you lose the ability to network, which is so important for business development and continuity. The lack of trade shows over the course of 2020 has provided the opportunity and time to focus on our core business. We have also spent the greater part of the year focusing on our clients’ needs and developing customized technologies that help our customers and company become more efficient and precise with risk management solutions.

Guggisberg-Bennett: I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of past trade shows, where I was able to watch and learn the value of face-to-face interaction with existing and potential customers. To see the working relationships formed over years of meeting at shows, discussing not only products but personal life and interests, has been an invaluable experience not possible virtually.

I have only been attending trade shows for six years or so, and although I cannot speak to their evolution in general, I have noticed that the ordering process is different from show to show. Many local show orders are still taken with pen and paper, while the majority of larger shows take orders by tablet or computer. The lack of physical trade shows this year did not affect us negatively, as we actually surpassed our usual sales. While virtual shows may be easier, faster and more convenient, there is something to be said about placing a face with a name in an enjoyable atmosphere.

Jacoby: Malisko has been providing services to the dairy industry for more than 20 years, but we never spent much time marketing our services. We work for some of the largest dairy processors out there. Malisko started attending CheeseExpo a few years back. It wasn’t until last year, 2019, that we really started to get a lot of traction and name recognition in the industry. We were planning something big for the 2020 CheeseExpo that unfortunately got derailed with its cancellation.

Normally we would make a number of connections at these trade shows with months of follow ups resulting from them. Each trade show we attend usually resulted in a new client of ours. So now more then ever, it’s important to use digital media to continue to get our name and service offerings out there.

Laine: As a financial services provider, booths at trade shows are not our most effective way to seek new business, but trade shows can be fantastic opportunities to connect with current clients and other industry contacts all in one place. As a researcher, they can also be a great opportunity to see what people in the industry are talking about and interested in. Unfortunately, those aspects of trade shows are likely to be limited for some time. Rabobank pivoted quickly and implemented more ways to “meet” with our clients virtually. Other industry partners’ webinars have been good resources, too, for timely and important discussions.

Strohmenger: Event attendees are now able to come to a show more informed on available products and services. That’s an advantage to both exhibitors and attendees. This allows for more in-depth conversations on the exhibit floor, which may help make a better connection or a faster sale. Having that prior knowledge can also give the attendee more time to explore and learn during the conference.

I am really missing out on connecting with people in person at events, but I am enjoying different aspects of the virtual events like on-demand seminars and the flexible participation times during the workday. We’re using this time to learn and understand what experiences will work best for our members. I personally value accessing content and new information online prior to in-person meetings and events. This allows me to be more prepared and knowledgeable so I can better experience and take in an event.

6. How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the flow of operations at your company? As a millennial, how have you worked to facilitate communication among team members, while simultaneously ensuring safe protocols in your operations? What other work-related challenges have you faced in the midst of the pandemic?

Fletcher: In our “normal” set up at the office we have two large desks that are divided into teams. One desk is dedicated to milk producers, and one desk is dedicated to the supply chain of dairy once the milk leaves the farm (processor/co-ops, end user, trading company, etc.). We have done our best to recreate each of these “desks” virtually with the goal to have a collaborative environment and to be able to supply premier service to our customer base. Other than that, we are very fortunate as a company that very little for us has changed operationally other than the fact that we are no longer centralized in our Chicago office on a day-to-day basis.

Guggisberg-Bennett: Every company knows that navigating this pandemic has been challenging. As a food product manufacturer, we are grateful to be considered essential and to have continued operation during this time. Despite the pandemic, cheese has remained an important part of consumer needs, and while we did close our retail store for a period of time, we saw a 300% increase in online sales via our website and have maintained wholesale product sales. We’ve seen a change in consumer buying habits and are adapting accordingly and adjusting to what we feel will be permanent.

We’ve implemented many new guidelines and procedures to our already-strict food safety policies in our factories, offices and retail store. As a food manufacturer, biosecurity has always been in the forefront for us, and we have taken all the measures recommended by the CDC in order to continue ensuring the safest possible environments for our employees and customers. We’ve had to change the way we do many different things, from handling shipments to interacting with customers and almost everything in between, but we feel we’ve found a great balance and are happy to do our part in ensuring safety for all.

As a millennial, I’ve tried to be an example of compliancy as well as demonstrate and encourage open communication between departments. I have worked to help communicate the importance of a companywide united front, no matter the department, personal view or generational difference. I’ve also communicated our safety missions to the public through our social media platforms, signage in our retail store and verbally to customers as needed. As a unit, promoting the message that safety is our top priority is essential to continuous operation and a unified workforce during this unique and challenging time.

Jacoby: We were fortunate in that we already had systems in place to deal with a sudden shift in operations when it came to everyone having to work from home. We had been utilizing Cisco Webex and Microsoft Office 365 for communicating across our organization for some time. So there was not a learning curve when it came to our employees leveraging these technologies. We are a project-oriented company, so it’s always been important to have good communication within the company. Leadership has been great with continuously improving how we communicate using technology.

One of the biggest work-related challenges that I have faced in the midst of the pandemic is networking. There has been a huge shift from in-person networking to virtual networking. It’s always good to put a face to a name, so to speak. However, with virtual meetings, you can leverage your camera to actually see the person you are talking to. I try my best to always be camera ready when meeting someone for the first time or in general when I am communicating with my customers, existing or new.

Laine: Rabobank as a whole transitioned to a work-from-home situation relatively quickly and smoothly. Within the dairy group of the RaboResearch team we have 10 analysts in different parts of the world. So, using email and Skype has always been the norm. In some ways — being under travel restrictions and putting our heads together to analyze what impacts the COVID crisis would have on the global dairy markets and our clients — the pandemic has given us more opportunity to collaborate.

Strohmenger: Working from home has definitely shifted how we’re able to collaborate, but the camaraderie we had at the office has helped us stay connected and productive virtually. It is neat to see how our teamwork grows as we evolve and connect differently than we did before. For example, our Contest Committee and subcommittees have met a few times virtually, and adapting to this new format has allowed for more attendance and greater involvement. In the future, I think we will likely schedule a mixture of in-person and virtual meetings throughout the year.


Are you a dairy industry professional born between 1981-1996? Join in an upcoming round of Mind of a Millennial! Contact CMN Editor in Chief Alyssa Mitchell at for more details.

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