How to Use Resilience to ‘Power Through and Come Back Even Stronger’ As a Leader

Sponsored by Sonoco Products Company

Mary Elliston

Photo courtesy of Sonoco.

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April 17, 2024 at 8:37AM UTC

Resiliency is defined as the “ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change,” according to Merriam Webster. And it’s what Mary Elliston, production planning and customer service manager at Sonoco’s North American Paper Division, says women should build to become better leaders.

“My No. 1 tip is to practice resilience,” she tells Fairygodboss. “Resilience is the quality that allows you to overcome challenges, recover from failure and manage stress. You are going to encounter failure, challenges and stress as a leader, and resilience is what helps you be able to power through and come back even stronger.”

She adds that learning what you can do to boost resiliency and committing to putting that into practice will better position you for success as a leader. We caught up with Elliston to learn more on how to do just that — as well as her other tips on leadership and success in the workplace. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell us a bit about your job. What’s your current role, how long have you been in this role and what were you doing previously? 

My team intakes orders and schedules them out to our 19 paper machines to efficiently fulfill demand and manage inventories across our paper-mill system. I’m new to this position and have been in the role for only six weeks. 

Prior to this position, I spent six years in Human Resources, first as a regional HR manager supporting manufacturing plants then as the HR business partner for Sonoco’s U.S. Corporate Staff groups. Prior to joining HR, I spent 10 years with Sonoco’s Paper Division first as a Process Engineer then Production Superintendent.    

How has your day-to-day work changed since you went into leadership at Sonoco? What about your overall approach to work?

The biggest change I felt when moving into a leadership role was my work shifting from tactical, task-oriented work to more strategic, goal-oriented work. I’m a task master and love being able to check things off my to-do list. 

When I first moved into a leadership role, I found myself spending too much time on tactical things and dealing with what was right in front of me. As I leader, I had to learn to pay more attention to strategic concerns that were more often long term. I had to shift my mindset from being the one implementing the plan to being the one developing the plan. 

Fortunately, the culture of Sonoco is a hands-on leadership approach so I’m able to strike a good balance of planning versus doing!  

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual or team that you think has been particularly effective? 

I’ve found that a Situational Leadership approach is the most effective way for me to manage a team. Situational Leadership is where you apply a different style (directing, coaching, supporting or delegating) based on the needs of the person and situation.

For example, if I’m working with a new employee who is still learning the ropes, I’ll take more of a directing approach and lay out things step by step, providing a greater level of detail about what needs to be done. On the other hand, if it’s an experienced employee who has been performing well in their role, the directing style will feel like I’m micromanaging them, so I take a more delegating approach to give them a high-level summary of the boundaries and leave the details up to them.

Tailoring my approach to meet the individual rather than trying to apply a blanket style has helped me get better results.

What’s the No. 1 thing you hope your direct reports are getting out of working with you?

I hope some of my passion for continuous improvement rubs off on the people I work with. I really geek out over analyzing a failure, identifying root causes and putting solid corrective actions in place to position the situation to do better next time. I hope that people on my team gain some of that spirit for not settling with the status quo and challenging themselves and the team to constantly evolve and improve.

What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual (or team) that you think has been particularly effective? 

One of my go-to strategies for getting people aligned to a common goal is trying to help them see the WIIFM — What’s In It For Me. People are naturally self-serving, even if it’s subconsciously; we usually respond more favorably to something that we see value in.  Identifying the benefits of the goal and communicating them with the team helps appeal to the WIIFM and can sometimes get people moving in the direction you need them to go. 

How do you think about making sure your direct report(s) feel well-supported in their lives both in and out of work?

I try to be open and transparent about mistakes that I make and admit when I need help or don’t know something. Don’t get me wrong — it’s still embarrassing to admit when I screw up or when I ask a dumb question!  But I’ve found that sharing the challenges and failures I encounter helps my team be more comfortable with sharing their issues, so they are more likely to ask for help when needed.

And when people do bring an issue forward, whether work-related or personal, putting myself in their shoes to “try on” the burden that they are feeling helps give me perspective on how to support them. Taking a moment to ask myself how I would feel if I were in their position, or how I would want my boss to respond to the same issue, helps strengthen my empathy so that I can problem solve in a supportive way.  

What do you believe is the No. 1 thing managers must do when onboarding new employees?

Help new employees make connections! Introduce them to peers, assign them a mentor, set up time for them to meet one-on-one with someone that they might have something in common with, or ask them to join a meeting where they will meet people from another department that they might use as a resource for future information.

It can be very intimidating for a new person to integrate into the new environment both professionally and personally. The manager plays a key role in making those connections happen early on to help the new employee learn how to navigate the company culture.   

How do you prioritize and deal with your to-do list each day?

Eat the frog! Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  

The Eat the Frog principle is to identify your hardest, most important task on your list and to do that first rather than procrastinating and avoiding it.

Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed and pulled in a million directions, I lay out everything I need to accomplish and find the frog, then commit to doing that task. Eating my frog gives me momentum to keep progressing through my list.


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