iQ Interview Series: Lessons in Leadership from Dennis Teranishi

June 17, 2020
By iQ Staff
iQ Interview Series Dennis Teranishi.

iQ 360’s founder and principal, Lori, credits her father, Dennis Teranishi, for teaching her about leadership starting at a young age. She grew up watching him lead — as president of AMFAC’s diversified agriculture operations, CEO of Hawaiian Host, and president and CEO of PICHTR.

 In honor of Father’s Day, she asked him to share a few leadership insights from his career, which spans more than 45 years in business and the nonprofit world with a number of board appointments and awards, including the Order of the Rising Sun Award from the Government of Japan.


What is the most important skill for business leaders today?

My advice is to garner as much international perspective as possible. Read literature about a lot of different regions — it’s hard to get new ideas if you are only reading about one industry or one region.

Communication is a critical skill, especially in times of crisis. You need to be able to make people feel comfortable by assuring them, “I have a plan and we are going to get out of this together.” Explain things simply and in ways that resonate. Find the unofficial leaders in your organization, the ones people listen to, and enlist them to help communicate your message.

Engage your people and allow them to participate. “These are some of the things we are thinking of doing. What do you think?” They’ll be more invested when they are part of the solution.


What can business leaders expect in the months and years ahead, and how should they prepare?

Life is full of unexpected events. As a leader, you always need to be prepared. I was in the Army during the Vietnam conflict, then worked in the sugar industry. I was in my 40s when sugar plantations in Hawaii were forced to close, so I went into diversified ag and created opportunity there. Then I went to Hawaiian Host, but 9/11 happened and it was a scary time because no one wanted to travel, so no customers were buying our chocolate. When the recovery began in April, it was so swift; we thought we had enough raw goods to start up production but we weren’t totally prepared for the huge demand for our products. So you have to be nimble and plan for different scenarios.

Being prepared in business is difficult because we all have competitors. And because of globalization, our competitors are everywhere. A global perspective is essential in order to compete. We need to teach our children and grandchildren to prepare to work in an ever-changing environment that will undergo massive changes.


“Lead by example.”


How do you keep morale up in your organization?

Right now, we’re in the middle of a devastating pandemic.  The more it unfolds, and the more employees see layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, the more scared they become. You have to find a way to communicate with different people in the organization. It’s hard when everyone is virtual because you can’t walk around, so you have to find ways to connect with your employees.

Ask people if they have new ideas, like, “What should we be looking at?” If you engage your people, they feel part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be positive, because people need to feel hope. They need to believe that there is something you can do to get out of the situation. In every disaster there is opportunity and attitude has a lot to do with it.

Leaders need to make tough decisions that are necessary for the business, which can involve pay cuts or layoffs. Lead by example. If you need to institute a pay cut, CEOs and senior leaders should cut their salaries first and also work harder than everyone else.


What advice would you give a new manager or leader?

When you least expect it, some disaster will happen. During these major challenges, if you handle it properly, you come out so much stronger because you go through hell and make it through. Hone your leadership skills and build your team to execute what you need to do to survive. Look at this not as a disaster, but as a great learning experience that will help you become a more seasoned and effective executive — and a stronger and better person.