One Woman’s Journey for Leadership Excellence in Manufacturing

April 15, 2024
Andrea Lum, Communications Manager
Andrea Lum

Communications Manager

On a January day, Sarah Dale pulled into the parking lot of the Milltown, N.J. box plant, where she served as general manager. She parked her car and walked into the building, expecting another routine day at the plant. As usual, Sarah checked the team’s days safe count on the welcome sign and greeted her team. When she sat down at her desk to review the day’s schedule, she saw a meeting request she didn’t expect.

Two vice presidents of the company had called the meeting with her. Although Sarah had business with each of them, she was curious why both vice presidents were on the agenda.

This news was good news.

When Sarah accepted the meeting invitation, she reflected. “In manufacturing, the saying used to go: ‘no news is good news,’” she said. “But this was good news.”

Sarah had been selected for one of the most notable awards in the manufacturing industry: the Women MAKE Award. Bestowed by the Manufacturing Institute, the Women MAKE Awards recognizes women in science, technology, engineering and production careers who exemplify leadership within their companies.  

Sarah Dale, Packaging Plant Manager
Rewind to 2011

Sarah landed her first role with IP in Savannah, Ga. as a manufacturing excellence engineer in the pulp mill, part of the REACH engineering development program.

“I never imagined I would be working in manufacturing,” she said. “I met an IP recruiter at a University of Florida college career fair and learned about the company’s culture and focus on environmental stewardship. During my onsite interview in Jackson, Miss., I learned more about the company’s commitment to career development and growth opportunities, and that I would be assigned meaningful work that would drive results for the mill. It was then I decided to establish my career with IP.”

In each role Sarah took on since then, she has taken the opportunity to sharpen her skills, learning how to adapt her leadership for each situation. It’s a skill she uses every day, and one that has contributed to her reputation as a manager who leads with empathy and authenticity.

Leading beyond the textbook

Early in her career, Sarah practiced textbook leadership, which includes explaining the “why” behind every task. “I remember my first team and their coach to me: ‘Sarah, we don’t want you to explain why again. Sometimes we just want to be told what to do,’” she recalled. It was then she learned the importance of situational leadership, and the positive impact a team can have when working together.

“You have to be genuine, and you must show up. You have to be fully present and committed in order to thoroughly understand the situation and your team’s needs to achieve success,” she explained.  

Manufacturing leadership

From her days focused on fiber cost models and digester controls in Savannah, GA, to her new role as plant general manager in Spotswood, NJ, Sarah has had opportunities to grow her experience in both the mills and box plants, as well as collaborative, cross-functional roles that resulted in improved mill operating standards and continuous improvement outcomes for our packaging products.  

In addition to the demanding roles she has had, Sarah has prioritized time for mentoring other women in manufacturing, both at IP and across the industry through TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry). She also makes time for community engagement. “At the box plant, everything we do supports our community,” she said. “We’re a part of the community and must support the community and customers who support us.”

Living life to the fullest

When she’s not leading teams and mentoring others, Sarah enjoys travel, live music and trying new things. “I was doing en plein air in the park, and by the end of my efforts, I’d enlisted the help of two complete strangers to finish my painting,” she said, adding: “Life will reveal its beauty and connectedness if you get outside of your comfort zone and engage. Life is about perspective. Our time here is short, and we must fully embrace the experience and be thankful for each day.”

Looking to the past … and the future

When asked what women inspired Sarah, she named Marie Curie, as well as her mother and her grandmother.  

“They were told they couldn’t pursue non-traditional roles for women. They showed me how to be relentless.”  

On April 18, 2024, Sarah attends the Women MAKE Awards in Washington, D.C., where she joins 130 women leaders and rising female stars in manufacturing. Together, they will celebrate all women in science, technology, engineering and production roles who are paving the way for other women.

“I was honored to be selected for the Women MAKE Award,” Sarah said. “For the organization to take time, which is in short supply, to consider me for this notable award, was a treasure, but then, for an external group to review my nomination alongside impressive leaders and recognize my work — I am honored.”

As Sarah looks to her future in manufacturing at IP, she’s excited about gaining new and varied experiences and holding the torch for other women.  

See what International Paper could have in store for your career.

I never imagined I would be working in manufacturing .... During my onsite interview, I learned more about the company’s commitment to career development and growth opportunities, and that I would be assigned meaningful work that would drive results for the mill. It was then I decided to establish my career with IP.

– Sarah Dale