The financial crisis was a learning experience, says Scott Thacker, 38, executive director of finance at Dell Financial Services (DFS), the financing arm of $61 billion computer maker Dell. The economic downturn showed him the importance of managing well, sticking to a plan, and keeping up team morale.

One of the fundamentals he learned is discipline. "Set your parameters, know your approach, and hold to it. If you do that, when you hit tough times, you're going to come through it," Thacker says.

"I've learned a lot more about how to keep the ship on course, keep my employees focused, than when the times were really good," he adds. "You get through it, and you realize that you're a much better leader, better manager and effective business person, because of what you went through."

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