Taking the Reins Continued

The October 2014 issue of School Nutrition included excerpts from the magazine’s 10th annual Roundtable of Leaders discussion. This year’s conversation featured reflections from new directors—those new to the district, new to this professional role or new to both. Space restrictions prohibited the magazine from publishing a number of fascinating insights and exchanges in its print edition, but more excerpts from the Roundtable have been made available here. Read on to learn about what this year’s participants learned about themselves in taking on their new roles, resources that have proven invaluable, initial achievements and advice for others starting as a district’s new director.

SN: What have you had to learn about yourself to make the transition to your new role?

Barbara Peavler, Child Nutrition Director, Wagoner (Okla.) Public Schools: I’ve been a manager for most of my life. … In a kitchen, you’re [the staff’s] guidance counselor, you’re their mother, you’re their father. You have to learn to deal with each person differently. [But as a director,] I do a lot of things in that little office. For myself, I’ve got to learn to say “No, I can’t help you today.” That’s hard for me, because I don’t tell people no. I’ll work until midnight. But I have had to change the way that I help other people out.

James Hemmen, Director of Nutrition Services, St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools: For me, it was being that high-level leader again after a five-year “hiatus.” I had joined school foodservice after coming out of the corporate world, with very long work weeks and lots of reports and just being buried in constant work stuff. So, in Arizona, I had been in a hiatus, and loving this business. I had a lot of great things going, and I could have [ridden] that and continued to develop a lot of stuff in Arizona. But to take the move, to go from about 20 schools with 1,000 kids to 65 sites with 40,000 students and triple your staff? That meant that the hiatus was over. I had to hit the ground running. I had to learn how to get back in that role and figure out how to operate day in and day out, being the leader, orchestrating, guiding, asking for accountability and knowing how to balance it all, [including when to] just back off and empower people to be the best they are.

... [Also,] I underestimated the stress level of the move and the ramifications of this life change. It was very, very big. I’ve moved a number of times before, but I definitely underestimated this one. Arriving in the dead of winter, leaving family behind for three or four months, taking on the mega district responsibility--all those kind of things. I relied on my expertise and my instincts, but I probably [should] have done a hair more research and prepared more. That separation from family for 12 weeks was very, very difficult for me, and at times it was difficult for me to focus. So, I don’t recommend that.

Marcie Christiansen, SNS, Food Service Director, Lake Oswego (Ore.) School District: When I came to Lake Oswego, [the previous director had been in] a micromanaging type of situation. And I’m not [a micromanager], so there was an adjustment for the staff to get used to me and for me to learn to respond to their needs a little bit differently, too. I went from [one district], where I was the assistant director, and to one where I had to do everything. In [the previous district], we [had the staff to] share the burden. I liked the change, but it was reorganization for me, mentally.

Tamara Earl, SNS, Child Nutrition Supervisor, Mason City (Ohio) School District: In my role as assistant director, I was very hands-on. My orientation is to be pretty thorough. Anything I touched, I knew the cause and effect, the potential results and so on and so forth. One of the biggest challenges right now is that I can’t do that with everything anymore. I think that’s interesting because some of the data says it takes three years to get comfortable in a new job, and I’m just finishing my third year. [As 2014-15 SNA of Ohio President] my theme for our conference was “Balancing Your Plate” because that’s one of my biggest challenges. I’m still not there, because I feel like I could still pour myself into this day and night, and it’s still not where I would like it to be.

When I try to sit back and analyze it, I think some of it is my personal style, but it’s also because of all of the changes in our programs and [my needing to be] out in the community more. We partner with a community physician, we partner with dietitians in the community, we partner with a lot of teachers and staff. We see at least 2,000 students when doing our nutrition education [programs]. … I think the total number of days out of the office in front of students can be worth two or three weeks. But I’ve felt that if I didn’t do those things with the community and the students, then we’re not going to be a well-understood department.

I’ve had that conversation with my boss, and he does feel that we’ve made real inroads in the district, with people understanding who we are and our true mission of nourishing children. So, to let go and not do all of that would be not right, either. But I find it very difficult to get it all done and be balanced.

Carol Weekly, RD, SNS, Director of Child Nutrition, Queen Creek (Ariz.) Unified School District 95: I think that’s what’s unique about this profession—you listen to everyone in this room—and [we’re all] like a fanatic, because [we’re] so passionate about what [we] do. I get that one negative comment, and I think, “What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me?” I’m so devastated because I poured my heart and soul and then feel like, “How did I not make you happy? What’s the problem?”

But it’s a good thing. [In my previous job], I wasn’t in charge, so could focus on the “one” thing. I was a dietitian and in the schools every day, and I talked to every student. But then you become director and you don’t have time. [You ask yourself,] “Did I even have lunch today?” I have two young kids, and they say, “Why can’t someone else do that?” And I say, “I am that somebody else.” My staff, it’s not their responsibility; I’m the person that’s on salary and I’m the one that’s going to go in and make everything right.

My other thing is, I’m really bad about when I start something, then I need to be the one to finish it, because [no one else is] going to finish it the way I started it. I’ve had to really work on trying to make sure that I explain why I do what I do and why we’re doing what we’re doing and really educate the staff.

Lydia Martin, SNS, School Nutrition Director, Savannah-Chatham County (Ga.) School District: Being that I came into a financially struggling district, I kind of felt like the coordinators under me had run it into the ground, so to speak, and I had my own ideas [for going forward]. Also one of the coordinators knew she had the job—she just knew it—and the previous director had basically been training her, but she didn’t get the job and I did. I knew there was going to be a tension, [but] I thought maybe after a time it would get better. It’s still an issue. I have a lot of trust issues, because I want [things] done a certain way. And because I know that tension is there, it’s hard for me to let go and let someone else take a project without me having my hands in it.

Marlene Pfeiffer, RD, LD, Food Service Director, Parkway School District, Chesterfield, Mo.: The prior director [told me], “You are going to have to learn to delegate, or else you’re going to run yourself ragged.” He said, “I know you want to be a part of it and you want to understand, so that when someone asks you a question, you don’t go, “Well, I don’t know.’” I have been told that “I don’t know” is an OK answer, but I still don’t like it.

But we don’t have more than 24 hours in a day, and if you’re totally exhausted, how can you be effective or efficient? How can you get the projects you want or need done when you are running at max speed for 24 hours, even in your sleep? I recently had to get a bite plate, because the dentist said “[If you don’t], I’m going to have to cap all your teeth.” … I want to be able to trust and I first have to find [my staff’s] strengths, so I know who I can trust. ... Sometimes even my secretary will say, “I would do that for you, if you would just let me.” So, delegating is still a difficult problem in my personality, and I’m not sure how to change that.

Randy Herman, School Nutrition Supervisor, Louisa County (Va.) Public Schools: I’m six years in, and I can’t honestly tell you that I’ve conquered this yet, but the biggest challenge and change for me was that I came from an administrative team of 14 school nutrition administrators and we all had our different parts and together we were a program. Then I came to Louisa, and now I am the program. I have one-third of a secretary; I have her two days a week and share her with two federal programs. I would love to delegate, but I don’t have anyone to delegate to!

I have started working with university dietetic interns—it was through my internship, that I found school nutrition! And it’s just a passion for me; I want to be able to be that [mentor] for other people.

Moving from a large district—where I was a nutrition education coordinator—I had the greatest job in the world. All I had do was have fun; I didn’t have to manage people [or] personnel issues—I was in the schools, working with teachers, working with students, creating marketing plans. It was really important to me to be able to bring that to Louisa. That’s been on my “want” list, but my “need” list was so much longer. … Nutrition education is really, really important to me; that’s been really hard to try and find the time. My first two years, I was in [in the office on] weekends and until 8:00 at night. Then, I realized that [this can’t continue.] I don’t work weekends anymore. I bring very little home. That’s been a transition [but we do] have school gardens now. We have nutrition education programs and all of those things that I wanted. But it’s still a struggle, every day, of balancing.

SN: What are some of the specific resources that have helped you in this or a previous transition?

Christiansen: I’m involved in our state association, and networking with other directors has been my biggest benefit. … Networking has such great value, because you learn that other people are having the same struggles as you or that they have some idea that they can share with you to streamline something or make a menu better or whatever.

Weekly: It’s the same for me. I started out at the state level, so you develop all of these connections. The other thing that is really great about this profession is that nobody is competing for your customers. Everyone’s happy to share information. I’ll send out an e-mail to 10 directors in the [area]: “What are you doing with this? How are you handling waste? How are you handling XYZ? How are you liking this product?” Why reinvent the wheel?

Earl: I want to mention the value of the SNA magazine. I truly believe that wherever you’re sitting or fitting in school nutrition, there is something new in every issue. I also have felt a need to reach out to other organizations for help, and one of my best [sources] has been the Society for Human Resource Management, as an avenue of support for personnel issues. I’ve found that the tools offered through that membership have helped me a great deal with disciplinary action [and] understanding current legislation that’s affecting labor laws. One of my goals in this job has been to be truly more involved in the evaluation process and to give my managers more tools to help them guide their people and carry out policies and so on. That’s probably my top recommendation outside of the SNA realm.

Hemmen: Networking is huge. Carol and I have been friends for a while when I was in [Arizona]. … One [resource] that I probably relied on the most being an outsider [to K-12] was the Association of School Business Officials in Arizona, and now I’m trying to get into it in [Minnesota]. I got quasi-involved on the national level, because I served on their board for two years and [helped to] legitimize the nutrition business with school business officials, helping them understand we run multi-million dollar businesses within their district and [recognizing that] we are an enterprise fund in the federal eye. I have a habit of telling CFOs, “We could make or break the educational day in less than 10 seconds.”

SN: What have been some of the pleasant surprises in the transition to your new positions?

Herman: Going from a large to small district, one of the greatest things that will probably always keep me in small [in the future] is the one-on-one relationships. When I was in the large district, I worked there for two years before I even knew what the superintendent looked like. I think I met him once in my five years there.

In my little district, I have the greatest superintendent ever; she lives and breathes that county. She was born in that county. She grew up there, went to school there, went off to college, came back—her entire 38-year teaching career has been in Louisa County, all of her children have gone there, she now has grandchildren in the schools. She is totally hands-on. [Even after going through so much in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake], she is in a classroom every single day. She writes a blog every Friday with photos she’s taken in the classrooms, and her goal last year was to visit every single classroom in Louisa County at least once, and she made it.

Plus, my relationship with administrators, children and teachers. I never had that in any of the big districts where you could be one on one with teachers. I think you can gain a lot from that, [hearing both] positive and negative things. I didn’t expect it, and it’s definitely a plus.

In addition, I have one manager who has been threatening to retire. [The complexity of the new regulations and the changes I wanted to make have been a source of stress]. She came to me in December in tears and said, “I have to leave; I can’t do this.” She’s extremely conscientious. In all of my years, I have never had an employee this fabulous in every area. That was probably the hardest thing for me: To get her to understand that she was doing everything that she knew to do; she just needed to work with me, and I would teach her those new things. Now, she’s very supportive of what we’re doing. I think that’s my biggest accomplishment: to have this person who was ready to leave, and now she’s probably my most supportive person.

Martin: I just had an administrative review in February. It was my second year in the district—a system where a lot of things were broken and on my plate to fix. Then my superintendent came to me [requesting I apply for the Walmart breakfast-in-the-classroom grant]. So not what I wanted to tackle right then. Reluctantly, I applied for the grant, [hoping maybe we wouldn’t get it]..

We got it, and I had to make it work. And it has really been such a catalyst for so many other good things in my district! We won the wellness award [from the Georgia School Nutrition Association] in April. In September, we [got] the first USDA Best Practice Award the district’s ever received. I really didn’t expect my breakfast participation to increase as much as it did—42%. I also won a Fuel Up First award from the Southeast Dairy Association. So, that has been a real pleasant surprise—all of the things that that one reluctant grant have opened up.

Also, we have a lot of community partnerships. [At one medical school with a children’s wellness program], they came to me and said, “We want to work with you. What can we do to help you?” One of their dietitians makes monthly marketing packages for the managers. with bulletin board templates, morning announcements, promotional ideas—it’s like having another staff member!

Pfeiffer: I think it’s the relationship building. In my new position, [stakeholders are] coming to me more to build and establish rapport: “How can we help foodservice, all of us?” I think we’ve opened our doors. … I went and asked each department for their help—the art department to help make the cafeterias look less institutional …[I’m] working with the sustainability manager and purchasing … We’ve been in touch with principals that are on board [for school gardens], so they’ve just taken it and run with it, helping their counterparts down the street.

So, it’s the relationships in and out of the district that have been a plus for me. I didn’t see that coming, because in the past, I had good relationships individually, but I didn’t really have the responsibility or the position to give the okays to do some of the partnering we’re doing. Now, since I’m in that position and I’ve opened my doors, it’s a win-win for all of us.

Earl: I would piggyback on [the value of] relationships. It’s funny—so much opened up because of [a music video we made to teach families with young children about going through the lunch line]. So many people saw it, although not the parents. But a community physician saw it and came to me. Now he participates with us in our nutrition education programs.

[For the HealthierUS School Challenge], our obstacle is physical activity. That is almost immovable in all of our buildings. I [told] one assistant principal, “I’m going to keep talking about this until the day I die,” and she said, “I’d better getting moving on this.” So, we partnered with the phys ed teacher to write curriculum and got the support of the whole building. So, my boss feels that our department is now a source of positive conversation in the district. And that has been very meaningful to me. Even on days when it feels like baby steps, you have these few things that reassure you that maybe it’s all going to come together.

Hemmen: One of the things that has impressed me the most is the opportunity to collaborate in the community. [For example], right now, for summer foodservice, we’re in places and doing things that six months ago weren’t even on my radar [like] taking the food to the kids with food trucks. … The willingness of people to jump on board with other programs that are now part of our business, like CEP and supper, that’s the kind of thing I’m just surprised by—how many people want to be involved with these and are beginning to understand the importance of [such programs] for the whole child and the community. It’s phenomenal.

[And] as much negative stuff that’s been in the media, we’ve had a phenomenal opportunity to work with our communications department to put out positive information. I’m talking blasts, daily, weekly, ever since I got here. All the negative that has been out there [on the political front gives us the] opportunity to tell our story and toot our horn. Our district’s communications people have jumped all over that, and I owe them a ton of gratitude.

Why did I leave corporate foodservice, owning a restaurant to be in school foodservice? The answer is really simple. I have two kids at home. And I had 11,000 in Phoenix, and now I get to love 40,000 in the city of St. Paul. They all deserve the best food on the planet, and that’s what school foodservice is about.

That’s what our job is. It’s about taking those few precious pennies, nickels, dimes, dollars and securing the best food possible, working with your team and incentivizing them to produce that food and put that smile on and let that child know that today’s going to be better because you have a hot meal for them and that if they eat it, they’ll be prepared to go learn. That’s my mantra. And helping my team understand that what I wanted was important, and that’s what drives me every day: It’s those kids.

SN: What advice would you give to someone who’s just now walking into a new district and/or a director-level position?

Pfeiffer: Depending on your background and your previous positions, you may not have all your cards in place when taking on that job. The job description is written and put out there, but there’s a lot between the lines. I just wonder, since we’re so responsible for budgets and the economics of the department, if knowing the financials is something that should be more readily available to us [in advance]. Maybe that’s a personal issue—that we need to be asking those questions, but that’s something [new directors] may not think to ask and will be something they’re highly responsible for. They need to know things like how much money is coming out of the general fund.

Christiansen: I think you have to have an open mind. You have to go in with some kind of preconceived ideas, but by the same token, they can’t be absolute, either, because you never know how your staff’s going to respond to you or what you’re walking into on an emotional level when dealing with your people. I was pretty taken aback. Not that [I] couldn’t make it work, but it was kind of a dinosaur situation. In our district, in all the elementary schools, they serve lunch in the hallways. They don’t have cafeterias. I had come from a district that had really nice remodeled kitchens and new schools and bright, well-lit cafeterias and all that, and I thought, “How in the heck is this going to work?” And it does work, really well, but you have to have an open mind.

Weekly: I interviewed four days before I gave birth. I came back after about three weeks and was able to come in then and look at a couple of schools, and I was still going to take the two months off and not start until July 1. So I was able to process a couple of things while I was at home. But before [I took the job], I just knew about some of the financial struggles and the staffing issues. I also I knew that my predecessor was now going to be underneath me.

In terms of recommendations to others, I would never step into this position expecting “just a job.” That whole passion piece—you really have to be passionate about what you’re doing because it’s a noble cause. You’re feeding children, whether it’s a 96% free and reduced district or a 10% free and reduced district, you’re still touching all those kids.

Martin: When you have the passion, the assistants, the cashiers, they see that. For example, I had a manager come to me and say, “I’ll do that for you, because that’s the least I can do when you work so hard.” And I had no idea that this manager knew my work ethic!

Weekly: I’m a lot younger than any of the people that I manage. Well, my work ethic, it’s there. I tell my managers, “You’re not coming in to tell people what to do; you’re doing it, to show that you’re going to do it as well [as anyone else] and be passionate [about it].”

Earl: I think there’s a shared feeling that success is [measured by] passion in this business, and not always by numbers or hours worked. I think that’s important for new directors. It would be very difficult to have success, however you wish to define it, if you don’t have passion.

Herman: My advice to new directors would be to know that you don’t have to do it alone. Use your resources, and the greatest resource is each other, our colleagues. I say that all the time. SNA is a big part of that, locally, statewide and nationally. Some of my closest friends are those I met in my local association 18 years ago. I [use a] “phone a friend” [approach]. Am I making the right decision? Is it going to work? Everyone was looking to me for [those answers,] and I always said, “I’m going to phone a friend.” I’d call somebody and I’d say, “This is what’s going on. Do you think this’ll work?” And they’d analyze it and say “yay” or “nay.”

But new people have to know that they can build these relationships and rely on each other. Being with SNA, I know people all across the country who are doing the same thing [as I] no matter where they are. People share experiences, and I think our industry is unique in that no one’s afraid to share. I’ve learned so much today in this room. I mean, this meeting has been great. I thank you for inviting me. I have never met a school nutrition director or employee who wasn’t happy to help you, to share experiences and advice. That would be my biggest advice: Talk to people and make connections.

Martin: Know that you can’t do everything you want to do that first year. You have to prioritize; you have to pick what’s most important or what’s most pressing at the moment. Even though you want all these things to happen, like CEP or supper or whatever, you can’t do it all at once. Also know what you have control over and know that you know you are doing your best. [For example], my food bid hasn’t gone out yet and school starts August 7. But I have e-mailed Purchasing every day. I’ve talked to my boss about it—I can’t do anything else. I’ve done my best to make it happen. It’s out of my control. [But it’s a success to] be able to go to bed every day and say, “I did my best, even if it wasn’t good enough.”

Hemmen: Passion is what drives me every day. I love my business, I love what I do. The people that I love are the people that work with me, for me. It’s my customer. I really believe that if you don’t have a passion and care about your customer, you’re in the wrong business. What I respect the most in this business is that everyone cares! The level of caring in the school nutrition business is unlike any other segment I’ve ever worked in; the closest thing to it is senior care, and if I were to leave here, that would be the only place where I would want to finish my career, to give the ones who loved on me a great life on their way out. But right now, I’m too into the kids. ...

My advice to someone wanting to get into this business is that you have to be willing to be a risk taker…or willing to be a change agent. You are going to be dusting yourself off and picking yourself up and starting over every day. … I know if I screw up, I can call Carol, and she’s going to help me figure the problem out. Or I can call Marlene or Randy, because in this business, we’re experts. I would advise: “Trust that you’re an expert in your own right. You earned the right to be in this seat when they awarded you that job. All the rest is going to come; it just will.”

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