By Mark Ward, Sr., Ph.D. 2013-06-12 11:13:19
Future Leaders Program graduates share lessons that have served them well as volunteers and on the job. Meet Wanda Knight Current Title: Director of Child Nutrition Services City, State: Laurens, S.C. Bedside Book/Magazine: South Carolina Wildlife and School Nutrition Someone You Admire: Mother Nancy Knight (35-year veteran in school nutrition) Top of Your Bucket List: Travel more and see Alaska Dream Dinner Guest: Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser” Hobbies: Boating, camping, deer hunting, gardening, time with family Although it’s been six years since Wanda Knight, SNS, “graduated” from the inaugural class of SNA’s Future Leaders Program, the director of child nutrition services for Laurens (S.C.) School District 55 says the lessons she learned continue to pay dividends. “What I learned about leadership styles, handling conflict and motivating people to get involved continues to benefit my program,” she says. State affiliates can nominate one Future Leader to attend a special program during SNA’s annual National Leadership Conference each April. Knight recalls not knowing what to expect from the brand-new program, but being “thrilled to hear top people in our profession, including SNA past presidents who shared practical advice about leadership that I could use right away in my state association and my district.” Lessons in Leadership In particular, Knight learned that good leaders must be flexible in approach. “The style of leadership you adopt should fit the situation,” she counsels. “For example, if you’re leading people who are new to your association or program, you can focus on building up relationships, as well as doing tasks. But if you’re leading people who are experts at what they do, you can give them room.” Motivating association members and program staff to become actively engaged requires the leader “to let people know their input counts, to empower them with the training and tools they need to succeed and to keep the organization’s profile visible so that people take pride in contributing to something that matters and is affirmed by others,” adds Knight, who applied these leadership skills during her 2008-09 term as SNA of South Carolina president. “You need input from the entire association, not just the ‘usual’ people,” she advises, citing member survey results that affirmed the value of offering training at different sites around the state and not just at the annual meeting. Knight also employs the skills she learned on the job in Laurens, working to move her program forward, getting stakeholder buy-in for breakfast-in-the-classroom service and understanding effective conflict management. “There are three sides to every conflict,” she contends. “The one side, the other side—and the truth that’s somewhere in the middle!” Like Mother, Like Daughter Knight’s team-oriented approach to leadership has a remarkably personal component, but that story requires some background. Born and raised in the same district she lives in today, Knight was in 2nd grade when her mother began work as a substitute school nutrition worker. Over the years, Nancy Knight progressed from part- to full-time and, in 1986, to cafeteria manager. After her own graduation, Wanda took jobs as a school bus driver and cafeteria cashier to support herself while taking classes at a nearby technical college. By the time she earned an associate degree in foodservice operations, her cashier work had evolved to a full-time position. “I also helped out at the central office with reimbursable meal applications, general paperwork and answering phones,” Knight recalls. In 1996, she was hired full-time at the central office and, four years later when the director retired, she was elevated to the top job. “Now my mom is one of my managers—and I try not to be too hard on her!” she jokes. Since becoming director, Knight earned her bachelor’s degree in 2000 and School Nutrition Specialist (SNS) credential in 2005. Her challenge as a new director, Knight says, was “adjusting from [the perspective of] coworker to leader. Yet I still look at our operation as a team. I sat down with all the managers and asked where they wanted the program to go. We moved ahead, not with my vision, but with a collective vision.” Today, this school nutrition leader notes, “We stay out of a rut by coming together, discussing new challenges that arise each year, encouraging new ideas and making everyone part of our mission to feed more kids with quality, safe, nutritious meals.” Meet Kristen Hennessey Current Title: Nutrition Director City, State: Plymouth, Mich. Nickname: Sunshine Favorite School Food as a Kid: Broccoli cheddar soup (“It is how they got me to eat vegetables!”) Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: ESPN sideline reporter Bedside Book/Magazine: Seven Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t by ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership Top of Your Bucket List: Be able to run a 5K Having worked in school nutrition for nearly 20 years, garnering achievements and respect all along the way, Kristen Hennessey admits to raising an eyebrow at her 2012 invitation to attend SNA’s Future Leaders Program! But with just a little reflection, she accepted the invitation. “I’d worked most of my career for a private management company,” Hennessey explains. “Though I made a mid-career decision to enter self-operation, I was scared of losing all [that] corporate support. Then I got involved in SNA and discovered this wonderful network and treasure trove of resources. Future Leaders was another way to keep moving forward along my new path.” Hennessey’s decision, three years earlier, in 2009, to leave contract management and become nutrition director for Plymouth- Canton (Mich.) Community Schools capped a season of bona fide soul-searching. “In my job with the management company, I was constantly traveling. I wasn’t in schools anymore but was pushing numbers,” she recounts. “When I lost one friend to cancer and another to an accident, I started rethinking my career. Plymouth-Canton is where I live, and I thought, ‘If the director position there ever becomes open, I’d be interested.’ As it turned out, they recruited me!” Jumping Right In The Plymouth- Canton school nutrition program had been privately managed for 30 years, and as Hennessey relates, “Things had gotten stagnant, and the program was providing no return to the district. So, they decided to self-operate.” Yet even after becoming an official district employee, she had some work to do in convincing skeptics—from school board members to her own staff—about the wisdom of bringing the program entirely inhouse. The first order of business, Hennessey reports, “was to create an identity as a program. We devised menus that went above and beyond in offering choices. To establish ourselves as a resource, we helped schools get nutrition and physical education grants. My staff thought I was crazy with all the changes. But then they saw the great response we got from students and parents; we’d become a ‘destination’ parents choose for their kids.” As Hennessey was opening eyes in her district, she was gaining a new perspective on her own profession: “I truly found a welcoming community… . My new colleagues at the School Nutrition Association of Michigan [SNAM] encouraged me right away to get involved and even consider serving in an office.” Thus came about Hennessey’s invitation to the 2012 Future Leaders Program. There, the advice she heard from SNA past presidents was practical and helpful, even for relatively simple things. “Even a leader needs to find people who don’t mind if you ask them a ‘silly’ question!” she says. A New Energy “Making a mid-career change has absolutely reenergized me!” she affirms. In fact, she has found enough energy to direct not just one school nutrition program— but two. Since August 2011, when she took over school nutrition for neighboring Lavonia Public Schools, she has run a combined operation whose 200 employees serve 35,000 students in 48 schools. And if that were not enough, she is SNAM president-elect. The notion of a career in foodservice came early to Hennessey, a native Michigander whose family worked in the grocery business. As a teen in the lakeside community of Traverse City, she worked in restaurants and resorts and then earned a degree in hospitality and tourism management from Grand Valley State University. Hired by Aramark in 1993, Hennessey climbed the corporate ladder for 16 years, managing individual K-12 programs in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan; serving as general manager for a national charter school account; and finally overseeing operations at 15 Michigan school districts. At each assignment, she learned valuable lessons, she credits. Today, however, Hennessey is exactly where she wants to be. Having transitioned from future leader to present leader, she is excited about “being in my job and profession for a long time—while helping develop new leaders who can carry on and take us to the next level.” Dream Dinner Guest: Jillian Michaels of “The Biggest Loser” Hobbies: Boating, camping, deer hunting, gardening, time with family Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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