By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2013-09-02 14:46:44
A retired director and her successor share the recipe for a smooth transition in leadership. Meet JoAnne Robinett How can I let go?” JoAnne Robinett, MSA, SNS, made a decision to face this question proactively and head-on. Before founding a thriving school nutrition consultancy, she had accomplished much: 20 years as a nutrition director for two small Ohio school districts, a master’s degree, a FAME Award. Nonetheless, she began laying plans for “letting go” a full 10 years before the day actually arrived. “I saw my career in three phases,” Robinett explains. “First was my time in the kitchen, before being a director. Next was my time as a director. Then, I looked at my third phase as the time when I could be an independent professional.” Putting herself into a career at all hadn’t been easy, though. Raised in a small Ohio town, Robinett left college after a year to marry and start a family. When her youngest child began kindergarten in 1982, she sought a job, but felt hindered by having few marketable skills to offer an employer. Work as a two-hour-a-day dishwasher in her local school kitchen proved the best option at the time. The Perfect Profession Robinett soon discovered that she “really loved the school setting.” When the family moved in 1984 to Xenia, Ohio, she turned again to the local school district, finding work as a part-time cook. “That’s when the idea of a career in school nutrition came to me,” she relates. Four years later, she was managing an elementary school cafeteria, had joined SNA and enrolled in a nearby college to pursue a degree in business administration. In those pre-Internet days, going to college as a nontraditional student meant commuting to morning classes on campus, returning to her Xenia school in time to serve lunch and then driving back again for more classes. Time seemed to fly by, she recounts. Before she knew it, her three children were teens, she divorced and her job was now 6.5 hours each day. Some days she wondered how to keep all the balls in the air. In 1990, Robinett had completed her coursework, earning her degree from Antioch University—and, upon her boss’ retirement, was promoted to director of the Xenia program. Her 10 years in the post culminated in a 2000 FAME Silver Special Achievement Award, plus her graduation from Central Michigan University with a master’s degree in administration. That year, she also moved to a new position as nutrition supervisor for Beavercreek City (Ohio) Schools. Robinett truly blossomed in her next 10 years in school nutrition. She served as president of the School Nutrition Association of Ohio, as well as on the SNA Executive Board as Midwest regional director and as a member of SNA’s Nutrition and Resolution and Bylaws Committees. She also become an SNA Spokesperson, and was named the Midwest Outstanding Director of the Year. Future-Focused But even as Robinett began her tenure at Beavercreek, she started laying the groundwork for what would come after. Being certified as a trainer in such national programs as ServSafe “enabled me to gain experience that I could use later, on an independent basis,” she reveals. In 2006, Robinett estimated the monthly income she would receive upon retirement and budgeted to live on that amount while she worked for the next four years, using the surplus to pay off the mortgage on her home. By the time she actually retired from Beavercreek, she was ready to launch her own business, America’s Meal, providing independent consulting, training and speaking for school districts and associations, as well as industry. After announcing her retirement timetable, Robinett spent her remaining days on the job guided by two principles. “First,” she says, “I couldn’t file away ‘to do’ items and ‘get around’ to them later.” Projects took on a new urgency. Second, she made time for her ultimate successor, Connie Little (below). “I gave her more responsibilities and consulted her on all decisions.” On her last official day at Beavercreek, “I had no trouble letting go,” Robinett recounts. “I was ready.” Since, the phone for America’s Meal has been ringing regularly. She has conducted training in more than a dozen states and kept active in SNA. “Right now,” she explains, “I’m actively marketing myself and building up as much business as I can. But in five years, my goal is to work more selectively. I don’t see myself ever walking away completely from the profession I love.” Meet Connie Little When her boss at Beavercreek City (Ohio) Schools announced she was retiring, Connie Little, SNS, knew that either she soon would be working for a new director or, as a candidate for the position in her own right, trying to fill the shoes of a valued mentor. At the completion of a national search, Little got the nod. Since 2010, she has served as supervisor of student nutrition, a role that caps a career of nearly 20 years at Beavercreek. Grateful for all she learned under predecessor JoAnne Robinett, MSA, SNS (above) and the solid program she inherited, Little nevertheless acknowledges that change inevitably brings challenge. “The transition was helped by the fact JoAnne’s retirement wasn’t a surprise,” relates Little, who at the time served as operations manager. “She let us know about two years in advance that she was starting to feel ready for other things.” Little credits Robinett with “giving me experiences so that, if I was chosen, I’d be prepared to direct the program.” Ready for the Reins Little’s preparation for leadership actually began many years earlier. A culinary interest was sparked during a military family childhood spent, in part, in Italy. Later came a 1981 degree in human nutrition from Ohio State University, followed by marriage and time at home to raise two children. Upon their enrollment in school, she took a job as a substitute foodservice worker for the local Beavercreek school district; soon afterward, she was hired full-time. When Robinett arrived to lead the program in 2000, Little, who already was an SNA member, active in her local chapter and the state affiliate, was managing the department’s satellite kitchen. Robinett soon created the position of operations manager knowing “Connie would be great for the job.” With Robinett’s encouragement, Little went on to be a 2001 regional winner of the Louise Sublette Award of Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition. In time, she set her sights on someday directing a district program of her own. Her chance to apply for her dream job—at Beavercreek— arose when Robinett announced her impending retirement. “JoAnne was fair,” Little states, “and encouraged me and others who might be interested in the job. Also, we knew the district would conduct a search. So, she couldn’t treat me as the presumed choice. But at the same time, she gave me opportunities to gain experiences that would strengthen my ability to lead the program if selected.” Ambitious and Accomplished After the district interviewed multiple candidates, Little was offered the job. Her first challenge was supervising managers who had been her coworkers. “I was determined to treat them with the respect they deserved,” she says, “to listen and communicate, encourage their opinions and ideas and involve them in making decisions.” Taking the reins from a long-serving and respected former director is inherently challenging, especially for putting your own stamp on the operation. Rather than take a go-slow approach, Little decided to “use my momentum to make changes.” One of her first acts was to survey her customers. When long serving lines were a frequently reported concern at the high school, she reconfigured the cafeteria. Other innovations at Beavercreek since 2010 include labor reallocations, new marketing outreach efforts, a guest chef program, mobile nutrition education kiosks and the hosting of dietetic interns from local colleges. In three years, Little’s program has produced three state winners of the Louise Sublette Award and one regional winner. Little herself served as president of the School Nutrition Association of Ohio and was appointed to a three-year term on SNA’s national Nutrition Committee. Though energized by her opportunity to lead, Little admits to thinking about the inevitable. “I love my job and, with the roots I have in our community, expect to keep at it for years to come,” she says. “But, yes, in the back of mind is the thought that our program was given to me in great standing. So, someday, I’d like to leave it in even better standing.”
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