By Penny McLaren 2014-06-13 17:26:35
To some, they may be “Mystery Men.” To others, “Mad Men.” But to the “Modern Men” who have found their way to K-12 school nutrition, they are “Yes Men” about the rewards of this dynamic and fulfilling profession. They get noticed. The men working in school nutrition understand that. Whether as servers, cooks and managers or as supervisors, chefs and directors, they stand out in a profession that employs far more women than men. But these guys insist it doesn’t bother them. “I like that I am one of the few men in this industry,” says Jeremy West, SNS, CDM. West is nutrition services director for Weld County School District 6, Greeley and Evans, Colo. Men certainly have introduced a particular kind of diversity to their department operations and their school communities. And in this month’s celebration of diversity, School Nutrition decided to explore just what the school nutrition experience has been like for a handful of the men working in this profession. Those interviewed for this article are mostly younger, but they came into their jobs with a ready and strong passion for school nutrition. They often work with older women, who have years more experience in this business. In many cases, they are the sole male member of the supervisory team. In many communities, the labor force is a cultural diversity rainbow. How do these different factors cause them to adapt the way they lead? And what have they learned in return? Let’s hear what a few have to report. Paul Becker Renaissance Man Despite nine years’ experience as director of nutrition services for Fort Zumwalt School District, in O’Fallon, Mo., Paul Becker, RD, LD, doesn’t look like he has been around very long. “I had just turned 30 years old,” he recounts of when he started in the district, “but most of my staff thought I looked like I was just out of college.” Far from it. He came to Fort Zumwalt from another school district and had had other education-community experience before that. To address the dilemma posed by his youthful demeanor, Becker introduced himself to his new staff with a little interactive game, similar to television’s Jeopardy, to allow staff to learn details of his background. The strategy worked. “It was a neat way to get started and show that I was qualified for the job,” he recollects. And his team quickly learned just how highly invested he is in this profession, particularly through his active involvement in SNA. Today, he is the president of the Missouri School Nutrition Association and serves as program chair for SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) this summer in Boston. Becker currently is one of just three men in a department of 180 employees. But he has no discomfort in working mostly with women; as an undergraduate, his college classes had a female majority. From the start at Fort Zumwalt, he jumped in and did every job in the department, from helping to prep meals and serving on the line to working in the warehouse and taking a turn as a driver. “I think that helped in gaining respect,” he asserts. “I saw their challenges firsthand. I saw things you can’t see when you aren’t there.” Many such management approaches are not gender-specific. Becker studies a list of employee names before visiting a site. He’s collaborative and seeks input, while gaining trust. “I am not a dictator,” he says. “I think they like the fact that I ask their opinions.” But he does notice a difference in the way the women on his staff speak to him compared to the way they talk together. “They do treat me differently,” he notes. “I don’t hear their personal problems—and that’s great with me. I think that crosses the [supervisory] barrier with an employee [anyway]. So that has worked out very well. They don’t call just to ‘talk.’” Meanwhile, Becker works to address a problem often associated with women-dominated workplaces: gossip. “I stop it right away,” he reports. It took a little longer for him to deal with another thing, however: crying. “It used to bother me,” he concedes. ”But now I understand some people just are that way. I realize they have something they want to express. That is the biggest thing I have learned.” In addition, he’s recognized that women often are the chief family caretakers. “I have to be totally supportive,” he explains. “They have to be there for their kids, and I don’t pressure them about that.” Becker believes that if he were working with a team mostly comprised of men, his approach would have to be totally different. “Working with women is easier,” he asserts. “Women talk more about things, they check back with me on what we have talked about and they like feedback.” His female staff keeps him on his toes in other regards, such as his dress. “Women look at appearance more than men,” he notes. “I want to come across as respectable.” Overall, Becker admits that there might be some advantage to being a man in the minority of school nutrition. It makes you “visible,” he explains, “but it is never a ‘negative’ once you prove you know what you are doing. I wouldn’t do anything else, I love it that much.” Ken Crawford Mountain Man When Ken Crawford took over the child nutrition department for the Ogden (Utah) School District, nearly four years ago, it was a department of mostly women, with just four men among the 140-employee ranks. While it’s not unusual for foodservice directors to manage other areas of school district operations, Crawford comes to the job with a fairly unique job description, as director of athletics and support services. Overseeing these other male-dominated departments—which include physical education, construction, buildings and grounds, technology, transportation and maintenance—gives him plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast. A complete newbie to school nutrition, Crawford needed to get up to speed quickly. He went to state and national conferences, attended training for new directors at the National Food Service Management Institute and earned SNA Level 3 certification. Most of all, he learned from his staff. “Even though I was in charge of the department, I had the least amount of experience,” he explains. He took time to work in each kitchen to get to know the staff. “I never want them to think that I wouldn’t do the same work they do,” says Crawford. “It just came down to showing respect and showing I cared about them.” That earns trust, he says. When making each visit, he asked the kitchen site managers to use his expertise in whatever way they thought best, on any assignment. Nonetheless, Crawford recounts, that made some managers apprehensive. “Directors before me did not do that,” he explains. Some managers gave him a task to do alone, while others put him to work alongside other staffers. “I liked that better,” he reports, disappointed that some didn’t take the opportunity to allow him to interact with the whole team. Crawford says he came into school nutrition with a bit of experience in leading a group of women, courtesy of an earlier position as a coach of girls’ softball. “That was an eye-opening experience,” he admits. “I learned from it. It can be challenging. I have to speak more gently to women. Guys just say how it is. With women, I know I have to be aware of the tone of voice I use. That is good for me to know.” Crawford’s also learned to identify when a staff member is seeking a solution, or just wants someone to listen. “Women want to discuss the issues,” he explains. “I have learned to determine what they are looking for. Do they need a sounding board, or do they need my help in working something out? If they come to my office and shut [the] doors, I know they need to talk.” With a wife and three daughters at home, Crawford finds himself applying lessons learned on the job to the work of being a better husband and father. “It makes me a better person, particularly with my own family,” he explains. Meanwhile, to lead a team that includes staffers who don’t speak English, Crawford makes an effort to find ways to help them succeed. “My Spanish is poor,” he mourns, “but I try.” Working across several different departments, Crawford may devote only limited time in school nutrition, but he appreciates how much it’s contributed to his personal growth. Jeremy West Answer Man Jeremy West, SNS, CDM, has been nutrition services director for Weld County School District 6, in Greeley and Evans, Colo., since July 2009. He is the only male leading a team of seven central office staffers. Overseeing the 31 serving sites throughout the district, there are just four men who are kitchen managers. But this imbalance doesn’t trouble West. “I have always worked with a primarily female staff and never had a problem with it,” he says. “I have the same expectation of everyone. We are all here to do our jobs.” That said, West did have an “adjustment period” when he started. “Change can cause stumbling blocks,” he notes. “I tend to be direct. Some people can take that and some can’t.” He peppers that directness with humor, though. “I use a lot of humor; that is my style,” he says. “I make light of myself.” It’s a tactic that has worked well for him. While West makes it a priority to talk through issues at weekly meetings, asking staff, “What do you need from me?,” he recognizes that men must work a little to find better ways to communicate with women. “We have to be willing to make ourselves more vulnerable,” he explains. “I have to be willing to share from my life and show I am human. For guys, it is not as easy to drop our guard, or to seek forgiveness when needed. Saying ‘I need your help’ is easier for women. Guy to guy, we speak differently, just as girls speak differently to other girls. It is just different.” Among lessons learned—maybe the hard way—West finds he must be more careful and more detailed in his conversations with women, particularly when providing direction or assignments. “I have to say, ‘Here is what has to happen and why,’ not just ‘Go and do it.’” West admits that he sometimes uses his female assistant director as a sounding board to find out if what he intends will come across in a positive manner. “I ask her, ‘How will this sound?’ I want to make sure the message comes out right,” he explains. If he needs to discuss a particularly sensitive subject with a staff member, he will bring in one of the department’s supervisors to be a part of the conversation. “Knowing when to involve someone else is important,” he counsels. Because his own kids attend Weld schools, he “gets” the attention his team members pay to their family matters. “I am on the same path as them,” West notes. “Female co-workers have taught me work/life balance. I have learned to be more compassionate.” He doesn’t even mind talking about shopping and finding bargains, because in the West family, he is the one who enjoys shopping. “I like to find a bargain,” he laughs. “They talk about Ikea, and I am right in there with them.” Besides having a female majority, the school nutrition department is representative of the area’s ethnic diversity. The community has a large Hispanic population, and a Greeley-based center for East African refugees has proven a good source for finding employees. Here again, West knows the value of communicating in a culturally appropriate manner. “I don’t want to be offensive,” he explains, adding, “I have found that these staff members have a tremendous work ethic. They want to do their best and do all they can. It is not easy [for them] when they are not used to making the kind of food that we serve.” “It is hard for me, a 40-year-old white guy, to think of myself as a minority,” West admits. “It is a different role.” Still, he insists, “It doesn’t change the way I manage the job. I still want to do the best I can.” To explain what he does for a living to those outside the school community, West tells them, “‘I am the head lunch lady.’ They laugh. I like that I am one of the few men in this industry. I like to be unique. It helps me stand out. People remember me.” Chris Walters Marathon Man Chris Walters is very new to school nutrition. He began as a substitute at Alexandria City (Va.) Public Schools last fall, before being promoted quickly to a manager in training and acting manager at T.C. Williams High School/Minnie Howard Campus in February. He’s held other management-level jobs, but not in foodservice. In fact, the closest foodservice job he’s held “was running a movie theater concession stand,” he quips. So, he admits he is on a fast track to learning all about the profession—one introduced to him by his wife, School Nutrition Managing Editor Cecily Walters. He attributes this initial success to several personal characteristics: his trust for his staff, his ability to communicate, his work ethic and his high standards. “It is an interesting position to be in, having less experience in school foodservice than all of my staff,” he reports. “But what has helped me to learn fast is that I am not a stay-in-the-office kind of manager. I spend the least amount of time that I have to in the office. The majority of the time I am out cooking alongside the staff.” And yes, that staff is mostly women, with only three men in Alexandria’s 17-school meal program. A spirit of versatility also helps. An average day could see Walters doing everything from cooking, cashiering and dishwashing, to working the line and cleaning. “Whatever needs to be done, I do it,” he says. “My willingness to lead from the front can build bonds with the staff.” It’s a management style that’s proved successful for him in other jobs and is naturally applied in the school setting. “This is who I am,” he says. “There is a lot I don’t know, so I depend on [staff,]” Walters continues. “I also tell them they can talk to me about anything— and they certainly do!” Once, at an impromptu staff meeting, a staff member pointed out that he had not cleaned up an area where he had been working. “That was brave for someone to say,” he points out. “I appreciated her telling me this. After all, that could be dangerous for an employee to say with some managers.” Walters is learning that communications skills are essential in a school nutrition setting. For many staff, English is not their first language. Plus, the male/female communication gap is very real. In addition to navigating the sounding-board versus solution-giver dynamic, “As the only man, there are probably things I need to be aware of that women are not used to talking about,” he admits. And then there are the things that women talk about that men are not used to discussing. “Not that guys don’t have drama, but men internalize,” Walters asserts. “If things bother men, we keep it inside. Women are more willing to talk about things in the workplace. Men will do the least amount of talking.” Like many of his male peers, Walters is amazed by the gossip quotient. Regardless of his gender, Walters believes that his novice status is a plus, especially in this time of new regulation implementation. “Being new is helpful, because I don’t have things to unlearn,” he says. “I can focus on making sure we are incorporating new ways.” And, while his students may find “the lunch guy” to be something of an oddity in the cafeteria, Walters just laughs. “I am definitely different. I stand out. Men are very much in the minority, but it is not an advantage or disadvantage. It is different, not better or worse.” Scott Heckert Inside Man In Cecil County (Md.) School District, where Scott Heckert, SNS, is assistant food and nutrition director, 97% of the school nutrition team is female. Two men are managers, and the age range of the entire staff stretches from early twenties to late sixties; most are in their thirties or forties. According to Heckert, gaining the trust of those on his staff, women or men, is all about completing what needs to be done, delivering on promises, showing consistency and following through. “It is all about communication. I don’t look at it in terms of male/female. I don’t see anything different,” he asserts. “I just treat everyone with respect. And I care deeply about people who work for me.” Nonetheless, he concedes that his communications skills have improved by working in a female-dominated business—and his overall experience in Cecil County has helped to improve his supervisory skills. Heckert came into the job with an extensive background in foodservice, including a position as an executive chef, where he supervised many women. “My whole background has prepared me for school foodservice,” he notes. That didn’t mean it was a completely smooth transition, of course! “As a chef, I was working with premium foods and didn’t have so many restrictions,” Heckert explains. “I had millions of questions, trust me.” Being in the school nutrition segment “took my understanding of nutrition to a whole new level,” he says. “What we do is very important work, and it is very rewarding,” asserts Heckert. “I love going out to the schools, working on the line and helping serve—and talking to staff about what is going on with them. That’s how I learned the most. You learn so much more standing side-by-side.” What impresses him most about school nutrition is the willingness of everyone he meets in this business to share what they know and what works for them. “Everyone gives feedback,” Heckert explains. “There is camaraderie, as we are all in this together. I didn’t know that would be the case. It is not cutthroat at all. You don’t find that anywhere else.” In other foodservice segments, he says, everyone is always trying to outdo the other guy, and few are willing to share. Those uncharitable former colleagues who were chefs also chide Heckert for his career choice. “They ask, ‘What are you doing there? How can you express your creativity?’ I tell them, ‘It’s not what you think. It’s not the cuisine I once served, not the same atmosphere, but I am affecting many children’s lives, and I am proud of that,’” he boasts. Heckert doesn’t see any particular advantage—or disadvantage—to being a man working in school nutrition. His culinary background gives him good rapport with vendors, primarily, because he knows the “buzzwords,” he says. Other than that, Heckert asserts that he just has a slightly different perspective. “My district is a family, a great place to work,” he adds. “You get out of it what you put into it. I enjoy my job, I have fun and I work with good people. I am happy to be here.” Welcome the Stranger The men interviewed for this article, all effective, successful leaders, share many common traits and challenges. They will continue to learn on the job the best ways to communicate with a diverse group of employees. They will continue to jump in and do every job that they require of their own staffers. And they likely will continue to share an aversion for kitchen gossip. They may be untraditional in a profession long identified with women of a certain age and background, but they have shown they can be just as successful “as the next guy.” They certainly love the profession as much as “the next guy”! And that’s no gossip. BONUS WEB CONTENT For additional reflections on being a male minority in the school nutrition profession, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photography by jiunlimited.com, Comstock Images, Stockbyte and Hlib Shabashnyi.
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