By Susan Davis Gryder 2017-06-15 09:48:33
When it comes time to retire or move on to another career opportunity, will you leave your school meals operation in capable hands? How much thought have you given to succession planning? The U.S. workforce is aging. Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65, the traditional age for retirement. And for many public sector employees, including those working in school districts, retirement may come even earlier. Are you in this group? How about key staffers on your team? While no one should begrudge the decision by a school nutrition director, supervisor or manager to start enjoying the benefits found in retirement, it’s a life milestone that has far-reaching consequences for employee and employer alike. When a senior staffer leaves a long-held position, he or she takes their institutional knowledge with them. This operational “brain drain” can be aggravated if the successor to the position is from outside the district or someone internal who isn’t ready or suited to take over a leadership role. The consequential pain can be felt in many ways: mistakes, confusion, inefficiencies, flagging morale and more. All of these can have a literal cost: The Human Capital Institute estimates the cost of a poor leadership hire in a public sector position can cost the organization as much as $500,000 over the lifetime of that hire. When you consider the scope and complexity of the average school nutrition director’s job, it’s easy to see just how costly it can be to have the wrong leader in a key position. PLANNING FOR THE DAY YOU LEAVE Most school nutrition directors have a profound sense of mission and take great pride in the investments made to build a strong, successful operation. They certainly want that legacy to carry on into the future, providing continuity and care for both the student customers and the staff team who serve them. Even when the “best” candidate is hired as a replacement for a departing director, many experts warn that it will take six months for that individual to get up to speed. So, why aren’t more school nutrition leaders actively taking steps to help preserve their legacy after they’ve left the district? The American Society for Public Administration says that succession planning in the public sector is only a 21st century idea, just now being given some attention. This may be due to decades of rigid government hiring processes, which can be a deterrent to investing time in grooming a successor who may not be selected by the powers that be. Given so many other responsibilities to juggle right up until that retirement party, a director might be forgiven for having an attitude of “I don’t control the hiring process and I can’t name my successor. So, what’s the point?” The point is that if you want to ensure the operation doesn’t fall to pieces upon your departure, you must look beyond simply identifying your replacement. Succession planning involves: ENSURING KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER. As a veteran professional in your position, you have a tremendous amount of knowledge. Don’t let it be lost when you take your nameplate off the office door! Knowledge transfer includes training of all staff—not just the person you expect to succeed you—as well as documenting procedures and policies. BUILDING CAPACITY. For service-oriented operations, capacity is built by establishing a “deep bench” of competent employees who have the characteristics and skills needed to step into positions of higher responsibility. This kind of capacity doesn’t happen overnight; it’s the result of a well-thought-out plan for hiring, training and promoting employees who will be needed as managers and directors in the future. CREATING STRONG, TRANSFERABLE SYSTEMS. The best “gift” you can give to your successor and your district is the gift of a robust set of systems and procedures that aren’t dependent on individuals. Make sure such systems are aligned with the priorities of your district, your department and your vision. And document, document, document. Even if you are 20 years away from retirement, it’s a good idea to think about these factors today, seeking to ensure they are active aspects of your operations strategy. Looking at succession planning from this vantage point also sends a positive message to your team. It says: “We prioritize promoting from within. We value you, and we’re paying attention to your strengths and training needs.” GETTING STARTED Think of your succession plan as a natural extension of a long-term strategic plan. What areas are important to achieving the department’s mission? What are the critical steps to ensure your team goes beyond compliance with federal, state and local requirements and that you all operate a program noted for its innovation, positive bottom line and engaged staff who prioritize customer service? With those answers in mind, identify the competencies needed for supervisory positions. Do staff members have these skillsets? Do you expect vacancies in any of these positions soon? Do you have team members already positioned to grow into areas of increased responsibility? Do they need more training? Do you have documentation regarding the capabilities of different employees? Don’t be the only person asking these questions. Supervisors and managers on your team should be thinking through the same issues. A solid succession plan covers all managerial levels—after all, if you promote from within, then you will have lower-level positions to fill, too! You may not have control over who takes your position after you depart. But you can control your operation’s readiness for new leadership and ensure the continuation of all that you’ve worked to achieve. SN interviewed a few directors about this topic—some have already retired, while others remain happily employed, but are looking to the future. Let their reflections provide guidance for your own actions. SUCCESSION PLANNING IN A SMALL DISTRICT In 2015, Karen Johnson, SNS, an SNA past president, retired after 30 years in the Yuma (Ariz.) Elementary School District. This K-8 district of <10,000 kids and 90 school nutrition employees had a family feel for Johnson; after all, it was the same district she attended as a student! Before stepping down, she was determined to make sure that the human capital was in place to keep the spirit and success of the school meals operation going strong. For Johnson, this was an organic process. “About 15 years before I retired, a young lady, whose family I knew, called me from college and said, ‘I’m a hometown girl and I want to move back home. Do you have any [career] advice?’” she recalls. “At the time, I was thinking of adding a supervisor to our team, because the district was growing and I wanted to have the time to do more training. It was like it was meant to be!” After vetting credentials and skills, Johnson hired Lisa Thrower for that supervisor role. Without either woman realizing it at the time, a succession plan was in motion. Johnson mentored Thrower, guiding her into increased responsibilities. By the time Johnson was ready to retire, Thrower was completely capable of taking over as director. “She stepped in and the building of our succession program started without us really knowing it,” Johnson recalls, adding that she was mindful about working with Thrower in setting her own retirement schedule. “She was young and her life was evolving. I always said that I would wait until her kids were in school before I retired! Her life was busy, and I wasn’t ready either. You want to walk out that back door and give people their own wings, but with a good foundation.” Johnson stresses that her priority was to give Thrower the training and experience she needed to move up in any district, not necessarily in Yuma. In part, this was because she recognized that she had no control over whether Thrower would be hired as her successor. “I wasn’t involved in the search process,” Johnson recounts. “The district had several applicants, who were all great and qualified. Lisa had to stand on her own two feet at that point—and she must have done an awesome job!” Johnson acknowledges that succession planning can be more difficult in a small district, where directors may not have a second-in-command position who is suitable for a potential successor. But, she says, there are workarounds for this. “I have a friend who was retiring and didn’t have a [qualified internal candidate], but during her last two years of work, she was constantly networking and keeping her eyes open. She was a cheerleader for her job! She was able to identify outside candidates and encourage them to apply--ultimately, they hired a wonderful individual.” QUITE A CATCH! As the long-time director of School Nutrition Services for Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, Mary-Kate Harrison will eventually leave very big shoes to fill. Hers is the seventh-largest district in the nation, serving 250,000 meals every day. She has a lot to consider when it comes to positioning her program for success without her at its helm. “Succession planning is important for anyone who wants to leave a legacy,” asserts Harrison. “You have to prepare the next generation and get the right people in the right places. They will take things in different directions, of course, but that’s something you want to happen.” Harrison’s plan includes putting in place a new organizational structure that will better reflect the department’s current priorities and pave the way for the future, with a new emphasis on ancillary programs, such as summer meals, dinner programs and grant proposals. She hopes her plan, along with new central facilities that are now constructed, will be the cornerstones for a business model that will bring in more revenue that she can reinvest for continual program improvement. Another cornerstone is found in developing the team who will manage these efforts. “I think you need to start thinking five years out—and begin by looking at your staff,” says Harrison, who has pegged December 2019 for her own retirement. She observes that it’s critical to hire a diverse workforce, which includes diversity in age. Young professionals should get opportunities to try out management roles that will provide them with varying experiences needed to move up. She also is mindful that there comes a time when you need to let go of cherished tasks in order to let others gain experience. “You need to start letting more people do the things that you used to do,” Harrison advises. “I try to provide fair and honest critique, be responsive to questions and provide training — it’s like working as a coach.” Still, not everyone wants to move to the next level. “I’ve had to urge people to finish their college degree [to be eligible for higher-level positions],” Harrison reflects. “Some want to do it and some don’t.” This may complicate your succession planning—but you want to leave your operation with someone who will value it highly enough to do what it takes to be its leader. PUT ME IN, COACH! As with Yuma’s Karen Johnson and Lisa Thrower, a mentoring relationship can be a key aspect of succession planning. In school nutrition, it’s not uncommon for such a relationship to bloom beyond the workplace and last a lifetime. Jody Houston has been director of the Office of Food Services for Corpus Christi (Texas) Independent School District for 31 years. Her mentor was her predecessor: Association Past President Gertrude Applebaum (page 98). Houston took over the school meals operation just four years after she started in the district, when Applebaum was promoted to an assistant superintendent position. “I feel so fortunate to have walked into such a great system,” Houston recalls of her career trajectory. While Applebaum has been retired for several years, she remains engaged and interested in all aspects of the profession. “We’re still very close,” says Houston. “We visit often and talk at least once a week. Gertrude is still my mentor and I can pick up the phone and call her anytime. I hope I can be that sort of mentor!” Now it’s Houston’s turn to think about succession. “I think it’s really important to hire people who are enthusiastic about school foodservice and who are young enough to be able to pick up where I leave off. Even though I don’t have a date in mind for retirement, we always ought to consider succession planning.” Still, Houston is realistic. “The truth is, I can’t appoint them.” But she continues to provide internships, focus on training of younger staff members and generally spread the word about school nutrition careers. “It’s my duty to make sure that anyone who works here has the training needed to move up. Even if they don’t end up working in Corpus Christi, they will be excited about school foodservice!” she notes. “I want them to realize what a great career it is.” STEPPING OUT OF THE WAY Perhaps the biggest challenge to succession planning is the moment that the plan becomes a reality. It’s an emotional time for all, and one sometimes-painful aspect is the realization that, after putting so many good people and processes in place, it’s time to let go. It can help to keep the organization’s goals in mind. “People need a change in leadership from time to time,” reflects Harrison. “It’s difficult to talk about, but it’s part of the transition. Everyone wants a good transition so that they can leave their body of work in good hands. I think it would be devastating to me if that didn’t happen. That’s the hard part.” It is also important to be emotionally prepared to hear the news of big changes when you check in with your former colleagues. Try not to take changes personally, and resist the temptation to jump back in and tell people how to “fix” things—especially if you’re hearing more complaints than praise about your successor. If you’ve documented your processes and passed on your extensive knowledge, the bumpy period will soon pass. Finally, don’t lose sight of the fact that once you’ve begun your well-earned retirement, it’s likely that you won’t stay focused on your old district very long. You’ll be too busy playing with grandchildren, traveling the world or digging your toes into a sandy beach! SOME PITFALLS OF SUCCESSION PLANNING Eyeing retirement and contemplating a succession plan? Avoid these common mistakes: Starting too late. Don’t wait until you’ve submitted your papers to start thinking about how the operation will get along without you. Succession planning should be a part of your overall operational strategies now, whether retirement is in five years or 15. Focusing on an individual rather than the processes any successor needs to keep the foodservice operation running smoothly. Getting overly invested in the prospects of one individual could blow up, given the likelihood that you won’t be involved in the hiring process. Ignoring the importance of knowledge transfer and capture. Don’t overestimate the need to pass along what you know; even a first-rate candidate is not a mind reader. Leaving out mid-level positions when planning for succession. You don’t want to risk a leadership vacuum among supervisors and site managers. It’s also important to reinforce the fact that school nutrition offers a viable, professional career path. Ignoring the importance of mentoring and training lower-level employees over the years. Stay focused on always maintaining a deep bench of potential applicants, not only for the director position but for other management positions as well. THE NINE-BOX GRID Succession planning includes identifying and mentoring staff members who have leadership and management potential. But it’s important to keep this process fair and objective. One way to approach this is to standardize your method of evaluating and identifying potential leaders. Industry experts in talent development—including the Society for Human Resource Management—recommend a tool called the Nine-Box Grid to help keep this process fair and objective. The Nine-Box Grid maps both Performance (across the X-axis) and Potential (across the Y-axis). By using this tool, directors can identify employees who excel in both areas, while highlighting those with lots of potential but who may need new challenges or training to live up to their promise. For examples of this approach, just Google “Nine-Box Grid”! CREATING A PROFESSIONAL PIPELINE: ACADEMIA WEIGHS IN The academic world is also thinking about and watching out for the next generation of school nutrition directors, says Mary Frances Nettles, PhD, RD, the (newly retired) former director of the Division of Applied Research at the Institute of Child Nutrition. She points to a variety of sources for training and development resources, including SNA, state agencies and state associations, citing, in particular, initiatives like USDA’s Team Up for School Nutrition Success, as good examples of programs that can give future directors confidence in their ability to succeed. But “What I haven’t seen much of,” Nettles continues, “is work to address the issue of professional development at the local district level.” More specifically, Nettles fears disengagement in coaching and mentoring because a school nutrition director is not empowered to appoint her or his successor. Although she recognizes the importance of fair and equal opportunity for all who are interested in applying for school nutrition positions, “The people doing the hiring may not know or value the qualifications, knowledge and skills that are needed for a good school nutrition director,” she notes. “Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’ve worked all these years and developed a good program, and I would like to see a qualified person take my place.’” But for various reasons, this may not happen. The federal professional hiring standards, which are recognizable and communicable to district human resource officials, can help convey the breadth of qualifications needed for a director position. Nettles also hopes to see more general outreach to the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). “Many times, those are the people who are doing the hiring,” she points out. Ultimately, “I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter approach to developing a succession plan,” Nettles concedes. “But I encourage people to reach out to [students and instructors] in college dietetics, hospitality and culinary programs. It’s so important to expose these students as much as possible to school nutrition. Once they get the spark, it never goes away. We need to create opportunities to strike that match!” Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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