By Kelsey Casselbury 2017-11-02 03:02:44
It takes one to know one—and to help one. Current and past leaders weigh in with advice both for those who feel inspired to take that journey and those who can provide assistance along the path. A GOOD LEADER BUILDS A STRONG FOLLOWING. A great leader builds more leaders, knowing that the time will come when a new generation is necessary to sustain the organization or group. After all, no one can—and few truthfully want to—work forever! Identifying the employees or peers who have the drive and potential to become a leader isn’t something that happens casually—and, often, mentoring such individuals to help them develop the skills they need to succeed on their own can be a significant undertaking. As a current leader, whether it’s in your local or state chapter, the national association, in your school or your district, it’s essential that you recognize that you’re not simply spending your time developing these future leaders. You’re investing that time into building the future of your organization or team. Similarly, those with an interest and ambition to become leaders need to remain aware of and open to how they can benefit from the expertise, advice and mentoring of those who have already risen through the ranks. These connections are essential to growing the organization or team—and to the personal and professional growth of the individual. “A great association is built on the premise that it ‘takes a village,’” states SNA Past President Jean Ronnei, SNS, former chief operating officer of Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools. To learn more about how to build or become a successful leader, School Nutrition turned to individuals who have experience in this realm: current and former leaders of the Association and allied groups, including SNA past presidents and members of the national Leadership Development Committee. REFLECT WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE The first step in building great leadership is serving as a role model and setting an example of what it looks like. After all, few people will accept mentoring from someone that they don’t respect. “You must be able to inspire your staff,” relates Donna Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, school nutrition director, Burke County (Ga.) Public Schools, and current president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I love this quote from John Quincy Adams: ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are a leader.’” Skills such as self-assurance, initiative and integrity are a given—or, at least, they should be! But there are other defining characteristics to consider. Patience. “Awesome leaders are patient with their teammates, as they encourage them to achieve their highest potential,” urges Robert Lewis, PhD, SNS, director of nutrition services, El Monte City (Calif.) School District and a member of the SNA Leadership Development Committee. Awareness. An effective leader knows what’s going on, even if they’re not inserting themselves into the fray. “Be aware of what is happening around you and others,” affirms Ford. “That follows right into listening. I am always listening for cues—where do I fit into the conversation?” Vision. “It’s not just about what’s going on right now, but about keeping an eye on what’s coming down the pipeline. Leaders have a vision for what can be,” contends Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS, SNA’s immediate past president and director of food and nutrition services, Loudoun (Va.) County Public Schools. And in recognizing those opportunities, leaders can adapt, while simultaneously keeping the end goal in mind. Communication. Being able to share that vision is another vital leadership skill, Domokos-Bays continues. This gets others engaged in the work that is necessary to achieve the mission. Ford echoes that sentiment, relating that when she served as SNA’s 2012-13 president, she made it part of her job to keep the leadership of her Florida district informed, too. “I shared every magazine with them. I did two full-time jobs and didn’t drop any big things,” she recounts. Keeping her supervisor and other colleagues in the loop was a crucial part of maintaining support for her volunteer work. “I think the district was able to see that what I was doing with SNA was a really big deal.” Courage. Being a leader means finding the bravery to make difficult or unpopular decisions that are necessary for the good of the organization. It also means risking failure, including making and owning up to public mistakes, facing criticism and losing an election. Support. Leadership also requires the courage to let those on the team try things and learn for themselves, especially as they make tentative steps in their own leadership journeys. “Awesome leaders do not micromanage,” Lewis instructs. “They delegate and allow teammates to be creative and innovative. Awesome leaders bring out the awesomeness in their teammates.” “Support them if they are right, try to protect them in their wrongs—but only if their intentions were right,” advises Nancy Rice, MEd, RD, LD, SNS, state director, Georgia Department of Education, School Nutrition Division, and an SNA past president. “Always be there for them, even when they make a mistake. I tell my staff, ‘I’m like the umbrella you keep in your car—I’m there if you need me.’” Effective leaders also don’t take all the credit for success, but make a point to raise others up for their contributions. Genuine passion. School nutrition is a business that tugs at your heartstrings. But it’s not simple or easy. It takes commitment, and others need to see the dedication you have to the profession. “This quality can’t be taught,” notes Dora Rivas, MS, RDN, SNS, Army & Air Force Exchange Service school nutrition program specialist for the Department of Defense and a past president of SNA. “It comes from a personal perspective and/or experience that led them to this career.” Finally, before you can truly mentor and inspire someone else, you must have confidence in yourself as a leader. It doesn’t mean you never have moments of doubt, regret or fear. But you don’t allow these to impede your efforts or become excuses. “Leadership is about growing yourself, first,” counsels Martin. “Then, once you are successful it is about growing others.” But who is deserving of that investment in your time and mentorship? How do you recognize a future leader? IDENTIFYING THE NEXT GREAT LEADER “I am always looking for people to grow into our profession,” asserts Leah Schmidt, SNS, an SNA past president and nutrition services director, St. Joseph (Mo.) School District. “Always look for future leaders,” agrees Mary Betlach, child nutrition manager, Robbinsdale School District 281, New Hope, Minn., and an SNA Leadership Development Committee member. But trying to pinpoint who has the potential to become a leader is not as simple as it might seem. A high-performing employee or volunteer might be the one to take the reins, but be wary; a go-get-’em attitude doesn’t automatically mean the individual has the skill sets needed to actually take charge. You have to hone your people-reading skills. “I’ve learned some tough lessons over the years by making some poor hiring decisions, admits Ronnei. “I’ve hired based on resumes and recommendations only to find out that their core values weren’t in alignment with those of our program.” Keep in mind that the most vocal or extroverted individuals—even when they are passionate—aren’t always the ones best-suited to climb the leadership ladder. “Watch for folks, even the quiet ones, who are sometimes overlooked,” Rice recommends. Some high performers certainly are driven by a desire to advance. But others achieve because they feel a sense of satisfaction by simply getting things done. Rivas echoes this sentiment: “They’re not always the loudest ones. They’re the ones that get the job done and give credit to their team.” Lewis suggests that curiosity is the top indicator of potential leaders. “Up-and-coming leaders must possess a natural sense of curiosity about the organization and field that they are involved in,” he explains. “One cannot fake interest for an extended period of time. They ask questions that allow them personally, and the program, to be successful.” “Also look for what potential leaders do, not merely what they say. These individuals often are the ones that go the extra mile,” says Rivas. They are the volunteers with no expectations for something in return. “They’re service-oriented, do the research, are self-motivated and have big ideas.” Jean Ronnei advocates for taking the time to observe what an individual brings to the table in terms of integrity, work ethic and commitment to the program’s mission and values. Then, she adds, look at the person’s capacity to learn and grow. MENTORING A FUTURE LEADER Mentoring is a win-win-win situation: It’s good for the mentor, it’s good for the mentee and it’s good for the organization. Studies show that employees (or volunteers) with effective mentors are more likely to stay with the organization, are more committed to the program and report higher job satisfaction. “A mentor can make all the difference in a leadership journey, as can developing a group of supportive colleagues who can help you navigate leadership,” reveals Ronnei. “Almost 20 years ago, I was invited to join an informal group of Saint Paul (Minn.) Public School women leaders from all walks of the organization. We continue to meet several times a year to support and co-mentor one another. These self-proclaimed, ‘many strong and beautiful women,’ have made, and continue to make, such a difference in my life.” Once you’ve identified a candidate for potential mentorship, begin a conversation. Explain the potential you see in the individual, asking if she or he sees a leader in the mirror. Some people will jump at the opportunity, while others will need a bit of a nudge to objectively view their own capabilities. If you’ve made a connection, the first step is to give the mentee a taste of a wide variety of responsibilities—after all, if they’re going to be a leader, they’re going to jump into challenges with which they have no experience. Assure them that you have reasonable expectations and aren’t trying to set them up for failure. Be honest about your own humble beginnings. “I remember being a young director and clearly not knowing what I didn’t know,” Ronnei recounts. “I learned more from my ‘oops!’ moments than from my successes.” ADVICE FOR THE AMBITIOUS If you have leadership aspirations, you shouldn’t sit around waiting, hoping for your interest and potential to be noticed and nurtured. There are many steps you can take to build your skills and gain positive attention from those who can help you achieve your goals. Consider the following collective wisdom: » Nancy Rice offers a long list—“Learn all you can about association leadership. Ask questions, and keep a learning journal. Be grateful, and show it,” she advises. “Plus,” she adds, “send thank you notes!” » “Ask someone to help you,” proposes Ford—that includes asking your mentor and other people that you respect. “There is nothing that makes me more proud of my own journey than to be asked to help coach someone else. My payback for all the hours and hard work I’ve done is that I will have helped someone along the way.” » “Define your own leadership path,” encourages Kevin Ponce, SNS, school nutrition services director, Oklahoma City (Okla.) Public Schools. “It can be out of your comfort zone,” he warns, adding that it can be a learning process that requires sacrifice. “It’s a duty to help others become successful.” » “Find your passion in the organization and volunteer on a committee where you can use your knowledge and experience,” Rivas recommends. “The rest will follow.” CREATING A LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM SNA works to ensure the successful leadership of the national organization in the years ahead through its Future Leaders Program (see page 32) and the work of the Leadership Development Committee. Have you considered starting a formal leadership development program in your local or state chapter, or even in your district? It can have a modest start, with just one to two people involved. A formal leadership development— or management training—program accomplishes a few objectives: First, it shows your employees or members that it’s not only possible to be promoted from within or to rise above the cliques, it’s an intentional goal. You’re ready to make a genuine investment and committed to walking the walk. Second, it demonstrates—to the district administration or other stakeholder audience—that you’re serious about developing skills and focusing on a sustainable future for the organization. At the district level, this might lead to supervisory support when employees seek to participate in professional development activities or when needing time and flexibility to fulfill the responsibilities of a leadership role with the state or national association. And within associations or other groups, demonstrating support for leadership development can be a powerful membership recruitment and retention tool. Additionally, such leadership development programs can be cyclical and self-supporting. As you develop the skills of one or two potential leaders you then, as a final task of the program, ask them to mentor another. Encourage bi-directional exchanges. Age or tenure doesn’t have to direct the flow of support in a mentor relationship or leadership growth. For example, a young professional can help someone older who is bewildered by current technology. A seasoned veteran can offer insights about successfully navigating bureaucracy. Both can mentor the other in meaningful areas. PASSING THE GAVEL Building a leader takes time and dedication, but the payoff is well worth it when you are ready to step down and don’t want all your hard work and accomplishments to be undone by less-than-capable hands. The process starts very simply. “Get to know people,” suggests Schmidt. “Take every opportunity to meet fellow colleagues and just ask [if they’re interested in leadership opportunities]. School nutrition professionals want their colleagues to be successful—it’s part of what we do.” Similarly, if you want to be the successor who one day will take the reins, show that you are interested, but don’t presume that you are “ready.” Stay open to learning—especially from those who have been there. SNA LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES There’s always potential to become a leader within SNA—and the experience can lead to skill growth that transfers back to your day job. “The national Association provides some amazing professional growth training,” notes Sandra Ford, SNS, board chair of the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF), an SNA past president and chief operations officer, Manatee County (Fla.) School District. “I learned strategic planning from my SNA leadership experience. I learned about business plans from SNA. I learned how to and how not to run a meeting. I learned how to tell a story so others will listen.” If you want exciting opportunities to grow professionally, bring your perspective to national issues and network with other school professionals, consider stepping up to serve on a committee or task force or run for a Board position. To learn more about leadership opportunities, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/aboutsna/leadershipopp, or email Jean Geraghty, SNA chief of staff and staff liaison to the Leadership Development Committee, at email@example.com. DON’T “MYTH” THE OPPORTUNITIES There can be many misconceptions about what leadership requires. SNA leaders debunk some of the myths that can impede potential candidates from stepping forward or create unrealistic expectations for those who do. MYTH: The best leaders must be perfect. TRUTH: “No one is perfect! We all make mistakes. Good leadership is about admitting the mistakes, learning from them and moving forward.”—Nancy Rice, MEd, RD, LD, SNS MYTH: A quiet, shy person cannot be a leader. TRUTH: “Reserved and humble personalities are usually very good listeners and work well in collaborative teams. A person with a passion can overcome their shyness and fear of public speaking.”—Dora Rivas, MS, RDN, SNS MYTH: All leaders are ‘born’ leaders. TRUTH: “This is a falsehood. Whether you are born a bossy Lucy Van Pelt or a demure Sally Brown or a happy-go-lucky Snoopy, everyone has the potential to be a good leader. The best leaders in the world never stop learning.”—Robert Lewis, PhD, SNS MYTH: Leadership is always fun. TRUTH: “Being a leader can be very lonely—it requires you to be ‘on’ all the time that you are out in view of others. You sometimes must make hard decisions that are not popular. You cannot be worried about what someone else thinks; but instead, you need to focus on making the best knowledge-based decision you can make. There can’t be any ego in leadership roles.”—Sandra Ford, SNS MYTH: Leaders possess all leadership qualities. TRUTH: “While it is important to build skills and grow, it is equally important to play to your strength and surround yourself with folks that have strengths that you don’t have.”—Jean Ronnei, SNS MYTH: Everyone wants to be a leader. TRUTH: “Some are satisfied not being a leader. They are happy to be led.”—Mary Betlach Kelsey Casselbury is a freelance writer based in Odenton, Md., and an SN contributing editor.
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