Strategic Thinking: To Sell Your Ideas, Market to Your Administration

Knowing how to get your Administration on your side is a key management skill.

It is a difficult fact of life that there are healthcare administrators who do not understand the value foodservice brings to an organization. Those of this ilk are the kind who would just as soon wave a magic wand and make onsite foodservice and the issues it entails go away.

In a way, that’s understandable. Foodservice is a very technical profession. The facilities can be the most highly engineered space in a building and can be difficult to operate efficiently.

But how can an administrator not realize that he or she is—like it or not—in the foodservice business? For example, a 300-bed facility will typically produce and serve 700 times as much food as a fine restaurant. Further, those who go to restaurants do it at their discretion.

The foodservice provided by a hospital is compulsory—it is a necessary part of the core business. It should be seen as a core competency for the institution. As a department head, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you present your department and role to administrators in that light.

Start by marketing yourself. Start with your basic image. For example, consider the fact that a hospital director’s basic business is referred to as “food and nutrition” while many other segments have opted to move to terms like dining services or culinary services.

Foodservice is considered a more attractive industry today than ever before—the culinary arts are cool. Learn to embrace that aura and use it to enhance your image inside the organization.

Think of yourself as a marathon runner when suggesting projects to your administration. You may think you’ve got a great idea and want to get it done this year. Some projects can be accomplished that way, but if your idea involves capital dollars and substance, learn to think in terms of years. That is the simple reality in today’s healthcare economy. Make your proposal knowing that you may well have to rejustify and re-propose it several times. Be ready to go the distance if you want to make it happen.

You need knowledge—their knowledge. An administrator typically isn’t going to try to understand all the nuances of the foodservice industry. Most don’t have the background to understand it. Instead, make it your job to get inside of his or her head. Learn to repackage your knowledge to make it relevant to the kinds of concerns your administration has. Try to see your department through their eyes.

Be a politician. Administrators are sensitive to the political landscape. You have to be so as well. Learn to be a risk taker. Some of the decisions you may have to make and take to an administration can be career makers or breakers. Evaluate issues like these carefully before you get involved with them.

If you have taken ownership, make sure you know all of the details involved. You need the long term view of a strategic planner but also the ability to spin a presentation in the context of the political environment.

Remember that every idea or project has some likelihood of being realized even without your support. Your institution may have plans to build a new medical tower; you, meanwhile, have a 40-year-old kitchen and an administrator sees that you need a new one and it automatically happens. At other times, no matter what you do, you just can’t sell a simple idea.

Consider this notion when you are proposing a new project. Every project or idea you bring to an administration fits somewhere on this continuum, and you should know where it is likely to stand before making the proposal.

Are you dealing with someone with tunnel vision? A visionary with a talent for critical thinking? An administrator who is always looking for the next big idea? In each case, your idea should be proposed differently. Think about how to match your communication style to the style of the administrator when you are making your “war plans.”

What administrators look to determine first is the effect a project may have on his or her “world.” We all do this. An individual approaches you with a suggestion for your department. What is the first thing you think of? Its impact on your pre-conceived plans. If you’re not on board with a project presented to you, you’re not going to carry it on to the next level up. Administrators are the same way.

An administrator’s first thought is likely to be: “what is the immediate risk?” Another thought may be, “how will this support my other goals?”

If he or she is to move forward with your idea, what halo effect, what coattails can they ride? Top administrators in healthcare are constantly under pressure. Consider the reporting hierarchy within which your administrator works. What would be the reaction of those in his or her peer group to your proposal? Can your proposal become a chess piece in your administrator’s game plan? A bargaining chip? Can he or she go to another department and say, “If we do this, I’d want you to do that.”

You will hear a lot about competing capital dollars—“We don’t have the money. We can’t afford this project. Our money is committed to another project.” In most cases, if a project assumes the right level of importance, the money is there. Every facility has money if the project is seen as having a high enough value.

Remember that foodservice represents a small percentage of the dollars in a hospital environment. We don’t have the potential to make tons of money relative to the overall business of the facility.

An argument can be made that in some healthcare organizations the foodservice department can be one of the few actual profit centers that exist. But if you are going to make that case, put a dollar number on it; put a percentage on it. Package your point of view. Learn to talk the administrator’s language.

Get other departments to come on board with you. Make sure your marketing plan includes some thought to showing other departments how your ideas can benefit their departments as well.

Show your administrators the value of your team. Invite them to lunch. Set up a chef’s table in the kitchen so they can see what happens in the world you deal with every day. Have them meet your chefs and supervisors. Don’t use the opportunity to complain— they get plenty of that every day. Work on developing a sense of dialogue, giving them a chance to let staff know where they see the hospital going, how foodservice can be better, how your department can be a better part of the team.

Get invited to join the team. It is common to hear of institutions in which decisions are made that affect dining services, but where the department is not involved in the key discussions when decisions are made. Often this is a reflection of your failure to market yourself successfully.

Market the importance of your mission. Market yourself and your department in ways that make it obvious you should be involved. Know who the real decision makers are. Understand the decision-making process. Know who you can count on to be your champion. Is it the vice president of human resources? The vice president of facilities?

If it’s the vice president of facilities, do you keep him or her informed about how much you’re spending on maintenance and repairs for your 20-year old kitchen? Have you discussed your service contracts, and how they affect your cash flow?

Can human resources champion your cause? Make sure you show the value of foodservices to overall morale at the institution. Help them develop special events to support HR objectives.

Know which elements you can win and which to concede. It’s a fact of life—you can’t always get everything you want. Pick the things you can realistically go after. Always pick the “low-hanging fruit” first—it’s easier to grab. And know when to concede. Sometimes a concession today to make another team member look good will help you when you want something 12 months from now, when they can return the favor. Don’t be seen as part of their “problem.” Everyone already has enough problems. Become part of their solution.

Christopher Brady is president of Romano/ Gatland, a foodservice consulting firm based in New York.This column is adapted from a presentation he recently made to the National Society for Healthcare Food Service Management.