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The Big Talent Search

The Big Talent Search

Carol Hackerott (center) interviewed with more than 40 foodservice managers, workers and students prior to being hired as assistant director of residential life at Oklahoma State University three months ago. "Every team members' voice should be heard when hiring managers. It shows your employees that you're committed to making the right hiring decision for everyone," she says.

Finding the right person for the right job has become, for many in noncommercial, an exercise in frustration. In today's competitive environment, every operator in the noncommercial industry (and commercial too for that matter) is looking for a manager or chef with the right sort of handson experience to give their organization a leg up on its competitors.

The frustration doesn't end there, though. With the labor pool continuing to shrink, it's also increasingly difficult to hang on to those high-quality managers in your organization. You may be vulnerable to the recruitment juggernaut of a nearby school district that covets your foodservice manager or to that contract management company whose ambitious expansion plans call for an ambitious hiring effort that stops just short of a raid on your company.

While it's not easy finding and retaining entry-level people, recruiting and retaining experienced, well-educated and informed management level talent is even more challenging. Make a bad choice and it will cost you; some experts estimate a poor hiring decision typically costs between $4,000-5000.

But fear not. There are some tricks of the trade that can make the task of recruiting and retaining talented managers easy and effective.

Where to begin your search
There are many tools you can use when you have a management slot to fill. National and local newspaper ads are one source, but their effectiveness depends on many variables.

To be most effective, newspaper ads should list specific job qualifications, expectations, responsibilities, work culture and environment and advantages to working in your operation. Play up positives, such as opportunities for growth, for influencing change, for creativity, but watch your choice of descriptors.

"Don't use the word, 'institutional' or anything similar," warns Peter Cayan, director of food and nutrition at the University of Rochester's (NY) Strong Memorial Hospital. "Potential candidates may stop reading right then." He suggests using words like "restaurant" instead of "cafeteria" and descriptive phrases like "we are a team-oriented operation where creativity is encouraged."

If newspaper ads don't work for you, consider running ads in the business press (i.e. Food Management) or national press (i.e. USA Today,Business Week or in-flight magazines). At least two national foodservice management companies have tested the waters in these areas. (Since instituting an extensive recruitment program 11 months ago,which included ad placement in national magazines and direct links on the Internet with ADA and ACF, Marriott Management Services has built up a direct access database of more than 45,000 resumes, according to Paul Rowson, project manager, human resources field services, at MMS.)

Other options: work through professional associations. Most offer job bulletin boards or posting services for its members (some on the Internet).

You can also network with national and local culinary schools and associations, and colleges and universities with hospitality programs. Executive recruiting firms that specialize in the hospitality industry are another option.

Or you can take the more direct approach, like Tom Cooley, director of nutritional services, St. Luke's Hospital, Bethlehem, PA, did.

When Cooley was looking to hire his current chief clinical dietitian, he sent 25 personal letters to members of the local dietetics association (of which he is a member) who were currently working in similar positions, outlining the position available at his hospital and inviting those interested to call him. At least four qualified people applied.

"To me, direct mail is the best approach. It's more targeted, so you don't waste time interviewing people who aren't qualified," he says.

Some operators say you shouldn't hesitate to hire away personnel from other institutions. Gene Reed, director of foodservices at Ohio University (Athens, OH), recently hired an associate director away from another nearby university. "Do I feel bad about hiring him away from a colleague? No, because I have to do what's best for my organization."

Should you recruit from the commercial segment?
Managers and chefs who come into your operation from the commercial segment often bring with them innovative marketing, merchandising, cost cutting and creative menu ideas honed from years of working in restaurants. But in some cases, their background may also make it difficult for them to adjust to a noncommercial setting.

"In the restaurant business, if a portion size is too big and therefore not cost effective, the manager or chef can make adjustments to better balance the cost," explains Donna Wittrock, director of food and nutrition services for Denver Public Schools. "Managers aren't able to easily make those kinds of adjustments in our facility because we must follow federal guidelines. The transition from commercial to noncommercial can be difficult as a result."

True, but some food-service directors specifically seek out managers with commercial experience. Strong Memorial Hospital's Cayan reports that when his staff hired the latest round of production managers, he specifically sought out and hired those with restaurant experience.

"Customer satisfaction is our number one goal. We want staff members who can bring in new ideas for attractively preparing and presenting sensibly seasoned food," he says.

But Cayan hasn't always been of this mindset. "Many foodservice directors close their eyes when it comes to recruiting from the commercial segment. I was guilty of that as well," he explains. "I thought the managers and workers we hired had to have only healthcare experience in order to understand the dietary restrictions we deal with. But I've found that culinary schools are doing a great job of including nutrition education in their curriculum so even if a chef or manager comes from the commercial segment, he or she has at least had some exposure to the requirements of our industry."

But even if you want to hire a manager or chef away from the commercial industry, how easy is it? You may have difficulty showing a chef in a commercial operation why he or she should come work for you unless he or she is looking for more of a nine-to-five-type job.

One of the biggest reasons is that commercial managers and chefs (or talented cooks) generally know very little about the day to day operations of the noncommercial market.

But if you can, through a newspaper ad, or through a one-on-one interview, show potential candidates from the commercial segment all the great advantages (regular work hours usually with no evenings or weekends, stable environment, room for growth, full medical benefits, etc.) to working in a noncommercial setting and convince them that the glamour often associated with the restaurant business doesn't necessarily pay the bills, more often than not you can convince them to join your organization.

"When you interview a commercial chef, you have to add the glamour back into the job description and responsibilities," says Bob Lewandoski, director of food and nutrition services at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, Englewood, NJ. "Point out the opportunities for him or her to be creative and to be in front of the public through cooking demos, areas that play up to their egos."

What to look for and to look out for
Operators say that they are looking for a career-oriented, team player, someone with supervisory skills; the ability to roll with the punches, either landed or pulled; a sense of compassion and humanity; the patience and ability to train and counsel; and the flexibility to direct and be directed.

Alice Elliot, president of Tarrytown (NY)-based Elliot Associates, Inc., an executive search firm that specializes in the hospitality industry explains, "Searching for the ideal job candidate isn't about technical skills; it's about who fits the culture and who will embrace the opera-tion's philosophy."

So beyond reading resumes, how can you determine if a potential candidate has what it takes to make it in your operation? One of the best ways is to ask in-depth "what if" questions to get a better idea of how the person has handled him or herself in prior situations that may be similar to those he or she would encounter on the job in your kitchen.

"I create a scenario for interviewees and ask each one how he or she would react," says Lewandoski.

"For example, it's the person's first day on the job, I'm in a meeting, the evening supervisor called in sick and he or she has to close up the kitchen. I would like the person to tell me that he or she would round up the food-service staff, explain the situation and ask for their help since they are familiar with the procedures. What I don't want is someone to say that he or she would quickly read the operations manual and try to figure it out. That person isn't a team player."

"The right candidate has to have a great personality," Wittrock adds. "Kids look up to their lunch room staff, so I'm looking for people who can set good examples and who like working with children, teachers and parents."

Watch out, though, for interviewees who sound too good to be true.

"I have personal experience of hiring people who talked a good game in the interview, but once they started working, they didn't have the necessary skills," says Daphne Gulick, director of foodservices at Masonic Homes, Elizabethtown, PA, She advises operators to "be prepared when you interview. Don't settle for less than you're looking for."

Who should do the interviewing
Smart operators don't rely strictly on their own opinions when it comes to hiring decisions. Most foodservice directors ask final management-level job candidates to interview with at least one other department manager in addition to themselves. Some operators take the interviewing process further.

Carol Hackerott, assistant director of residential life at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, OK, inter-viewed with more than 40 individuals when she was hired three months ago. "I think it's critical that every team members' voice be heard when it comes to hiring managers. It shows your employees that you're committed to making the right hiring decision for everyone," she says.

Besides interviewing with the director and the other assistant director of residential life, Hackerott was also interviewed by every dining unit manager, several production workers, even a group of student leaders on campus. "They mostly wanted to know my views on student services and what I would bring to the University," she recalls.

Besides others in your department, there are other influential people who might also be included in the hiring process.

When Steve Renz, vice president of operations for Creative Dining Services, Inc., a Holland, MI-based foodservice management company, needed to hire a chef for a client, he recommended a reputable local chef. The client, however, wanted to fly in a chef from the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to interview qualified candidates. The client eventually chose the chef Renz originally suggested.

"The client felt good about being directly involved in the selection process and the chef I felt was best suited for this position got the job, so it was a win-win situation for everyone," Renz affirms.

Keeping quality people on staff
When we asked operators for tips on how to keep good employees on board, they talked about building loyalty; of empowerment; of creating and emphasizing growth opportunities for individuals; and of making managers feel needed, like part of a team that wouldn't operate as well without them.

Opportunities for continuing training is also important. Renz brings his company's chefs to a culinary school in Grand Rapids, MI every year for a two-day training program where they can learn new skills and swap ideas.

Publicly recognizing a manager's contribution to the operation is another employee retention tool.

"I give my employees recognition in reports I send to our hospital's administrators," says Lewandoski. He shares copies of the reports with his employees. "In previous jobs, it always bothered me that the administrators didn't know who I was even though I contributed to the foodser-vice department's success. I don't want my employees to feel that way."

The bottom line: the best way to attract the caliber of staff you want in your operation and to keep them is to make your organization a good place to work.

7 Tips to better interviewing

A key element in recruiting and hiring the best qualified managers is effective inter-viewing techniques and procedures. Here's a checklist of some important tips that can help make you a better interviewer.

Write out a job profile based on the job description for which you are hiring, before interviewing potential candidates. This will allow you to translate duties and responsibilities in the personal characteristics the ideal candidate will have. It will also help you evaluate each candidate's potential once the interview is over.

If your organization's HR department has job descriptions for each position in your department on file, review them periodically to make sure that they are up to date and truly reflect each position's responsibilities and necessary qualifications for potential candidates.

Describe the job in reasonable detail at the start of the interview. Let the candidate know what his or her day-to-day responsibilities will be, what opportunities there are for growth, how the rest of the management team is structured and what is expected of them in the larger organizational structure.

Ask the right questions. Knowing the right questions to ask is a critical part of effective interviewing, so prepare a list of questions in advance and think about how you will ask each question. Remember, certain questions elicit certain responses. Avoid questions that require a yes/no answer, which discourage the candidate from elaborating.

Instead, ask open-ended, focused questions like, "Think back to a difficult situation you had with an employee under your supervision and tell me how you handled it." Identifying how a candidate handled past conflicts or situations will be a good indicator how he or she will handle that problem if faced with it again.

Tom Cooley, director of nutrition services at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, PA, asks hirees several behavior-based questions to help determine their work habits.

"I ask a candidate if he or she likes to work and if he or she likes to work on their own. This helps me determine whether or not a person is a self starter. I prefer a go-getter that requires steering, as opposed to someone who needs prompting."

Gene Reed, director of foodservice at Ohio University in Athens, OH, asks potential management candidates which day is their favorite, Monday or Friday. "I'm looking for a Monday person," Reed says. "People who like Fridays generally like them because they look forward to having two days off. Monday people typically look to the start of the week as a chance to work toward accomplishing their tasks."

Get specific. A good question to ask a job candidate is "What specific things did you do in your last job to improve your effectiveness or to improve productivity in your department?" His or her answer gives you a good sense of a candidate's motivation and willingness to surpass the basic job requirements. Candidates who go that extra mile in a former job will probably do the same in your operation.

Peter Cayan, director of food and nutrition at the University of Rochester's (NY) Strong Memorial Hospital, looks for candidates who describe past problems and solutions using teamwork-related words. "If he or she says 'We did this to correct the situation,' that tells me that this person has team player attributes and is a problem solver."

Take notes. Hiring decisions are too important for you to rely on your memory to remember everything about every candidate you interview, so take goods notes during each interview. Keep them abbreviated (so that you stay focused on the interviewee), but logical so you can figure them out later.

Penn State HR specialist Darrell Flood focuses on foodservice

Penn State's Assistant Foodservice Director Greg Minner (left) and Darrell Flood review resumes of potential management candidates.

When it comes to recruiting foodservice managers and culinary talent, Darrell Flood, human resources specialist, auxiliary services at Penn State's University Park campus, offers a unique perspective. Flood worked as an assistant manager in a dining unit on campus for two years after earning his undergraduate degree. That's where he developed his affection for the noncommercial industry.

"I love college foodservice," says Flood. "I enjoy the fast pace and the chance to interact with a changing customer base." Since joining the human resources department two years ago, Flood has worked closely with Assistant Housing and Foodservice Director Greg Minner on finding qualified managers and cooks for Penn's eight-campus system. Flood says his foodservice background gives him a leg-up on other recruiters.

"Because I've worked as a manager in a college setting, I can get a better sense of whether or not a prospective candidate would fit into a college foodservice setting," Flood explains. "I always tell the people I'm interviewing about my foodservice background to let them know that I've been there and that I can speak from experience and answer any questions they might have."

Minner says working with a recruiter who has foodservice experience is a big plus for his department. "Darrell knows what kinds of qualities and job experience we want in potential management candidates. He's able to weed out the best qualified candidates for us to consider."

As part of his recruiting responsibilities, (which also include overseeing an eight-week foodservice manager internship program through NACUFS), Flood travels to culinary schools throughout the year to interview graduates for positions in Penn State's system and to speak to classes about the opportunities in noncommercial.

"I find that many students graduating from culinary school are focused on working in five-star restaurants and becoming big name chefs," Flood says. But, like pro sports, only a small percentage of chefs ever achieve such status.

"So I try to get them excited about college foodservice. I tell them about the regular working hours, the terrific benefits of working on a college campus, and the opportunity they have in college foodservice to be a mentor to students," he says.

So what does Flood look for when hiring management personnel? "He or she has to be to a leader," Flood emphasizes. "Anyone can learn how to be a manager, you're either a leader or you're not.

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