Mary Angela Miller has been a prominent member of the healthcare foodservice operator community for over 15 years, overseeing extensive clinical and retail operations at the Ohio State University Medical Center and, more recently, also assuming a variety of leadership roles for the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM). She is currently president-elect for 2007-2008 and last year served as HFM's conference committee chair.
Associations play a vital role in noncommercial foodservice and often provide members with significant opportunities to develop skills that prove highly valuable in career and personal development. FM recently interviewed Miller to explore the dynamics and benefits of these kinds of volunteer activities.
You've been very active in several associations—HFM, ADA, ODA (the Ohio Dietetic Association). Over and above the normal benefits of membership, what do you think are the most important things one gets from taking on volunteer responsibilities within an association?
Miller: "One of the biggest things I've always appreciated is the opportunity it gives you to get to know other members in greater depth. When you are actively engaged in an organization, as opposed to just attending a conference or function, you get to a much deeper understanding of the other members and their areas of expertise. They become part of your personal network in a very valuable way and this offers you instant access to that expertise when you need it.
"Of course, you have to make yourself available to others in that same capacity. But that gives you a continuing opportunity to expand your personal network. I know I still get calls about a program I was involved in several years ago, about tax liabilities you assume in situations where you have a retail operation that is not profitable, but receives some internal subsidy.
"You have the opportunity to exercise a different set of management skills than you may employ in your official job."
Miller: "Public speaking is one example. Speaking in front of your peers is difficult, but it provides very valuable experience and gives you confidence and poise when presenting to your own administrators. Over the years, serving as the ODA media representative was invaluable to me because of the communications and media training
it provided. It has been a significant
help to me in my career...
"Conference planning is another example of something many people would not do otherwise. It gives you very good experience in terms of putting together large events.
Taking on a conference chair position is a pretty big commitment. What advice would you give someone else who is approached about a job like that?
Miller: "In my case, the president approached me about taking it on and gave me time to consider the idea. I wasn't so much concerned about the workload, but about being the point person for all of the details. I wasn't sure I'd be the best person to manage all of them.
"But when I spoke to past conference chairs, I learned you could make as much out of the role as you wanted to. You have a committee, and you have to make sure you get people on the committee who complement the skill sets that you personally and that others on the committee bring. Also, our past president Sharon Cox had been a conference chair, and that makes quite a bit of difference.
"The major responsibility of the chair is to become the bellwether for the right content, to make sure the content as a whole will have value to the membership as a whole.
"You also have a role I think of as being a ‘cultural guardian,' someone who makes sure the traditions of your organization are reflected in the conference, that it provides continuity in the membership's experience.
What is something you learned from your recent experience?
Miller: "You often will find yourself as a project manager operating more in a facilitative role than in an authoritative role.
The resources you have are other members and you are working with people who are themselves managers. Good managers know how to be team players and how to accept delegated responsibility.
"It is also a different kind of budgeting experience. One recommendation our treasurer, Dick Gallagher, made last year was that the treasurer-elect be on the conference committee, with the responsibility to help keep us on budget with our plans and activities. It is good experience for that person and also helps the committee hew to the budget on an ongoing basis."
What about getting the support of your own administration and organization before taking on this kind of time commitment?
Miller: "It's important to make sure you get that support. You have to make sure you are able to justify your commitment by showing that it will also have a benefit for your employer.
At OSUMC, for example, our reputation as an academic medical center is important to us. If you are a leader in a national organization, it supports our image in the sense of showing that we hire people of high caliber, who take on challenges and accomplish great things . That can be a good recruiting tool..
"Another thing is to always emphasize that association participation is educational, exposing you to the latest trends in your field. I try to bring back knowledge to be shared with others on the team and make sure credit is given back to the association for making that possible. When a good idea is implemented, and the results are communicated upward, it's another time to credit the association as being the source of the idea."
Any final observations?
Miller: "I think that one of the greatest values of associations is that they are leadership incubators. They provide professionals with a chance to develop the ability to influence others in a positive way and to see the results of providing that direction. Especially for new managers, it improves your confidence level in yourself and in your ability to make decisions for the overall organization. And it lets you look back and say, "I accomplished that. That was my contribution. I am a better manager, and this is a better organization, for my having made that contribution."