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Multi-Department Management: Littered with Landmines

Multi-Department management can offer significant career opportunities, but it also has some downsides any FSD should consider before embarking on this move.


You’ve heard plenty of reports on the benefits of multi-department management. Everyone is talking about the upside of the trend; we're here to tell you that there IS a downside. The fact is, from a manager’s personal point of view, a multi-department assignment isn't always golden. 
It’s not just the issue of being professionally capable—it’s also a matter of being psychologically and emotionally prepared for the inherent difficulties you will face in the transition period and beyond.
This list of 10 cautions is not meant to discourage you, simply to prepare you for your expanded management duties. 
1. At times, you may have “not a clue” as to what is going on. Be forewarned: Staff in the formerly independent departments you now have charge of may try to undermine your efforts. They may overwhelm you with technical jargon to try to intimidate you and/or reinforce their own suspicions that you have no idea what they do for a living. 
“I wasn’t sure how the tradesmen would accept the fact that a foodservice guy was in charge,” admits Brad Devlin, director of facilities and foodservices at Glastonbury (CT) school district. 
“One of the first things you do is humble yourself before the technicians and get them to explain their jobs to you. I learned about HVAC systems, about boilers. 
“I’m not turning the screws on that equipment myself, but I’m responsible for making sure other people turn the screws as needed. So I need a working knowledge of what's involved in their jobs.” 
2. You will make mistakes—out of ignorance or inexperience—and those mistakes can have bigger consequences. An overlooked provision in a year-long utilities contract, for example, could cost your organization more than any single contract you negotiate in foodservice.  
3. Initially, you will try to get your arms around everything in your new “empire.” If you don’t pace yourself carefully as you get up to speed, you will exhaust yourself. 
“The time to ask for more training is when you’re first offered the job,” says Vette. “That’s the time to negotiate. You will want a certain amount of additional training, you’ll want to go to some additional conferences. Be ready to say: ‘I’m new in this area. I can do it, but I want to improve my technical expertise. Here’s my plan for doing that.’”
4. You will have a learning curve. Colorado’s Cockwell says that she only recently became certified as a public purchasing buyer through the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing and it's been three years since she took over the purchasing function for her district. Jim Korner, executive director of university services at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), feels his five merged departments are running smoothly and that mutually supportive relationships have been created, but “It didn’t come without much listening, dialogue and compromise. I’m only now at that point and I've been in this job six years.” 
5. You will be on your own. Your boss will often be inaccessible (consolidation gives everyone more responsibilities) and the people who managed your new departments previously are probably gone, fired, out the door, and certainly in no mood or position to show you the ropes. 
Korner, who took over university foodservices at SPU six years ago, was brought in from outside for that newly created multi-department job. 
“The administration had a vision to merge these departments but I’m not sure they had passed this vision down to the people being merged,” he says.  “When I got here, there were a lot of people uncomfortable with why this was happening. It was easy for me to buy into what the administration wanted but I didn't have the inside view of how things had worked here before.”
6. You will have to fight morale-depleting rumors of more consolidation—and job losses—while you implement change. Your assumption of several departments indicates downsizing already is underway. Can you promise your employees there will not be more?  
“Frankly, the transition was difficult,” says Bayshore Community Hospital's Midgley, who added environmental and laundry services to his foodservice responsibility in 1995. 
“You need to first learn the new operation and then, second, make the necessary changes. I changed the entire structure of the department, implemented new systems and turned over much of the staff. I was changing the whole culture of the department.
“I personally didn’t feel I was meeting my administrators’ expectations the first few months. I hit bottom at the six-month point. I was sitting in the office by myself, and there was utter chaos. But from that chaos has come order.”
7. You are doing four jobs; but you will not be paid the salary of four jobs. 
Most multi-department managers report that while their responsibilities may have doubled and tripled, their paychecks did not. Usually, there’s a lag time of six months to a year before there is any salary increase at all. Even then, it’s often only slightly higher. Managers warn that while additional departmental assignments do enhance job security, they don’t put you on a fast track to bigger paychecks. 
8. You are good at managing foodservice employees; but those in other departments may not respond in the same way. Your people skills may need to be adjusted.  
“The biggest part of a successful transition is building trust with your new employees,” says Cockwell. “Especially in the beginning, you need them to tell you how things work. An employee who wants to can sabotage you. Once they trust you, they'll cover you, protect you, give you the information you need. 
“For me, the biggest challenge was learning to work with male employees. I had been in school foodservice for 13 years and had  generally supervised women. I was comfortable with them, I knew how to show them appreciation, I knew how to motivate them.
“Sometimes it’s a little thing. The warehouse employees had never worked with a woman before, or with a boss who was physically located in the warehouse, as I was.” 
“I found out that they thought I was watching them all the time I was in my office. So I turned my computer to face the inside corner and closed the blinds so they didn't see me sitting there looking out the window.”
9. As a product, food can be fun. But maintenance/snow plowing/laundering do not have the same entertainment potential. 
Many multi-department managers stay involved in some higher profile foodservice activities, such as catered events, in an effort to hold on to some of that fun element.     
For example, Devlin says he still tries to find time “to throw the pizza dough” when a principal is hosting a pizza party. 
10. There may be beyond-your-control limits to what you can save your employer as a self-operator. Strong supporters of self-op foodservice departments sometimes decide to contract out other support services once they take them over, because they realize the in-place salary or work structures are not delivering the most value to their employer. 
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