Helen Wechsler: Leading By Example

Helen Wechsler focuses on staff engagement at Boston College.


HELEN WECHSLER has transformed the dining services department at BOSTON COLLEGE by:

  • ENCOURAGING the use of local and healthy products by creating a farmers' market, opening a locally focused location called The Loft @ Addie's and a vegetarian concept called Be'an Green
  • IMPROVING department communication by establishing an employee council and improving the monthly employee newsletter
  • DEVELOPING a Gold Standards of Service program and a Shoot for the Stars incentive program to motivate employees
  • SPEARHEADING an employee wellness initiative and implementing a new training program

One of the most impactful things Wechsler has done was form an employee council. Once a month Wechsler and her management team meets with the council, which is made up of 15 or 16 employees from each location.

“Every operation within my department is represented,” Wechsler says. “They can bring up anything from the that cart hasn’t been fixed to how are we communicating.”

To improve communications Wechsler says the department revitalized its employee newsletter.

“We produce the newsletter about six times per year,” Wechsler says. “Everyone contributes—I write the front page, my associate directors write articles and general managers in every operation write articles or interview an employee.”

During the last year Wechsler says she had a personal transformation around health and wellness that led her to want to do the same for her staff.

“I lost a lot of weight and got my health together,” Wechsler says. “I looked at statistics about medical costs and people being absent and I thought we needed to do something about the health of our employees. We started a voluntary program called Step Up to Wellness. We have 205 FTE and 160 joined. We went into the locations and we said this is all about walking so we’re going to have a competition. We gave them all pedometers and employees kept track of how much they walked and turned it in every week.”

Wechsler says out of the 160 who started, more than 100 finished the program. She says the program encouraged people to keep things simple—take a 10-minute walk during your 15-minute break. At the end of the semester the team had to decide where they wanted to take the program next. By asking employees, the team found that members wanted more information on healthy eating.

“Our executive dietitian and I went out into the units and did these 15-minute little sessions about nutrition in all the operations,” Wechsler says. “I can’t walk through a unit without someone talking to me about it.”

Gold standard: Wechsler says one big staffing challenge she encountered was trying to convey her vision for the department.

“My role is to give the vision of the department and talk about where we are going,” Wechsler says. “I kept hearing, ‘How do I fit in?’ As a leader of the department I was like, ‘how come no one gets it?’ So we developed the Gold Standards of Service, which spells out our vision and our values.”

There are 12 gold standards. The standards cover everything from how the employees talk to each other to how they serve their customers.

“We came up with a credo to define employees’ roles: ‘To demonstrate through every action or commitment concerning care for each and every individual. I do this daily with pride, purpose, respect, integrity, dedication and enthusiasm.’”

As a result of the Gold Standards of Service, the department came up with 411 meetings, which are quick meetings that happen throughout the day to update everyone on what’s going on.

“We struggled with how to communicate within operations when your workday spans 18 hours,” Wechsler says. “The manager holds the 411 right at the time clock. Before these meetings people wouldn’t know whom they were working with or who the manager on duty was.”

Another important initiative for the department was the Shoot for the Stars incentive program, which focuses on three key areas: absenteeism, food cost and sales.

“We started an incentive program called Shoot for the Stars where all the operations compete in those categories,” Wechsler says. “At the end of every semester, a unit wins and they are each awarded a $50 bill. They are competing not only with each other but also against themselves, so the better they do the harder it is to top it.”

Training: Wechsler admits another issue for her department was training. When she became director new employees would come in and be thrown right in because everyone was so busy.

The training program starts with hiring. Once an employee is hired he or she goes to a training unit where he or she works with a trainer for two weeks. During those two weeks the new employee doesn’t just do the job for which he or she was hired, but works an entire round in the operation so he or she gets the entire picture. Wechsler says the department trained hourly employees as trainers.

“Each day you are with a trainer so you learn best practices,” Wechsler says. “When those two weeks are over the employee goes to the unit he or she was hired in and is paired up with a peer who is the same level, and he or she trains for a week with the peer.”

Management training follows the same system although the managers train for six weeks and they go to every operation. Wechsler says this works well because she had managers who had been with the department for years and had never been to every location. The managers in training do everything from cashiering to cooking.

“Before they ask someone to do something like put milk in the milk machine, they know what it’s like,” Wechsler says. “They know what receiving is like and they know where a receiving record is kept. That’s something I’m really proud of.”

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