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Get to know Katie Wilson, the new executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance

Katie Wilson of Urban School Food Alliance
Photograph courtesy of Urban School Food Alliance

The Urban School Food Alliance named Dr. Katie Wilson as its first Executive Director in April. FoodService Director sat down with Dr. Wilson to discuss her new role, the experience she brings to the Alliance and what it takes to be a good leader. 

Q: Can you tell me more about your new role at The Urban School Food Alliance? What are your responsibilities?

It's really to be their voice. For instance, with Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization happening soon [The Alliance] has been working on a position statement so now I'll take that position statement and work with it a little bit, and make sure it gets to the right people. We will also work on governance and we'll work on funding and looking for new funders. I think once you get a strong governance as well, then funders are even more apt to come and be with you because they understand where you're going and what direction you're going in.

I’ll also be looking at projects and sort of prioritizing them. You know, [the alliance] is busy. The directors have held this together while they're doing their full-time jobs. That's really pretty incredible when you see how far they've come. So, I'm really looking at priorities and keeping my eye on the big picture. What’s going on nationally? What should we get ourselves involved in? 

So, it's just that whole sort of governance and coordination management of the organization and then being that voice when they can’t be there.

Q: You have an extensive history with childhood nutrition, working as Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the USDA, as the executive director for the Institute of Childhood Nutrition and as a foodservice director. What have you learned from your previous roles that you'll take with you to this position?

I’ve learned that you need a variety of styles of leadership depending on the situation. You can't just have one way. When I was the executive director for the Institute of Childhood Nutrition, it was pretty rough shape when I got there and needed a complete turnaround. That took a lot of different leadership styles to get that up and running the way it was supposed to be running. I think that's the big one: that you have to use a variety of styles of leadership depending upon the situation.

Q: Can you share what those different types of leadership styles are?

One would be autocratic. You have to make some decisions. When you are in a leadership position, there are times when you have to make that tough decision and nobody likes it, but you’ve got to stand by it. And when things get tough and you have to step out in front of staff, don't throw people under the bus. You have to take the brunt of what happened. The buck stops with you. If a decision was made at a lower level and something went terribly wrong. It's still your responsibility to say, ‘you know what, I'll look into this, I'll work on this.’ It's my responsibility.

There's also the other style that's a little bit more democratic and a little more free rein. You give people the skills that they need to do their jobs well, and then you let them do it. It might not be exactly how you would have done it, but your outcomes are still going to be there. Don’t micromanage people or they're never going to survive and you're never going to survive. There’s too much to do when you're at this level of leadership.

The other leadership style is to be a coach. I think good leaders are coaches. They help build people's skill levels and help people learn more. People are going to be more willing to work with you if they know there’s places for them to mature and grow their skills.

Q: What is some of the best career advice you've been given throughout your career?

The best thing I've ever learned in leadership was from a 62-year old employee who had a sixth-grade education. She was incredible. It was during a job I had in a small rural school district in Wisconsin. I came in young and was ready to change the world. I thought I knew everything there was to know and I came blowing into that district with very little leadership experience. One day that employee came into the office and sat down and said to me, ‘We know you know a lot about foodservice but when you come in, especially in a moment of crisis to help us, can you stop for just a minute and say hello first?’ It was an incredible, powerful message to me and she was right. Not that I was angry or anything, but especially in foodservice, you're on a time clock all the time and so I'm ready to instantly start giving directions. And instead, all they wanted was for me to say ‘Hi guys! Okay, let's get going. Let's get this done.’ They wanted me to give them that message that everything’s okay. 

The other thing was a superintendent that told me don't fight a lot of outside battles. Put all your energy into your program and it'll sell itself and he's been right every single time.

Q: What do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing school nutrition directors today?

Most definitely: image. You know, we all do some great work and I think that school nutrition programs have been great for a long time, but I think we still fight this image non-stop about school food. School food is easy to beat up and easy to make fun of, and yet there have been some fantastic programs going on for a very long time and they continue. People are really evolving into high quality, good food in districts all over this country. So, I do think that image is a huge issue. And then of course, we're doing it with not enough money.

Q: Do you have any tips that could help operators improve their image?

I tell people this all the time: You want to constantly be telling people all the good things that you're doing. Don't wait to react; be proactive. You need to be present in your community. When I was a foodservice director for example, I had something going on in the cafeteria when it was parent-teacher conference night, on registration day, during health fairs, etc. I was always present in my community. They knew who I was, and they knew what I did.

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