“In the last few years, we’ve received a number of applications from custodians for supervisory positions, but they haven’t met the position qualifications,” said Building Services Director Gene Woodard. “We know we have some potentially excellent candidates, and we wanted to find a way to give them those skills, to glean supervisory experience through training.”
In June 2015, Building Services graduated its first cohort of custodians through the first phase of the Stepping Stones training program.
“I actually applied and interviewed for a supervisor position, but through the experience of that interview it became clear to me that I had no supervisory experience,” said Custodian William (Bill) Garl, a Stepping Stones student. “I have tons of knowledge about Building Services, being a custodian and how campus works, but that practical experience did not translate to supervisory experience. All of the practical knowledge in the world couldn’t prepare me, but this class can.”
For others the class is more than just the opportunity to become a supervisor, but the chance to hone in on important life skills.
“Stepping Stones is a program for employees like us to learn new thing about how to be leaders, like supervisors or leads” said Custodian Julius Bello, a Stepping Stones student. “But it’s not just about the supervisor position—it’s about improving myself and becoming a better person, a leader and a better employee.”
For Woodard, this program is the result of idea development and partnership with other FS directors over the last two years.
“I was at a Big-10 conference maybe 12-15 years ago, and the University of Indiana talked about this comprehensive training program they have for frontline staff” said Woodard. “I wanted to bring that kind of visionary, empowering training here, but at the time we didn’t have the FS Training Center.”
When the FS Training Center opened its doors in 2013, Woodard’s dreams started to become a reality.
“This is what I had in mind all along,” Woodard said. “We want to fully engage our staff in lean, in training and development. I want to invest in our employees and provide opportunities for those who want upward mobility. It’s not for everybody, and many of our custodians are happy in their current positions.”
The Building Services leadership team began meeting with Training Manager Mary Jo Blahna and Training Specialist Mary Mahon of the FS Training Center to begin coordinating details.
“His entire staff, in concert with Mary Jo and Mary, have done a really great job of creating curriculum and outlining all of the classes,” said Facilities Employee Services Director Patricia Colaizzo. “I’m so glad that my team could be a part of helping make Gene’s dream a reality.”
Traditionally, frontline employees gain managerial experience by being assigned higher-level duties (HLD) or working in a lead position. Building Services doesn’t have many lead positions, and HLD only provides so much experience.
“Really, we are investing in our people,” said Woodard. “We are providing opportunities for those who want upward mobility.”
And the custodians in Stepping Stones agree—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity.
“Management gave us this chance because they believe in us,” said Custodian Francisca Flores, a Stepping Stones student. “I know a lot of people who have retired from their jobs without ever getting these kinds of opportunities. From free English classes during working hours to Stepping Stones—it’s not just ordering the tools and cleaning materials we need to do a good job, but giving us the opportunities to improve and grow as employees.”
“This kind of training is what we aspire to as an organization,” said Associate Vice President of Facilities Services Charles Kennedy. “It’s rewarding to see our department grow in this way.”
“When I got the letter saying that I was chosen, I thought, out of everybody, me? I consider myself lucky!” said Flores.
“I had never heard of this program from management before, but suddenly, a letter from Mr. Woodard. I thought, well, I want to try this!”
In late winter, early spring 2015, Building Services’ leadership team began considering Custodial Services employees to see who might make a good candidate for the first Stepping Stones training session.
“Deciding who to invite was an incredibly difficult decision. We wanted to include folks who had already assumed de-facto leadership roles on their teams, or by volunteering on committees—the people who go the extra mile to get involved in their workplace and are comfortable in providing feedback to leadership,” said Woodard. “We also wanted this class to represent our incredibly diverse workforce.”
In the end, 14 custodians were invited to join the program through a letter from Woodard and an informational session about Stepping Stones. Eleven of those invited agreed to join, although one later dropped-out and switched to part-time.
“Those 11 employees agreed to join the program almost on-the-spot,” Blahna said.
Building Services hopes to launch Stepping Stones training sessions every year, with an application process for future sessions.
“We still need to develop our criteria,” said Woodard. “I expect to see a lot of applications as our first cohort talks with their colleagues about the opportunities this program provides.”
“There are so many high-potential employees around Building Services, who, if given the right opportunities, could make a world of difference in how we serve the University,” said Blahna.
“If given the opportunity, I definitely think my coworkers should try it!” said Flores. “This is a huge opportunity. Some might think that management doesn’t care, but if you join a safety committee, or get involved on your lean team, there are so many ways you can be heard and have an impact. Workers doing the work know best how to make improvements—opportunities come when you get involved.”
The first piece of Stepping Stones began in the spring, and culminated in a small graduation ceremony in mid-June. The class covered communication and self-awareness, leadership styles, and differences in attitudes between frontline staff and supervisors.
“There are a lot of leadership activities, exercises and role play scenarios. I’ve been surprised by a lot of the self-awareness stuff—you learn a lot about yourself in these courses,” said Garl. “It’s not stuffy or tedious stuff, it’s hard work, but it’s fun. Mary Jo is really high-energy. She has a lot of fun doing what she does, and it really shows. I didn’t really know what to expect going into the course, but it exceeded any expectations I might’ve had. The curriculum was well-planned and in-depth.”
“Before I took the class I thought being a supervisor was easy—just divvy up jobs and assign them—but they have a lot more to do than just that,” said Custodian Emebet Safara, a Stepping Stones student. “They have responsibilities not only to custodians who report to them, but to the department. They need to stay organized, stick to a schedule, divide jobs and assign them, plan out sick leave and vacation, and handle complaints and disagreements.”
Many of the custodians were surprised about how much work goes in to being a supervisor.
“Through this class I was able to learn about things from management’s side of things. It’s easier to understand now why someone might get written up, why it’s a big deal to go over on break time, or stopping for a rest or snack,” said Flores. “Before Stepping Stones I only saw things from my perspective, but now I see it from all perspectives.”
Many echoed similar comments about supervisors just assigning duties.
“I thought being a supervisor was merely checking out keys and assigning open runs, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Garl. “There’s conflict resolution, confrontation, approving things, keeping track of compliance and roles, and so much more. Much more than I had ever imagined.”
For others, the leadership skills they’ve learned translate into life skills, not just management skills.
“This class has given me more information about how to respect people, how to actively listen and not interrupt,” said Safara.
“How I communicate something seems natural to me, but it might come across as an insult to someone else!” said Bello. “Everyone has different backgrounds and ways of communicating that are natural to them—this class helps me to have better communication with others.”
“In this class I’ve learned that I really communicate with my hands and facial expressions,” said Custodian Diana Webber, a Stepping Stones student. “So right now, well, this sounds weird, but I’m trying to do a better job of controlling my face. I need to work on changing my reactions because I want to be a calming presence and de-escalate situations, and not let my emotions get involved.”
The second phase of Stepping Stones includes computer training and practical applications, to help custodians become computer proficient and ready to manage using a computer, and to use tools they would use as supervisors. The final piece of Stepping Stones includes completing the Practical Leader six-course series from the FS Training Center.
“A lot of supervisory job duties require computer proficiency, so we’ve assessed each of our students and are providing customized training from Microsoft,” said Blahna. “It’s self-guided and pre-packaged, so each of our students can work at their own speed, and Mary Mahon and I are here to troubleshoot along the way.”
For Building Services, filling supervisory positions is a challenge. It’s a difficult and demanding job.
“After this program, I’m hoping we receive some really competitive applications,” said Woodard. “Our current supervisor to employee ratio is 1:25, and that’s really difficult for our supervisors. With a richer pool of candidates, which we’ll have with this training program in place, we could lower that ratio and better support all of our Custodial Services staff.”
For other departments within Facilities Services, the program has proved inspirational.
“I see this program expanding to other departments around Facilities Services. Campus Engineering & Operations as well as Facilities Maintenance & Construction have already talked about it. Transportation Services is also exploring a customized version of Stepping Stones for their staff,” said Blahna.
“I think Gene has inspired other Facilities Services directors about how a thought, an idea, can become a reality,” said Colaizzo. “This is where we’re going—providing more opportunities for internal hires and promotions, giving people the tools they need to succeed, to move up,” said Colaizzo. “We’re stronger when our employees have boundless opportunities to succeed and move up in the workplace.
But regardless of how the program evolves in the future, the first cohort of Stepping Stones students is just thankful for this opportunity.
“I just think Stepping Stones is really great. I want to give thanks to Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Woodard for having the foresight to put this training together, to put the pieces together to help promote from within,” said Garl. “The work they’ve done to create the training center, to create this program, it shows that we truly are a world-class organization, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”