I was 4 weeks into my new position as senior food safety & quality manager with The Kroger Co., Columbus Division, having lunch with my new boss. He wanted to know how I was transitioning from my former role in government. To be honest, I missed my colleagues and the team that I had supervised for many years. They were the most innovative, hardworking, and passionate team members that I was blessed to lead. They would move mountains to protect public health. They were full of integrity and loyalty to each other and me. I explained my feelings to Brad. Kroger was a huge company that ran like a well-oiled machine, but being responsible for food safety in over 350 stores seemed a daunting task for one person, me, to accomplish without a team. He smiled at my remarks and said, “Gina, I understand your concerns. Food safety is a BIG responsibility for one person. But a great leader is not determined by the number of direct reports that they supervise; a great leader is someone who can inspire and motivate an entire company to change. I believe you are that type of leader, not just for the Columbus Division but for the entire enterprise.” Then we strategized on how to inspire and motivate thousands of associates to create long-term, habit-forming food safety behavior change.

The Importance of Leadership in Food Safety   

When you’re hungry, you always expect to eat food that is safe and of high quality. Sometimes food processors don’t deliver quality foods, but under no circumstance should they deliver a food that is not safe. Because a lot can go wrong when growing or manufacturing food products, food safety has become an extremely complex discipline and requires years of knowledge and experience. Coming up with a food safety plan and culture for an organization doesn’t simply occur overnight.[1] The development of a food safety culture requires leadership. For a business to become an outstanding leader in food safety, it must have a culture dedicated to food safety, a leadership structure with a great foundation, and people who have the personalities associated with being an excellent leader.

The concept of food safety being understood and executed by a business must be instilled in the organization’s culture, a combination of values and beliefs shared by its people, both inside and outside the organization, that informs the decisions made at every level.[2] Having such a culture is critical to a company that makes food products because it provides a sense of shared purpose among all individuals and contributes positively to the business.[2] Without it, the company is at risk for unsafe food and costly consequences.

Developing culture involves many steps. First, a food safety culture must filter down from the company’s top leaders and executives to the plant floor. A second step is having management set a good example by demonstrating to other employees the correct way of doing something.[3] A third critical step is holding people accountable for adhering to food safety rules. In addition, employees must be proactive and prevent food safety incidents before they occur.[3] A fourth step is giving enough training in food safety to everyone working in the organization, whether or not they directly handle the food. These concepts are all part of Good Manufacturing Practices, and production employees should know and understand each and every one of them to grasp the “why” behind what they are doing.3 Reinforcing the food safety message draws an emotional link so that food manufacturers are more cognizant of a food’s safety and quality. Finally, it is important to focus on changing behavior of employees so they think proactively about food safety.

Only after employing these concepts can the food safety leadership structure begin to take shape. An excellent food safety leadership structure starts with every individual clearly understanding his or her role and responsibility.[4] This enables clear handoffs between other employees who work in different parts of the process. Implementing a food safety structure raises a lot of questions: How is the leadership structured? Which department is responsible for a particular step? Is there another department that the job can be delegated to in case of bottlenecks? Who will actually do the work?[4] The final question to ask is, Who is ultimately accountable or really responsible for making it happen?

A food safety leadership structure first needs food safety leaders. In fact, food safety leaders are needed now more than ever due to the constantly changing nature of food and food safety.5 Which personality traits make an awesome leader depends on whom you ask: Some people say that leaders are born with the personality of a leader rather than taught to have the leadership mindset, but most agree that seven important characteristics of a fabulous leader are “zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.”[5]
    – Megan Doran, B.Sc.  

1. globalfoodsafetyresource.com/food-safety-training/.
2. www.food-safety.com/enewsletter/culture-shift-managing-risk-synonymous-with-food-safety/.
3. www.learn2serve.com/blog/creating-food-safety-culture-tips/.
4. www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/februarymarch-2015/the-pieces-of-the-food-safety-puzzle/.
5. www.food-safety.com/magazine-archive1/aprilmay-2015/building-food-safety-leaders/.

Little did I know that I would later be pitching for budgeted money needed to fund a food safety culture program to the president and CEO of the entire Kroger company (I still had no direct reports but an incredible team of colleagues). The result was a budget 10 times more than what I asked for because leadership believed it was so important that it needed to be fully funded for success: buy-in from the top through investment in food safety. “Inspire and motivate an entire company to change.” I will never forget that lunch conversation. Brad was an amazing leader, and his words of wisdom had a profound impact on my life both personally and professionally.

According to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, “Leadership is defined as ‘a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organization in a way that makes it more coherent and cohesive.’ A good leader is one who is always three steps ahead of the others. He looks out for the people before himself.” I have found that this is the best definition of leadership as it is what I have experienced from my leaders and mentors over the years that has made a positive impression on my life.

The human ego is an interesting portion of self-belief that at times exhibits humility and other times explodes with pride. It is an internal struggle that every human battles. Ego becomes an interesting element when discussing leadership. Mistakenly, title, position, level of education, and salary are often used to define when someone has arrived at the ultimate leadership position. This is found in every profession and industry, even in food safety. I have to admit that I struggle with ego battles daily. The battle always ends in the triumph of servanthood in protecting public health because that is what a career in food safety is—servanthood.

There is no doubt in my mind that food safety has some of the best leaders. Numerous books and articles have been written on food safety management and developing a food safety culture by those many have called “food safety rock stars.” During my 20-plus years in food safety, I have had the opportunity to work with many great leaders, learning from them, asking about their journey, their successes, and their failures. How did they become a leader? What influenced them? How were they able to build a robust food safety program? What words of wisdom would they like to share with undergraduate and graduate students looking at a career in food safety? This article contains bits and pieces of conversations and words of wisdom from those who have influenced many people, especially me. Those who may not have written books or published lots of articles but have dedicated their careers to the “servanthood” of public health and have become successful veteran food safety leaders.

Becoming a Food Safety Leader
Most food safety leaders today did not begin their careers as leaders. They began as a local public health inspector, analytical lab technician, healthcare professional, research assistant, restaurant manager, culinary chef, administrative assistant, and so on. They all started with entry-level positions and worked their way to leadership. One thing that I found they all have in common is a passion for food safety and protecting the consumer’s health (see “The Importance of Leadership in Food Safety”).

As I spoke with Ann Marie McNamara, who has had a diverse career with government, laboratories, manufacturing, quick-service restaurants, grocery, and distribution, about becoming a food safety leader, she emphasized the importance of learning the science and developing the technical skills. It is essential that food safety leaders have a knowledge of the science of food safety. “They have learned to be proactive, good at risk assessment and developing strong preventive programs. They also need to understand HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points], preventive controls, recall programs, etc.” She went on to stress that these are not the only skills, but they do provide a solid foundation.

Courtney Halbrook with Top Golf shares that becoming a food safety leader is a constant state of learning. She says, “You have to know your stuff, science, technical, regulatory, etc. Don’t discount the experience you should get in the field in operations. Those that you lead and counsel will need to know that you have worked shoulder to shoulder with them. You understand and have worked in operations. This is what will allow for your success.” Have you worked in the store or at the processing facility side by side with frontline food employees?

“The best training I received when I started in the food safety/quality assurance (FSQA) department at Wendy’s was working in a store for 1 full month learning how to take customer orders, making french fries, cooking burgers on the grill, and opening and closing procedures. This allowed me to understand how to implement practical application of food safety at the store level because I understood their job,” explains Barb Hunt, former Wendy’s QA manager. Many food companies require that all corporate employees spend time working in the processing facility, distribution center, or at the store each year so they have firsthand knowledge of operations as they develop new products or programs that require changes to policies and procedures.

Learning Soft Skills
The most successful and influential food safety leaders do not rely on their technical and operational (hard) skills to inspire and motivate a company toward food safety change. They learn soft skills. According to zety.com, hard skills are teachable and measurable abilities such as writing, reading, math, or ability to use computer programs. By contrast, soft skills are the traits that make someone a good employee, such as etiquette, communication and listening, getting along with other people. Soft skills are personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. “Scientists are so involved in data that they have a tough time in speaking with emotional intelligence to other business partners,” states Ann Marie. She suggests food safety professionals read the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and take courses on emotional intelligence.

Communication is the key in developing soft skills. Learning how to make eye contact when speaking; getting to know your colleagues on a personal level; being aware of your body language and others’ body language; practicing both formal and conversational speaking; and developing writing skills that focus on translating technical information into simple, understandable language levels that nonscientists would understand.

Other soft skills to develop are building relationships within your organization. This allows you to build trust, integrity, and respect among your peers and leaders. “Learning how to adapt and be flexible is a key competency. Utilizing cross-functional teams and learning how their role impacts the business,” shares Sharon Wood with HEB. “Becoming a food safety leader is a journey and requires more than an academic résumé and knowledge. It requires that you learn how to speak to others’ listening.” Learning how others receive and interpret information is an important skill of an influential leader.

Acquiring Business Acumen
My very first day on the job with Kroger, I attended the Monday morning sales meeting. Each district reported sales of the past week, talking about same-store sales and then moving to discussions on division performance, earnings before interest, taxes and amortization, and profit and loss for the week. Presentations were forecasting revenue for the weeks ahead as merchandisers introduced sale items in their specific departments. This was all a foreign language to me, and I really had no idea what they were saying. I was expected to attend this meeting every week, so I knew I needed to learn this new language. I had to learn “Kroger Speak,” or business acumen, to understand the business. I was the only one in the room of 40-plus people who did not speak this language. To make an impact on food safety, I needed to learn how to communicate to my new colleagues in their language.

Food safety professionals are known for coaching, teaching, and training others about proper food safety terms and practices. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in teaching others that we forget to stop and learn the business language within our own company. To inspire, motivate, and lead a company to change in food safety, we need to learn how to communicate our messages effectively. Chirag Bhatt emphasizes the importance for food safety professionals to interact with as many people as possible in as many departments as possible because it takes everyone within a business to be responsible for food safety. Don’t be shy. You need to be your own advocate.

“It is important for food safety leaders to realize they are also a business partner to the company. Use business-speak. Learn company budgeting, marketing, mission, and strategy of business,” Ann Marie emphatically advises. “Learn how to appropriately speak to the C-suite. Boil technical information down into understandable talking points that nonscientists will understand. Don’t get lost in the details.”

Learning how to calculate the daily value of food safety in dollars and cents is a valuable tool. Know where food safety adds value to the company’s bottom line. Food safety leaders need to learn how to calculate the cost of food safety success and the total cost of food safety failures (recalls, customer complaints, foodborne illness outbreaks, etc.). Following proper food safety practices can show a savings in labor, utilities, supplies, and workplace safety; improve food quality and product shelf life, and extend equipment performance; and impact sales and revenue. All of these areas can be calculated to show daily value added to the business.

James Ball with Fresh Market states that, “Food safety conversations need to happen with executive leadership on a regular basis. Having a conversation in front of upper and middle management is very important.” You must understand how to have these conversations in their business language to be able to move the needle forward on food safety. Terry Levee with Giant Eagle provides simple talking points to his CEO because she starts every morning talk about safety (food safety and workplace safety).

I spoke on this topic several years ago at a conference; during the Q&A period, one of the attendees asked, “So I guess I need to drink the Kool-Aid in order to do my job?”, implying that if the food safety team learned the business acumen and began acting as a business partner that they were “giving in” to the business culture. But commitment to food safety matters at all levels of the company—especially the upper levels.

“For food safety leaders to motivate and enact change, it starts at the top and moves down. Promoting change from business partners means that food safety leaders must know their business partners’ role within the company and how they might support change,” shares Ann Marie.

A food safety leader cannot influence a positive culture of food safety without becoming a business partner. It is as simple as that.

Building a Food Safety Organizational Structure
I am often asked, “What is the best organizational structure for food safety?” My reply is always a question: “What is your business’s organizational structure and culture?” You see, there is no silver bullet. A company cannot structure itself into food safety compliance or culture. The structure needs to fit the business. I have seen food safety report to marketing, legal, risk management, fiscal, R&D, operations, and even the CEO. “In my experience,” says Ann Marie, “the structure that is right will depend on the culture of the organization.”

Organizational structures are fluid, not static, which means they are always changing to better serve the business. What worked 2 years ago may not work this year. Structures change according to business strategies and needs. Food safety leaders need to be adaptable and flexible when structuring team members for their program. The business may require that staff work remotely one year and then change to centralizing all essential personnel to corporate headquarters the next year.

I always recommend looking at other business units’ structure, titles, and job descriptions when building a food safety department from scratch or making robust changes. Find examples of successful structures and not so successful ones within your company. Network and ask how, when, and for what reasons a business unit is structured a particular way.

“Partnering with different business unit teams is important when needing to add essential personnel to food safety,” states Sharon Wood. Leaders must prove why they need additional resources and answer these questions: What is the standard of work? How do you measure the work of a full-time employee? Leaders will need to show the metrics and have solid estimates based on numbers. Partnering with planning, fiscal analysts, continuous improvement, and other business units is a must.

There may be times when outsourcing different job duties on your team makes for a stronger structure and budget. Robert Maldonado from Northgate Markets has found that building strategic partnerships with consultants, third-party auditors, technology providers, and chemical sanitation companies as an extension to his team gives him confidence in providing food safety support to all areas of the business.

Another valuable tool is to ask food safety colleagues to share their food safety structures (as long as it does not pose a conflict of interest or risk sharing confidential information). Trade organizations also provide valuable information in this area. Never be afraid to ask.

With Power Comes Responsibility
Most business colleagues are intimidated by science, especially food safety. This intimidation can cause fear of roadblocks to innovation and product development, which results in excluding food safety from participating on these teams at inception. “With new projects, products, and concepts, the FSQA person needs to be brought in early with the company. The objective of a food safety leader is not to say no but to say, ‘Let me go back and research alternatives that will help move the project forward,” advises Ann Marie.

I think every food safety professional has heard an idea or an innovative solution to a business problem and immediately began to think about all the problems. “Be open to new ideas! It is better to say “how” rather than “no” as long as public health is not compromised,” says Sharon. A quick “no” without justification can cause innovation to occur in a vacuum, without food safety being involved, which can be detrimental long term to protecting the brand, the consumer, and business success.

Food safety professionals are looked upon as subject-matter experts and advisers to business leaders in regulatory compliance, brand protection, accountability, key performance indicators, and public health. Ann Marie remarks that effective food safety leaders must develop courage: “Courage to stand up and do what is right.”

Words of Wisdom for Future Food Safety Leaders
As my recent conversations with experienced food safety leaders about this topic came to a close, I asked each one to give me in three to four sentences words of wisdom that they would like to share with future food safety leaders. Below are “nuggets” that new college graduates could take with them as they begin their careers in food safety.

“Gain experience in as many areas as possible: government, manufacturing, retail, service providers.” – Robert Maldonado

“Understand the basics that need to be in place. Add simple tools. Measure performance and react to metrics. Benchmark against other companies. Explore how to push forward within the boundaries of your company’s budget restraints.” – James Ball

“Food safety has to be built on a level of trust with other business units. Otherwise, it is only seen as the police and not a business partner.” – Courtney Halbrook

“Conduct gap analysis and benchmark with other companies. Strive to be best in class.” – Terry Levee

“As a food safety professional, you need to have all procedures documented, validated, verified, and monitored. It is all valuable. Food safety boils down to doing the right thing and not just relying on regulatory compliance.” – Chirag Bhatt

“What makes you the best today is not what will make you the best for your future. You will skin your knees and elbows first and that will make you the best you. Get a coach and mentor and never stop growing. Leadership is a journey, and it never has an ending.” – Sharon Wood

“The industry is your ‘oyster.’ Do your research on careers in food safety and quality. Don’t limit yourself to one area. Talk to people, get involved in organizations to find out all the different ways you can use your degree. Join and be active in organizations, committees, and innovation.” – Traci Slowinski

“Be proactive. Use skills and abilities to build a strong preventive program and use them to build a robust program.” – Ann Marie McNamara

As Brad said to me all those years ago: “Food safety is a BIG responsibility for one person. But a great leader is not determined by the number of direct reports that they supervise; a great leader is someone who can inspire and motivate an entire company to change. I believe you are that type of leader.” You never know to whom you might be presenting your idea to change food safety culture. It could be a facility manager or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You can inspire and motivate change. Those were my former leader’s words of wisdom that changed my perception of what and who could be a real leader.    

Gina R. (Nicholson) Kramer, RS/REHS, is the executive director of Savour Food Safety International and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Food Safety Magazine.