When Scaling Your Leadership is a Matter of Life or Death

Posted 12.22.2020

What would you do if your customer base tripled almost overnight and their lives depended on you scaling up your leadership and your organization to meet the sudden surge in demand? That’s exactly the question that Los Angeles Regional Food Bank CEO Michael Flood and his team had to answer and act on this year. Their experience provides a case study that holds lessons for any organization in any sector.

In the early days of the first pandemic lockdown in March, the Food Bank had to scale its distribution network and processes from serving their historical levels of around 300,000 people a month to, in just a few weeks, serving 900,000 people a month. Another way of looking at is they went from providing one million meals a week to four million meals a week. Historically, the Food Bank’s clientele was made up of the working poor – families whose providers work in low wage jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the cost of housing in LA along with other basic expenses like health care, utilities, clothing and food. The food that those folks receive from the Food Bank enables them to pay for other necessities like health insurance. When the pandemic shut Los Angeles County down, the Food Bank and its distribution partners were overwhelmed with a whole new set of middle-class workers who had lost their jobs in hospitality, retail, tourism and entertainment. Many of these people had never been unemployed in their lives and didn’t even know how to apply for unemployment assistance at the beginning of the pandemic. Even if they had, the unemployment agencies were so overwhelmed with applications that people were waiting for weeks and months to get help from them. It was up to the Food Bank to keep them fed while they waited.

So, how did they do it? I had the opportunity this past week to talk with a couple of friends of mine who work for the Food Bank and ask them a ton of questions about that. Roger Castle is their chief development officer and Kim Belcher Morris is their director of major gifts. Together, they’ve been key components of the team that had to scale their leadership to meet the critical increase in demand for their services. They shared with me the big decisions and steps that the Food Bank leadership team took to make it all happen in a few short weeks. It’s an inspiring example of how an organization that’s done things a particular way for a long time – since 1973 in the case of the Food Bank – can pivot and scale to meet vital needs.

Here are some of the key leadership steps the Food Bank team took:

They changed their distribution model – Historically, the Food Bank has partnered with churches and other community organizations to set up local food pantries where clients can pick their food from shelves in the pantry. When demand tripled almost overnight, that old model wasn’t sustainable. The Food Bank quickly set up a drive-through distribution process that could provide two weeks’ worth of food to 3,000 families in about three hours. One of those drive-through distributions was staged in the parking lot of LA’s fabled Forum.

They changed their packaging model – The change in the distribution model necessitated a change in the packaging model. You have to prepare the food for distribution before you can distribute it. For the Food Bank team, that meant they needed to shift to prepping food kits of 35 pounds of shelf stable food that can feed a family of four for two weeks. From there, they partnered with the USDA to add additional kits to the mix that include fresh produce, dairy and a frozen protein box. That adds up to around 60 to 80 pounds of food that their clients can pick up for their families every two weeks.

They brought in help – The public health concerns generated by the pandemic led to a big drop in the volunteers that the Food Bank has always relied on to prep the food for distribution. So, when the demand went through the roof and everything had to change to meet it, they literally brought in the National Guard. Since the early days of the pandemic, Guardsmen and Guardswomen have been lending their logistical expertise and muscle to put all those food kits together for distribution.

They supported their partners in new ways – The local distribution centers like food pantries have been key partners of the Food Bank for years. When the pandemic hit, the Food Bank began working with and supporting their partners in new ways to cope with the increased demand. The drive-through distribution centers were one key way they did that. Delivering directly to pantries that could handle the volume was another. Since the pandemic started more than 100 new partner agencies have started working with the Food Bank.

They looked to the future – The leadership team at the Food Bank doesn’t expect the demand to drop back to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. With unemployment rates so high, they know that food insecurity will last well into 2021 or until unemployment levels get back to around four percent. With strategic leadership and support, they’re close to opening a new distribution center and warehouse that will have 35,000 square feet of frozen food storage capacity. That will enable them to be in a position where they never again have to turn down food that’s offered by their donor partners.

They grew as leaders – The average tenure of the Food Bank leadership team members is between 15 and 20 years. In a year that required them to change and scale their approach to leadership as never before, here are some of the most notable ways they grew as leaders in examples cited by Roger and Kim:

  • Delegate a lot – You can’t hold on to doing everything yourself because when you do you hold people back and the team doesn’t scale up.
  • Stay flexible – Don’t stand on historical roles. People need to flex and you need to encourage them to do so.
  • Make decisions quickly – and as you do, make them with care and compassion.
  • Nurture relationships – The long-term relationships the team has nurtured with its partners and donors “came home to roost” this year in the most positive of ways.
  • Practice self-care – Even with a ton of work to do, you have to get away from your desk and take some breaks. Especially in high stress times, the organization and your family and friends need you to stay healthy.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Roger and Kim what’s next and what they need to meet those opportunities and challenges. They immediately cited the challenge of feeding as many people as they are for the foreseeable future and the operational costs and food supply issues that come with that. For the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and food banks and other social service providers around the country, financial donations and volunteers are the lifeblood that help keep things moving.  If you want to learn more about the LA Food Bank, make a donation or volunteer, go to the most visited page on their web site – LAfoodbank.org/findfood and while you’re there, take a look at the rest of the site including LAfoodbank.org/stories. And, of course, the food bank in your local community has likely been doing heroic things this year as well. If you want to find them and learn how to support them, you can start by visiting feedingamerica.com.

And, as we come to the end of 2020 (hooray!), I send my thanks for reading my blog this year and sharing this journey with me along with heartfelt wishes for happiness, health and hope for you and the people you love and care for. See you back here in a whole new year – 2021!

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