How diversity in leadership sets the stage for success in campus auxiliaries

“Rock on!” It’s a common phrase you’ll hear in the halls of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Business Services, located at the corner of Broad and Harrison in downtown Richmond, Virginia. The speaker, assistant vice president Diane Reynolds, is one to celebrate team successes – and in recent years, there hasn’t been a shortage of them in the modest, 17-employee department.

“Rock on!” It’s a common phrase you’ll hear in the halls of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Business Services, located at the corner of Broad and Harrison in downtown Richmond, Virginia. The speaker, assistant vice president Diane Reynolds, is one to celebrate team successes – and in recent years, there hasn’t been a shortage of them in the modest, 17-employee department.

In April 2014, VCU Business Services opened its first self-operated, on-campus technology store, which has since gone on to win two national awards for innovation and exceed expectations in revenue. In the last decade, the VCU campus dining programs and facilities have been awarded eight national and regional honors, including the 2009 NACAS Golden Award and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s 2013 Virginia Green Travel Star Award.

These awards decorate the walls of the U-shaped Business Services office, each sporting matching black frames with gold-rimmed matting. “We have a lot to be proud of,” says Reynolds, who has not only been a leadership figure at VCU since 1987, but is also a graduate of the university’s undergraduate and Executive MBA programs. “When you look at the skill set of every member of my team, we’re all so different. I love that… it’s a huge benefit to have the diversity we have here at VCU.”

The departmental diversity Reynolds touts doesn’t just apply to the staff’s various skill sets. The 17-person team encompasses multiple generations, differing hometowns, and educational backgrounds, but still manages to bridge the gaps to best function as one unit. While the Boomers and Gen X-ers may have experience on their side, the Millennials may know how to better reach and speak to the students on campus. “Everyone [in Business Services] knows they can speak freely and that their voice will be heard,” says Reynolds. “We learn from each other as a result.”

Contributing to this diversity is director of campus services Stephen Barr, who just recently joined the team in January of 2015. Barr hails from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he oversaw five auxiliary units as director of retail development and technology at Louisiana State University. At VCU, Barr’s technology-driven expertise melds with Reynolds’ traditional retail background and years of experience at the institution, the result being a unique, highly effective leadership dynamic. While their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, the two have formed a partnership that maximizes each other’s strengths in order to meet one common goal: create the best possible campus environment for the VCU community.

Leadership: A History

Diane Reynolds came to VCU in 1987 after working as a senior buyer at then-catalog retailer Best Products.

“I traveled all over the world and worked with manufacturers in Hong Kong and Taiwan on new product development,” says Reynolds. “Being a part of a young, rapidly growing company was a tremendous experience.”

Her work as a buyer later led Reynolds first to VCU Procurement Services to oversee contracts and compliance, and then to the director position in Business Services. “I’ve learned something from every single job that I have held, and those experiences created the knowledge that I use today.”

That knowledge has helped Diane Reynolds completely transform the face of auxiliaries at VCU during her nearly 30 years at the university. Upon first coming on board, two outdated cafeterias serviced VCU, one on the Monroe Park Campus and one on the Medical Campus. Today, thanks to Reynolds, the dining program consists of two beautiful, modern, award-winning dining centers, as well as 23 additional dining locations, including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, and a full-service Chili’s.

“I would say first and foremost, I’m a servant leader,” says Reynolds of her leadership style. “Making sure we have the tools to meet nutrition needs, textbook needs – whatever it takes to ensure the students, faculty, and staff have a good experience at VCU, we work as hard as we can to provide that.”

Reynolds’ servant leadership style shines through in her work outside of VCU, too. An active NACAS member, Reynolds is a NACAS East past president and the current president-elect of the Board of Directors. She has an open door policy in the office, which her staff isn’t afraid to take her up on. “Diane has always wanted what’s best for students and her staff, and we’ve grown so much because of her,” says Yvonne Jones, a dining operations specialist who has worked in Business Services for 20+ years. “On a personal level, I don’t even have a high school diploma, but Diane makes me feel like I have a Ph.D.”

These qualities are also held in high regard by Stephen Barr, who not only is new to VCU, but is relatively new to auxiliaries as compared to Reynolds. Starting his university career in 2005 as a theatre instructor at LSU, Barr says he backed into auxiliaries after the university’s ID Office announced it was looking for a non-traditional person to approach the operations differently.

“In the theatre world, everything is immediate and live,” says Barr. “You’re always playing to an audience, and everything is customer-focused. I think the same can be said for auxiliaries.”

After starting out in the ID Office, Barr saw a succession of promotions and role changes, ultimately overseeing five auxiliary units. Coming to VCU in early 2015, Barr says he hopes to build upon what he started at LSU, customizing what he’s learned for what will work at VCU.

“The growth happening at VCU is incredible, and that’s what attracted me to the university,” says Barr. “That, along with the tight-knit team in Business Services, was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Learning through diversity

In their Harvard Business Review article titled “The Best Learners Are Constant Leaders,” Kenneth Mikkelssen and Harold Jarche state that leaders “must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode.” This is exactly what’s refreshing about Diane Reynolds and Stephen Barr’s leadership perspective and the diversity they encourage at VCU; never do they stop learning, be it from one another, their peers, or their campus community.

“Having Stephen on our team has been a benefit for both of us,” says Reynolds. “It’s nice to have someone come in from a different school or different region and share a new perspective. While I may have more professional experience in auxiliaries, Stephen brings a background in technology. We’re learning from one another.”

Such is the case with one of the first programs Barr implemented upon joining VCU: optional iris camera entry into Shafer Court Dining Center. Instead of swiping their ID card with a cashier, students now have a photo taken of their iris, the image is matched with the ID number on file, and they are admitted entrance; all within three seconds or less. This was a technology Barr knew would benefit student life on campus, and Reynolds was there to help guide him through the stakeholder approval process.

“Without diversity and movement, you get stuck doing the same thing over and over,” says Barr. “I think my and Diane’s differences complement our unit as a whole. Someone is always there to ask, ‘How does this look from my viewpoint? From what I see, how do we make this better?’”

Playing an active role in professional organizations such as NACAS is another way Reynolds and Barr continue the cycle of both learning from others and contributing to the conversation. This past October, VCU Business Services hosted “We Serve Rams! A Glimpse into VCU’s Award-winning Services,” the largest attended NACAS East On the Road event to date. “NACAS has taught me so much and been so helpful to me in my career, I want to make sure I continue to give back,” says Reynolds.

Looking ahead

Today, VCU Business Services oversees approximately $46 million in annual sales across a broad range of contractors and in-house operations. When asked what the future looks like as leaders in auxiliaries, both Diane Reynolds and Stephen Barr stress the importance of service excellence, communication, and remaining proactive.

“Today’s technology allows us to move towards more hybrid systems that are comprised of both in-store and online,” says Barr. “We also have even more opportunities to hear from our audiences, meaning we can get instant feedback. We can know where we are day-to-day if we want to get that granular.”

“In order to be able to continue service excellence for our customers, we must have our finger on the pulse of various trends and sales,” says Reynolds. By refusing to remain stagnant in both its leadership and its operations, the perception and economic response from target audiences is overwhelmingly positive.

The leadership duo also emphasizes the importance of mentorship and employee growth for future generations, which Reynolds lists as one of her most successful accomplishments to date.

“A lot of the time we don’t know what’s next, and that’s part of the fun of what we do,” says Reynolds. “What is important to me is that the day I retire, I’ve mentored my team to the point where I can leave knowing that the programs and facilities we’ve worked so hard to create are in good hands going forward.”

Sarah Murphy
Sarah Murphy works in communications at Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Business Services. Murphy holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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