How Gary Sloan Of Feed the Children Is Helping To Address The Growing Challenge Of Food Insecurity
Be patient in your career and life. Things don’t always come easy and your career and life “is truly a marathon and not a sprint.”
Gary Sloan currently serves as the Chief U.S. Operations Officer at Feed the Children. For the past 12 years, he has provided executive leadership in the development of U.S. programs and U.S.-based operations, including the management of five distribution centers and a number of other critical areas.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I spent the first 25 years of my career in the corporate world working for a Fortune 500 company. While working in the corporate world, I was involved with several non-profits and served on the board of directors of nonprofit supporting children with special physical needs. Through that experience in supporting children, I felt led to work for an organization (Feed the Children) to help defeat hunger for children and support their educational needs with school supplies and books. I have spent the last 14 years working to help defeat hunger for children and their families and I am proud to be a part of this type of effort.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
People who know me well will tell you that I love being in the field where the program work is done. One of the first Feed the Children events I attended was at an elementary school in Oklahoma where we were handing out books to the children. I handed a book to a young boy who asked me if this book was his to keep. I smiled and responded with yes, it is yours to keep. The young boy immediately went to his desk, got a pen, and wrote his name in his book. He then walked back to me and stated that this was the first book ever that was his to keep. He was very excited and proud and that made me realize even more how important our work is at Feed the Children and why I am here. It’s not always a big thing or a major program that makes the difference, it’s a lot of things that we would consider to be small that can make all of the difference in the world. The success of a child can be greatly influenced by demonstrating that people care about them.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I believe if you are in a leadership position when building a team, you need people who understand their role and focus on the team’s success, not themselves. Talent alone is not enough. I’ve seen many leaders in my career who didn’t understand this concept. They put themselves first, built a team-based more on perceived talent and knowledge but forgot that people skills are just as important if not more so. Teams will eventually fail when they operate as a group of individuals and not as a team. The road will always have a few bumps along the way, but I’ve learned that when you build your team with people who care more about others than themselves, the team will become highly successful. I remember at the end of my corporate career, I was asked to build a team of individual employees who originally had been scheduled to be terminated due to downsizing. I picked the team based upon the elements above and they turned out to be a highly successful team. Not only did they remain employed at the company, but many others wanted to join their team. This reinforced my belief that building the right kind of team creates the kind of success that matters the most.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My younger sister Dianne taught me a lot about what real success is and I am so grateful for the lessons learned from her. She taught me courage when facing great adversity; she taught me that putting others before yourself was vital; and she taught me that doing the right things to help children can change their lives. My sister learned she had cancer when she was about 8 years old and spent many months in a children’s hospital. I was the oldest child and 2 years older than her. I can remember going to visit her in the hospital each day and she was always visiting other children in their rooms to encourage them while dragging an IV pole with her. She never once complained and accepted the situation with great courage. After months of treatment and a bleak medical report, her cancer miraculously went away. The doctors couldn’t explain it. She went on to become an elementary school teacher and worked two other jobs before and after school so that she could support herself and also support her students with things they needed. She was loved by her students and admired by the school staff for her dedication to teaching children the academic things they needed to know in a creative way, but also by showing how much she deeply cared about them. Each student was important to her. She learned at the age of 33 that she had another rare form of cancer and passed away a few months later. Again, she never complained and is buried very close to a student (per her wishes) of hers that died tragically in a car accident. Her headstone reads “Made a difference in the lives of children.” That has always served as an inspiration to me in my work at Feed the Children and my work with children and their families.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Compassion — We live in a complicated world with many challenges each day. Each of us has different type of challenges. Sometimes a listening ear is just as important as any type of action. I believe it is important to clearly define expectations for employees to help ensure success. I also believe you need to be firm and fair. I believe it is equally important to understand your staff and show compassion and that you care when your staff needs some help. A good example of why I believe compassion is important ties back to the story I mentioned in the previous question about my sister. Leaders who showed compassion to me during my time of sorrow taught me just how important this character trait is. I’m sure I wasn’t thinking clearing and did not perform at my highest level during the time of her death, but leaders who showed me compassion helped me through it and taught me how to be a better leader as a result.
Integrity — Another thing I have learned in life is that you can fool people some of the time, but people eventually figure out who is genuine and who is not. Leaders who demonstrate integrity through their actions versus through just their words are greatly admired. Employees will go the extra mile with leaders they believe have integrity and demonstrate servant leadership as a result of that integrity. I had the opportunity several years ago to spend over an hour with former Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach who has a reputation as a person of great integrity. I can tell you that through this conversation he did not say anything to tarnish this reputation in my eyes. When I complimented him about his charity work, he shifted the discussion to his wife. He talked about how his wife was the real hero in the family when it came to helping others through her work for 15 years with “Meals on Wheels.” After meeting with him, I asked one of his key employees who had worked with him for many years how he would describe his leadership style. Without taking a breath he said “Roger is a servant leader.” He always “puts others before himself” and told a number of stories about this. That made a big impression on me.
Trust- I believe I have demonstrated trust over the years with those reporting to me and I believe they appreciate that. Again, clearly defining expectations is critical but trusting employees to make decisions is important for their development. In my opinion, so many organizations fail because leaders fail to trust their employees to make decisions and allow them to sometimes fail. I believe we grow through trying new things and we learn from our mistakes. Unless the mistake is due to major negligence or criminal activity that could severely damage the reputation of the organization, I believe you should trust people to make decisions and allow them to develop and grow. Don’t try to discredit others to make yourself look better either. That damages your reputation around building trust with others. I once was asked to lead a major software implementation effort that was very risky but very critical for the future of the organization. My boss called me in and made it clear he trusted my judgement in making the right decisions for the project. He honored his commitment of trusting my judgement to make decisions and the project was a success because of strong teamwork and commitment as I trusted those on the team as well. No one individual can do it all and I learned a lot from that experience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have always been a great fan of former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden. I could recite many of his quotes but one that really stands out to me is “Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.” I think back in life to the many times when I needed a sign that someone cared and often a kind word from a family member, friend, or co-worker made all the difference in the world to help me make it through some tough times. Any type of gesture showing kindness and that you care has a much greater impact than I believe we often realize. I truly believe lives are saved every day because of random acts of kindness that give hope to people who had lost all hope. I believe if more people lived the life lesson quote from John Wooden, the world would be a much happier place to live. I know it inspires me to want to seek those opportunities to show others that I do care.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you describe to our readers how your work is helping to address the challenge of food insecurity?
I look at food insecurity a little differently than a lot of people. Providing food to defeat hunger is the ultimate goal, but there are many ways to achieve that in the U.S. Through government programs here in the U.S., many children receive food through school lunch programs and through other means of support. While Feed the Children provides food to help defeat hunger, we also provide families with additional support. In addition to food items, our organization provides personal care items that are not covered by SNAP benefits to families at community distribution events across the country. We also provide food and personal care items to our community partners across the country. I like to say “that for every dollar a family doesn’t have to spend on personal care items, that frees up a dollar that they can potentially use for food.” This also helps to address food insecurity in a different way. Feed the Children also supports teachers and students through our five Teacher Store locations that support a child’s educational needs. We all understand that a child who does not complete at least a high school education will likely be in poverty throughout their lifetime. Supporting children and their educational process helps ensure the success of a child that often reduces long-term food insecurity for future generations.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I am very proud of our Summer Feeding programming that provides both food and educational resources for children. This program is part of our efforts to promote literacy to ensure students do not fall behind by limited reading during the summer months. We work with a number of great non-profit organizations who provide the staffing and volunteers while Feed the Children provides the food and children’s books. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some sites and great things are happening. One of the things I have learned by talking with teachers is that young students lose some of the achievement gains — especially in literacy — when they don’t read regularly during the summer. When students fall behind with literacy at a young age, they often don’t catch up. This creates many problems even beyond food insecurity. We work with an organization in Nashville, Tenn. called Elijah’s Heart that runs a great Summer Feeding program each year in the poorest neighborhoods of Nashville. Their leader, Papa Joe Bradford, has an amazing story where his work is literally changing the lives of many children that is served by his organization. His life and work were portrayed in the movie “Unconditional” which was out about 10 years ago. I am proud that Feed the Children supports organizations like his that truly change the lives of children and give them hope for a brighter future.
In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share a few things that can be done to further address the problem of food insecurity?
First of all, take the time to understand where the opportunities are in your community and get involved with solutions. All communities across the U.S. have basic needs like food security, but how you address short and long-term needs can be quite different. When business, civic leaders and employees work together to listen and understand issues and invest their time in the local community, positive things will happen. This investment does include monetary support to help address food insecurity, but what I have learned that changes lives goes beyond that. This includes strong mentors who demonstrate they care by volunteering their time and demonstrating acts of kindness. A good example of this that I have observed in recent years involves the Police Athletic League in Oklahoma City. They have programming to serve children in low-income areas to get involved in sports (while working with local schools) that teaches children the importance of teamwork, commitment, respect, and many other important life lessons. Those who volunteer include local police officers, business leaders and civic employees who want to make a difference in the local community. Again, encouraging children to complete their education and teaching them important life lessons will give them hope and I believe will eventually result in better food security for them and their families as they progress through life. It takes all of our encouragement and involvement to improve the outlook for a child.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address the challenge of food scarcity? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
We have great community partners all across the country who work to reach people where they are. Just a few examples, we have a partner in Oklahoma who converted an old café building to serve free meals to the community. Another partner took old mail trucks and cargo vans and turned them into free food trucks that use items from Feed the Children to serve meals to children in apartment complexes. A partner in Tennessee goes door-to-door in a low-income apartment complex to distribute food and books. We realize these efforts wouldn’t be possible without the support of our corporate partners and individual donors who provide resources that allow us to continue our work.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
We must reconsider and evaluate many of the regular requirements for food assistance programs and streamline eligibility. This will allow us to continue to provide food to those who need it the most. I also believe that decision-making authority should be provided to the most local level possible so leaders can be empowered to respond to their community’s unique needs.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be patient in your career and life. Things don’t always come easy and your career and life “is truly a marathon and not a sprint.” I can remember times that I felt things weren’t moving fast enough in my career, and I became more frustrated than I should have. We live in a society where we expect immediate gratification, and we need to be more patient. Do the right things for the right reasons and I believe patience will pay off in the end. A good recent example is Hall of Fame football player, Kurt Warner. He worked hard and kept the faith and eventually got his chance to play in the NFL in his late 20’s, led 2 Super Bowl winning teams, and made the hall of fame. This is a great lesson in hard work and patience.
- Success isn’t always about what others may see. I’ve learned through time that a title or material possessions don’t always translate to happiness or true success. I know a lot of people who have a title and/or material possessions that appear successful that live very shallow or unhappy lives. Family to me is more important than a title or material possessions especially if they are achieved the wrong way. Perception is not always reality! An example would be the many celebrities who appear to have it all, but we learn later that they were very unhappy people and some even take their own lives.
- Treat people with respect and show them you care. Something I have learned over time is that people respond a lot better to a leader when you show them respect and demonstrate that you care with actions. I learned a lot from an executive when I was 23 years old and was laid off from a job strictly on seniority. I’ll never forgot the respect this executive showed me and how he demonstrated that he cared about me as a person. Company policy was that as someone was packing their personal possessions when their employment was terminated that a security guard had to be present and would then escort the employee from the building. This executive left his office and came to my desk as I was packing. The executive told the security guard to leave as he would stay with me and walk out with me when I had finished. This executive had a reputation as being aggressive and tough and certainly not the kind of person to show this level of kindness to a young person trying to learn their way in the corporate world. Not only did he stay with me throughout the process, he also reminded me that the reason my position was eliminated had nothing to do with my ability or potential. He encouraged and told me that he felt I had a bright future ahead of me. I have never forgotten that experience and it taught me the importance of demonstrating respect and showing people you care in a work environment especially when you are at a high level with an organization.
- Understand there is always more to learn and be open to learning. When we are young, we tend to believe we know more than others more experienced and often make that known to them. I can remember an experience when I was a new employee at 25 years old and was asked to teach a training class to a group of experienced managers. The subject was one in which I had a couple of years of experience and thought I was well prepared to teach this group of older, more experienced managers. I thought that “they could learn a lot from me.” The first session with the first group went well and I thought this is “a piece of cake.” The second group and session was quite different. They asked me questions I never considered due to my lack of experience in a different subject area and I even questioned whether I was capable of recovering from what I viewed as a humiliating experience. This experience allowed me to learn toughness and perseverance but also taught me that “there is always more to learn.”
- Exercise the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To me, this incorporates many of the other points that have been mentioned. We all like to be treated with respect and want to be treated as if our contributions have value. I love baseball and one of the great baseball stories centers around Jackie Robinson and Harold “Pee Wee” Reese during their playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers more than 70 years ago. The story is that Jackie Robinson was enduring a lot of verbal abuse from the fans at a visiting team location. Robinson who was African-American and Reese who was from Louisville, Kentucky and white heard the verbal abuse and walked up to Robinson, put his arm around him to show the crowd that he supported his teammate and friend. Any of us who was in this same type of situation as Jackie Robinson would appreciate what Pee Wee Reese did. Jackie Robinson also demonstrated throughout his life that he exercised the “golden rule” with the way he treated others. I was glad that I had books that described this story when I was young to remind me that the world would be a lot better place if more people exercised the golden rule like Jackie Robinson and Harold “Pee Wee” Reese!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Honestly, the movement I would want to inspire is quite simple. Inspire others through actions that demonstrates kindness, putting others before yourself and showing why integrity matters in a positive way. I don’t believe there is any program or movement that will be successful without these elements. So often, people say the right words, but their actions demonstrate a different story. I especially like the messages that a group called “Pass It On” shares on television and billboards across the U.S. that shares these type of positive messages, themes, and values. If you really look at the root of many of our problems, it begins with putting ourselves above others. We need more servant leaders who understand this concept. I truly believe this concept begins in our own families and we would see less hunger, more civility, and greater achievements in our country simply if we had a nation of leaders (parents/caregivers, government, civic, business, religious) who simply understand this concept and lived it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Dave Wottle, the former Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meter foot race in the 1972 Olympics. That race in which he won the gold medal is the greatest race I have even seen. I’ve shown it to my 8-year-old grandson who loves running and it inspired him as well. Dave Wottle seems like a great person too and one I would love to have a conversation with.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: Feed the Children (U.S. and International): @feedthechildren (https://www.facebook.com/feedthechildren)
Twitter: @feedthechildren (https://twitter.com/feedthechildren)
Instagram: @feedthechildrenorg (https://www.instagram.com/feedthechildrenorg)
YouTube: @FeedtheChildrenOrg (https://www.youtube.com/user/FeedTheChildrenOrg)
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.