Michael Mulqueen is executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) and was appointed to Winning Workplaces’ Board of Directors in December 2005. In this interview he discusses the management skills he learned as a general in the U.S. Marine Corps, the logistics of running a large food bank and why recruiting is a CEO’s most important duty.

You assumed leadership of the GCFD right after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps after serving for 30 years. What elements of your Marine training prepared you for guiding GCFD?
You need the ability to organize, plan, control, and direct people. I got that from the Marine Corps, which is a people-centered organization. We invested a lot in people in terms of their training. Contrary to popular belief, the military is not a top-down organization. We drove authority to the lowest levels. This allows for job satisfaction, creativity, and innovation.

Although you supervise a staff of about 100, your corps of 8,000 volunteers were responsible for distributing over 40 million pounds of food in FY 2004-05. How do you manage the logistics of that?
We have our own fleet of vehicles and an inventory management system in place. We deliver to some of the agencies here in Chicago. We also have food rescue programs. Since there are a lot of logistics, we need the right people – dispatchers, drivers. We put food on palettes at our distribution centers and it’s shipped out. We have a distribution center and a manufacturing center; we have to re-inspect and repackage food, so it’s important to have really good people who have been trained well.

What are some of the obstacles involved in distributing food to the 600 food pantries, shelters, day care centers, senior facilities and soup kitchens in the Chicagoland area?
Right now there are no significant obstacles because we have a sophisticated ordering and distribution system in place. Some of the agencies we deliver to are on narrow streets, but it’s not too bad. Even though we distribute to 600 agencies, only about 20 percent of them are open three or more times a week. This is a problem because the demographics of poor people are changing. An agency that’s only open a few hours a day doesn’t do anyone any good. Therefore, we only bring in agencies that are open longer.

How do your employees and volunteers come into play in terms of creating a greater awareness of hunger and poverty issues in Chicago?
We view our volunteers as ambassadors. They do about 22 percent of production, so it’s important that they’re satisfied and have an enjoyable experience. A lot of them end up telling their friends about their experiences, and then they come to volunteer as well. Some volunteers also turn into financial donors. The volunteers are the equivalent of almost 49 full-time employees, which saves us about $1.2 million a year in salaries and benefits.

Read more about the Greater Chicago Food Depository

What makes the volunteer experience so positive?
There’s no wasted time. We give them a thorough briefing, and then they serve an average session of three hours. At the end of their session, a supervisor will tell them that they helped package the equivalent of, say, 150,000 meals. The volunteer has the satisfaction of knowing that someone’s going to be able to eat who would’ve gone hungry.

We also try to make it fun for volunteers. Once we repackaged pasta with the help of Jewel and Dominick’s employees. We made it a contest between the [grocery store] rivals of who could repackage food the fastest.

What brought you to Winning Workplaces’ Board of Directors?
In the first year of the Best Bosses competition I was honored as a Best Boss – that introduced me to the organization. I was also on two panel discussions and I know the Lehman family pretty well. I considered it an honor to be on the board with ShoreBank President & CEO Anne Arvia and others of that ilk. I like the philosophy of Winning Workplaces: taking care of people, inspiring and motivating people in the workforce. I think that’s important in small business, as in the not-for-profit world. You never have as many people as you need, so you really need to depend on those you have.

What lessons or values from the military can small business leaders draw upon to foster better relationships with their employees?
They need to recognize their employees and take good care of them. In turn, their employees will be more productive and more committed. At the same time, you have to hold people accountable for their actions. You’re constantly mentoring people.

I learned this from the Marines: create an environment where, once people are trained, get out of their way and let them do their job. In the Marines, we needed to ensure that people were in place in the line of succession if their senior officers were killed. That same principle applies to the business world.

At GCFD, we create an environment of trust and confidence; we take good care of employees. We also hold them accountable. I see more of a need for the latter in the non-profit world: supervisors are reluctant to hold people accountable to avoid confrontation. It can be hard to do that, but it’s necessary.

What’s your best advice on how to create and manage successful teams? Can you illustrate an example of one of these practices in action?
The most important job of a CEO is recruiting. You look for the type of people that will work well on your team. Then you recruit them and assess their performance. They should share in and focus on your philosophy. Overall, you want to find people who are doers, who are action oriented.

Then you just work hard. At GCFD, I have an executive management team of seven that reports directly to me. On Monday mornings we have what we call “stand-up meetings.” We literally all stand instead of sitting so we’re not too comfortable. We talk about the issues of the day and of the week ahead. These meetings work well and keep people connected.

We’ve also eliminated internal e-mails. We’ll still e-mail people outside the organization, but not internally. It got so that people were trying to solve problems by e-mailing a person two desks away, and at that point they should be talking directly to one another. It’s a better way of getting things done.

You’re retiring from the GCFD at the end of June. What are your plans?
I’ll be doing some teaching; maybe some consulting. I want to relax somewhat, though. I’ve been working 9- or 10-hour days five to six days a week for 45 years, so a break from that would be nice.