Linda Foster strongly believes that the key to success is giving all members of an organization a voice in how the organization should be run. She feels if people have a real stake in what they are doing, they will feel good about coming to work and be dedicated to the work they do.
That approach might seem a bit daunting when you consider that as Illinois State University’s Superintendant of Building Services, Foster oversees a staff of around 200 people. However, she has a very straightforward approach. She takes the time to get to know people and to listen to what they think.
“Building Services is a flexible organization,” said Foster. “If there is a better way to do things, we’ll do it. I want the building service workers to be involved in all aspects of the job process, and I want their feedback on how things are going. It’s about building relationships with the people you work with.”
That inclusive management style means that building service workers (BSWs) are part of a team, not only in their specific work areas, but within the entire Building Services operating structure. Foster says BSWs and their supervisors take part in regular meetings to discuss job duties, express concerns and share ideas for enhancing the work environment. Those same staff members also help to determine the types of cleaning products that are used in the various campus buildings. “They’re testing the products on the job and giving feedback on how well those products work and whether they’re safe to use,” said Foster. “They are also able to pass that feedback on to the vendors. Staff members are really engaged in the process, and it gives them a real sense of professionalism.”
Foster says that professionalism is embodied in the service-oriented attitude that BSWs display. “Besides professors in the classroom, BSWs in the residence halls may be the University employees that students come into contact with the most,” she said. “We have a friendly BSW staff, and they act as ambassadors on campus, building relationships with students as well as faculty and staff. I’m proud of them for that because they go above and beyond expectations.”
Foster has a keen understanding of the important role that BSWs play on campus. She started her career at Illinois State as a BSW nearly 28 years ago. She gained experience as a foreman and worked in other supervisory and training roles before becoming superintendant 10 years ago. She oversees a staff of around 200 BSWs who work on campus around the clock. She also supervises three staff members in the University Recycling area.
Foster credits Ben Ryburn, director of operations in Facilities Management, as a mentor who helped her to establish a leadership style characterized by open communication. “He helped mold me into the person I am today,” said Foster. “Ben walks the talk, and he set a good example for me to follow. I’ve tried to pass that along by being a mentor to others.”
As she advanced in management positions, Foster had the opportunity to get to know the staff members she was supervising as well as a growing circle of colleagues in other areas of campus. That experience helped give her an appreciation for Illinois State’s multicultural environment.
“This is a melting pot workplace,” said Foster. “I work with people from all walks of life and from all around the world. People bring different experiences and opinions into the workplace and so it’s important to listen, try to understand where they are coming from and keep the channels of communication open.”
Working with people from diverse backgrounds can sometimes present communication challenges. Not everyone takes directions in the same way. Some people do well with a quick verbal list, while others prefer a more detailed explanation of expectations or a written set of instructions. Language can sometimes present challenges for staff members whose first language is not English. These types of communication issues are part of what makes Foster’s job a constant learning experience.
“I look at people as individuals and try to get to know them,” said Foster. “I try to identify people’s communication styles and needs and adjust my approach to meet them. I think back to my own experience as a BSW in Stevenson Hall where one of my fellow BSWs taught me some Spanish. I’m always learning something from the people I work with.”
Foster’s open approach to staff members and her dedication to leadership and service have earned her campus-wide recognition. She was the recipient of the Civil Service Distinguished Service Award in 2000, and the Chief’s Award of Merit-Meritorious Service Medal from the Illinois State University Police Department in 2010.