When it comes to hiring women in non-traditional fields, the global recycling and hazardous waste company Republic Services has made its mark. Let’s start with its operations: The solid waste collection company now employs 65 female drivers out of its office in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That’s 65 more female drivers than the office had on its roster 15 years ago. Yes, you read that right—from zero to 65 since 2004.
As with many instances of progress, Republic’s opportunity to change the gender game arose from a crisis. About 15 years ago, Sharon Mann, now the general manager at Republic Services of Baton Rouge, was faced with a driver shortage. She saw the need for a radical change in the company’s recruiting strategy, and she decided that women drivers could be part of the solution.
The experiment succeeded beyond expectations—and it provides a case study for companies seeking to diversify their teams, grow their workforce and improve performance, too. “A great leader is only successful if they have successful people working for them,” Mann says. “It's about choosing the right talent to be on your team and making sure they see the vision that you see.”
Though Mann emphasizes that basic leadership qualities are universal and independent of gender identity, her own career path at Republic reinforced her confidence in women drivers. The corporate culture has also continuously supported Mann’s confidence that Republic would be a good fit for female employees.
Mann envisioned a career in psychology before starting as a temporary worker with Republic in 1986. She worked full time as a dispatcher and then moved into various managerial assignments. When she determined a need for more stability in her household and therefore wanted to spend more time at home, Republic accommodated the change. “My kids were coming of age and traveling was a little bit of a challenge because, at that point, I just didn't really want to miss [their] football games,” Mann explains. “The company was gracious enough to allow me to come here and be operations manager."
Her current position as general manager in Baton Rouge was made possible by the company’s family-friendly policy. The position opened up when her predecessor relocated to a Republic office in Texas to be closer to family. “This company has always been very accommodating from a family perspective,” Mann explains.
Mann recognized that recruiting women drivers was an outside-of-the-box approach to the prevailing hiring strategy.
The company had no rule against female drivers, but it did not have a welcome mat, either.
“I don't think that women have a hard time getting into our industry. I think [the challenge is] getting women to be attracted to our industry,” Mann explains. “Women were not aware of our industry, or what the industry could offer.”
To develop a recruiting strategy for women drivers, Mann reached out to the city of Baton Rouge and local women’s services groups. A key element in the strategy was to focus on the existing female talent pool among city and school bus drivers. “The reason it was attractive to me is because we service residential neighborhoods. School bus drivers, I feel, have the same mentality that we do. You have to put safety first,” Mann said. "I mean, they're transporting precious cargo. They're in the same neighborhoods that we are twice a day, that we’re in most of the day. I really felt that they would be a good fit for us.”
Bus driving skills only cover part of the driver requirements at Republic—drivers also need to operate equipment, and that meant investing more time and effort in training. Some of Mann’s supervisors were skeptical at first, but she encouraged them to allow for another week or two over the conventional two-week training period.
The results were spectacular. “It ended up being very, very successful for us,” Mann recounts. “Even though they did take a little bit longer to train, [new women hires from outside the industry] are some of the best employees we have, because they take care of their equipment, their trucks are immaculate, the customers absolutely love them, and they are very familiar with the neighborhoods that they're servicing. It was a win-win for us.”
If communicating corporate culture to new communities is the key to Republic’s success in recruiting women, then it is the gift that keeps on giving. “Right now, I haven't recruited a female driver probably in seven or eight years. The [drivers] that I have are the best recruiters,” Mann said. “They recruit for me.”
In addition to keeping the pool of drivers stocked, the word-of-mouth recruiting has also attracted more women throughout Mann’s operations, including two in supervisory roles, she said.
One important lesson drawn from Mann’s success is the need to train and inform male supervisors who have little or no experience working with women.
“That was a bigger challenge for me than anything; that is where everything just started flowing and we started seeing so many applicants come through, and other females were recruiting. The word was out on the street, and people were just bombarding us with applications,” she said. It was then that Mann realized she had to be proactive and make it clear to all supervisors that this demographic shift in Republic’s workforce was a positive trend and was here to stay.
Mann organized training sessions, brought in an outside expert for advice, and provided one-on-one feedback to supervisors. “You have to be fully engaged with your team and be able to coach, mentor and train,” she says. “If people want to work for you, they're going to be successful—and if they're successful, you'll be successful.”
Breaking the gender barrier is not a simple matter of changing the rules, when there are no rules to begin with.
Mann’s perspective on what it takes for women to assume leadership roles is an echo of her recruiting strategy, in that it entwines corporate culture with personal life.
“There's two things I believe: That you have to work really hard if you want something, and . . . one other thing that I tell my leadership team all the time, if you're not having fun doing what you do, then you need to do something different,” Mann says. “You'll have good and bad days, but you really have to enjoy doing what you're doing. And if you do, it will be very difficult for you not to be successful.”
As for leadership itself, Mann takes a universal perspective. “Your people are the most important asset that you have,” she concludes. “If your people really believe in what you believe in, and they want to work for you, they're going to go above and beyond. And I really feel strongly about my people. I really do.”
Image credit: Republic Services/Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.