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Steven Cox, director of facilities operations for Tulsa (Okla.) Community College, never intended to enter facilities management. But once his career started, his path took him into higher education, where his team building efforts have paid dividends for his department and the organization.
FacilitiesNet: When and why did you enter the facilities profession?
Cox: My entry to facilities was not by my design. Upon graduating from college with a degree in finance, I took the first job I was offered, overseeing grants and purchasing at our city transit company. As that position changed, it became more facilities focused on projects and contracts.
Because the organization was small administratively, responsibilities were wide and varied, from overseeing the construction of a transit facility to making sure the right buses were cleaned each night and everything in between. I was able to interact with all types of service contractors, general contractors, engineers and architects and to develop a broad view and understanding of facilities and without fully realizing it at the time, facilities management.
Even as I enjoyed my time at Tulsa Transit, my heart was always drawn to working in higher education, probably attributable to several members of my extended family being professors at various higher education institutions. When the opportunity to work at Tulsa Community College (TCC) came about, I was thrilled to join the college as assistant director of facilities.
In time, the position changed to my current role as director of facilities operations. In this role, I love knowing that the work we do as a facilities management department has a direct impact upon the lives of the 20,000-plus students who attend TCC pursuing their various degrees and certificates. Everything we do in facilities every day is ultimately for our students.
FacilitiesNet: What were your toughest challenges when starting your career?
Cox: It's probably being honest with myself with what I didn’t know as a supervisor. Understanding that asking questions and delegating isn't a sign of weakness. I also probably didn't fully appreciate how having a diverse group of individuals who are skilled in a variety of different areas truly benefits the team.
FacilitiesNet: How did you address the challenges?
Cox: Like anyone in a supervisory position, dealing with the realities of change is important. I'm not the same supervisor I was 15 years ago when I started at TCC. As my team has changed, so have the needs of the department. While there are standard daily departmental responsibilities, the expectations in 2023 are very different than a decade ago, and that’s good. We've grown as a department not in number but in our collective ability to manage and create positive experiences for those on the campus.
FacilitiesNet: What accomplishment as a director are you proudest of?
Cox: Two come to mind. In 2012, there was an initiative from the state of Oklahoma to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020. Through the efforts of the facility managers, maintenance supervisors, first- and third-class engineers, maintenance assistants and even carpenters and painters — along with support from all levels of the administration and the board of regents — in four years, we were able to reduce our energy use 26.3 percent compared to the baseline year.
Then we kept the energy reduction at similar levels for the subsequent years. It felt at times like scenes from “Apollo 13,” where no one was really sure if we could reach our goal or if the steps taken would actually work. However, we persevered, grounded in data and belief of what seemed nearly impossible could become reality. And it did, even exceeding the goal set for us.
The other accomplishment impacts building a strong staff in our engineering department. We are like many other organizations that have struggled with bringing in first-class engineers. As we took a fresh look at our department, we realized that as a multi-campus institution, we will always struggle if we don't build from within.
We tapped into that, creating clear career pathways from the entry-level position of maintenance assistant to third-class engineer to ultimately becoming a first-class engineer in three years. Hiring for entry-level positions always has the largest pool of candidates, so we select those who not only excel as maintenance assistants but also have the drive and skill set to become first-class engineers.
What we discovered is we are always hiring because we are always promoting. As one moves from third-class engineer to a first-class engineer, a maintenance assistant is ready to move to a third-class position, and then we search the market for the best maintenance assistant.
Morale was and is elevated. Understanding our building systems is deeper. We also discovered that when a team member reaches the first-class engineer level, they are fully bought into TCC's core value and culture, thereby reducing turnover and fostering attractive work environments within each campus' engineering team. It also has become a stronger pipeline to our maintenance supervisor position, as well as facility manager positions.
FacilitiesNet: What lessons can you offer people starting in facilities and maintenance management?
Cox: Facilities is about serving people, whether it's the people who report to you or the people you are supporting in the field. The words customer service get tossed around so much that at times it may feel cliché or tired, but if you're not interested in truly helping others using the skills you've been blessed with and the experiences you've learned, then another career path is probably your best option. When your default setting becomes thinking of others first, the rest doesn't always take care of itself, but you are generally on the right path for long-term success.
FacilitiesNet: What’s next for facilities and maintenance management?
Cox: TCC is wrapping up a 10-year master planning process, with a keen focus on enhancing existing facilities. Over the next decade, we will continue addressing deferred maintenance while creating environments closely aligned with student and faculty needs. Change again is in the wind, and I look forward to identifying and readying the department for these and other challenges so we can best serve students, faculty and staff.