Succeeding at Your First FM Job

By Naomi Millán, Associate Editor  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: This PagePt. 2: The Role of Technology and Young Facility Managers

The traditional route to success in facility management is by rising through the ranks. For more than a few facility executives, that has meant starting as a technician or mechanic and working up the ladder. Others started in another department and transferred into FM.

Today, there’s a third path: getting a degree in facility management. These young professionals come into the field well-versed in concepts ranging from budgeting to building automation systems. They’re comfortable with technology and embrace the idea of environmentally responsible and energy-efficient buildings.

But FM grads bring more than a new kind of background to the field. They bring a new perspective as well. They’ve made a conscious choice to make a career in FM, and they’re eager to get ahead.

Earlier this year, Building Operating Management offered a group of students from four leading FM programs — Brigham Young University, Cornell University, Ferris State University, and the Wentworth Institute of Technology — the opportunity to talk to industry veterans about careers in the field. The advice they got applies not only to recent FM grads but also to anyone who is fairly new to the field and looking to get ahead.

No matter the range of experience in the field, a few years or decades, or their specialization in facility management, the industry professionals’ advice followed a similar thread: As long as young facility managers are adaptive, thorough, customer-focused and results-driven, they’ll do just fine in the end.

Basic Training

Achieving success requires understanding some history. The FM world entrants are coming into is not the world of a few decades ago. Perhaps the most notable difference is that facility managers now often have a voice in the executive suite.

“The whole nature of facility management has changed,” says Stormy Friday, president of the Friday Group. “It is a much more business-oriented enterprise and more plugged into corporate decision-making.”

Whereas in the past FM organizations might not have been as concerned with the customer’s mission and managing with metrics, successful organizations are now customer-focused and data-driven.

“Most organizations are half the size they were 20 years ago, but I think they work smarter and have learned to evaluate what their core competencies are,” Friday says. This knowledge allows them to augment their services with outsourced service providers as needed without fearing their organizations will be decimated, she says.

In a more corporate-like facilities world, the path to success is paved with many of the same skills applicable in any business environment. Friday ranks a solid understanding of finance and communications at the top. With an understanding of finance comes an understanding of how decisions are made around data and the ability to use facts and figures in crafting initiatives.

Communications skills are crucial because the spotlight never stops shining on the facility executive. “Well-honed marketing and communications skills are important because in the facility management world you are on center stage all the time,” Friday says. “The more skilled you are at making presentations and being able to develop marketed packages, and the more you can promote your organization and treat it as though you were selling a product in the different business units that your company is involved with, the more successful you can be.”

Back to School?

Though an increasing number of newcomers are armed with a bachelor’s degree in facility management, their numbers are not yet significant enough in the industry to make a bachelor’s in facility management a pre-requisite for a job in the field. But it does offer a leg up.

Anne Moser, a facility management consultant with Facility Engineering Associates, got her bachelor’s degree in facility management from BYU about five years ago.

“When I go to my clients and they find out I have a degree in facility management, they’re blown away, and it’s just a bachelor’s,” Moser says. While it’s hard to know what percentage of facility executives have a degree, it’s fairly safe to say that most of them came up through the organizations and their degree is in an unrelated field, she says.

New arrivals like Moser might cause facility executives to wonder if they should pursue advanced degrees to distinguish themselves. Advanced degrees might be a good thing, but they’re not yet necessary in facility management, says Moser.

If a facility executive has decided to pursue an advanced degree, an MBA or a master’s in human resources or organizational behavior would go a long way. So much of the job deals with managing staff and managing the processes of how work is done that these degrees would be far more beneficial than, for example, a master’s in finance, Moser says. Most companies will have entire departments devoted to aspects of the job like finance. A successful facility executive need only have a solid understanding of its concepts, not another diploma.

Friday advises students to carefully analyze why they want to pursue higher degrees and what they want to do after achieving the master’s level. If the student is more interested in facility management than in the business side of an MBA, jumping into the field is better than going for a master’s right away, she says.

“If you’re serious about pursuing a facility management career, I would get established in the facility management world first and then get additional education as you’re in the career,” Friday says. “You can always pursue an additional graduate degree, but now’s the time to be getting your foot in the door in facility management.”

Job Description

As seasoned facility executives know, some of the skills needed to be effective can only come from learning on the job. Learning to manage the complex and unpredictable challenges of facility management can only be done by doing.

Asked how to plan out a day, or at least how to perform the various roles a facility manager is expected to play, Jack Althoff, manager of portfolio engineering for Equity Office, says it’s important to learn how to nicely say “not right now.” In the beginning, it’s difficult to do because new hires don’t have a sense yet of what the organization’s “hot buttons” are and what it’s trying to achieve, he says.

“You have to react to a lot of different things on sometimes a very short notice. Sometimes you have to say, I can’t do this right now, I need more information or I’m tied up with this other project,” he says. But that unpredictability is part of what makes the job so appealing to Althoff. Every day is different, so the boredom of repetition is not something practitioners have to deal with.

Just as challenging as juggling a variety of duties is getting the budget to fund them. Those new to the field may wonder if different industries have deeper pockets, therefore making it easier for facility executives to get budgets approved. But facilities are always facilities no matter the industry, says Victor Atherton, recently retired associate vice president for facilities administration at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. And there’s never enough money. The trick is to prove that allocated resources have been used to the utmost potential. This is done through meticulous recordkeeping and planning. Sticking to the budget, having a sense of the five-year plan, and keeping an up-to-date facilities maintenance program, done either in-house or through a third-party, is part of that strategy.

“Having a strong facilities maintenance program in place gives you credibility with the institution,” Atherton says. Knowing that the facility will be maintained impeccably will help loosen up the purse strings.

Part of gaining the trust that the building is in good hands is being prepared for the unthinkable. For Atherton, maintaining a campus in Florida meant planning for the worst: hurricanes. This was a lesson Atherton learned the hard way. When Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 storm, hit in 1992, the school had no restoration plan in place. Most of their contractors’ businesses themselves had been swept away, which meant the school had to house contractors in the gym and cafeteria during repairs. Learning from that experience, Atherton set up a plan that included contracting with vendors outside of their area. As a result, when Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina struck in 2005, the school was operational just a week after the storms.

“By having a plan for how you will restore things, you can be ready for the storm of the century,” Atherton says. “The more you plan ahead, the easier it will be once the event occurs.”

Learning how to deal with contractors during projects is another skill Althoff expects recent hires will struggle with in the beginning. Contractors are not going to spell out every last detail. It’s up to facility executives to know what questions to ask to make sure the work is done as it should be. “They’re not going to tell you everything,” Althoff says. “If you don’t ask the right questions, you’re not going to find out.”

Facility Executive For Hire

While older generations of workers were very loyal to the companies that hired them, staying for decades at a time, younger workers are more apt to job hop, especially in the beginning of their careers as they search for a good fit or for advancement. Some forces in the current marketplace might give young facility executives a boost in their search.

One is the pending retirement of a good section of senior facility executives. Organizations have started to think about how they will backfill those positions. Moser says newcomers are partly responsible for ensuring the transition of power goes as smoothly as possible.

To start with, many organizations have only just now started to think about succession planning, says Moser. “It’s on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds right now, but they haven’t done much about it,” she says. In her work, she only knows of two large organizations that have put together strong succession plans.

It’s partly the responsibility of the younger generation to make sure the appropriate steps are taken to get the institutional knowledge passed down, Moser says. Not only will it show a commitment to the company and its future, but it will help the younger generation take over when the older generation retires, she says. This means getting operating procedures down on paper and seeking training and mentors.

Friday says she counsels organizations to bring the new talent in now before people leave so there can be some knowledge transfer. But just what sorts of organizations might be looking to hire, especially in a slow economy? For Friday, the outsourcing companies are a good bet, despite the high rate of turnover, because they are a good place to get project management experience. Conversely, higher education is one of the toughest environments to break into because people don’t move around very often.

Althoff says that if he were on the street looking for a job today, he’d look into the big commercial owners or institutional owners that have a lot of assets. “What you can bring to them, what they haven’t seen in the last few years, are people that are really involved in the detail of how to reduce operating costs,” he says. He suggests a larger company because they’re more likely to have more buildings with more work that has been deferred over the years when the economy was hotter and buildings were flipping quickly into new ownership.

Lastly, once in the field, Atherton suggests young facility executives remain humble. Show appreciation, concern and respect. Listen to and learn from the entire facility management team. Speaking of his start in the industry, he says, “I was just a mechanic. I was just one of those guys.” And in a breakdown situation, it’s exactly those guys young facility executives will need in their corner.

Roll Call

The students involved in these conversations were/are enrolled in the facility management programs of Ferris State University, Cornell University, Brigham Young University and The Wentworth Institute of Technology.

  • Ferris State University: Wendy Tichenor, David Zeeb, Joe Curtis, Lindsay Dault
  • Cornell University: Nicholas McEvily
  • Brigham Young University: Nathan Wade, John Widtfeldt, JP Andersen, Mark Robinson, Dan Hunter
  • Wentworth Institute of Technology: Michael Roy, Mallory Prentiss

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  posted on 9/1/2008   Article Use Policy

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