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Professional Development: Building Bench Strength

Written by Professional Development Columnist. Posted in Facility Management, Magazine, Professional Development, Professional Development

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Published on April 15, 2002 with No Comments

By Cindy Liu
Published in the April 2002 issue of Today’s Facility Manager magazine

“Our obligation as professionals is that we have good people follow behind us. It is something that our industry is currently lacking.”

This remark by John P. Harrod, Jr., director physical plant, University of Wisconsin-Madison, captures the issue in a nutshell. As today’s generation of top facility and auxiliary service executives approach retirement or contemplate second careers, there is a scarcity of talent capable of filling the shoes of those who leave the field. There are directors who manage their specific areas very well, but few have the breadth, knowledge, or exposure beyond their department that allow them to climb successfully to the highest executive levels.

Steve Relyea, vice chancellor of business affairs at UC San Diego echoes this sentiment. “Our top facilities executive recently retired and we just completed a national search to fill that position externally. There just wasn’t anyone internally who either had the talent or was not planning a retirement within the next few years.”

Termed bench strength (or management depth assurance), finding, training, and bringing along a pool of replacement talent is something FM executives need to do before opting out of the profession. But how is this done? What qualities and skills are important? What are, and will be, the demands on executives as personnel and operations become increasingly complex on university campuses?

The Big Picture

Before going forward in the search and development of talent, an organization must have a solid grasp of where it currently is and where it wants to go. Then the organization must assess how current and potential executive talent will contribute to that direction.

Astute facility executives will see the big picture and understand the organization’s business plan for growth, potential changes in administration, financing, and population. They will also recognize the macro environment outside of the organization that will influence or shape the management of facilities.

For instance, distance learning may reduce a university’s physical student population. Countermeasures such as an emeritus college or increased conference activity may increase or stabilize student enrollment or revenues.

Similarly, a hospital may be facing closure, reduced services, or merger with another institution. All of these circumstances should be weighed against anticipated and projected needs in facilities, financial, and most importantly, human capital to support the plan.

A key part of strategic business planning is the human factor. What type of leader will be needed in order to guide the team and carry out the plan? How well a facility executive recruits and trains managerial talent is, in reality, a litmus test of his or her vision in looking to the road ahead.

Why Talent Development Is Imperative

Healthy organizations first look internally as a source for future facility executives for many reasons. In developing, deepening, and broadening managerial skills, internal promotion signals opportunities to employees for advancement. It also recognizes and rewards them for their work and achievements. A clear successive career path sets the stage for on-going interest and involvement with the goals of both the department and the organization.

Internal development also saves costs in time and effort spent on external searches and additional compensation. It may minimize the perks needed to attract outside talent while protecting the organization’s compensation structure, reducing turnover, and providing a morale booster.

Additionally, “the known entity factor” (the internal candidate’s existing work relationships, style, and abilities) can increase the odds of success in the new position, provided the person can adapt to the change and handle the greater responsibilities. Formal and informal training programs, mentoring, and coaching are ways to encourage internal talent growth.

When an external search for a replacement is either necessary or desired, the payoff for an internal promotion can still be huge. “In another situation, we were looking for our top housing and dining services executive,” notes Relyea. “Though we conducted an open and external recruitment, we ultimately promoted an individual and filled the position internally. Our eminently qualified finalist gained enormous credibility because he and the staff both knew that, against national candidates competing in a grueling process, he emerged as the best of the best.”

Growing The Talent: What’s Needed

Facility executives must take a leadership role in bringing talent along. “Allow your people to grow with new opportunities as their careers mature, and they will step into new roles” says Harrod.

It may take a concentrated effort to cultivate supervisory and higher level skills in personnel. Fms need to nurture future leaders by mentoring them, exposing them to other departments, and providing them with access to business training so talented staff members can build on their potential and gain a broad scope of influences outside of—as well as within—the department.

“While there are excellent staff members, we have no industry depth in management,” says Harrod, who attributes this shortage to streamlined budgets, a dearth of middle managers, and the diffusion of cross-training. Future fms need to know how to make the numbers work through budgeting, forecasting, and anticipating change with flexibility.

“A facility executive needs to know how to steer the organization in the right direction and have the flexibility to change or modify that course as new situations arise,” says Harrod.


Kathleen Mulligan, vice president facilities, Princeton University, specifically points to another highly prized skill. “The ability to communicate effectively with different kinds of constituencies is necessary in order to build consensus and keep things running smoothly. It also helps to facilitate change. A leader is at ease with all kinds of people—from tradespeople on a job site to a presentation in front of the Board of Trustees—in order to implement plans, get the job done, and anticipate the future. The next generation of executives must ‘walk the talk’ (or communicate frequently and effectively) with both the department and external audiences.”

As customer demand for higher education facilities become more technically complex and sophisticated, fms must keep up technically while maintaining a focus on customer service. Mulligan suggests developing pathways that allow “up and comers” to participate in decision making, as opposed to the traditional top-down managerial style.

“Develop team and group interaction to tap into employees’ energies and high quality ideas. Take employees with leadership potential along to out-of-department meetings so they gain exposure to the bigger picture. Then they will see they are ‘cathedral building,’ not just laying bricks. When they see their role in a larger organization, they become more closely wedded to its goals.”

Certainly, beyond technical capabilities, sophisticated business skills are increasingly required in the job description of future leaders. “Technology enables us to utilize productive ways to increase efficiency and improve communications,” adds Mulligan. “Close monitoring of FM services provides information to the university regarding costs and justifies funding. It also helps to avoid deferred maintenance and all the problems that entails.”

While she thinks an M.B.A. may not be required in the future, it may prove to be a valuable asset. “The larger an organization is, the greater the depth and range of business and communication skills are needed,” predicts Mulligan.

If fms take the initiative now, the profession will have a broader and deeper national talent pool selection in the years to come. “By hiring and training for bench strength, surrounding yourself with the very best people you can, and practicing some forward-thinking succession planning techniques, the future of FM leadership is assured,” sums up Mulligan. “Our job includes making ourselves dispensable,” she adds.

Liu is a senior associate with Gary Kaplan & Associates, an executive search firm based in Pasadena, CA.

About Professional Development Columnist

Authored by a different industry member each month, this column provides insight into how facility managers can keep on top of what they need to know in order to sustain their careers. For more articles from TFM's Professional Development Columnists, visit this link.

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