FM Frequency: Recipe For Success

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By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP

Published in the March 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

It’s probably not news to Today’s Facility Manager readers that modern facility managers (fms) are quickly becoming some of the most adaptable, resourceful, creative, and dynamic professionals in the history of the world. In an era of swiftly changing technology, regulation, social forces, and workforce demographics, today’s fms are assuming an increasingly central and pivotal role for many organizations.

If Dr. Frankenstein had been challenged to build a supreme fm able to meet today’s demands, he probably would have rolled on the floor and out of the lab, laughing hysterically and saying, “You want what?!” However, these unbelievable creatures do exist. There are mere humans out there who can—and do—satisfy the necessary criteria to make it in the facility management (FM) profession.

Anyone assessing his or her suitability for a career in FM should consider three skill areas essential for success. Think of a three legged stool with strength requirements for each leg.

1. Customer Service. Perhaps the most obvious core competency, a customer service role is often the first step in a FM career track. Rookies typically start out responding to calls or e-mails at an internal help desk where they quickly learn to sink or swim.

The art and science (in addition to humor and restraint) required to handle requests promptly and professionally from a variety of personalities can weed out many would-be fms. From chilly college interns (scantily clad in club attire) to coffee guzzling product developers to spreadsheet crazed accountants to smooth talking salesmen and all the way up to corner office power brokers—few calls to facilities are to report the building is unusually comfortable, lighting levels are delightfully pleasant, or fluids are quietly flowing inside pipes.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of customer service skills; scores of books and seminars are devoted to the topic. Fortunately, there is no shortage of training materials that deal with difficult people and cover topics like “customer service with a smile.”

2. Financial Accountability. After the cost of salaries and benefits, the single greatest expense for most organizations is facilities. Furniture, utilities, maintenance, cleaning, landscaping, security, food service, mail operations, space planning, and construction are often budgeted, procured, and managed by the FM team. This includes developing and maintaining countless supplier relationships and promoting an environment of healthy competition and value with the highest degree of ethical standards.

Customer Service, Financial Accountability, Technical Knowledge
PHOTO: COMSTOCK, INC.

Since facilities expenses are usually a significant component of overhead and are not considered a revenue generator for most organizations, the CFO will often be peeking over the fm’s shoulder to monitor his or her financial performance. A strong fm understands the importance of being financially conservative and predictable while maintaining organizational standards and excellent relationships with accounting. “Sandbagging” budgets, deferring maintenance, practicing project procrastination, or making poor supplier decisions can result in credibility loss and career damage for any fm.

3. Technical Knowledge. While a small percentage of fms enter the profession with a contracting, maintenance, architectural, IT, or engineering background, most fms acquire technical skills through seminars, industry gatherings (such as the TFM Show at Chicago’s Navy Pier next month), and perhaps most importantly through years of experience. The “school of hard knocks” offers unlimited (but often costly) lessons during construction projects, capital upgrades, and major repairs. With time, veteran fms can become comfortable speaking fluently in the language of carpenters, architects, electricians, plumbers, IT managers, recyclers, industrial hygienists, landscapers, HVAC mechanics, roofers, and even asphalt contractors.

Technical competence becomes quite evident when certain glitches stump the FM team. A well networked fm can turn to trusted architects and engineering consultants, suppliers, or peers who may be able to offer valuable advice in exchange for a hot lunch or a strong cup of coffee and a thank you note.

In these three diverse but critical skill areas, fms are expected to be proficient project leaders, change agents, expectation setters, politicians, problem solvers, crisis managers, and sometimes magicians with superior communication skills. Since it’s unlikely for anyone to be naturally gifted at everything, it’s wise to develop strategies for strengthening skills that need improvement.

Facility managers can hire staff, use contractors with complementary expertise, or develop relationships with outside experts or peers. Seminars and short courses related to customer service, finance, and technical education are offered by many suppliers, trade organizations, and local universities and community colleges. Diligent professionals also have access to countless white papers, studies, and reference materials (like theTFM article archive) at their fingertips via the Internet.

In a profession where each day brings brand new and often unusual challenges, there are always opportunities to gain knowledge and expand our mental toolbox. But remember, we are not alone.

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession is hearing a colleague say, “I thought I had seen everything until….” Wouldn’t it be great to have a nickel for every time we’ve heard that expression?

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.

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