FM Frequency: The Facility Manager In The Gray Flannel Suit

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By Charles Carpenter
Published in the August 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

I doubt I am the only facility manager (fm) who watches old movies, reads old books, or watches shows like Mad Men and spends as much time following the layout of the facility as I do the plot line. While most facilities and their managers are different, there are many things fms find the same.

Much like Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (which was written by Sloan Wilson), it is hard to not imagine that every fm yearns to have bigger buildings, to be higher on the corporate ladder, and to look to the future instead of dwelling on the past. This is what is to be expected of human nature—the innate desire for something bigger and better.

Times are tougher. Managing a facility has never been a picnic, but today’s financial constraints make it all the more difficult. In the current chaotic world, fms have to look out for three things: their facilities, their organizations, and themselves.

Tom Rath said to himself, “The important thing is to create an island of order in a sea of chaos…and an island of order must be made of money.” It is only natural for fms to think that with bigger buildings or better titles will come more money. No one can fault an fm or anyone else for looking at self-preservation when making career choices.

The truth may be that the status quo is just fine. Fms may like the company they work for or like the proximity of their facility to their home. Others like the boss they work under, to the point of following that person when the time comes for a change in employment. Fms may be thinking about retirement and are not interested in the time it takes to get up to speed in a different facility. Some may be attached to their building, like it is a friend or family member.

Some fms are just happy to be employed in the present business environment. It may be better to stay on a smaller boat, if there is more certainty that it is not sinking. Some fms are finding that their jobs are being outsourced in an attempt to reduce the dreaded “non-revenue generating personnel” (and, ironically, end up right back managing the same facility).  Their islands may be swept away.

Some fms are forced to the dark side…by becoming vendors. Who would know better how to sell something to an fm than a former fm? Fms often have to sell their projects to upper management, so why not someone else? So when the rug is pulled out from under them or their current position is not that island in the sea of chaos, the buyers become sellers. Again, there is nothing wrong with fms selling services (but it may be the topic of a future column or LinkedIn discussion) just as long as buyers do not act surprised when you speak as someone who has been on both sides of the negotiating table.

I had a manager who once said of people that they are doing the best that their current awareness allows. An employee may seem like a total moron for plugging in a toaster in the same plug as a computer—which then knocks out power to an entire section of cubicles—but that employee has no understanding of electricity beyond operating a light switch. People tend to work best in their comfort zones. Fms are quick to know when they are in over their heads but may not realize they are overqualified for their current situation.

While money may bring order to a person’s life, it cannot buy happiness. Happiness is being comfortable where you are. If you are satisfied with your job, you can let the Tom Raths of the world attempt to pass you by. If you are happy with your circumstances, then there is no need to see if the grass is greener on the other side (although the John Butler Trio points out “‘Cause I know the grass is greener but just as hard to mow”).

Ultimately, if you’re happy with your life, all the money, facilities, and/or job titles should have little meaning. If you can embrace your past mistakes, you can realize those mistakes provided the lessons to get you where you are now. If you’re happy as an fm, vendor, building inspector, or any other position, then you figured things out a lot quicker than most people ever will.

You might wish to be the fm in the gray flannel suit. Any of us will need to be careful what we wish for. You might learn the hard way that life is fine just the way it is. Some people might think you are foolish for settling for less or ignoring your potential; however, the ultimate truth is that you cannot put a price or position on happiness. Winston Churchill said it best: “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right.”

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