Accelerate Your Facility Management Career

April 26, 2011
The facility management industry is in the fast lane and your career should be too

As the earth revolves, facility management evolves – with both industry faces and duties constantly changing. This change is inevitable, and in order to keep up, you must be willing and able to change along with the industry.

Like you map out building performance and operations with metrics, you should put the same concept into practice for your career. Advance your career by understanding the current and future industry dynamics and what it takes to fit in and excel in the industry. Here is what you need to know.

Evolving Entry Points into FM Careers
The entry point into the industry is changing, albeit slowly, but it is changing. One common career path was starting with a degree in another area and moving into facilities – either on purpose or as a result of a "happy accident." Often, these FMs came out of administrative services, says Don Young, IFMA's vice president of communications, who calls this the "great move from the offices of the past." "Some folks might have had an associate's degree or bachelor's degree in business or something related, so you have facility managers who were really office managers or administrative service people who started to get more into the details."

Another common route was starting in the boiler room and moving up, especially in university settings that have physical plants with building engineering components. "You had some people who started in that capacity and worked into broader responsibilities, especially the related infrastructure of everything relating to the public works part of the job – the power supply and water supply, the HVAC system, and things like that," Young explains.

Trades and construction were also common entry points, according to Jim Bechard, professor of facility management at Kitchener, ON's Conestoga College, and backed by IFMA Research Report #29, Profiles 2007. "One route is somebody is a skilled tradesperson who ends up rising through ranks of supervision to the lower levels of management and ends up with some level of facility management function," Bechard says. "The other route is probably through the construction industry, where someone has been involved with a fair number of construction projects, usually on the management side, and ends up switching over to facility management after gaining a fair amount of experience. The problem I have with both of these routes is certainly not that they're not good people with good intentions, but that there really is no FM training in either one of these backgrounds."

Obtaining a formal degree in FM is still no easy feat – there are only a handful of schools offering this degree. "Although there now are several higher education programs in facility management, I think the majority of people still enter the field from various levels and with various backgrounds," explains Kathy Roper, associate professor and chair of integrated facility management at Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Building Construction. "Interestingly, there are a number of people who have expertise in technical, management, or financial areas and have successfully applied those specialties to FM. Going forward, I think the number of FM degrees will expand. More and more, there will be a common entry point into FM after obtaining either a degree or after a series of courses (a certificate) in specific areas of FM."

Even though obtaining an FM degree before entering the field may be difficult, it is slowly but surely becoming more common. "I think that something like one out of every 10 people who become facility managers now have a facility management degree," says Stormy Friday, president of consulting firm The Friday Group. "I also see more people with business degrees entering. And so there are people who are being trained for the facility management profession who didn't exist when people started out in maintenance and worked either way up. It also used to be that most people who ran the facility organizations were architects or engineers, and that also isn't the case anymore. I see many more people with business backgrounds or actual facility management degrees coming into the profession now."

Experience vs. Education: Weighing the Balance
You enter the industry with an education – whether it's in facility management, architecture, or finance. While this formal education will help, it is not enough to make you a successful facility manager. What you need is a balance between education and experience.

"If you've got credentials starting in, you're starting with a leg up on a lot of other people," Friday says. "I think credentials are extraordinarily important and they give you a definite competitive advantage in a facilities organization, but experience molds that credentialing into practical reality within the culture of the company you're working for and the culture of the FM department."

So how does a company weigh the merits of an inexperienced FM with a formal FM education and an experienced FM without a formal FM education? "There are a lot of seasoned FMs competing with younger entrants who have the credentials but don't have the experience," she says. "I find when I talk to hiring authorities that it's kind of a toss-up – do you go with somebody who's got the experience or do you go with somebody who's got the credentials and may not have the experience? I get six of one and half a dozen of the other. It depends on what the organization needs and how the individual will best fit within that FM culture."

Combining experience with education will make you an FM powerhouse and allow you to quickly move up the career ladder. "Once you can match FM training with operating the physical assets, or at least having a good knowledge base of how to do it, that's really going to allow a person to rise quickly," says Shari Epstein, IFMA's associate director of research.

Pairing an inexperienced (but formally educated) member of the facilities team with a more experienced facility manager will allow knowledge to flow in both directions. The knowledge held by these experienced FMs not only has technical relevance, but also helps the younger, uninitiated FMs navigate the minefield of corporate politics and shows them how to be more effective. Experienced FMs will teach what you can't learn in college.

Accelerating Experience
Networking is a valuable way to seek experience. "One of the first steps, beyond learning the details of your position, is to begin networking and learning more about FM and the opportunities available to expand your responsibilities, learn skills, or move up within the organization," Roper explains.

Build relationships with others in the industry and become involved with industry organizations, such as IFMA and BOMA. Relationships with other facility managers will aid you in developing a clear understanding of what you do, identifying your knowledge gaps, and helping you to work at filling in those gaps. There should be a conscious mentoring effort.

Through your network, you'll be able to evaluate your knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). "You have to look at the KSAs that most people are looking for within the senior ranks of facilities management," says Friday. "When you find out what your gaps are, you need to figure out how you're going to fill those gaps. If you're not very good at being a team leader, then you need to spend more time in team environments where you can assume a leadership role. If your strength is not in the area of making presentations, then you need to do more of that. You need to find a mentor who will coach you, critique you, and encourage you."

Obtaining this experience is not just valuable for your career, it is also important for the viability of your organization. "The experience gap is a real problem in the U.S. and many other developed countries for facility management," says Roper. "Advancing technologies are one solution, providing new solutions that do not require staff. But the best way to avoid this problem is to have succession planning and planned rotational experience for younger FM staff. Moving young FMs among the many responsibilities gives them the experience, exposure, and on-the-job training to quickly ramp up in the event that retiring senior leaders leave a gap."

Embrace the Strategic
To help establish yourself as a key facility manager in your company, compare your goals to those of your company. "The key component is to really embrace strategic facility planning," says Young. "If you align your strategic facility plan with the organization's business plan, you basically help support the entire business."

Keep your own personal goals and career plans in mind. If your personal career goals seem to match up with your company, you may want to stay with the company and move up its ranks. If you opt for a "checkerboard" approach and want to move up as you gain experience while working for different companies, you'll want to take a slightly different path. Climbing the ranks at a single company used to be the more popular career path, but the checkerboard approach is becoming more common. Perhaps one reason for the change in career advancement approaches is that senior positions are already filled with established FMs.

"One of the things we saw in the FM world is that we had a lot of 'tree-huggers,' Friday says. "In HR terms, 'tree-huggers' are people who stay longer in an industry, specifically at one company, than is typically the industry norm. People in the financial world typically stay 5 to 6 years; until the downturn people in high-tech stayed 2 to 3 years. People in the facility management world typically stayed 25 to 27 years with one company. Now we are seeing people who aren't thinking about taking the upward mobility route in facility management. People are looking at more of a checkerboard approach, coming in, doing a little bit of work in one organization and then moving to a different company to get experience and learn about best practices."

"You have to decide what you want out of your career," she continues. "I think people need to assess – if you're looking for upward mobility in the facilities organization and in that particular company, then you have to pursue one track. If you're interested in more of a checkerboard approach and you want to do a little time in a number of different FMs to gain experience and then decide what you want to end up, that requires a slightly different strategy."

Figure out how success is defined within the facility's corporate culture. Identify whether there are opportunities to move up and then what it takes to advance.

Industry Education
In an FM world, everything is rapidly changing – from technology and sustainability to workplace strategies and energy. In order to keep current and stay on top of the trends, continuing education is a must – whether formal or informal.

Some knowledge can be transferred via networks, but other information is just as easily discovered on your own. Read books and magazines to keep up with what is going on in the industry. Read blogs and social media, take courses, listen to speakers, and attend webinars. "I think any organization that has a facility management function needs to emphasize with their FM employees that they need continuing education, professional development, and training to keep up," Young says. "And it's difficult because people are doing more with less these days. But if you don't keep up, you're not going to be as efficient as you can be."

Earning credentials can be a faster road to a new level. "When people are looking to hire someone in a facility manager's position, they're now looking for people with credentials," says Friday. "I think that the statistics are something like 65% of senior executives who are looking to hire a facility manager or senior facility manager are looking for somebody with credentials. These credentials are more than just an undergraduate degree – they're looking for people who have certifications, whether it's an IFMA certification, BOMI certification, or LEED AP certification that relates to facilities."

Roper returned to the facility management industry after receiving a graduate degree in communications. She further strengthened her credentials by gaining the certified facility manager (CFM) designation. This designation, along with other certifications and advanced degrees, will make you more appealing to the industry, putting you in the fast lane for career and pay scale advancements.

If your eyes are on the C-suite, an advanced degree may be your best credential. "Those with a master's degree, whether an MBA or a master's in engineering or something that involves some management training at the graduate level, those folks are people who will have the best chances of getting into senior management roles that could lead to chief operating officer positions," Young says. "Work towards an MBA or a master's degree in facility management, environmental science, or some closely related area. If you're looking for potential to get to the C-suite, if you can combine a master's with credentials like the FMP or CFM, having these credentials in place is going to open up a lot of opportunities for you."

Fill the Vacuum
According to IFMA, nearly 75% of facility managers who responded to the survey are 45 or older. The current generation of facility managers is aging and preparing to eventually leave the industry. "It's an aging population, there's no question about it," says Friday. "And what happens when you don't have opportunities for as much of an influx of new entrants is that you lose your ability to have good middle managers because that's where we cut when we flatten organizations."

This leaves the potential for an "experience gap" or "brain drain" to be remedied. "Unlike many other industries, the FM world has been slow to do succession planning," she explains. "When seasoned professionals leave, we aren't documenting a lot of that historical knowledge. Because there are so many 'tree-huggers' in FM departments, they have a lot of institutional knowledge in their heads that isn't being captured. We encourage facility departments to take oral histories from the people who are very knowledgeable about facilities management and to capture that information before they leave."

And while you evaluate your own KSAs as you enter and move up in the industry, you should take inventory of your department's KSAs before leaving. "You need to be able to look around and identify where you may have some voids coming up," Friday says. "Maybe you don't have enough people who are technologically savvy; maybe you don't have enough people who are effective team leaders. Whatever those weaknesses are, you need to begin to create a succession plan that addresses those."

Part of successful succession planning is ensuring that there is someone to take your place, and many companies don't want to hire someone before your position is vacant. This creates a predicament when it comes to training. "If an industry is prepared to hire somebody young and give them a few years of tutoring under a senior person, I'd love to see things like that happen," says Bechard. "But that usually isn't how the industry thinks."

Consciously push for additional head count to be mentored by more experienced FMs. The ultimate goal is for nobody to notice when the experienced FMs leave. Part of a succession plan is having people who can come along and backfill. Make sure to cross-train and mentor those folks so that by the time you're ready to retire, there will be somebody on staff who would be comfortable doing essentially all of your duties.

This key part of succession planning – having someone ready to take your place before you leave – could potentially be a problem in the FM industry. "While there are an abundance of students out there, not all have necessarily had FM training, but they could go through FM training," Epstein says. "But in order to attract this talent, you really need to have a progressive organization that's willing to take the time to train these individuals. They're likely to give you a much longer commitment if you're willing to train them and give them the proper education that they need."

Another way to ensure your facility continues to operate smoothly during retirement is practicing staged retirements. "Instead of one day walking in, signing retirement papers, and then going off to the country club or moving to Florida, they technically retire but still work at the company for 20 hours a week as a consultant or as a contractor," Young explains. "And then they mentor less experienced colleagues and may become more active in associations and organizations, do more teaching, and act as consultants for clients."

The More You Know
Facility management is an ever-changing industry. In order to keep up with an industry in the fast lane, you have to be ready to take the next step up.

Use new sources of information and the new faces in the industry to aide you in advancing your career. Whether you're new to the industry or a seasoned professional, take advantage of these valuable resources. A great facility manager is never done learning.

"You have to be proactive," Young says. "Be active in developing your own career and keeping up with the organization. There is no such thing as getting a facility management job and being able to rest on your laurels. You have to stay on your toes, you have to learn, you have to get energy from the activities that you're doing and from the people you're working with, and you have to enjoy what you're doing. Look at it as a challenge and an opportunity and constantly set your goals higher."

Kylie Wroblaski is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

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