A woman’s touch: Managing relationships as well as facilities

by FM Media
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Facility Management interviews Kirsten Smith from Women in Facilities Management (WiFM) and Change Angels.

Women in Facilities Management (WiFM) was set up in Australia in 2001. You were one of the co-founders of WiFM and are currently the group’s chair. Why was the group set up originally and how has its purpose changed over the years?
Women in Facilities Management was set up over 12 years ago to provide people with the opportunity to share information and network with others who were working within the industry. At that time, the percentage of women in the industry was 10 percent and I believe from the latest Facility Management Association Australia (FMA) survey that this hasn’t changed.
The original purpose of WiFM has stood the test of time. This was confirmed in our latest survey. We still like to meet to gain new information (particularly around sustainability and site visits) and to network. We still prefer to have no membership fee or protocol, for people to hear about us by word of mouth and for our functions to be mostly face to face and cost-free. Professional and personal development remain in our sights and will be strengthened by mentoring opportunities over the next couple of years.

What was the general consensus about women who worked in facilities management when the group was created? Has the view changed since then?
When we started WiFM, we all came from different professions – design and architecture, administration, nursing, police, engineering and hospitality to name a few. There was no professional pathway into facilities management and, with the demise of various facilities management courses around the country more recently, it still seems that people will continue to find themselves in facilities management via circuitous routes.
We believe that anyone who works in the facilities industry is incredibly dedicated to taking responsibility for making things work. It is a time-poor industry with increasing complexity and regulation, and a largely unappreciative client base. We rarely get any thanks. So, I admire our ‘can do’ attitude and ability to achieve a lot with little in terms of funding, which is also decreasing in the current economic environment.
I don’t remember there ever being any consensus on what a facilities manager does – it depends on the organisation’s needs. At WiFM, we still believe that facilities management includes not only operational aspects, but also project and strategic management. Some of our members have climbed the corporate ladder during these years from operational state- and national-based positions to strategic Asia/Pacific and international roles – and even almost managed themselves out of the organisation and outsourced the whole of facilities management!
What has changed in the last 12 years are the types of roles that women are undertaking – predominately in what is commonly termed soft facilities management services (although I think that talking to an air-conditioning unit is easier than managing us complex humans – also known as herding cats). They can be generally found in client-facing project, sustainability, relationship and change management roles, service delivery, corporate real estate and procurement positions.
Twelve years ago, there was an IT group we called the Chicks‘n’Clicks and the National Association of Women in Construction were the Chicks‘n’Bricks, and we considered ourselves then and now as the ‘Chicks who Fix’. I do believe that there is increasing recognition of the difference in collaborative approach that women bring to the client management roles and that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert to manage technical requirements – you need just enough knowledge to be ‘dangerous’ and to know how to manage the risks and the people that do know about the operations.

What challenges do women in the industry currently face and how can they be overcome?
I think facilities managers of all types forget to ‘market’ themselves within an organisation. Keeping the runs you score in front of your executive team and always knocking on the door of the strategic planners and influential others makes it easier for you to deliver when you know the desired outcomes early. Sometimes women are less comfortable doing this, but it is critical to anyone’s success.
I believe that in 10 to 20 years’ time some facilities managers will be chief operations officers in the executive suite. For years, we have been using relocations and new building projects to integrate the development of people and organisational cultures with technology and work processes, so now some of the more ‘enlightened’ organisations have realised the competitive advantage these opportunities bring.
Unfortunately, some women are still struggling with continuing patriarchal, condescending and bullying behaviour of some individuals and some organisations that condone it (or choose to remain unaware) in the property and facilities management industry. If your women don’t stay long, be brave and ask why.

What, in your opinion, can women bring to the industry that men may lack?
I believe that facilities managers are both ‘left/technical/task’ and ‘right/people/emotional’ brained. Women can often bring more collaborative and constructive styles to the table – and in my experience we share information more readily and seek out experts in areas we are not experts in (in other words, we are not afraid to ask directions).
More generally, I believe that everyone benefits from a more engaging, flexible and diverse workplace. As one of my colleagues once said: “If you want me to live for 40 hours with people I didn’t choose, then you need to make this place more interesting than staying at home.”

What topics have been discussed by the group recently? Have any interesting views come up regarding any current challenges and opportunities in facilities management in Australia?
Our recent WiFM survey confirmed that reducing costs is still predominant in the corporate outlook. There seems to be more relocation and business case planning (perhaps for downsizing) and less focus on sustainability – although these days we still need to bring the operation in ‘under budget’, ‘on time’ and sustainably. I don’t think organisations have heard Jones Lang LaSalle’s Rajiv Nagrath talk about the most sustainable building being the one we don’t build.
For the last two years, sustainability has been our prime topic, as many people had little knowledge of this aspect of our industry. Topics still under discussion for 2013 include leadership and what you need to move into more senior positions and how different organisations approach activity-based working.
Increasing occupational health and safety, and other regulation, is also making personal liability risk more onerous for facilities managers, even forcing some to leave organisations that dump all the risk on the facilities team. I know some people who have left the industry altogether as a result.

What do you believe is the current state of the profession in Australia in general compared to where it should be? And, in your opinion, how could it be further advanced in the country?
The facilities management industry is alive and well in Australia. Facilities managers tend to be busy whether the economy is upsizing or downsizing. The recent amalgamation of property/facilities/project management companies has reduced the competition and choice for facilities managers looking at outsourcing. While this approach may make life easier, giving the fox the keys to the chicken house can be risky.
When MBA programs include a property/facilities management core unit in their courses, we will really start to see better recognition and utilisation of facilities management in organisations.

How can the younger generation be inspired to take up a career in facilities management?
Facilities management is a great industry in which to be a ‘can do’ team player (you can’t do it all on your own) and to learn to balance tasks and people. You learn procurement and negotiation, facilitation and communication, conflict and risk management – all senior management skills.
It’s often high energy and high profile (particularly if you work on a new building project) and can get you in front of executives earlier in your career. You may never be CEO of the bank, but you can sit at their right hand and make sure operations work to support business.
Over your career, as you move across different organisations, you get to see what works for them – this can be great experience for starting your own consulting business when you are done with sacrificing yourself on the corporate altar.

What lessons have you personally learned while working in the industry?
I have learned that facilities management is not about managing buildings or space – it’s about managing people.

Your career in facilities management has seen you become an expert in change. What are the fundamentals to follow when undergoing change?
As the Dalai Lama says, only one thing is certain in life and that’s change. Change management is actually one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The fundamentals to follow are:

  • engagement – know your stakeholders and their needs, and collaborate on how to approach them to get their buy-in and ownership
  • communication – proactively communicate regularly and don’t be frightened to say you don’t know, but tell them when you will know, and
  • skills – build change competence in your and your team’s skill set to manage people through change (I even did some counselling training so I could help transform challenging situations with people).

If you could pass on one piece of advice to a fellow facilities manager, what would it be?
Use every project to construct relationships as well as buildings.

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