Defining the Typical Facilities Manager

Four decades in this business have earned me the privilege of being a certified cynic. Occasional introspection, as well as a generous dose of some backyard psychoanalysis of successful Facilities Managers around me, has allowed me to develop a“profile” of the typical O&M Facilities Manager in higher education. Perhaps sharing these observations will help would-be“ef-emmers” to determine if this is really where they want to be the rest of their lives.

The first set of characteristics displayed by the historical “average” O&M professional is blindingly obvious: White, male, over 40 years old, well-entrenched in the business; does not like change or changing stuff (that is why he is in the “maintenance” business); is a member of at least one professional or pseudo-professional association (misery loves company?); may have had formal training in one of the engineering disciplines and often has progressed through on-the-job-training, causing him to be booted up the management ladder to progressively more challenging levels of management.

Clearly, not all Facilities Managers fit this stereotype. Casual observation reinforces my opinion that the number of non-white, non-male leaders in this industry has been on the increase in recent years. This has led to an exciting diversity of perspectives in the establishment of standards and expectations, benefiting our stakeholders and our customers.

There remains one indispensable attribute that a successful Facilities Manager must espouse. That is the ability to remain mostly a realist while swaying between optimism and skepticism. Or, as I think about it, is it the ability to remain an optimist while dangerously teetering on the edge of fatalism? Or is it the ability to be a fatalist with occasional surprising ruptures of optimism? Or is it all of those and more?

One of my favorite old, old musical pieces is Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Not only is it wonderfully melancholy, it also describes a sense of resignation or acceptance of “what is,” while not giving up on the hope that something positive could yet be.

Why do we have this sense of optimistic resignation? Like the aforementioned song suggests, we keep going because we are continually hopeful that our never-ending efforts will some day bring amazing rewards. It is reminiscent of the act of stream fishing — we will stand in cold water for hours on end, only staying warm with the hope that, when we least expect it, the big one will hit. We know that we have to, and want to, keep trying. In our daily jobs, we keep going because we have to — we have no choice, because it is part of us. It is what drives us. Without it, we could not survive. Without that optimism, we would not reprocess the small successes that we do realize as food for future progress.

Thus, we continue to feel motivated when our senior administration asks us to identify, once again, our backlog of prioritized and fully scoped, deferred maintenance projects. Even over our own barely audible growls and grumbles, we will continue to keep our databases up-to-date, identifying funding shortfalls that need to be covered in order to resolve the highest priority, unfunded mandates. We will continue to find ways to collect data and formulate meaningful and accurate information, using the best technologies and management techniques available to us, so that we can prove that we are not as bad off as that cursed facilities index suggests.

Because of this uncontrollable drive to deliver the highest quality environment for our students, we will continue to look for methodologies that will get us required funding. We will continue to look for ways to cajole our legislators into funding our needs. We will continue to help our bosses look for alternate ways of funding high-priority projects. After all, we are not placating our own selfishly motivated cravings. These are not our own personal priorities that we want to get resolved; they deserve to be addressed in order to meet the campus’ future needs.

Thus, like the forlorn lover in Louis Armstrong’s song hoping to get that magic kiss, and like the fisherman searching for the perfect lure, we will continue to do what we think is necessary to get the job done and to get better results than we ever have before. We can’t help it. That is who we are. That is what will keep us going and will help us achieve success, some day. Trust me on this.


Pete van der Have is the assistant vice president for Plant Operations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at pvanderhave@campplan.utah.edu.

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