Professional Development: Facility Executive As Polymath

By Bob Barnes, CFM, MCR
from the July/August 2015 issue

The term “polymath” comes from the Greek roots poly-, for “many,” and manthanein, “to learn.” A polymath, in other words, is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different disciplines. The term originated in Europe during the Renaissance period, the cultural movement that triggered a redevelopment in interest in classical learning, when society began to prize people with multiple skills and a wide range of knowledge.

For the contemporary facility executive, the challenge to keep pace with the complexity inherent in the built environment is daunting. Ongoing advances in design and construction result in buildings impressive in appearance and functionality, yet complicated to maintain and operate. Likewise, aging infrastructure poses an even greater array of challenges for facility professionals to maintain because both the investment to fix and the risk of deferring repairs can be huge. Further, ever since the advent of workplace strategy as a competitive linchpin to recruiting talent in the high-tech industry, the job of facility executive within leading enterprises has catapulted to the forefront of business planning.

So what sets apart the facility executive who has the ear of those on the executive committee in aligning workplace and real estate strategy to the planks of organizational vision? Or, in the case of the service provider facility executive, who instills full confidence in comprehensive service delivery, enabling clients to focus on high impact strategy? I posit it is the facility executive who displays the attributes of the modern day polymath.

There is no polymathic composite for success; therein lies the beauty of the notion as it can cast itself to the needs of the enterprise and the capabilities of the executive. Yet, there are individuals, many of whom are featured in the pages of Facility Executive, who exhibit elements that can be exemplified into a profile.

The essential characteristic adopted by the facility executive polymath is an external modus operandi (MO). This is easier said than done within a profession known for largely working backstage with occasional heroics displayed during facility emergencies. By external MO, I mean more than a studied view of the business environment. Today’s facility executive must certainly possess business acumen, but more important, he or she can engage the External (capitalized because this is an all-encompassing apparatus of networks and community) through leadership in thought and action.

Here’s a starting point: How closely do you work with the communications leader within your organization? Not only must they be your partner for outreach within the organization, but also outside the organization, into the realm of local government, media, cultural and charitable organizations, etc. Depending upon circumstances (and egos), the communications leader may embrace your willingness to partner, or may try to marginalize your desire to do so. Either way, in this era of social media, the savvy facility executive will view messaging as vital both within the workplace and outward facing to the local community and beyond, and will tap into a wide range of outlets to deliver the message.

During my past position managing the global headquarters of a medical device company, the global head of communications designated me as the executive spokesman for Metro Atlanta, an unusual role for a facility executive. This occurred after she observed me over time working with local government leaders (attending periodic city council meetings, planning sessions, and events), media (e.g., dealing with inquiries on business expansion plans, sustainability initiatives, zoning disputes), the business community, and cultural/charitable organizations. In close consultation with her, I maintained liaisons with local officials and constituents, while she was more free to focus on strategic corporate communications issues. This partnership was based on credibility built over time.

Underlying the need to establish credibility was a necessary parallel attribute of having an external MO: being opportunistic in the positive sense of that word. There are a plethora of “extracurricular” opportunities for the facility executive to engage in beyond the conventional profile. In my case, no one on the executive committee was inclined to cultivate relationships with municipal officials and regional economic development principals or cultural leaders. That left a void to exercise corporate citizenship in various avenues, so opportunity, desire, and empowerment triangulated to provide me a myriad of options to engage the External!

Being a facility executive polymath does not come without a price in terms of time and commitment, often at times after hours. But the dividends can be huge for both your organization and your career. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” In other words, one needs to be intentional and proactive in making time for the importance of dealing with the External.

facility-executive-skillsBarnes recently left his position as vice president of operations for Sodexo to lead the facilities organization for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a contributing author, he wrote about facility management professional competencies in the book International Facility Management, edited by K. Roper/L.Borello, published by Wiley Blackwell (2014).