Passing The Facility Leadership Torch

Taking succession planning into account when a facility executive leaves the organization is a boon to those who take up the mantle.

By Katie Rodgers
From the December 2018 Issue

Helbling & Associates has specialized in facilities management executive search for over 20 years and, if anything, it has taught us that it’s extremely common for leaders in this field to spend very long tenures at their respective institutions. Subsequently, retirements and departures of these leaders threaten the strong relationships and partnerships they’ve cultivated over the years between the staff, vendors/suppliers, and end-users. This leaves everyone to wonder how, or if, a new hire is going to be able to pick up where they left off.


These partnerships have helped each party resolve emergencies and get through extremely difficult situations, strengthening the bonds between them. As our Managing Director, Jim Lord, states, “These are relationships only forged in fire.” Consequently, the new hire has to know and understand that history and be able to construct new, meaningful partnerships that continue to serve the institution well.

With this in mind, if your institution is aware of an upcoming retirement or departure, you may want to consider whether it would be beneficial to have the new hire shadow his or her predecessor. This period of time would allow for the “passing of the torch,” which, dependent on your given situation, may or may not be the best decision you’ve ever made.

To Overlap, Or Not To Overlap

One of the more critical points we hear as search consultants is that leadership change within facilities is hard on the staff. You may not realize it, but one strong benefit to overlapping incumbents is having the departing leader introduce the new hire to the team. It makes the experience a less jarring change for a department that typically relies heavily on its leader. Furthermore, this increases the likelihood of the team being receptive to change—and, as we all know, some level of change happens with every shift in leadership.

This opportunity is two-fold because the new hire also gets the chance to learn the personalities of his or her new team members. Spending time around the team helps them think of ways to respond to and energize them after taking office. After all, they are to become allies working together. It’s important that this introduction and handshake is the signaling of mutual trust and respect between the departing leader and their successor. Make sure he or she is on board with this idea and is enthusiastic about facilitating a proper introduction.

In addition to team introductions, the introductions to vendors and suppliers is equally important. Passing the torch allows vendors and suppliers to bear witness to the fact that the new hire has been made aware of what their predecessor has done, seen, and negotiated in their partnerships. If you don’t think it’s all that important, consider the implication of not doing this: it’s possible there could be negative financial impact. Therefore, it’s best to be safe and maintain those mutually beneficial partnerships, as it can truly be a missed opportunity if they’re not introduced to one another.

The most imperative introduction is to that of the institution’s end-users. In higher education settings, for instance, these include faculty, teachers, students, researchers, athletics, and other administrative departments. Higher education institutions are increasingly aware that facilities-related roles are crucial to providing an environment conducive to instruction and learning, research activities, and student life. Individuals in these capacities must ascertain the objectives of the end-users, and balance those needs and wants with the realistic options that align with cost and schedule parameters. Consequently, meeting as many end-users as possible during the new hire’s transition provides ample time for his or her perspectives to align with them.

Finally, another point we see often as a justification for overlapping incumbents is the challenge of maintaining aged buildings. Older institutions typically have a lot of maintenance issues, some of which aren’t known to anyone other than the facility management lead. Bringing the new hire on ahead of his or her departure brings awareness to the challenges they face in devising a future plan and all but ensures those hidden issues don’t go unnoticed. Shadowing their predecessor, they get a feel for older architecture, when and where it was restored, and issues that came to light over time and are not apparent in the complete drawing of the space.

Although it appears like overlapping can’t be anything but a good idea, there are a few situations that may cause reservations. These include the following.

  • The institution is in need of a culture shift, meaning passing the torch may signify a “same old, same old” mentality.
  • Restructuring or reorganizing is a very real possibility, and therefore the institution would not want to confuse the staff.
  • The departing professional is not held in high regard, causing the introductions to be downplayed.
  • There isn’t enough time to conduct the search, make the hire, and provide overlap.

Implement The Plan

Should you determine overlapping to be a beneficial endeavor, the best thing you can do is involve the departing incumbent in the search process. Our search consultants recommend the following:

  • Get the incumbent involved in the first interview as it usually centers more on the technical aspects of the role. However, ensure they are not alone in handling it, so that the feedback is well-rounded.
  • Have the departing professional spend time with the finalists on campus and take them on a campus tour once cultural fit becomes the deciding factor.
  • Give the incumbent a vote at the end of final interviews.

These are all general guidelines for aiding in leadership transition and can be applied to many industries and professions. It’s always good to be proactive so you have the time to consider what works for you and your institution. We will keep you updated as these trends continue.

leadershipRodgers is a marketing specialist at Helbling & Associates, a retained executive search firm based in Wexford, PA that specializes in real estate development, construction, engineering, and facilities management. Rodgers develops new marketing and business development initiatives for the firm and integrates them with existing programs to strengthen the brand and increase visibility in the marketplace.

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