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By Jennifer Goetz
From the December 2023 Issue


Traditionally, facility managers had a wealth of knowledge that resided with them alone — understanding the ins-and-outs of critical building systems, expertly carrying out the processes that keep operations up and running, and maintaining established relationships with both building personnel and with third-party partners.

Today, as many in the facility management and building automation fields are reaching retirement age, it’s well understood that this critical building knowledge has to be passed down. In addition to retirements, the facility management industry, like many other industries in the post-COVID era, has seen an increase in job hopping. Instead of having years to prepare for an important transition, organizations are increasingly finding themselves having a sudden vacancy in a critical role.

“The bigger problem is always how do you plan for something that you know is coming, but you just don’t know when,” says David Trask, National Director of ARC Facilities, a software company that offers mobile-friendly solutions to access building information, equipment maintenance, and emergency information.

succession planning
(Photo: Adobe Stock / Pepperpot)


According to research from the Info-Tech Research Group, at the beginning of 2023, 56% of organizations have not started succession planning. In the same study, it found that 74% of organizations don’t have a dedicated knowledge transfer plan in place.

“Organizations know [that employees will leave], they are planning for it, they are doing the best they can, but it comes back to one thing, and that’s time,” says Trask. “How do you get 30-years of institutional knowledge out of that person’s head before they walk out that door? Even if they give you a two-year window—if you have 100 buildings, how do you get 100 buildings’ worth of knowledge out of that person’s head, when they’re still supposed to do their day-to-day job?”

“Succession Planning: A Step-by-Step Guide” created by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), outlines some of the real risks to organizations if they don’t have a plan in place including: permanent loss of critical knowledge; naming a successor in haste who is not ready or right for the role; loss of time to get successor ready; and potential disruptions to operations and processes. These are some of the very real consequences organizations can expect to see, or have already experienced.

Keeping Information With Buildings

Prior to thinking about a successor, organizations should consider where critical building information lives and how to pass it on. For executives and managers, getting that information from personnel isn’t always easy. “Back in the day, your knowledge was your power as an employee,” says Trask. “If I knew it, and no one else knew it, that’s my leverage.”

“[Employers are] fighting for the same pool of people. The problem is that pool of people is shrinking.”

— David Trask,
National Director, ARC Facilities

Naturally, this creates a challenging dynamic for employers, especially when there’s so many employees either switching jobs or on the precipice of retirement. “If you’re the company owner, [this] takes your power away and now the next person up who steps into that role is blind.”

Fortunately, Trask believes many organizations have identified this risk and are taking steps to ensure that critical building systems and operations live with the building, or with the building owner, so nothing is lost in transition. No matter how loyal an employee is, they will eventually leave, and buildings still need to operate.

Supporting The Skilled Trades To Increase The Applicant Pool

On that note, losing employees is a bigger deal today because there are less people available to fulfill facility management roles. As less people are stepping into traditionally skilled trade roles, demand remains and many employees are leaving to seek other opportunities. “[Employers are] fighting for the same pool of people,” says Trask. “The problem is that pool of people is shrinking.”

There are also common stigmas around skilled trades, such as that facility management is a job, not a career, or that it’s a second job for when an initial career choice falls through. Trask believes this way of thinking needs to be walked back, so we can fill this labor gap.

Retaining Potential Successors

Of course, before looking to outside candidates, facilities owners can always promote employees from within. Not only do these employees know and understand the buildings and have existing relationships, but employers can also more closely evaluate performance for a longer period of time prior to making a hiring decision.

The NIH guide highlights the importance of creating a process to help select the right person for a role. “It is more effective and a best practice to determine which positions are best qualified to succeed another position rather than the individual people filling those positions at any given time.” This reduces the risk that a pre-selected candidate may leave the organization, and it provides an opportunity to discover an unexpected candidate.

Deciding how to build people from within is a question for many organizations. According to Trask, a few organizations he’s worked with have seen success by using a career ladder process. “With the staff organizations have, say an electrician or an HVAC tech, they’re providing these career ladder pathways for employees to move up. There are some really successful organizations doing these types of programs.”

Creating A Smooth Transition

Before picking a successor, the NIH guide recommends getting a “workplace snapshot” using analytics to guide the decision making when it comes to what prioritize in succession planning. Having this data is vital to understand which roles within the facilities team are most critical, and which ones are the most vulnerable.

Naturally, having a software solution that keeps a record of building maintenance and repair schedules is an invaluable resource for a new employee stepping into an FM role. To prepare current facility employees for a potential promotion, organizations can create mentorship programs and offer classes for people that want to learn.

According to Trask, one common situation is that when a manager leaves unexpectedly, executives will designate a new person within the organization to take on the role — even if they’re not ready or if they don’t want the position. He acknowledges that while this can work out, and the employee in this scenario could become an incredible FM, this is a risk that can lead to problems down the line. Having optional training classes or mentorship programs can help employers identify who is really open to taking on the role.

What To Look For In A Successor

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At the end of the day, organizations need to do their due diligence to ensure that whoever gets the open facility management role, that they’re the best fit. Trask recommends executives consider the following questions: “Do they know your buildings? Do they know all aspects of your buildings? Do they also know the other things associated with that management role, such as budgets? Do they know how to do planning? Do they know the other trades within your organizations, such as if there’s a plumber in your organization, do they know anything about pluming? Do they know anything about HVAC? Do they know enough?

When you’re interviewing these people and talking to them, and you’re evaluating someone who’s stepping into the role, you have to consider: Are they coachable? Are they trainable? Are they hungry? Do they even want to go in that role, or are they just being put in?”

Trask believes that the ideal candidate is the one who can check off the most boxes when it comes to both the near and long-term needs of an organization.

Goetz is the Editorial Director of Facility Executive. 

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at jen@groupc.com.

Facility Executive Magazine