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Being strategic is an aspiration for both the industry and FM professionals, but acquiring operational experience beforehand will help you to make a success of it, says Nick Fox.

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03 December 2018 | Nick Fox

“You can’t be operational and strategic at the same time.” This was the title of my latest LinkedIn post. The responses told their own story with no clear agreement either way and, of course, gave views based on individual experiences, negative and positive.

The most common thought was you had to understand the subject before you could make strategic decisions. A comment from Lucy Black (IWFM non-executive director) sums it up: “It all starts going wrong when you lose touch with the detail.”

I put my progression in the FM industry down to being strong operationally with the ability to think strategically. Surely you have to know the detail to make rational strategic decisions?

Or perhaps being too close to the front line clouds your judgement and ability to make strategic decisions? Are operational FMs able to make the step change to strategic positions and what are the hurdles?

Learning along the career ladder

I remember taking on my first supervisory position at 19 and my first senior management role at 22. Both roles were learning curves, but steps you have to go through when you climb the career ladder, especially for a kinaesthetic learner like me.

No matter what management theory I read, I learn by doing and experiencing, As I’ve got older and advanced in my career, I have learnt to balance theory with practical experience.

Don’t expect an epiphany

There is no epiphany when you cross from operational to strategic. I honestly believe that experience and working your way up through the ranks gives you that ability and, importantly, the confidence.

I wouldn’t class myself as a full-blown strategist, but what I have learnt to do is balance theory and lots of conflicting information, recall many different experiences across many different FM disciplines, prioritise and decide on the right outcome – something I believe that you achieve jointly from study and experience, not solely one or the other.

Wikipedia defines ‘strategy’ as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”. Looking at this definition, facilities managers in operational roles will be making strategy-impacting decisions day in, day out, especially those with P&L, people, client, commercial, health and safety and other responsibilities. So does this make them ‘strategic? I would suggest not, but what it does do is get them closer to be being strategic.

Five tips for a strategic mindset

To that end, my top five tips to cultivate a mindset that combines operational and strategic ability:

  • Never stop learning (through experience, study and networking) and stay humble;
  • Never be afraid to ask ‘silly questions’ as the questions aren’t often silly;
  • Take opportunities to mentor and be mentored;
  • Say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it later, don’t let doubt stop you from advancing your career;
  • Learn to delegate and manage your time wisely.

Strategy requires more than defining aims

Being ‘strategic’ is not just about creating a long-term plan of action; it’s also about ensuring that you have the means to achieve your aims. Being able to use experiences and theory, juggle external political, economic and social factors, juggle market conditions (such as poor margins, lack of skilled staff), align with the company direction, turn it into a plan and, most importantly, deliver success are the various requirements you need to meet to bring about the step change.

Having worked in FM for nearly 10 years now, I tend to reflect most days on what went right and what went wrong and try to learn, research and make sure that next time I am better equipped.

One thing is beyond doubt; FM is so diverse. You have to accept that you can’t know everything but what is key and what you learn with experience is knowing what pertinent questions to ask when you come across certain situations.

Nick Fox, is chair of IWFM Members Council and an experienced senior FM professional and consultant