It's a poignant irony that with facilities management still the second or even third career choice of many, Ismena Clout - aged 39 - can now say that she has dedicated her entire working life to both the BIFM and the profession it represents. Martin Read reports.
8 May 2014
Ismena Clout is now the immediate past chairman of the BIFM.
She boasts a track record in volunteering for the institute that must surely be unparalleled, having come to FM from a classical office management background. But as you may have guessed, that's not the whole picture - because she has also been living with breast cancer since 2004, a disease that has finally forced an early end to her work in a role she so dearly loved to perform.
The disease is the reason for her standing down, but the career is the focus of this story. In our interview, Ismena corrects anything I get wrong about the institute and the work it does. Hers is clearly a deep connection to the BIFM, and you sense her frustration at having to let it all go. What's more, at every turn she's keen to talk about how she has loved "every minute" of her time in the profession.
"I'm one of those classic FM stories," she says. "I dropped out of university and took an executive PA course, and then got my first job as an office manager. It was a typical mix of job functions that wouldn't fit anywhere else; I was sorting the accounts, manning the reception desk, that sort of thing."
Moving on, she had to decide whether to continue a career in accounting ("Most 13-year-olds want to be an airline pilot; I wanted to be an accountant"), or commit to FM fully. The FM bug had bitten deeply, though.
Ismena's first dedicated FM role was with iTouch, a tech firm caught in the dramatic growth of the millennial internet bubble. During two years with the firm she took on more and more - buying in phone systems, desks and other furniture, before moving the firm from one office to another as the business responded to the internet bubble's dramatic burst. In essence, the job was a condensed course in FM's infinite variety.
"I absolutely loved it. I had to take a significant pay cut, but this was a role that involved running an entire 16,000 square feet building on a standalone full repair and insure lease, with all its UPS, generators air-con systems, etc. I figured that the experience I'd get there would be worth more than the pay cut I took. And I was right."
After this, Ismena moved to independent TV production company Hat Trick Productions, where running the building also led to an involvement in the running off-site TV productions. And it's at Hat Trick that the BIFM enters into Ismena's story.
"Everything I'd learnt so far had been self-taught, but I knew that if I was to manage bigger buildings or multi-site portfolios, ultimately reaching facilities director level, I'd need external help. So I Googled for advice - well, it was 2004 so I probably 'Alta Vista'd - and that's how I found the BIFM."
Indeed, 2004 was to prove a pivotal year. Ismena joined both Hat Trick and the BIFM in January - but in June received her first breast cancer diagnosis. The initial prognosis, although shocking, was of a disease that could be managed, so over the next two years Ismena ramped up her volunteering activity. And she soon formed the view that the BIFM of the time wasn't doing enough for young people.
"The institute was too focused on those with well-established careers; there was little for people new to FM," she says.
On the rise
In 2006, this magazine started its first search for the UK's top emerging FM talent, dubbed the '35 under 35" (re-christened 'Rising Stars of FM' in 2012).
"I still to this day don't know who nominated me," says Ismena. "And I'd love to - I didn't know that many people in the profession at the time."
Ismena credits the event supporting '35 under 35' for changing her career. The then BIFM CEO Ian Fielder was present, and Ismena took him aside to complain about the BIFM's lack of focus on emerging FM talent. "I told him right there and then that I was going to get involved in the institute - and I was going to be its chairman."
Weeks later, Ismena was a committee member for BIFM's London regional group. Within six months, she was that group's deputy chair. And soon, she had set up the institute's group for young FMs; 'Rising FMs' which was inaugurated in 2007.
"To be fair to the BIFM, they'd been waiting for the right person to make it happen," says Ismena. "They recognised the gap but just needed someone young and energetic to set it up."
The group's first meeting was at publisher Harper Collins, where Ismena now worked as FM; the number of attendees already rivalled the best audiences for other BIFM sigs. One of the goals for 'Rising FMs' was to have a Rising FMs category in the BIFM Awards. "I've worked behind the scenes to get this award," says Ismena, "so it's gratifying to see it introduced this year. I'm sure it will prove a popular addition."
Today, Rising FMs has one of the highest BIFM sig memberships.
"All of my successors have continued the good work, and I'm pleased to say that the group continues to go from strength to strength. Seeing how the group has changed with each chair, and seeing it grow to become exactly what I dreamt it would be, makes me very proud." Perhaps, she says, the time has come for the group to split into two - one for young FMs fresh from university, another for career switchers.
"We now have a phenomenal career path that leads those coming into FM from education directly into membership. That audience has completely different needs to those who have transferred from other industries, who are probably already managers and just need to learn the 'facilities' element."
Ismena briefly chaired both the London and Rising FM groups before joining the BIFM's main BIFM board in 2009. In 2011 she was elected joint deputy chair with Stuart Harris to serve incoming chair Ian Broadbent. It was soon after taking the role of deputy chair that she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer - news that only served to drive Ismena on.
Some of this drive is clearly inherited; Ismena's father Peter has developed computer control systems that run particle accelerators. He now runs his own software company, and is also an institute man, serving as a board member on the IEEE.
When Ismena took to the stage in 2012 for the opening address at the BIFM Awards, Clout Senior was present, having flown in from the USA.
Taking the chair
"I'd always wanted to be chairman," says Ismena. "I knew I could bring something to the board and that my leadership skills would benefit the institute. Naturally, when you're on the outside looking in, you think everything's being mismanaged - but once you get on the inside you see all the good work that goes on, work that people externally will never see. And you totally underestimate what goes into the chairman's role.
"My volunteering has massively hindered my career and job progression," she admits. "But given the illness I had to ask myself what can I do in the shortest period of time with my skill set that can make the most difference. And for me it was to put myself forward as chairman."
When Ian Broadbent stepped down in the summer of 2012, Ismena took over - at a time of realignment for the institute.
"We were in a very difficult financial position," says Ismena. "Radical changes had to be made. As someone who loves FM, everything I've done has been in order to help the profession. And FM needs a professional body to move the industry forward. To be in a situation where that might no longer have been the case, and be in a position to turn it around, was a huge honour - but also a lot of work and stress."
As chairman, Ismena represented the BIFM in discussions with other associations, most notably EuroFM and IFMA. "I'm an enthusiastic networker," she says, "and I like to think that, whether it was at conferences, exhibitions or on the international stage, I made a difference." But the institute's growth over the past two years is something she puts down to a harmonious board, a driven executive - and her strong working relationship with BIFM CEO Gareth Tancred.
"We'd already worked together for two years on the institute's medium-term strategy brief, so we knew each other well. I had absolute faith and trust in Gareth and the executive to get on with the job. A healthy relationship between chair and CEO is vital.
"My proudest moment as chairman has got to be standing on stage at our awards ceremony and speaking to 1,300 industry professionals. But I'm equally proud of being able, with Gareth, to offer strong leadership in difficult times. The BIFM has gone from near bankruptcy to the most successful it's ever been in a little over two years."
The future - for BIFM
"Our role as an institute is one of stewardship," says Ismena. "We're responsible for attracting new talent to the sector and training it for the job; we also need to ensure that we're represented to the wider business world. FM wouldn't be FM without the BIFM.
"We've got to continue strengthening our voice, and an important element of that is our international voice. We in the UK are world leaders; our FM qualification structure is second to none. There's a responsibility for us to share what we offer to other countries to help them get to where we've got."
When her illness recurred Ismena left her permanent job to start a part-time consultancy, reasoning that this arrangement would allow her the most time to dedicate to chairman's role. Then, in September, a fresh diagnosis showed that the cancer was back with a vengeance. Since then she has dedicated her energy to the role of chairman.
"The most important thing, to the board and the leadership of BIFM, is stability. So where that's meant letting some of the responsibility of the chairman's role go, that's what we've done so that I can focus on the core role.
"The last six months have been very hard, and I have to thank my deputy chair and chairman-elect in stepping in to help out.
"We elected the chair role early knowing that my health was deteriorating and so that we had a succession plan in place. [Incoming chairman] Julie Kortens has had nine months to prepare for the role, and that's the longest an incoming chairman has had. I knew that if I had to step down early we had the next person elected. And Julie is the perfect person in the perfect position to take the institute and the FM sector as a whole to the next stage of development.
"The one thing anyone thinking of putting themselves forward to volunteer for the BIFM, in whatever capacity, is 'do I have the skill set, knowledge base and vision that fits with what the BIFM needs right now? Can I make a difference?' "
The future - for Ismena
"I really wanted to serve my full term as chairman, but sadly my diagnosis position changed a few weeks ago and I'm now on a much stronger chemotherapy.
"I'd always thought that I could go back to being me, that no matter what, I'd still be able to have some involvement in work. But I've realised I've got to the point where I just can't, and that's a really bitter pill to swallow. So a few weeks back I phoned Gareth and said, 'you know what? That's it, I'm done'.
"I got this cancer when I was 29," she says. "I knew then that I'd never have children, and as for partners I always had in the back of my mind that I wouldn't be bringing anyone else along with me on my journey. So work was all I had, and I put everything into it. That's what's made this decision so hard. My health has deteriorated to the point where I have to focus on maintaining it to the exclusion of all else. More importantly, I need to remove the stress from my life and focus on getting this chemotherapy working. If it doesn't I'm pretty much out of options. It's time to accept that my life has changed forever, that I need to focus on the next stage, which, for me, means a smaller life."
Ismena still writes, though. She calls blog writing (see box, right) her "support system".
"It's a form of counselling for me, and it also helps so many women and actually men going through advanced cancer."
She has also developed a motivational speech for those seeking a speaker clearly qualified to talk about fighting adversity. "It's not a crying fest," she promises. "I talk about my illness, yes, but I also talk about how I've been able to get on with what I wanted to do despite it.
"I've given my best years to the institute and made massive personal sacrifices to be able to be chairman. Chairing this institute has been the greatest honour of my life; knowing I've made a difference to the industry as a whole. I couldn't have asked for more.
"But I could never have done it without such an amazing board, such a brilliant deputy chairman and a fantastic CEO."
And her parting message for the BIFM's membership?
"Don't complain about not getting access to the C-suite. It's up to you to bang on the door, so get on and do it. A seat on the board? That depends on the company. The important thing is that you should have relationships with everyone who is sat on that table.
"But above all, be proud of being an FM. It's a fantastic job. I've loved every minute of it."