A Conversation with Diane Coles Levine

The Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation discusses her career, the Foundation, and the many opportunities for FM professional education, both at entry levels and for continuing personal development.

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December 2019

Jim Ware: I’m speaking today with Diane Coles Levine, who is currently the Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation (IFMA = International Facilities Management Association), which is based in Houston, Texas. However, Diane lives in Southern California and works remotely most of the time, which is a story in and of itself, but that’s for another time.

Today we’re going to talk with Diane about her career, how she ended up at the IFMA Foundation, and what she sees as the challenges and opportunities facing the facilities management profession in 2020.

Here is a four-minute “teaser” excerpt from the full forty-five minute conversation (the remainder of this post is a transcript of that full conversation, slightly edited  for clarity and readability).

March 2020 Update: This conversation between Diane Coles, Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation and Jim Ware, Managing Editor of Work&Place, took place in October 2019, well before the coronovirus pandemic of 2020. Thus, while it contains valuable information about the future of facilities management and FM career opportunities, it does not directly address any of the important strategic and workplace design challenges created by covid-19. However, the ideas and programs discussed here do have major implications for FM professional development independently of the pandemic.

Jim Ware: Diane is the perfect person for this conversation, as she has been an FM executive, an award-winning author, a workplace consultant, and is now leading the FM Foundation as its Executive Director.

Diane, thanks for being with us.

Diane Levine: Thank you!

Early Career Experiences

Jim: I’m looking forward to this conversation. Let’s start with some history. How did you get into facilities management in the first place? My recollection is that you once described yourself as an accidental FM. Take us through your early education and workplace journey. How did you end up in Facilities Management?

Diane: It was sort of accidental, but once I found out about the career, I was really interested in it and wanted to do it. I was a librarian and records management consultant for most of my early career in high school and college and shortly after college.

I was working as the head of the library and records center at the Orange County, California, Transportation Authority. My boss left, and they made me manager of general services – which included all the facilities, and I thought “this is my ticket out of libraries.”

I really wanted to get out of working in libraries, as much as I liked it. I wanted something new and different. Facilities management seemed like an exciting field; it was creative and different every day. It involved solving problems, and I was learning a lot. I really got excited about the work and so I followed around the vendors that were servicing the Orange County Transportation Authority. They mentored me. At the same time, I joined IFMA and got myself educated in the field of Facilities Management. I loved it.

Jim: I was going to ask about the education. You came into the profession with almost no formal FM education. How did you pick up the knowledge and skillset you needed?

Diane: Fortunately, I was a librarian, so I knew how to do research. I did a lot of research and found IFMA and other organizations and lots of reading materials. I took classes within IFMA and through the American Management Association. I had a lot of folks within the company that I worked for who took me under their wings. For example, the head of procurement taught me procurement procedures. That was really helpful. I wasn’t your typical Facility Manager; I had just finished a business degree, which I also think was helpful.

Jim: You and I first met when you were Director of Facilities at SCAN Health in Long Beach, California. How did you get there and how did you end up in a leadership position?

Becoming Director of FM at SCANHealth

Diane: I left the Orange County Transportation Authority when they put me on loan to a new government agency called the Orange County Health Authority that was doing business as CalOptima.

I had already moved Orange County Transportation Authority to a new headquarters facility. This new government agency also needed to find a headquarters and create a facilities department. At first, I was on loan, and then I ended up getting hired full-time at Cal Optima, which was a healthcare organization.

After being there for eight years, I was looking for a change and saw the position at SCAN Health Plan, which was right down the street from my house. I applied for the job and discovered that SCAN was a new and exciting and growing Medicare HMO that was very innovative and interested in doing some new and interesting things in their space. That’s when I got interested and excited about workplace strategy.

Jim: What was the interesting opportunity? What led you to focus on workplace strategy? Were there issues within SCAN that you needed to deal with?

Establishing a work from home program at SCANHealth

Diane: Yes. Healthcare was changing. That was back during the Bush administration, and SCAN was a demonstration project for over twenty years. The company was changing to become an HMO. They were a non-profit demonstration project. The whole revenue model was going to change with what was going on in the healthcare industry. SCAN was facing some big financial shifts and needed to find a way to save lots of money.

I was fortunate that I reported directly to the Chief Financial Officer. After many conversations, we started talking about how we could save money with real estate, telecommuting, and a new workplace strategy. We put together a workplace strategy that included our real estate investments and developed this very innovative plan.

We ended up realizing a 40% return on our investment. Jim, you were a part of that as one of our consultants. It was very innovative at the time, back in 2007. No one was really doing the kind of creative space that we were building, except for maybe Google.

We created collaboration pods, different ways of working, and enabled nomads in the workplace. We moved 30% of the workforce into a work-at-home program where they worked at home and came to the SCAN workplace only a couple of days a week.

The nice part about it was that during the project the team decided we were going to measure workforce productivity before and after people moved to this new workplace environment. We wanted to be able to show and prove that people were more productive in the new office environment than they had been previously.

Jim: I remember so well many of the discussions we had with those folks as they were learning to work from home. They told us some fascinating stories about how much they appreciated not having to get in the car in the morning and spend an hour on the Los Angeles highways, for one thing.

This is going off track a little, but I remember so well one of the women who was working from home told us that over the first few months she lost ten pounds. We asked her how she did that. She said “I am going out for walks in the morning instead of sitting in my car. I’m not going to fast food places for lunch, I’m eating healthy food.”

Little things like that made such a difference in people’s lives.

Diane: There was one team whose members were kind of antagonistic towards each other, and when they started working from home, they got along better. One of the managers came to my office and was excited that the staff came in once a week for a regular team meeting and they had a group hug, which was something they had never done before. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder!

Jim: The last decade and a half has been a fascinating transition in terms of the general acceptance of telecommuting. More importantly, I think it is about working flexibly. One of my memories of working with you at SCAN was that we began to realize that flexible work was not just working part-time at home and part-time at the office. It also meant working in different places within the corporate office over the course of a day.

Diane: Being able to move around and work where you want to work and having those random “oh-by-the-way” conversations that folks were having, produced so much creativity and innovation at SCAN. The workplace was changing and improving.

Becoming active at IFMA

Jim: That’s exciting. Take that now to your involvement with IFMA. Part of what happened was that you had such a great story to tell that you became a pretty prominent presenter at IFMA conferences. Is that right?

Diane: Yes. People kept asking me, how did you do it? How did you convince the executives to move to this new way of working? How did you increase productivity? We kept speaking about this topic at all kinds of conferences.

Then I began trying to figure out what was next. What was new in workplace strategy? That’s when I started doing research and started to work with you and all these other people around the world that were doing interesting and creative things in workplace strategy.

That’s when we created the first book Work on the Move[i] with these authors from around the world. The first book was an experiment in itself, because we paired authors with people they didn’t know in different countries. Somebody from the United States with someone from Hong Kong. <editorial note: that was Chris Hood in the United States and Marcus Bowen in Hong Kong>

Jim: I remember that. Not to go off on a tangent, but I also remember being intrigued with the fact that the first time many of us authors in that book met each other in person was when the book was first published and promoted at IFMA’s World Workplace conference.

Diane: We included case studies from all over the world. It was a really popular book. It was so popular that we did another one four years later. That first book also led to the workplace strategy research summit that the IFMA Foundation conducted at Cornell University. Then we did a second one in Wokefield Park in the U.K. in conjunction with University College London.

Those research summits contributed to the creation of a community within IFMA that is now called the Workplace Evolutionaries, which is now one of the largest and most thriving communities within IFMA.[ii]

Jim: You’ve been at the birth of a lot of these activities. We should point out that the books you mentioned were published by the IFMA Foundation. Was that part of how you started getting active with the foundation?

Diane: I connected with the foundation in 2006 when I first met Jennifer Shramo, who was on the board of trustees. She brought me in as a volunteer. I became a Foundation trustee around 2011/2012, and that’s when we hatched this idea of creating a book that would be a fundraiser for the foundation. It raised about $75,000. The second book raised even more. None of the authors got paid. They did it as a labor of love to help raise money for the Foundation.

The IFMA Foundation

Jim: Talk to me then about the Foundation. What is its role within IFMA? What are its mission and purpose? How does it operate?

Diane: The IFMA Foundation’s mission is to make facility management a career of choice. The IFMA Foundation is all about education and the future of education in Facility Management. We will be thirty years old in 2020 – we have been giving out scholarships for many years. Then twenty-three years ago we branched out into setting up these accredited degree programs with facility management so students could get a degree in the field.

These programs are now all over the world. Our gold-star primary mission today is developing facility management Accredited Degree Programs, or “ADP.”

Now we also have two other educational programs. One is called a Registered Degree Program, or RDP. It is more like a facilities management minor or academic certificate in facility management. And we have this other new program that we just started about 3-4 years ago called the Talent Development Pipeline program or TDP. That’s the model we’ve been experimenting with in collaboration with California community colleges.

We are tying IFMA’s Essentials of Facility Management (EoFM) certificate and a project management course with a business degree or technical degree. Those programs are hugely popular and very successful. They’re averaging about thirty students per class. Many of those programs include internships as well.

To date the IFMA foundation has given away over $1.7 million in scholarships. We average about $120,000 a year in scholarships. In 2019 we awarded $120,000 to twenty-seven students, very talented students, studying in the field of facilities management. The students also get an all-expenses-paid trip to the IFMA World Workplace conference and they participate in our signature competition called Ignite FM. It’s a student challenge.

Jim: How does that work?

Diane: It’s exciting. The students are so impressive. They are given an FM problem to solve; they work in teams of about 4-6 students. Basically, people who they don’t already know. They have just met. The teams have three hours to come up with a solution and create a PowerPoint presentation. They then give their presentation to the judges. The next day, they deliver that presentation in public. Each team has ten minutes to present their solution, and each person on the team must speak and present.

Then they are judged by our Global Workforce Initiative advisors, who are from Sodexo and ABM. The competition is run by FM:Systems another Global Workforce Initiative advisor. The audience and the formal judges are mostly talent acquisition professionals. Many of these students are getting hired right out of the competition! Some of them whether they won or not, they just impressed the judges. It’s wonderful.

Jim: This takes place at World Workplace?

Diane: At World Workplace, yes. And also at other IFMA conferences around the world, including World Workplace Europe. The students have an opportunity to interview with the Global Workforce Initiative advisors as well. They get to attend the conference and they meet IFMA board members, the board of trustees, IFMA fellows. It’s a wonderful experience for the students, and of course a real opportunity for organizations looking for new talent.

Jim: It has to be. It’s impressive. What is the relationship between the Foundation and IFMA in the broader sense?

Diane: IFMA established the Foundation. We are the charitable arm of IFMA. All of our funds come from donations. We are a 501c(3) non-profit. IFMA is a 501c(6). We are a separate entity, but the two organizations work closely together.

Our funding is also completely separate. It is all from donations from IFMA members, donations from chapters and councils and communities within IFMA who put on events like wine- and beer-tasting events and golf tournaments to raise money.

Most of the scholarship funding comes from the IFMA chapters, councils, and communities. We also get donations from corporate funds. We put on two major fund-raising events a year. One is at World Workplace in the fall, the other in the February timeframe.

Jim: Sounds like fun. Doing good and having fun at the same time. That’s a nice combination.

Diane: And changing lives.

Jim: Of course. That’s the doing good part.

You know, I would be remiss if I didn’t also ask how you evolved from being an FM practitioner into a recognized thought leader in the field, with those books and presentations. And then how did you progress from that role into now being the executive director of the IFMA foundation?

Diane: When I was a trustee on Foundation executive committee, I was one of the co-founders, with Nancy Sanquist, of the Global Workforce Initiative. That was our new program, a talent development program that created a new way to feed the pipeline of talent into accredited degree programs.

We realized that if we could get into high schools and community colleges and build more awareness about the field of Facility Management, then we could grow the accredited degree programs.

I was so passionate about the work. When we started working with our first talent development pipeline program, and I could see the impact we were having on these students, it just warmed my heart. This is what I have to do.

Last year the previous executive director of the Foundation left for a new opportunity in west Michigan, and I was really concerned about the direction of the Foundation. I just wanted to make sure that these programs would succeed, so I applied for the job and here I am.

Jim: I think there’s a message there for many of us about following your passions and following your heart. It is not just applying for a job. It is getting yourself in a position to make a difference. That’s incredibly important.

Tell me more about the Global Workforce Initiative and the talent pipeline you’ve been describing. What is new and revolutionary about that?

The Global Workforce Initiative and other Foundation programs

Diane: I think what is revolutionary is that we are sitting on a sleeping giant. FM is a great field. It is well paid, and you could save the planet by becoming a Facility Manager.

The sustainability aspect of managing buildings is huge. It’s a well-kept secret. I think there’s a huge opportunity if we could just spread the word about how awesome this field is – how well-paid it is and how it can impact both the environment and people in the workplace.

We are finding that when we get in front of students and we tell them our story, they sign up. I remember talking to some high school students; we were in front of about 1000 high school students in the course of a day and several of the students said this sounds too good to be true, or they also said this is the best-kept secret, I’m not going to tell my friends.

When we get in front of parents and they hear about the field, we are finding that some parents are taking the courses with their kids in the community college systems! We’ve got fathers and sons and mothers and sons and daughters taking the classes together.

Jim: That’s fascinating.

Diane: I was at a San Fernando Valley (California) chapter IFMA meeting. We had just started a new program at the college and there were two students who had taken the bus for two hours each way from West Los Angeles to Burbank to come to this chapter meeting because they were so excited about the field and about becoming a facility manager. It’s just a matter of spreading the word.

Jim: That’s really something. Again, it just speaks to me about the power of passion, that you care so much about this. You see the possibilities. You’re just the perfect spokesperson for the Foundation.

Diane: Thank you.

Jim: I guess that leads me to my final question. What do you see as the primary or most significant challenges and opportunities facing FM leaders and professionals in 2019 and 2020? You are focused on recruiting students. You’re excited about the opportunities to make a difference. Talk to me a little more about the big challenges facing the profession.

FM professional challenges and opportunities

Diane: There are two key things that I’m seeing; both come from the talent gap I have been talking about.

The average facility manager is forty-nine years old, which means most of them are in their sixties and are about to retire, or we’re seeing them retire. I have seen a lot of people who were mentors of mine who are now retiring. 50% of facility managers will be retired in the next five to fifteen years. That is huge.

I was talking to a director of talent acquisition at one of the major service providers and he told me that they have about 10,000 technicians who work for them. On any given day, they have 1000 openings!

A second challenge is the technical aspect of facility management and hiring the technicians, training people for the future of buildings who understand new building technologies and the Internet of Things and building systems. The future is completely different from what we’re familiar with now. Buildings will be big computers. Training people for the future is a big challenge, and then hiring and retaining those people.

Jim: That’s the thing you have to focus on. I think you’ve said it, but if you could direct the senior FM executives and major Fortune 1000 organizations to focus on one thing, what would it be?

FM professional education and development

Diane: Education in the field of Facility Management. Continuous education so they can fill this talent gap.

Jim: That’s a good point. It’s not just bringing people in at the beginning of the pipeline. You just talked about so many FM people retiring, but that will open up new opportunities for younger people who need to step up into senior leadership positions as opposed to technical roles.

Diane: Exactly. There is a technical track and there is a business track. Of course, the two can cross over. This field is changing so much, and technology is changing so much that Facility Managers have to be lifelong learners. Succession planning is going to be huge.

Jim: You also said something a minute ago that really intrigued me: a building is a computer. Recently my wife and I purchased a plug-in hybrid car. It was described to us as a computer on wheels. Clearly, a building is becoming that way as well.

I’ve become very active in sustainability issues in my local community. I keep hearing that job opportunities – this is broader than facilities, but it intersects – the job opportunities will be enormous in retrofitting existing buildings.

You and I have talked about this before; a building has a long lifecycle. Most buildings last fifty to a hundred years or more. The need to bring them up to date from an environmental point of view, from a technology point of view, and to take advantage of the kind of workplace that we can create from scratch today – in older buildings that is a huge job.

Diane: To that point, we have held many sessions with FM executives from major firms and college and university deans and professors to set up the curriculum for the colleges and universities. We’re seeing a common theme that building controls and building technology is a huge need. Not only that, but data analytics and data aggregation.

Being able to understand the meaning of the data and how to sell the data, what data is important, and how to talk to the senior executives about the data that you’re collecting within your building is going to be a huge undertaking. We are working to create new courses and whole new curricula for those skills.

Jim: I have one more comment. It is a bit of a digression, but I think it is critical. I remember very well several years ago when we at Work&Place were doing a research project that was driven by the RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) around developing the FM profession into more of a strategic role within major organizations. The project was called “Raising the Bar.”[iii]

During that project I led a focus group in Chicago; we were talking about some of the education issues you were just touching on. I was making the point that one thing we found in our research was the need to include business management topics within the FM curriculum. FM leaders need to learn how to think like marketers, and being able to speak about data with Chief Financial Officers is really important.

One of the women in the group had just finished a general MBA program. She said, “You know, we talk about adding business management courses into the FM curriculum. When are they going to put FM into the regular MBA program? People in marketing and HR and Finance don’t know a thing about FM. We’ve got to create literacy on that side of the fence, too.” That comment made a lasting impression on me.

Diane: We do have a few FM programs within business schools. And we have a couple of universities now looking at adding FM to their MBA program.

Jim: That’s encouraging.

Diane: With this new registered degree program, where you can get an academic certificate in Facility Management, there are a few universities looking to add that to their business programs. That’s exciting.

Another interesting thing we’re doing is, for those companies that have lots of facility managers, there’s a concept called Contract Education where you can bring the new education courses from, say, community colleges, into your company. The IFMA Foundation has partnered with several colleges and universities to bring that kind of education to organizations.

For example, we’re working with a major technology firm in Silicon Valley and a major facility management outsourcing firm as well as a local community college district. We conducted a gap analysis of their current and future education needs. We’re bringing the education program right inside the tech firm with customized training to be held directly for their employees.

Jim: I love the idea of bringing focused education right into a company. It’s a marvelous use of technology and of people’s time.

Diane: That adds to the life-long learning and succession planning for these organizations.

Jim: Diane, thank you for sharing these insights and experiences with our readers. These are incredibly important ideas with major implications for the future of FM.

Diane Coles Levine

Diane Coles Levine, MCR, is the Executive Director of the IFMA Foundation. She is also a former Chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Previously Diane was Director of Facilities at SCANHealth Plan. She was a long-time member of the Real Estate and Advisory Leadership Community’s leadership team and a co-founder of IFMA’s Workplace Evolutionaries Community. Diane is the principal author for Work on the Move, and the lead editor for Work on the Move 2. Diane holds a B.S. in Business and Management from Redlands University, a Certificate in Facilities Management from University of California Irvine, and a Certificate in Crisis Management and Business Continuity from MIT.

James Ware, PhD.

Jim is the Managing Editor of Work&Place. A former Harvard Business School professor, he has invested his entire career in understanding what organizations must do to thrive in a rapidly changing world. He is a workplace futurist, a meeting design strategist, an accomplished author, and a keynote speaker.  Jim is a recognized expert on new ways of working, with deep experience in designing flexible and distributed work programs. He holds PhD, M.A., and B.Sc. degrees from Cornell University and an MBA (With Distinction) from the Harvard Business School.


[i] Coles, Diane, et al. Work on the Move, IFMA Foundation (October 2011),  Available on Amazon.com at https://smile.amazon.com/Work-Move-Diane-Coles-ebook/dp/B006ZAGTT0/ref=sr_1_1?Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.x=25&Adv-Srch-Books-Submit.y=8&dchild=1&qid=1593543932&refinements=p_28%3AWork+on+the+Move%2Cp_27%3ADiane+Coles&s=books&sr=1-1&unfiltered=1. (Accessed January 20, 2020)

[ii] https://we.ifma.org/

[iii] Raising the Bar: Enhancing the Strategic Role of Facilities Management. Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, November 2012. https://www.rics.org/north-america/news-insight/research/research-reports/raising-the-bar-strategic-fm/#I


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