An olympic performance: what does it take to win?

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It is a sports-crazy time right now in Europe, and especially in London with the 2012 Olympics well under way. It is truly inspirational stuff. I’m not a sportsman, but I do appreciate how much goes in to reaching the highest levels of performance. It is not just the sportsperson, but many other parties, including sports equipment manufacturers, clubs and facilities, doctors and physiotherapists, sports scientists, and the all-important coach and mentor. Even for an individual win, it needs a team performance.

This made me think of our Facilities Management (FM) industry. How can we reach the highest levels of performance? How would you coach and mentor the Key Account Directors of FM companies. And on the client-side, the in-house Directors of Property & Facilities, ultimately responsible for ensuring that the supply chain team deliver high performance. If you were building a winning team in the FM industry, what would be on your agenda right now?
This clearly depends on what you deem as success, or ‘high performance’, and will vary according to the role and responsibilities of the ‘player’. In some ways the question is simpler in sport – the goal is to win. The specific objective of coaching may therefore be to focus on mind and body; to prepare mentally, and to achieve physically (jump further; run faster; etc.).

The question of what it takes to ‘win’ may have far more complexity when the subject is not a sportsperson, but a senior manager with a team, in a multi-stakeholder industry like FM.

High Performance: what is ‘winning’ in your role?
Unlike in sport, fortunately there does not need to be a winner and a loser in FM. Competition in bidding may be about winners and losers, but once a relationship is formed between the FM client and service provider, there should be no ‘loser’. However, again, unlike in sport, unfortunately it is also possible for all parties to lose! In the short-term, this may not be immediately apparent – but in the longer term it usually is. Negotiators talk about achieving a ‘win-win’ solution. In FM, it must usually be a ‘win-win-win’; all serious decisions need to achieve an outcome that works for the service provider, the in-house FM client, and their customers (heads of business units, government departments, etc.). These three parties can all lose, and can all be responsible.

For all parties to win, then ‘high performance’ means alignment; to align the needs of the key customer(s), through the in-house client, with the delivery by the service provider.

Communication: “send three and four-pence, we’re going to a dance”
In case you are not reading this in the UK, this old phrase needs a little explanation! Communication is not about ‘telling’ – it is about structuring your thoughts, sending and receiving, interpreting messages and confirming receipt and understanding of the messages. You can win or lose on communication – but, ineffective communication can be disastrous. A famous war story claims that a British Army Commander sent the message “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.” When the message finally reached the end of the line, it had become “Send three and four-pence, we’re going to a dance.” The reinforcements never arrived….disaster ensued.

What does this have to do with FM? It can feel like a long chain of command in today’s structured and outsourced industry. In the largest organisations, with the most structured FM service delivery, you can also see the greatest opportunity for breakdown in communications. And the communication is not one-way (like the Army story above); key decisions need to go from a customer group, to the FM client, to the managing service provider, and then often down the supply chain. We need to find ways to simplify, and to trust service providers to work directly with customers (and operatives to talk to end-users….like they surely once did?).

So, the first performance issue is communication: reduce complexity, and improve 2-way communication. Of course, effective communication is ultimately between people – no matter how much structure we put into our outsourced relationships.

People & performance: who is going to help you win?
The FM industry likes to wax lyrical about being a ‘people business’. Of course, in many ways it is. But the industry is being pushed down the ‘commodity’ route by unrealistic cost expectations. To maintain a margin, FM service providers have been forced to recruit lower-cost staff. This is endemic, not quite from top to bottom; I would say from upper-middle to bottom perhaps. The most senior management, on the client-side or service providers, is generally well-remunerated. But, on what basis are staff recruited, from Facility/Building Manager down to the cleaner or security guard? i.e., these people who are going to help you to win – your team.

There are many points to consider here, but I will focus on just the following:
• Don’t under-estimate the usefulness of deep organisational knowledge
• Character cannot be taught; communication skills also take time
• Attitude – who is going to help you to ‘win’ with customers?
• You can delegate (or outsource) work packages, but not ultimate responsibility

Deep organisational knowledge
Firstly, a serious flaw in outsourcing – it does not need to happen, but all too often it does. I have seen the result of an FM client that does not have control over the replacement of ex-middle managers who have what I would call “deep organisational knowledge”. I.e., they understand the culture of the organisation; they know how to get things done; they know where the power bases lie, and who to talk with to get things done. In effect, they know many things that cannot be taught. But, 12-18 months (typically) after being ‘outsourced’ from client-side to service provider, they are moved to another client account, usually with more responsibility (to cover their higher staff cost) and their role is back-filled with a lower-cost manager. But, the new person does not have the same middle-managers’ knowledge of how to get things done. Customers notice, and the FM client and service providers’ Account Director both get pulled in to try to improve performance. Often, the customer weighs in, and the replacement Manager gets duly replaced….and so it goes on. If you are either the FM client, or the Account Director, this is all distracting from your aim to ‘win’ – to work together to deliver high performance.

Character cannot be taught; communication skills also take time
The second point is really about personal characteristics versus those that can be taught. ‘Character’ itself takes years to develop; things like work ethic, trust and reliability. Communication skills and ‘customer service attitude’ similarly take time. Technical skills, on the other hand, can usually be taught more easily over a reasonable period of time.

There is a good reason why Heads of FM in several high-end professional firms have told me that they prefer to keep all of their Managers, and many of their FM operatives, directly employed in-house. Partly, this is due to what I have called above “deep organisational knowledge”. But it is also due to a concern that good people, with the right character and communication skills, will be ‘swapped-out’ or promoted onto other Accounts if they move to an outsourced service provider.

There is a solution to this problem, which will benefit both the FM clients and the service provider market; recruit and develop people with demonstrated ‘character’ and communication skill. In an ideal world, someone from the FM client team and someone from the service provider management would, together, interview every operative who was put forward to work at the clients’ facilities. Realistically, FM client teams are being downsized, so they do not have the bandwidth to do this. So, the service provider’s management must be relied upon to run this interview process. But, it needs a few checks – will this person impress our internal customers and visitors?

Attitude – who is going to help you to ‘win’ with customers?
You might argue that character, discussed above, and ‘attitude’ will go together. I’m sure that you can give examples of people with good character, communication skills and attitude. But a particular customer-service attitude is, once again, a personal characteristic accumulated over time.

I spent some time looking at this area for a study several years ago, and have observed changes in the FM market ever since with a different perspective. I interviewed the Director of Facilities (I’ll call him Tom) at a the London headquarters of an international PLC – a showcase building, with a mixture of staff and high profile visitors from the same company, and many other organisations. Tom and I walked the floors, and had lunch in the restaurant. His attention to ‘service detail’ was second to none, and he told me about his background in hotel management and catering. He stopped once as we walked, and adjusted a piece of artwork. Tom explained how he ‘poached’ staff from top London hotels, to run his client meeting areas, reception and security (and probably other areas). As I left the building, the security guard (not dressed in uniform, but in hotel-style coat tails) walked towards the reception desk as I signed-out, and escorted me through the doors.

That was seven or eight years ago. But, since then I have noticed, and discussed with senior FMs, a trend towards employing hotel and customer-service trained staff to work in FM. Less than two years ago, I was with the Head of FM for a law firm, who asked reception to send me to the client meeting suite. There I was greeted by a uniformed middle-aged woman, immaculately presented, with a great voice and smile. She took me to a meeting room, got me a coffee, and had a conversation about the history of the building while I was waiting. Later, during the meeting, I found out that all the customer-service people on that floor were ex-BA cabin crew. It certainly showed.

You can delegate (or outsource) work packages, but not ultimate responsibility
This is my last point, as in many ways it is the key to success with all the other issues (and many more that I could have covered). That is, the buck stops with the in-house Head of FM; he or she hears from the organisation’s customer groups if the FM service is not achieving the levels which they expect. To achieve the ‘win-win-win’ that I described above, there must be alignment of expectation (and delivery of course) between the customers, the in-house Head of FM as client, and the outsourced service providers. And so on, down the supply chain. Ultimately, in FM as in any other area of management, you can delegate (or outsource) work packages, but you cannot delegate responsibility. The whole extended team is ‘your team’ and it’s their performance which will see you win or lose.

Enjoy your summer of sport, and FM! And a particular ‘well done’ to the organizers and facilities management staff who are making the 2012 Olympics in London a great success. You are also on the winning team!

Paul Carder, Managing Director, Occupiers Journal Limited (paul.carder@occupiersjournal.com)

2 Comments
  1. Sesha says

    enjoyed reading this. very apt and relevant points. i must say this applies to most of the industries including Project Management that i work on from service providers side.

    1. paul says

      Sesha, thankyou for your feedback. Its good to know that there is someone out there reading what we think & write! regards, Paul

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