How To Lead A Facilities Maintenance Department

Whether you are an experienced veteran or new to your role, there is always room to improve as a leader. This article lays out foundational advice for leaders in the facilities maintenance industry.

Accept responsibility for the outcome.

Strong leaders have many attributes, but I would say there is one that uniquely defines and informs a great leader: leaders choose to accept total responsibility.

Everything that happens under their leadership is their “fault.” I am intentionally using the word “fault” to illustrate a point. Fault carries a negative connotation. It’s used to assign blame. It’s associated with problems, and those problems are the leader's responsibility to solve, and they must face these problems with positivity and confidence.

The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team, but the junior leaders of teams within the team.

Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

The point the authors make is when a leader demonstrates a high level of ownership and responsibility and chooses to own the outcome, their attitude and actions shape the attitudes and actions of those whom they are leading.

A leader who blames others creates a dysfunctional team. A leader who accepts blame develops more leaders. An ownership mindset moves a leader from trying to avoid blame to proactively looking for problems and weak points so they can address and correct them. This action inspires those they lead to do the same.

Understand your company’s expectations and define your goals for the department.

Great accomplishments start with clearly defined goals. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey says the first step towards effectiveness is to begin with the end in mind. You have to know where you want to go, or you can’t create a plan to get there.

A leader must clearly define the result a team is working towards and communicate it often. Otherwise, the entire team, including the leader, will waste time by reacting to work that comes their way.

There is a fallacy in the facilities maintenance industry that a facilities maintenance department’s role is to manage repairs and work orders. This is not true. Managing repairs and work orders is merely a component or function of a greater goal. A facilities maintenance leader must know or define what the greater goal is, and their team must also know.

Ashley Lawrence, Vice President Facilities for Inspire Brands, says her best advice for new FM leaders is “Understand the objectives of your organization so you can be best positioned to lead your team to maximize the value of a facilities management program. Many organizations view facilities management as an expense and don't realize the potential benefits. I'd encourage them to have a clear vision and articulate how facilities can benefit their organization within the context of the organization's overall objectives.”

Create a list of everything that needs to get done to achieve those goals.

Productive people know how to break down a goal into action. This is often referred to as reverse engineering. Once you have decided where you want to go, you work backward to create the directions on how to get there.

Maybe your goal is to decrease repair completion time from 7 days to 3 days in the next 12 months. This is a very clear and measurable goal. The next step in the process is to get your most talented team members in a room and ask this question: “If this is going to be true, what also must be true?”

Your team may determine that you need

  • a better way to manage repairs, so work orders don’t fall through the cracks.
  • two vendors for each of your major trades.
  • to create new processes altogether.
  • to design a role that is accountable for monitoring progress and processes to improve towards this goal.
  • to experiment with NTE’s.

The list your team comes up with should be an exhaustive list. Resist the urge to edit or critique an idea while you are brainstorming. When an idea or suggestion comes up in the conversation write it down. You don’t want to miss a gem because someone keeps a thought to themselves because they thought it would be shut down.

Order your list from what’s most important to least important.

Now that you have your list of steps to get to your goal, it’s time to pare down and focus on one or two areas. Why choose only one or two? In their incredible book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX), Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling write:

If a team focuses on two or even three goals beyond the demands of their whirlwind, they can often accomplish them. However, if they set four to ten goals, our experience has been that they will achieve only one or two. They’ll be going backward! If they go after eleven to twenty goals in addition to the whirlwind, they’ll lose all focus. Confronted with so many goals the team members will stop listening let alone executing.

Focus increases your odds of accomplishing your goals, but what is the best way to figure out what to work on first? The 4DX authors offer a great question to help people clarify what is most important: If everything else stays the same, what is the one thing that will make the most significant impact in moving your team towards the goal?

You should expect to have differing opinions within your team, especially if they are talented people. Resist the urge to use your authority to make a decision. Your job is to ask clarifying questions and challenge the thought processes of those whom you lead. You never know what you will learn by asking questions and listening. Besides, great leaders develop great leaders. Don’t rob your team of the experience of healthy debate which grows their deep thinking and decision-making skills.

Determine what resources you need to accomplish your goals.

Great leaders put together strong teams and assemble the resources those teams need to get their job done.

Akira Bryson, Director of Design and Construction at The Meatball Shop says when hiring for your team, “[It is] important to look for problem solvers and people who can delegate but are eager to roll up their sleeves to resolve an issue.”

And once you have great people, you have to make sure everyone is clear on their role and what needs to be accomplished. “You can never over communicate. Your team's performance will benefit from the visibility you can provide to the big picture. It will help them better understand where they fit in, and they will know what is expected of them and be motivated to exceed expectations.” This is the biggest lesson Ashley Lawrence, Vice President Facilities for Inspire Brands, has learned in her career as a leader.

Once you have the right people on board, you need to make sure they have the right tools to get their job done. You want to avoid being a bottleneck. One of these tools is a decision-making framework.

On The Rich Roll Podcast, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, says that his job is to create systems that allow decisions to be made and action to be taken without his direct involvement. He might ask questions to determine why a particular decision was made and offer new perspectives for the future, but he aims to create an organization that can run in his absence.

You must also work to provide the right technology for your team. This includes computerized maintenance management software and computing devices that allow your team to be as mobile as possible. Your team needs high visibility about the state of work orders and ongoing projects as well as the ability to drill down into data for better decision making. Mobile computing devices (I love the iPad Pro) allow them to be in the field, visiting the facilities for which they are responsible while still being able to access all of their information and get their work done.

You must provide training to your team and set expectations that they continue to learn and grow. This should be a combination of company culture training, industry training, as well as other skill development. Check out resources like the Professional Retail Maintenance Association, the Restaurant Facilities Maintenance Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, LinkedIn Learning, Lynda, and leadership development conferences.

Work with the best vendors.

The maintenance contractor landscape is changing. More people are retiring from skilled trades than there are entering into them. This is creating a hiring problem for maintenance contractors. Wages are increasing. The number of quality contractors is decreasing, and larger firms are purchasing smaller firms.

The days of reverse auctions and driving down rates are coming to an end. Great leaders in the FM space will focus on working with quality facilities maintenance contractors instead of the least expensive ones and will have a plan reducing costs through proactive management and reducing the number of break downs.

They will work to understand the challenges their vendors have in delivering services that meet their company’s needs and work with them to create mutually agreeable solutions. They will understand that to attract the best vendors they need to be the best customer.

For more information on working with vendors, check our How To Hold Your Maintenance Vendors Accountable Part One and Part Two.

Get the budget you need.

A great facilities maintenance department leader fights for a substantial budget to meet their goals. Facilities maintenance departments are traditionally seen as a cost center within businesses. I argue this is a short-sided ideology for companies that have public facilities and want people to come to them.

The physical space is the first thing with which customers interact. It should be high on the list of well-funded departments, and there should be a clear plan with both tremendous support and accountability to carry out the plan.

You have to create an experience for people to entice them to come to your physical location and spend money. Otherwise, they will order products online, cook at home, or choose another place that has a better experience than your company can provide.

Companies are intentional about

  • training their people to deliver excellent customer experiences.
  • product development and market research to make sure their offerings are consistent with what people want to buy.
  • design, marketing, and advertising to get people into their stores.

They should also be intentional about developing a facilities maintenance program that works to protect the physical components of their brand. They should focus on making their locations look as great as possible instead of spending as little as possible. This doesn’t mean facilities maintenance departments should spend recklessly, but it does mean they should be treated as equals to the marketing department.

Wrap up

Your ability to affect change in your organization is a direct correlation with your ability to lead. Spend time learning leadership, practicing what you learn, and growing your ability to influence.


The quotes used in this post by facilities maintenance professionals were used with permission by people who want to help others learn to be great FM leaders. Their opinions are their own, and in no way does the inclusion of their quotes infer endorsement or association with Envoy Facilities Maintenance, LLC, and its products or services.