The Things I've Learned 2012

As each year passes and a fresh year begins, I like to think through some of the lessons I learned (or re-learned) as a personal and professional growth exercise. I think the theme for 2012 was that those lessons that stick with you are the most painful lessons to learn. 

I feel that the hardest lesson I learned this past year was to not get lost in the day-to-day routine… or the Tyranny of the Urgent (Charles E. Hummel). Those daily issues that tend to consume our time can quickly and easily overwhelm us. As facilities leaders we must remember that, as I always say, “It’s not just maintenance!” Team and relationship building, budgeting, planning, and reporting are very critical functions of our maintenance department. These administrative and managerial tasks are now, and always have been, critical to the success of our employees and departments. Especially so amid the budget and personnel cuts we’ve endured over the past number of years.

React, But Don’t Overreact

Similar to driving on icy roads, we must remember not to overreact or overcorrect to situations as they happen. The same holds true with the decisions we make on behalf of our departments. When certain critical situations arise, try always to take a balanced approach to your response or reaction. What I mean by this is akin to knee-jerk reactions after an on-the-job accident occurs. If an employee falls from a ladder, a committee’s first response might be, “no more ladder climbing.” We know that’s not a sustainable action, but it might seem like a good idea at the time. Even in the most critical response scenario, always take a moment to quickly think through the possible outcomes of your decision.

Partly in response to the previous thought, I have learned the importance of patience. Slowing down our processes creates a more deliberate set of actions. Over the past year or so our leadership at the university has implemented new processes for project approvals. These are, at first glance, painfully slow. However, taking a more concerted look at it, I now realize that the more deliberate we are in our design, planning, review, and approval processes, the more we save ourselves time and money in terms of eliminating unnecessary projects. Ultimately, since it’s not just maintenance, much of what we do connects in some direct way to the overall function of the university and its mission of education.

Be Ready to Respond

I learned that I must be ready with a quick response. What I mean here is that I must know enough about what is happening within our department and organization, as well as the various work we do and work practices we follow, to be able to answer most of the questions that may arise about what we do and how we do it. A related lesson I learned way back in my Army days; if you don’t know the answer, do not simply make something up! Let them know that you don’t know the answer but that you will find out and get back with them. Misinformation is much worse than no immediate information. 

Be Self-Aware

Last year, one point I brought up was to consider our department’s self-perception. Many times we really do think we are “all that and a bag of chips,” when in fact the true representation of our department might be a week-old sandwich and some stale crackers! As the campus maintenance department and the leaders of such, we must consider how we interact with other departments. This means investing in connections with other leaders and key points of contact so they know we are there to serve them, and that we truly care about the work we produce.

Finally, I spent years trying to tell myself not to take things personally. Now I’m not 100 percent sure that detachment helped my department produce quality work. In retrospect, having some investment — skin in the game, if you will — can help drive a leader to want to do better, and will thus create a better product from our employees. The front line folks can sense when they have leaders that are vested in their success. Be the leader that does take a complaint personally! This way we’ll do our level best to correct the situation with a long-term view.

Maintain Your Perspective

I’ll close with the same admonition I always do each year: Remember that all this is good and helpful for what we do for our institutions each day, but what really matters is our faith, family, and friends. We are shaped as much by what happens off the job as we are on the job. Do well for yourself off the job and you’ll be better on the job! 

Michael G. Steger is director of Physical Plant Services for National Management Resources Corp. at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Michael G. Steger is director, Physical Plant, for Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at [email protected].