Posts Tagged ‘johnbowen’

A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days

This is a quote from Goethe, and it seems very apt at the moment for my days are anything but ordinary for which I am very grateful. Read more…

when it comes to change, would you rather be a follower or a leader?

Continuing the theme of change, last week I wrote about how change is all around us all of the time and I described myself as a change junkie. I’ve been challenged on that, so want to explore my motivations a little more.

I am an enthusiast for change; I like new things, the way technology brings us opportunities to live and work differently and the possibilities to make our lives better. Advances in science and medicine take away some of the fears of illness and its consequences; as a child tales of polio, iron lungs and the like were the stuff of nightmares and it is good to know that many of these things have been pretty much eradicated from our lives. Read more…

The times they are a changin’

Change is with us all of the time; before I finish the first draft of these words the sun will almost have set on Wiltshire as another day spins to a close. The world has moved on and tomorrow will bring another day.

We don’t all take kindly to change though, for it brings new things and takes away those that we are familiar and comfortable with. That new day tomorrow could bring all sorts of things; some will excite and delight us, some will challenge or scare us and we never quite k now what is around that next corner.

It is easy to see why we often have a natural resistance to change because most of us like the familiar and comfortable and it is only when we get bored with that that we want to change. Then we get that buzz of something exciting as we plan redecorating the room, moving house, buying a new car or whatever. These are changes that we enjoy.

Other change is less welcome, especially that which is forced upon us, but change will happen whether or not we like it and so we have to learn to deal with it. Life isn’t fair and never will be, no matter how much we try to make it so, because we know from the world around us that it is those that can adapt best to change that survive and thrive; seen a Pterodactyl around lately, or maybe a Dodo?

As the big 60 looms for me there are times when I feel I would be happier back in the 1960’s, but why? When I really think about it what was so attractive about that decade that took me from 8 to 17? It isn’t so much the comforts of not having responsibilities and carefree youth; no, it’s about how exiting those times were for someone of my age, and the reason for all that excitement was that there was so much changing all around me and within me. My fondness for those times comes from memories of all of that excitement and change.

Maybe that is why I became such an enthusiast for change, although I was in my forties before I realised that I was an incurable change junkie. But it was that I had become able to make change happen that cemented the package for gradually I had got into positions at work where I could do things and that was due to people working on me and putting their faith in me.

One of the standard things that we do when developing people is to take them out of their comfort zone. Done well that can be a powerful tool to help bring on the next generation of leaders and we need to have people who can embrace and thrive on change if we are to take business and society forward. I was lucky to find myself with people who helped me, saw that there was some spark, provided the fuel and fanned until the flame burst into life.

One of my projects is a procurement transformation where I am working in a team that includes people the same age of one of my grandchildren. It is a fantastic stimulus to be able to bounce ideas around and spark off each other because, even at my age, there is still so much to learn and do. The baton is passing on to new generations, but that is how it has to be, to quote a line from my own youth, The times they are a changin’. They always will.


future proof your projects; spend now to save later

When we are up against it on funding we look to cut back on project spend. That is a natural course of action and can usually be effective, at least in terms of meeting the short term objective, but therein lays a problem; short term thinking is nearly always costly in the long term.

There is an old saying about never putting off until tomorrow what you should do today, and that is very relevant in the world of facilities maintenance; you run a fine line between fiscal prudence and neglect. I wrote recently about a building that we took over where we had to take two of the three lifts out of service immediately because they had serious problems resulting from cutting back on regular maintenance.

Another area of cutting back is on specifications, where reducing the scope can reduce the cost proportionately, at least for that project, but somewhere down the road things will bite you. Another example from my vault on this one is where we had to renew the ceilings in a building because of asbestos removal. As we started to take the grid down we had a serious collapse; every time there had been a cabling change the wires had been cut at each end and the cable left up there because “it was cheaper”. Cheaper than doing the job properly that is, but we made a few quid on all the scrap mind you.

That particular project got me thinking. It was early in my time of having, what we called at the time, building maintenance under my control. On being told that we had to put in new cabling about every 18 months for some project or other, and knowing that there was a plethora of projects in the pipeline, I asked for additional cable runs and pulls to be installed as we put the new ceiling up. It cost about 10% extra on the original project budget and I had to find that from somewhere, but over the next 8 years that I was involved with that building we added extra cable capacity for a fraction of what it had been costing us and with almost no disruption.

That is a small example of what I came to call future proofing projects, and we applied the principle across everything that we did. What did we have to do and how could we make our lives easier downstream? How much to put in twice the capacity; three times the capacity? Make a judgement call on it. Refurbishing accommodation is always a golden opportunity to look to the future and spend a little more than you need to in order to save money in the coming years.

Where you can save money without too much risk is to reduce demand, or consumption, and this is where you can also contribute to environmental targets as well as cost savings and this is something that you should be doing as routine, but then you need a big number you normally a choice; either you nibble away at everything and take a bit off or you take a deep breath and cancel a project (or two) to give you the right number.

I would always go for that latter option to give me the headroom that I need, but making sure that it included enough cash to do some future proofing. And because future proofing means that some of the things that you be asked to look at next year or the year after can be easily accommodated you can look good when you say “no problem”.


Showing courage when the chips are down delivers trust

Engendering the trust of your people is crucial to leadership and, without it, they will not follow for long, but it is also a key factor for those that the leader will be answerable to, for most business leaders are, themselves, answerable to a board, shareholder and investors amongst others. Each of these groups will have different agendas and serving each requires a division of loyalty that, in turn, is an area where many leaders fail.

What you need to be able to do is to do what is right. That is what is right to achieve the objective that you are expected to deliver.

Your people will have had this explained to them as you have sold them on what they need to do and when they need to do it by. You will have explained the importance of that deliverable and, if you have done your job well enough, they will have bought into it. They will trust you to be right but, more importantly, they will trust you to protect them from interference in their efforts to succeed.

Every business will have a way of working that may not be something that a functional or divisional leader can influence. We tend to call these things office politics and they are a fact of life for most of us. Now a leader needs to be on top of these things and be able to ensure that they are able to fight their team’s corner, but this is something that not all leaders are good at.

It is so easy to lose sight of what is right for the organisation when office politics come into play. Good leaders know when to fight these battles and when not to. They know what their priorities are and how to juggle these against their resources. They know what they have to do when things get tough; to make the right call every time.

There will be times when they have to go to their people and explain that the rules have changed and what was the goal is no longer so. They understand that they need to be truthful with their people because that is what will retain their trust.

Equally, those above the leader will need to trust the person that they have placed in a position of responsibility. There will be times when they have their own hard decisions to take and require the leaders of their businesses to deliver. This is another potential pitfall for the leader; when pressed to deliver something from above that could threaten their people, how do they call it?

Take someone with a long term project to deliver, but who is then faced with a requirement to cut headcount. This is a time for hard truths: You have to be able to look at the overall position and make the right call. Now that might be to accept the cuts, knowing that it will mean failing your project objectives, but in the knowledge that there is no other way that will work for the business. In that case there will be a hard sell to your team, but explaining the what and why and making sure that people understand is the right thing to do.

On the other hand you might dig your heels in and fight to show that there is another way to those above you. This might be a personal risk, but it is a better risk to go with what is right than to fold when to do so is wrong.

Showing courage when the chips are down delivers trust.

We’ve got a backup for our backup – more things that went bump in the night

Continuing in the run up to Halloween with tales of things that went wrong, this week we turn to a bit of a farce that we enjoyed along with our friends in Information Technology.

One site I inherited when I moved from Logistics to Facilities Management was a multi story office block that was almost wholly occupied by IT people and was one of two main centres for that trade. The building was also one of the main hubs for the company’s data network and, as such, was something of a sacrosanct site.

The FM work there had been part of the IT team, but we had inherited those people along with the site. They knew their job and they knew their building but, until we arrived, they had never had a ring fenced budget and, every year, something had been lopped off to fund IT project overspends.

As we dug deeper into the backlog of maintenance one thing that I had placed on the high priority list was the emergency backup generator system. This was a thing of legend at the site and beyond; “They have a backup generator for their backup generator” people would tell you around the company in terms of some awe.  The generator room in the basement had taken on qualities that might have been employed for a shrine, and the full time engineer that they had taken on to maintain the system played the role of high priest to the hilt.

Access to the room was something of a privilege, but my regional maintenance manager and I were reluctantly granted an entrance on the basis that we were now in charge. The room was pretty spotless and the two engines, one a Gardener and the other a Rolls Royce (no less) gleamed on the plinths.

The system was explained patiently to us. In the event of a power failure there was a battery backup that would allow a few minutes of power while the Gardener engine kicked in. If, for any reason that failed to fire up the Rolls Royce would deploy itself and, in the event of a long term power outage, the engines could be run alternately to keep the data flowing.

But it had never been tested. Yes, there was a switch that allowed a simulation power cut to see if these beauties would kick in and that was tried annually, but the overall system had never been tested. So I announced that we would, and requested a date when it would be convenient for us to do so.

The entire IT hierarchy were appalled and the ranks massed to oppose this folly, but in the end we got our way. We put in a bypass power source from the main switch so that the building would not actually lose power and threw the switch on the original circuit to make the generator room think that the mains had gone off.

The battery back didn’t work. It didn’t even have power enough to start the generator let alone support the building. But we had also found when we installed the by-pass that two thirds of the building, including a pair of new computer rooms, were already by-passing the backup system because corners had been cut in funding projects.

We found the money to put things right, but the backup myth died. These things have an importance at their own time, but times move on. We put a lot into that building to prepare it for the 21st century, but it has gone now, replaced by an apartment complex. Happy memories though!

Mum, Dad, I want to be a facilities manager when I leave school

Just what did a boss do? I wasn’t too sure, but had decided that I was going to be a boss when I left school. It wasn’t my first choice, that had proved impractical, and my second choice was vetoed by my parents, but my Mum wanted me to be a City Gent, heading off in pin striped suit with a briefcase and rolled brolly every morning; that seemed to sound like a boss and so that was what I would be.

But, again, what did they do? The people my parents worked for were captains of industry; one a director at Beecham’s (long before Smith & Kline turned up), another had his name, and that of his partner, on many domestic appliances in kitchens around the country and another was the Admiral in charge of the Royal Naval College for example.

Any of those suited me, but to become one surely you had to know what they did? TV and films were not a lot of help, but then along came The ‘Plane Makers and its sequel The Power Game. There Sir John Wilder made fortunes, lost them and remade them, he had the big office, the big car, was married to a smart and pretty wife (and had a smart and pretty mistress) and got involved in all sorts of Machiavellian dealings with rivals and colleagues alike. Sounded good to me; where did I sign up?

The reality of course was somewhat different as I was to find when I got there. I suppose that the first time that I got close to the fictional Sir John’s life (by the way where is my knighthood?) was the time that I was de facto MD of a business unit turning over around £130M pa. I had the office, the car, the smart attractive wife and the Machiavellian stuff and loved pretty much every minute of it, but then, as with Sir John, mergers and takeovers saw me on the move.

And that is how I got, in the real sense, into Facilities Management. I didn’t set out to be in FM, and have joked that I’d been thrown out of everywhere else. Not quite true, but I had worked in finance, operations, sales, purchasing and IT and hold professional qualifications in both of the latter disciplines, so I wasn’t there just marking time. As a buyer I passed exams in accounting, economics and commercial law amongst others

One of the things that I brought to FM was that wide business background because by then I had realised that what I wanted to be was not a boss so much as a general manager; a businessman if you like. That childhood image of the boss was really where I ended up.

In facilities management a lot has been done to raise the profile of the job, and it is great to see so many young professionals amongst our ranks. BIFM have done a great job in moving things forward and maybe we are close to the point where FM can be a clear career choice for school leavers.

I, like many, came into FM as something of a generalist. If the next generation of FMs can be specialists that is great, but we must not lose sight of the need for FMs to have a wide business education, because it is the world of commerce that FM serves. We need to be able to speak their language and to be comfortable in their world, because that is how we can ensure that they trust and respect what we can contribute.



I’m still not advocating bullying, but consider Winston Churchill; where do you draw the line?

Last week I mentioned bullying in a leadership context. Bullying is generally accepted to consist of three fundamental types of abuse; emotional, verbal, and physical. One or more of these techniques are used as methods of coercion through intimidation, and leadership is sometimes about coercion as it is about inspiration.

When a leader gets people to follow them through inspiration, painting a vision or any of the things that we like to talk about when we try to develop leadership concepts we are taking the moral high ground, And perhaps rightly so, but in reality there will be times that leaders need to get the followers moving by other means.

The prophetic aspect of last week’s bullying mention came via one of those fly on the wall TV shows last week. This series follows a 12 month project each week. I wasn’t following too closely to begin with as the characters and situation had not had too much appeal, but then came an incident where one of the team left the project because of a bit of a clash of personalities with the business mentor that had been appointed. The departing body had a few words to say as to why they were going and the other party defended their style.

The project was successfully completed and, at the opening do, one of the dignitaries referred in a light hearted way to the mentor as having bullied the project through, echoing the earlier clash of style. Someone else then said to the mentor’s face, again in a light hearted, way that they had been a bully and that led to tears. In the wrap up the presenter took up the bullying theme so, despite the risk that TV could not show a year’s worth of filming in an hour and therefore may have played up the controversy angle, there was a reasonable chance that the use of the term bully was not unfair.

Now I admire the results of the project concerned and applaud the team for having got it done. The mentor, as a leader, played their part in getting it done and deserves their share of the praise. What I did not admire was that they seemed to prefer to deny that there was an issue with their style instead of accepting that so many pieces of feedback had to have some significance.

In trying to rise above the way that the TV team may have used film selectively to try and portray conflict and resolution to build a story, my observation is that the project was successfully seen through, that it did need pushing (in my experience of similar projects they always do), that the style employed by the mentor grated, but that the mentor was generally loved by the team as evidenced by the farewell send off and gift. Bullying tactics had not diminished the good will of the team.

Sometimes you have to coerce. Take a situation where you have to make radical change. Some will see the need and go willingly, some will see the need and obstruct while others will just be difficult.  How are you going to get them all going the way that you want them too?

People are individuals and they respond to different things. The line between benevolent coercion and intimidation is a fine one. As a leader you have power that you should not abuse, but getting it right isn’t easy. Leading us in WW2 Winston Churchill used bullying; does that diminish him as a leader? What do you think? More on this in a week or so.

I’m happy to aspire to things, happier still to earn them, but entitlement; no thanks

There once was a schoolboy who wasn’t too sure what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he was quite keen on factories and offices, even if he didn’t understand too much about what went on there. The day came when he had to get a job and, perhaps fittingly for someone who liked buildings, he began to train as a surveyor. A recession curtailed that career, and he found himself working for an insurance giant in the City, but even the prospect of one day stalking the floor at Lloyd’s placing business with the syndicates was not enough of a draw. No, this youth wanted an office and a secretary. He didn’t know why, nor grasp what he would need to do to get or retain such trappings, but that was what he wanted. The City was a bore and he drifted into the retail and wholesale trade where his aspirations were refined through visits to many a private office, sometimes to be rewarded but, more often, to be chastised. As he would stand and take his medicine he took in the subtle benefits of the corner office, of mahogany over laminate, of carpet over lino, of the North West corner over the South East and more. From his early forays into management positions it took almost 10 years before everything came together and he not only realised what he needed to be able to contribute to a business for him to warrant an office of his own, but was able to demonstrate it to the satisfaction of those above him. By then he was with an organisation where such things were carefully prescribed; 11m2, carpet, swivel chair (with arms), desk with two pedestals (lockable), visitor’s chair, 4 drawer filing cabinet (lockable) and 3 hook coat stand. His name would be on a plate affixed to the door and his name and telephone number would appear in bold type in the internal telephone directory. To these things he was entitled. From that first box in the corner of the room to the North West corner office and a secretary (OK, a half share of one) took less than a third of the time it had taken to get to first base, but a dreadful irony cast its shadow on this idyll. For now that our hero had achieved his aspirations and more, he found that he wanted to discard them. In arriving at the position where the buck for delivering results stopped where he sat, one of the key things he had learned about earning that place was that leaders needed to lead by example. At a time when there was a need for austerity and sacrifice all around, why was he sat in splendid isolation in a space that would take 6 workers in comfort? So the corner room on the top floor of the office was swapped, firstly for what had been a store room in the warehouse, and then for a desk in the open plan and then for cadging a desk. All of the trappings that he had aspired to for the first half of his three score years and ten were gone within about 4 years of him having achieved them. Aspiration was one thing, but amongst the myriad things he had learned along the way to that corner office was what it took to earn that position, and being able to do that, to work successfully at that level, was in itself fulfilling; the trappings that came with the job didn’t matter. To aspire to something is one thing. To earn it is another, but to be entitled? No thanks.

the day the town stood still – another adventure on the facilities front line

Picture a typical English market town of around 70,000 people. Like many such places it developed around a crossing of main roads north/south and east/west. To one side of the town centre the two main employers had neighbouring offices and each had satellite sites around and about.

It is a hot August day and the FM team for one of these big sites are coping with the usual issues. In their corner of the ground floor sit the three ladies who comprise the site management, one of whom has the Duty Manager hi-vis tabard draped over the back of her chair. They have just been joined by the big boss who is up for the day to talk finance with the client senior team. Their conversation continues as the Duty Manager turns to answer the telephone, but tails off as the others pick up on what is being said on the phone. They wait as the call is concluded. “We have a suspicious package at the annex” she tells the others. The well oiled machine swings into action.

Crossing the road we find that someone who has been away from the office for several days has come back to find a pile of post and messages. As he has been wading through these a colleague has mentioned one from an “Irish guy” who had seemed very anxious to establish if this was the right address and this, plus a strange padded envelope in his mail, has aroused his suspicions. He has taken the package down and given it to the security guard before explaining his suspicions and the guard has placed in carefully on the ground outside the front door before raising the alarm.

We called the Police as we evacuated the site and tried to find somewhere for 100 or so people on a scorcher of a day. The police arrived and evacuated the neighbouring building of our hosts; now we had around 1100 people to worry about as the only place we could move them to safely was our main car park. Then Special Branch arrived and closed down the block and the roads around it, including the main east/west road through the town. In the distance we could hear more emergency vehicle sirens, but they didn’t seem to be making any progress.

Then one of our runners arrived with news that we had a fire at another of our offices nearby and could we provide assistance. A phone call to them revealed that the catering team, whilst making their own lunch after completing serving the tenants, had set fire to the kitchen. Quick reactions on their part had put the fire out as far as we could tell, but we could not take a chance without the Fire Service checking things out, and the sirens we could hear were the fire engines stuck in a gridlocked town.

Military experts turned up and dealt with the package which turned out to be harmless, but we were told that we were right to have acted as we did; there was enough wrong about it to have not taken a chance. The fire brigade found a long way round and were able to confirm that there was no further danger in the kitchen down the road and the town’s roads slowly unblocked themselves.

We dealt with a couple of people who fainted in the heat, and a few bad tempered individuals, but otherwise things went well for an afternoon of simultaneous emergencies.

One of those days on the FM front line when the planning, training and practice paid for itself.