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Transferring past skills into your current roles

doctor-lightbulb_opt-FMJ-Jan2014In an interview with FMJ last month, Macro MD Debra Ward said that waitressing in her youth was the best possible preparation for a career in FM as it taught her how to prioritise, about procurement, customer service and more. So, what skills have you picked up from unexpected places in the past, and how do they help you in your current roles?

Dave-Wilson-polaroidTHE CONSULTANT’S VIEW

If you are young and inquisitive, I think you can learn from almost any job. Even if a job’s not directly applicable to your later career, you can still pick up great experience, for example about how to manage people – or how not to. Even learning from bad bosses is possible. For myself, while I’m not sure I could say exactly what I learned from my stints as a bus conductor or ice cream van man, they were certainly formative experiences about what it’s like to be at the bottom of the organisational food-chain. But I had great managers when I worked in a pub and a shop selling TV’s and white goods, and I probably took more of my management values from that collective experience than from any formal learning.

But like Debra I worked in the hospitality industry – in fact that was my career from age 20 to 35 – and I took a lot from that period, technically, managerially and behaviourally.

Most relevant to FM was that I gained an HND in Hotel, Catering and Institutional Management. While that covered the obvious food and accommodation services, critically for FM it also covered building systems – drainage, fabric, maintenance, power and water supply and so on; cleaning techniques; process management; HR; economics; and law, with an emphasis on contracts. All, of course, things which are absolutely fundamental to facilities operations. I also learned about finance – operational budgeting, capital, cashflow, service costing and so on – and perhaps most importantly the value of measures of performance. Catering, as I’ve said previously, is much better at using KPI’s than FM has ever been.

Often though it’s the mistakes you make that bring all that training to life, and the change from education to having responsibility was salutary. When I started out I had no idea how complex managing people really is. From that perspective large scale catering is a tough school: you deal with poorly trained, badly paid staff, whose previous experiences have often made them cynically wary of new managers (especially wet-behind-the ears ones). Inheriting a situation in which staff turnover was high, motivation low, and service quality poor as a result, was some baptism. And initially I didn’t handle it well. I blustered, micro-managed and generally made a bad situation worse. But the key thing was that I learned was to talk with my team –experienced staff who really wanted things to be better, who knew the history and who, in short, could be trusted. It was critical for me to put together what I’d experienced as a lowly employee with what I wanted from people in that same situation. How I had wanted to be treated was just how they wanted to be treated.

From that dialogue I learnt to be honest, with my team, much more open and trusting, and much better at delegating. I also realised that in a traditionally low paid job with long hours of hard physical work (whether in the kitchen, housekeeping or food service, hospitality is really demanding work), then a team ethos and a sense of enjoyment are critical to motivation, which in turn aids retention and, of course most importantly, the customer’s experience. For sure, managers don’t deliver the customer experience – your staff do that, so they have to be empowered, informed, motivated and happy.

So the other key transferable elements of Hospitality to FM were about customers. Running bars and restaurants is highly competitive, and you learn very quickly that repeat business is key to long term success. Customers have lots of choice, and you know very quickly if they are unhappy, not because they complain but because they simply don’t come back. That’s why catering is intensely focussed on performance metrics and their immediate analysis: you can track customer behaviour very closely, including things like how much they each spend, how long they stay for, how many people are in a group, and on very short time cycles, because you can’t afford to wait find out you have a problem. Even back in the late seventies we could use data from cash registers to give this kind of information, track it against past results and reveal patterns and trends. But anyway, the key issue was to focus on customers.

I hope that I’ve brought that across into FM – indeed, that background and ethos was why I was first recruited into FM by CBX in the mid-90s. As I keep reminding my colleagues, buildings don’t say “Thank You”, and buildings don’t pay your invoices or wages – people do. For that reason alone, focusing on customers is a good thing to do. But it does make our job more fulfilling, interesting and effective, too.

CJ-Howden-polaroidTHE HR VIEW

I was really interested to read about Debra Ward’s experiences of waitressing in her youth and the lessons she learned from that time. Debra is such a well-known and successful person in the industry and with her comments in the interview she offers an inspiring reminder to people that no matter where they are in their career, they can learn life-changing lessons that can help them get to where they want to be.

Life is continually presenting all sorts of amazing lessons, and it’s usually the unexpected encounters and experiences that teach us the most. When I left university, having graduated with a degree in business with HR, I worked as a support worker for young offenders and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. So much of what I learned in that time has been invaluable in my role as group HR director.

The skills, patience and resilience I developed from being a support worker are the bedrock of my current work. I am a really chatty person by nature. But being a support worker allowed me to understand what people coming to me for help really needed and wanted from me: space and a sympathetic ear. There were many times, I’m sure, when I could have offered them advice or my opinion, but often they just wanted to talk and have someone really listen to them. Knowing when to talk and when to keep quiet and listen is such an invaluable skill in my current role.

About Sarah OBeirne


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