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Renée Jacobs was a 25-year-old with two years of construction experience when she was hired by a hospital to manage the construction of a new building.

“They hired me to be their representative in the field,” says Jacobs, who is now business development manager for health care at Distech Controls, Quebec, Canada. “I was very young and responsible for one of the largest construction projects in Kansas City at that time.”

Jacobs quickly rose up the ladder in that organization and, before long, was responsible for the planning and construction of seven hospitals in a regional organization. How did someone so young and with relatively little experience land such a role and excel so quickly? It was a combination of being highly competent at the job, developing a strong network and having a professional demeanor. In other words, Jacobs developed a powerful professional reputation.

“I dove into my job and asked a lot of questions, and never felt embarrassed or guilty about that,” says Jacobs, who is now chair of the American Society for Health Care Engineering’s (ASHE’s) Professional Reputation Committee. “I had very good mentors and sponsors, and I got involved in industry organizations and took on leadership roles. That was probably one of the most important things that got me my reputation.”

Being highly competent, having a strong network and getting deeply involved with the industry are key elements of developing a professional reputation, Jacobs and other experts assert. For managers of health care facilities, who typically do not have the high profile associated with those in clinical positions, knowing how to develop a strong professional reputation is essential to success.

Starting with competence

There’s no way around it: A good reputation begins with a manager knowing what they’re doing. Many health care facilities managers start their careers as technicians, which provides a hands-on background that helps them once they’re in the manager’s role. Others enter the field through different avenues. Either way, a facilities manager’s reputation is closely tied to how well they know the ins and outs of the facility and how to manage it.

“There’s a lot to learn,” says Danielle Gathje, CHFM, director of plant operations for M Health Fairview in Maplewood, Minn. “You have to be humble enough to learn and understand the different perspectives in a health care facility, and that you’re really a cog in the wheel. You’re not a standalone department.”

Gathje, who has 13 years of experience in health care facilities management, says she continues to learn, often through education provided by ASHE. She’s also working on a master’s degree in health care business administration.

“ASHE has some great classes for helping you understand the regulatory pieces, the mechanicals, leadership skills and other things,” Gathje says. “You don’t have to be the expert, but you have to understand these topics enough to have conversations about them. And these classes help you stay up on these issues — you can’t ever say, ‘I did it once, and that’s good enough.’”

York Chan, CHFM, CHC, SASHE, who recently retired as vice president of facilities services for Advocate Health Care in Chicago after nearly 40 years in that system, explains that competence goes a long way in developing one’s relationship with people at all levels — those below, above and equal.

For example, he remembers when a new director of environmental services joined his hospital. Chan asked him how he, as director of facilities, could help him succeed. The man answered that he really wanted his department remodeled to improve the workflow.

“I went to administration and got the funding and did the renovation for him,” Chan says. “He was forever grateful that I did that so that he could carry out his leadership the way he wanted it. That started off a great working relationship with him. I got a lot of respect from him because of that.”

Developing relationships

Chan began his career as an HVAC technician. He was only in that job for one year before he started moving up the management ladder.

“One thing that got me moving ahead was the fact that I was able to communicate with other people in the hospital,” Chan says. “Communication skills are essential. You need to be able to communicate to skilled technicians, and you also have to be able to communicate upwards to higher-level people.”

Chan says that being able to communicate well plays a big role in developing a professional reputation. Communication is part of networking, which creates the web of relationships necessary to succeed in a complex environment such as health care.

As Chan notes, communication happens at multiple levels. For example, being able to speak knowledgeably to technicians about the projects they are working on requires an understanding of that world and the language used in it.

“One thing I learned when talking to people who report to me is don’t talk down to them,” Chan says. “You have to earn their trust.”

Sometimes that means explaining a decision that the other person might disagree with, Chan says. A skilled manager sells his staff on decisions; he doesn’t ram them down their throats.

Gathje agrees with that, and says the concept applies when speaking with managers in other departments. “I always explain the ‘why,’ and I think that helps me a lot,” she says. “If I can’t do something someone asks me about, it’s not just, ‘no.’ I explain why we can’t do that or suggest different ways to look at it. I think that’s helped me a lot.”

Often, developing relationships begins when a manager is early in their career and connects with a mentor or sponsor. A mentor can help a young leader develop essential career skills and help create the connections that will advance their career.

Jacobs says her mentor often helped her deal with the personnel intricacies of health care management. “For example, he would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Let me help you understand how to talk to this person,’ or ‘Don’t jump over this person,’” she says. “He was very good at helping me understand how to navigate the politics and how to communicate with individuals at all levels of the organization to build a reputation as a collaborator.”

Chan says it was a mentor-like manager who taught him key skills such as preparing budgets and creating a five-year plan. “Those are soft skills that are absolutely necessary in a leadership role in health care facilities,” he says.

In many cases, eventually the shoe ends up on the other foot, and a health care facilities manager has the opportunity to become a mentor. Doing that can also help develop their reputation. Chan says one should never be afraid of mentoring.

“There are a lot of guys in our field who say, ‘I’m not going to show anybody how to do my job because they’ll take my job,’” he says. “I’d never be concerned with someone taking my job away from me, because if I haven’t prepared someone to step into my job, I’ll never get promoted. The people above me will say, ‘York is too valuable in that position.’ But if I have people beneath me prepared, I can get promoted.”

Involvement grows reputation

Getting involved with organizations that serve the field, such as ASHE, also can help develop a facilities manager’s reputation. Jacobs says that getting involved in industry organizations played a key role in her career ascent.

“That was probably one of the most important things that got me my reputation,” she says. “It’s not just about attending events, but really getting involved, chairing committees, serving on the board and giving back. That all really builds your reputation.”

Gathje says her professional reputation also greatly benefited from involvement with organizations. “When you’re young and new in a career, you have to put yourself out there,” she says. “I was fortunate enough to have mentors who brought me to local association meetings. You talk to different people, sit at tables with people and get involved. 

“I still make time to network with people,” Gathje says. “I go to conferences, even if it’s on my own dime. I think that face-to-face time is extremely valuable. Even now, during the pandemic and I’m super busy, I make time for virtual conferences.”

Jacobs adds that earning the professional credentials appropriate for a facilities professional’s position also can pay off. She holds the ASHE Fellow (FASHE) status, Certified Healthcare Constructor and Certified Healthcare Facility Manager credentials, and believes that holding them signals to others that she is part of a high-performing group of facilities professionals. Some credentials, such as FASHE, require the applicant to demonstrate that they give back to the field, which further enhances that person’s reputation.

Jonathan Flannery, MHSA, FASHE, FACHE, ASHE’s senior associate director of advocacy, says ASHE’s Professional Reputation Committee is working on defining the leadership attributes, certifications and tools that are common to successful facilities managers.

“That way we can develop the tools to help members move up in their profession,” says Flannery, who is ASHE’s senior staff adviser to the committee.

Connecting with peers

The reputation-building steps discussed thus far apply to a facility manager’s reputation with everyone, but there are certain strategies to building a reputation with specific groups of people, namely peers in other departments and the C-suite.

Developing a reputation with peers often involves developing a relationship before a problem emerges. For example, Gathje says she purposefully goes to the hospital cafeteria to share meals with the nursing leaders. That way, they know who she is if she reaches out with a problem or concern, and vice versa.

Furthermore, she is careful to provide lots of notice when a facilities project may interrupt their normal workflow. “Any time I do something, I shoot them an email, or I give them a call, or I set up meetings so they know what we’re doing. So, it’s never ‘We just have to do this.’ It’s always ‘I’m your partner, this is what we’re doing. My team is going to be in there fixing this.’ That heads-up communication — that connection — is very important to have with those nursing leaders.”

Another way to develop relationships — and hence a good reputation — with peers in other departments is to take the time to teach them how the hospital works, Chan says. That can involve taking them on tours of the physical plant or simply explaining certain issues that touch on their departments, such as why the fire doors are arranged as they are.

“Communication and education on how the building works goes a long way,” Chan says. “It sells your reputation as someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Flannery adds that ASHE’s Professional Reputation Committee is helping facilities professionals connect with peers in other departments by creating a matrix that shows how the groups interact and what their respective pain points are.

“For example, if the IT department is putting holes in firewalls to run cabling, that’s an interaction between our departments that needs to be diplomatically worked out,” Flannery says. “We need to determine how to best minimize conflicting issues and understand the requirements of all the different groups. That will go a long way toward creating good relations between peers in different departments.”

Developing a reputation with members of the C-suite also may involve education about the building. For example, Gathje says she guided the CEO of M Health on a tour of the boiler spaces of her hospital to give him a feel for the building and spaces. And when a construction project is planned, she likes to guide tours of the spaces to be renovated so the leaders understand what is happening and why.

A facilities manager’s reputation with the C-suite also involves understanding their needs, Chan says.

“Senior leadership’s biggest concern is they don’t want any surprises,” he says. “They want to plan and budget for things. You can’t walk into the C-suite and say, ‘I need $5 million for a new chiller because it died yesterday.’ They want a five-year plan.”

When a manager can provide the C-suite with the information they need in a form they prefer, their reputation grows. In the best cases, the C-suite learns to trust these assessments. “You want to get to a point where they say, ‘If York says we need it, we need it,’” Chan says.

Appearance matters, too

While these issues are essential to developing a reputation, appearance and demeanor should not be overlooked.

Jacobs asserts that she owes part of her professional reputation to looking the part. “There’s a part of the reputation that I call building a personal brand,” she says. “Simple things like having a professional picture on your profile on social media. And dressing for the job — not just the job you have, but the job you want.”

Finally, says Chan, developing a good reputation means showing respect and kindness to others.

“The main thing is that I always treated everybody fairly,” he says. “That’s one reason I had a good reputation from people below me and above me.” 

Ed Avis is a freelance writer and frequent Health Facilities Management contributor based in Chicago.