Side-by-side sharing of institutional knowledge is a form of mentoring.

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Facilities management transition planning is a two-fold process of backfilling senior technical staff members who have spent their entire careers at a health care facility and finding department leaders to serve in vice president, director and supervisor roles as that workforce retires.

According to the American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) monograph, “Succession Planning: Preparing for the Future of Your Facility and Your Career” (see the resource box on page 59), succession planning helps to minimize operational disruptions from this process and ensure successful transitions. 

A successful transition plan has a set of elements described in the ASHE monograph (see sidebar on page 58) and can be grouped into three basic areas: defining the plan in the context of the positions needed to support the organization’s care strategy; evaluating the current staff and effectively documenting the succession plan; and implementing strategies to make the plan a reality.

Defining the problem

It is important to review an organization’s strategy when planning the facilities staff to support it. If it is in the middle of an expansion, increasing square footage translates into more work for existing staff, so it is important to articulate the need for staff early. However, if it is either reducing services or shifting to outpatient models, this changes the nature of the building services requirements.

In either situation, facilities management leadership needs to be present to interface with the overall leadership of the organization to articulate the needs of the facilities maintenance program. 

The entire continuum of staff in facilities must be considered, but responding in real time with technical expertise is an important consideration for care being delivered in an organization. Any delay negatively impacts the outcomes, particularly in a perioperative, critical care or emergency department setting.

Setting the facilities management succession plan to support care program development of the overall organization will help prioritize the positions. In the hospital setting, the staffing complement looks different due to the 24/7 nature of the activity. For outpatient settings, there is more flexibility to accomplish projects or preventive maintenance, so the staffing complement needs to be developed to reflect this.

Creating a succession plan for the top facilities leader is an obvious starting point, but identifying these positions does not stop there. Technicians who can function in a dynamic and active care environment are valuable positions that need to be retained or recruited, if gaps exist.

Leadership paves the way for facilities staff to work in a care setting, but the instinct to not interrupt care is a key capability. This can be developed through leadership, but identifying it as part of the work helps ensure success. If a position requires continuity, it should be included in the succession plan. 

This goes for any position with a specialized technical skill set or with organizational peer-facing responsibilities, from leadership to the work-order clerk. These positions change and thus require broader skills, from field repair to computer skills to run the latest automation and tracking systems.

Another aspect that should not be underestimated are basic people skills, such as respect and collaborative behaviors at all levels, which are becoming the norm. The negative behaviors that were documented during the pandemic are not being tolerated in the health care setting.

Developing the succession plan encourages evaluation of every position’s job description and summary. Identifying the important characteristics of each position should reflect the core elements of the successful facilities maintenance program, including up and down the whole structure of the department.

In addition to the core technical expertise, room should be left in the position descriptions to allow for leadership development. While not all employees will be interested in advancing to administrative or leadership roles, it should at least be offered for consideration. 

Evaluating staff and candidates

When evaluating current department staffing, the most immediate action is to consider the same staffing complement to fill each spot in the succession plan. 

There may be an obvious succession based on how a staff member interacts with peers on the patient care side. For instance, the technician or supervisor who gets along well with peer managers throughout the organization could be on a track to a higher level of leadership in the facilities department. This individual should be mentored because those built-in relationships are not only valuable to the facilities department but are also valued in the overall organization due to the continuity they provide. They also enhance the confidence care leaders have in the facilities department.

The perfect candidate is one who is always in demand, although those are exceedingly rare. This “unicorn” has the perfect combination of health care experience, technical expertise and people skills. If a facilities leader is fortunate enough to recruit one, they are likely taking them from a peer organization. 

At best, the facilities leader is part of an overall regional facilities manager community that is coordinating opportunities for staff in a positive, collaborative way. At worst, they are recruiting a key person away from their peer organization and leaving them with a gap.

This emphasizes the need to develop the talent pool and expand the number of people in the field of health care facilities management. If there is a good candidate, they more commonly have gaps in their experience or skill sets that make them less than perfect.

When considering those candidates, soft skills should be weighed with the technical expertise. Facilities managers tend to consider the technical knowledge and experience first, but that is not necessarily the best approach. Good people skills should be considered as an advantage and not just a lucky find. Technical expertise, especially that which is highly specific to health care, can be taught.

When there is no good candidate for a position, a leader needs to get creative. Thinking of other fields that have focused facilities management is key to expanding the search for people. These fields are sometimes competing for the same personnel anyway, so it’s best to expand the search to include them.

Fields that compete with this skill set include pharmaceutical operations, data farms, housing complexes, hotels, K-12 schools, non-hospital universities and trade unions. This is a highly competitive pool of workers, so the question becomes how can a health care organization attract this talent? An advantage of health care is its connection to the healing mission. Participating in patient care is a rewarding aspect of the health facilities professional’s work but too often goes underemphasized. It should be promoted as a differentiator when recruiting from other fields.

Other skill sets lend themselves to facilities management, such as any basic management course or technical background, like engineering, architecture or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The solution is not finding unicorns but creating them with clear onboarding plans and exposure to the basics of the technical requirements.

Facilities leadership should also expand their view of leaders within their own organizations but outside of their departments. Additionally, they should listen to existing staff to see who can join from their friend or peer groups. 

Documenting the decisions around the succession plan is the best way to track progress, especially if it covers multiple fiscal years. The succession plan should be documented in a way that can be easily edited and tracked by changes in leadership, both inside and outside of the facilities department. 

A health care organization’s human resources department can be a key partner when documenting the succession plan. Some organizations create databases of employees and positions with each employee’s qualifications spelled out. These databases can track candidates who may have the desired skill sets, even when they apply to other positions within the organization.

Solutions and resources

Cross-training and on-the-job training are important elements of transition planning. More tenured staff is a value to the organization because of the concept of “institutional knowledge.” As current leaders are set to retire, incoming staff will benefit from working side by side with those who know the existing physical plant.

This sharing of institutional knowledge is a form of mentoring. In addition to the work on a technical level, the key to promoting from within is to mentor the next generation of leaders, either in specific trade shops to understand systems or in the leadership of the department. 

The best scenario is when someone in the succession plan lets leadership know about intentions to retire in time to set up the person to replace them. After this is known, the overlap may take more full-time equivalent employees to set up the succession plan, but the current facilities leaders need to make the financial case.

Positive culture in the engineering department is also a form of mentorship. The up-and-coming generation is actively seeking mentorship as a continuation of their education. Filling positions for health care facilities management is important, and attracting candidates with a good culture of active mentorship is a great selling point for health care organizations.

Continuing education is also a good way to develop talent once staff are hired. This should not be reserved exclusively for new employees but for anyone interested in furthering their education. 

Most organizations offer continuing education, primarily to support the nursing, physician and ancillary care services in support of maintaining licenses and certifications. Facilities management staff can take advantage of this benefit to pursue certifications in health care facilities management, construction and safety management. They can even pursue undergraduate degrees, depending on the benefit to the organization. This opens the door to continuing education on a technical level or moving up into leadership of the facilities department.

As part of community engagement, a health care organization can establish relationships with external sources. High schools, trade schools and community colleges can be used to attract local talent. In fact, trade schools are experiencing a resurgence as degree programs are seen as expensive and carry debt. A wide variety of talent at the high school-graduate level can be an excellent opportunity.

Colleges and universities rarely have degree programs specific to health care facilities management, but any technical or management degree could be an advantage. There are degree programs that focus on health care administrative management and engineering-oriented subjects. The health care field can take the skill sets from both and apply them to health facilities management. For example, many MBAs become vice presidents of support services and learn from the facilities staff.

Benefiting the organization

An effective succession plan not only benefits the facilities management department but the health care organization by outlining how the environment of care will be managed to support the mission of healing and care.

A successful transition plan

Transition planning is a multi-step process that starts with an understanding of the organization’s long-term strategy. A successful management transition plan includes the following elements:

• Review the organization’s strategy. The need to plan for the replacement of the facilities department head may seem obvious, but the characteristics of tomorrow’s successful facilities leader may not be the same as the ones required today. Furthermore, the positions needed for succession planning may change over time.

• Identify the positions that require succession planning. Creating a succession plan for the top facilities leader is obvious, but the plan shouldn’t stop there. If a position requires continuity, it probably should be included in the succession plan.

• Identify the important characteristics of each position. Creating a succession plan has the side benefit of forcing facilities leaders to consider the job description or position summary of every important position. Job descriptions typically focus on employment criteria such as qualifications, shift requirements, reporting structures and scope of authority. Position summaries are sometimes more helpful because they can expand on the purpose of the job, skills needed and essential responsibilities.

• Evaluate current staff. Next, facilities leaders should consider the other people in their organization who could fill each spot in the succession plan. This evaluation is a major step in planning because the result is the succession ladder.

• Document the decisions. The succession plan should be documented in a way that can be easily edited over the years. Some organizations create databases of employees and positions with each employee’s qualifications spelled out.

• Develop internal resources. Once facilities leaders have identified the likely candidates and the gaps that exist in their skills and experiences, the next step is working to fill those gaps.

• Cultivate external sources. Facilities leaders can turn to a number of key external sources when looking for future potential leaders, including colleges and universities, internships, high school programs and the military. 

This sidebar is excerpted from the American Society for Health Care Engineering monograph, “Succession Planning: Preparing for the Future of Your Facility and Your Career,” by Ed Avis.

Jeffrey O’Neill, AIA, CHFM, ACHA, is vice president of plant operations at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, RWJBarnabas Health, in New Brunswick, N.J. He can be reached at