Donuts, Fishing Stories, and Other Small Gestures: Ingredients for Meaningful Connections

by | Oct 2, 2018 | Empowerment, Leadership, Soft Skills | 1 comment

The Question

So far in my career, I have developed and implemented technical training programs for hundreds of facilities management staff across the country. It’s my passion, and it’s what keeps me up at night (in a good way). But just because I’m passionate about this line of work doesn’t mean it comes without challenges.

I was recently asked how I gain trust with operations and maintenance (O&M) teams when implementing a technical training program for them. Great question.

Simply answered, donuts.

We laughed at my response, but I was being serious.

Along the same line, I’ve also been asked how I teach someone that doesn’t want to be taught. Another great question. Again, it comes down to donuts and other small gestures.

One of these things…

On the outside, I don’t look anything like a typical facility manager, who, according to the Department of Labor, is a 50-year-old white male that has spent most of his career in a mechanical room. Digging deeper, the typical facility manager and I come from different career paths and educational backgrounds. Our working days tend to be drastically different from one another. Digging deeper still, we likely have different personal interests and hobbies, although not always. But, more often than not, we “get” each other.

Realizing the obvious and visible differences between most of my clients and me, I tackle them head on. Most of the time, I’m hired by their leadership (an executive) to improve operational efficiencies. From the perspective of someone that has spent the equivalent of my life in facilities management, someone like me can offer them little value in job training. I get it, and I don’t ever assume that I know more than those I am training. My only assumption is that we have different perspectives, and there might be an opportunity for us to help one another.

Fishing stories are more effective than surveys.

Rarely do I enter a utility plant without a box of fresh donuts in hand. It’s not a bribe, trick, or plea. It’s rapport – a small, but thoughtful gesture.

This small gesture has the ability to disarm my audience when we can “break bread” together. If I’m going to spend the next 1-4 hours with these guys, and on their turf, then I better bring something to say thank you. By demonstrating a token of appreciation (and them accepting it), we are humanizing our relationship.

But what’s interesting is I have proof of my observations. After every training session, I ask participants to complete a quick and anonymous survey so that I can improve my delivery and content. Some of the most candid and critical comments I have ever received had to do with food. In one session, 3 out of the 4 participants insisted that I bring a different brand of donuts – Yelp had failed me.

In the “other comments” section, I’ve received feedback like, “bring coffee with the donuts” or my personal favorite, “not all of us drink coffee – some of us are tea drinkers.” At first, I was offended. I just spent half the day discussing theory and fundamental principles of fluid mechanics and thermodynamics, and the guys want to poke holes in my catering selection. Perfect. After further consideration, I took them seriously. I asked them to be honest and let me know how to improve – donuts and coffee seemed reasonably fixable.

I decided to take every offered comment seriously. Your experience might be different than mine, but I’ve observed that the facility manager’s role is to be unseen. He only receives attention when something is seriously wrong. Consequently, people aren’t seeking them out in hallways and mechanical rooms to ask them their donut preference or about their weekend plans.

I came to realize that the more time I am willing to offer the facilities management team, the more focused and intentional they become in training. This means I listen to all the fishing stories, the hunting adventures in the “deer woods”, reports on the latest and greatest boats, rifles, hand guns, trailers, turkey calls, duck calls, and lawn equipment. I eat it up. If all else fails we discuss the great neutralizer – grandbabies. Some topics I connect with better than others, but I sincerely enjoy getting to know every crew I work with.

After practicing this approach a few times, I started realizing the O&M staff coming to me with their ideas, suggestions, questions, and concerns. I was getting flooded with in-person feedback that my surveys would have never captured. They even began to call and email me with random work thoughts or to talk through an issue. I built rapport with these guys, and they trusted that I had their best interest at heart.

How to Build (and Re-Build) Trust

Earlier this year, I watched Frances Frei (Uber) deliver a TED2018 talk (you should watch it if you haven’t already) on building (and re-building) trust. Months have passed, but her words still creep into my thoughts most days. Frei spoke of Uber’s journey toward redemption after the company’s recent sexual harassment and data breach scandals. She used Uber’s journey as a learning opportunity for the audience and presented 3 components of trust: authenticity, rigor in logic, and empathy.

Donuts might offer a gateway to conversation, but they don’t directly engender an environment of trust. They don’t reveal authenticity, improve logic, or encourage empathy. These components of trust are formed through meaningful, personal interactions – through conversations about the person and conversations about the work.

Frei explains that the most common wobble (in the 3-sided trust triangle) is empathy. People don’t believe that others are sincerely in it for them. Upon first introductions, technicians don’t believe that I am there for them and their best interest. I must prove this through my behavior – distraction-free, one-on-one, selfless interaction that focuses on them. Some nuts are harder to crack than others, but I love a challenge. My approach is simple – “how can I help?”. Sometimes my help involves listening to a personal anecdote, and sometimes my help is a teaching moment on how to improve equipment efficiency and facility operations. Either way, offering my full and undivided attention to solely help them is how I display empathy, and it works because it’s real.

The second trust component is logic. This side will wobble if the fact pattern is weak or if it’s not well communicated. I don’t pretend to be an expert in all subjects in which I train. In fact, many times I bring in a guest trainer who is a true subject matter expert to help me teach on the subject. I am, however, an expert in connections. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to have worked on exciting projects with innovative technology across multiple industries. This type of exposure enables me to pull from a Rolodex of case studies, white papers, research material, and other training content that I then use during classroom and field sessions. I connect my audience with the material that is most relevant and relatable to them. I don’t have to always know all the right answers (although, this helps); however, I at least need to know where to find them and how to communicate them. I’ve witnessed scenarios where trust was obliterated because someone postured as though they were certain of all the facts, but it was later revealed that this knowledge was surface level only.

The other component of logic is communication. With technicians and operators, I value their time because it is precious. They have a critical institution to run, and I’m impeding their work flow. Recognizing my intrusion into their work environment, I always offer clear and concise communication on the front-end of our sessions. The training topic is defined and then reinforced with supporting logic and research. Then, real-world issues are presented with immediate solutions. No fluff. We don’t work through the theory of how to get to the equation – we work the equation to solve actual problems. I also teach in their language, which varies from facility to facility. Operations and maintenance has its own language, and within it are subsets of local vernacular. Never do I impose my terms and acronyms on my audience – that’s confusing and wastes time. Instead, we speak in the language they are accustomed to and use with one another, which usually becomes evident the first day of training. I don’t care if they insist on “temperature difference” instead of “delta T” – I care that they know what it is and how to use this data point for diagnostics.

The last leg is authenticity. Like I said before, I don’t look or act like the typical facility manager. I also don’t pretend to be or look like someone I’m not. You’ll sooner find a laptop in my hands before you’ll find a wrench. Unless I’m on a construction site, you’ll find me in a pair of heels, not steel-toed boots. I don’t fish on the weekends, but my grandad once did, and I always loved his fishing stories. In fact, he bought me my first fishing pole – fabulously pink and decorated with Barbie decals. Never have I been called at 2am to come look at a chiller, generator, or boiler. But I’ll be there the next day to figure out how to avoid those calls in the future. I’m not a technician, and I probably won’t ever be one; however, I am committed to empowering those that choose this profession.

Final Thoughts

With each new project comes a new beginning and new opportunity. Some of them are more challenging than others, but every O&M team that I have ever had the privilege of working with has taught me something, usually something of significance that I can use and pass on to others. No matter the size of the team or the location of the facility, they all share something in common – they want to do good work. My mission is to empower them to do more of it.

About me: I have been responsible for the development and management of over $370 million in specialized energy solutions and infrastructure projects. Since starting my career in healthcare engineering consulting, I have provided healthcare facility managers with the tools and resources they need to make data-driven, well-informed decisions that improve their energy efficiency, building performance, and facility operations. The most recent of these solutions is a healthcare facilities operation and maintenance training program, the first of its kind in the industry.

Let’s connect: If you have a success story in facilities management, I’d love to hear about it and learn how you made it happen.


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