The deliberate path to facilities management

Tona Khau

IFMA Greater Seattle Chapter Vice President Tona Khau shares her personal FM journey and how education and experience have played a crucial role in her success.

There’s an old stereotype about facilities management that it’s a career path you kind of just stumble into. You were working in another division of the company when leadership approached you and asked if you could take on some FM tasks based on your experience. You don’t even remember how or when it happened—it just happened.

As the years have passed, the appetite for deliberately pursuing a career in facilities management has grown significantly. Tona Khau, Vice President of the IFMA Greater Seattle Chapter, is a product of that evolution. Her path to facilities management was anything but accidental and she hopes to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

As someone with a Certificate in Facilities Management from the University of Washington, how important has that educational foundation been to your career in facilities management?

Khau: It’s been vital to my career in facilities management. It’s provided me with the foundation to really thrive in this industry. There are a lot of key takeaways I took from that program. Without them, I don’t think I would have the knowledge base and confidence in decision making that I have now. The program covers things like project management, operations, maintenance, and other key areas that FMs have to handle on an everyday basis.

The trend towards degree programs in facilities management is growing. The younger generation is taking more deliberate steps into facilities management with different credentials and certificates that have become available to them. It makes them stand out more among competition. In the past, these roles were generally based on experience and you often heard people talking about “stumbling into” the career path.

With me, it was more of a deliberate approach. I went out and pursued a bunch of credentials and certificates. Experience is also extremely valuable in our industry because it’s not a career where you can get a degree and just take off. You have to possess certain core competencies to be successful in the industry and having both education and experience is vital.

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Why do you think more FMs are now starting to take that deliberate approach to the industry like you did? How do you think that’s different from 15-20 years ago?

Khau: I think it’s quite different from the past because you have fewer people stumbling into facilities management. People are choosing to pursue a career in it.

In the past, there just wasn’t as much information about facilities management as a career path. People didn’t even really know what FMs did. They thought we were glorified janitors—and that’s obviously not the case. FMs need to have project management skills, contract management skills, vendor management skills, and much more. Then there’s the construction piece of it. We really have to run the full gamut.

Not all FMs are the same either. Some focus on a very specific portion of facilities management. I happen to be a generalist, which means I have to know everything. With some companies, they have a whole team of people working on a project and everyone does one thing. The beauty of being a generalist is that you get to work with all these different pieces and I feel like that’s made me a more effective FM.

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As the Vice President of IFMA’s Greater Seattle Chapter, you have close ties to this organization. Why do you think FMs should join these types of organizations and do you think they’re doing a disservice to themselves if they don’t?

Khau: I joined the IFMA Seattle chapter after obtaining my certificate in facilities management from the University of Washington. One of my instructors, who is also a mentor of mine, served on the board. He actually encouraged to join the chapter. 

I started going to industry events and eventually I was recruited to be the program’s chair. I served as chair for a year and a half and brought a lot of visibility to the chapter. I was responsible for bringing in speakers, building tours, and other tasks. I made a lot of connections through that and built a huge network as a result. 

I also gained a lot of visibility from that position and I always encourage people to join their local IFMA chapter. For me, the number-one skill that I obtained through IFMA was building relationships. Everything else you can learn and be trained on, but having that particular skill is important to having success in the industry. 

If I hadn’t joined the board or chapter, I probably wouldn’t have even known what credentials and certificates were available to me. It really helped me stay on course and take me to the next level of my career in facilities management.

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Speaking of the skills necessary to have success in facilities management, what do you think makes a great FM and what are some of the most important traits that the best share in common?

Khau: I think a lot has to do with your personality, along with building and maintaining relationships. That’s more important than your technical skill set. You can train for your skill set, but you can’t necessarily train on having a positive attitude. 

If you have someone who is energetic and excited with a positive attitude and outlook—that goes a long way in being a great team player. People want to be around that person. For me, that’s one of the most important qualities.

Emotional intelligence is also very important. As FMs, we have to handle some delicate situations sometimes. Whether it’s a political maneuver or simply the inability to do something, how we communicate that to our customers (internally and externally) is key.

Like I said earlier, I also think education coupled with experience is critical. Having one without the other doesn’t work. If you just have an educational background in facilities management, you won’t necessarily know how to make those urgent decisions in the field. You’ve never had a project like that or been given that task in school. You can learn a lot by reading books, but then you actually have to apply it.

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With so many varying aspects to an FM’s job and daily duties, what would you say is the most rewarding part of what you do?

Khau: To me, the most rewarding part of working as an FM are the challenges. Obviously we get our wins when everything goes smoothly on a project and the team is happy, but overcoming challenges are the biggest wins you can have.

My true growth moments have been when I’m faced with challenges, problems, or projects that I’ve never dealt with before. I have to stop and reflect, ask a lot of questions, and get help. It’s those kinds of challenges that excite me. Everyone makes mistakes as FMs, but it’s how you handle those mistakes and learn from them that will help you to not make them again.

There’s a quote from Nelson Mandela that I live by: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” For me, that’s the true definition of being an FM.

Find out more about the IFMA Greater Seattle Chapter at their website and be sure to look up your local IFMA chapter as well.

How did you start your career in facilities management? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: Tona Khau, energepic, Product School, Lukas