Strategies for Team Building and Mentorship

Brian Gregory [00:00:00]:
Hi, everybody, this is your host Brian for the Beyond Buildings podcast, where we meet innovative and inspiring facilities leaders from across the country. In this episode, I chat with Brandon Chabola, who is the Director of Plant Services at Penn Hills School District. Brandon discusses his journey from starting as a lawnmower all the way to becoming a Facilities Director. He talks about the importance of building trust in his team and his overall strategies for team building and mentorship. We also get into the highlights and challenges of retaining and finding teammates. Finally, Brandon's very active in the Pennsylvania Association for School Business officials, or PASBO, and he talks about the importance of educating school administrators about the work that you all do as facilities directors. Let's dive in. Thanks, Brandon, for joining the Beyond Buildings podcast with me today.

Brian Gregory [00:00:43]:
To get started, just tell me a little bit about how you got into the facilities industry and how you got to where you are today.

Brandon Chabola [00:00:49]:
Yeah, Brian. Hey, thanks for having me. Appreciate it. I've been in facilities now for 25 years. Started out long time ago, mowing lawns and working in the bus garage, and eventually now been a facility director for the past seven years. It's been quite an interesting journey between those two times. Think I was on grounds for five years and I knew it wasn't a good place for me to stay because it's mowing lawns. My mind went into a bad place.

Brandon Chabola [00:01:16]:
So I was actually thinking about, I either need to be promoted into another department or I was going to leave and start my own business doing something. Well, thankfully, I got promoted as a daytime custodian and then actually another position opened up a few months later as a McTowell's district maintenance person. So whereas in a smaller district, so we were jack of all, master of none. So I learned all the HVAC, electrical, we did plumbing, carpentry, you name it. We fixed 80% of the stuff in the buildings. And I enjoyed it. I loved it. I love having a variety.

Brandon Chabola [00:01:46]:
And then I had a superintendent come up to me and told me about local college, opening up a satellite campus and offering a facility management course, associate's degree. So I jumped on it, took that course, got my bachelor's degree in business admin, and knowing that my current facility director was retiring soon and they'd want a bachelor's degree. So that helped push me to getting that stuff. Plus, having superintendent see something in me got me into where I'm at today. Keep it a nutshell.

Brian Gregory [00:02:15]:
Yeah, obviously, long period of time there. When you think about each of those leaps, was there ever a time you felt like I'm not sure if I want to take this next job. How did you approach that and how'd you overcome it?

Brandon Chabola [00:02:26]:
One I can talk about most recently is I was at one school district for 23 years as a Gerard school district up in Erie, Pa. And I got a job offer to come down to Pittsburgh to Penn Hill School District to run the facilities department here. And timing worked out well where my son was graduating from high school. My wife works from home with remote business, so she can work from anywhere. So the move made it easy. We knew we liked Pittsburgh area, so we came down here, but there was a little bit of transition time before the whole family came down. So I was just down, got an apartment down here and starting a new job going from Gerard, where I was there for 23 years. So I knew a lot of things.

Brandon Chabola [00:03:06]:
I knew history of the buildings and all that, and knew who to call and just came as second nature. And then coming down here knowing nothing. I knew nothing about the buildings, nothing about the people. Only knew of a couple of vendors that I could call on. That was very challenging. And there was a few moments where I'm like, did I make the right decision doing this?

Brian Gregory [00:03:25]:

Brandon Chabola [00:03:26]:
It was definitely challenging and stressful, but now I've been here almost a year and nine months, and I can look back and it's like, yeah, I'm glad I pushed through all that. It's definitely been worth it. We've been making a lot of good changes here in the district, doing a lot of work, projects and stuff, making a lot of positive difference for everybody.

Brian Gregory [00:03:43]:
Yeah, that's great, man. I think many of us face change sometimes in our lives, but nothing quite that big. Brandon, it's a huge deal. Like being in an apartment away from your family, like moving everybody over for a new job. Just tell me a little bit more. So you had a few vendors. You didn't really know the team. How did you make that work? How did you make that move work?

Brandon Chabola [00:04:04]:
I came to the realization that I just need to trust people right off the bat. And some of my admin would tell me and say, all right, this person's real helpful and this one isn't so much. I didn't want to go off any of those opinions. I trusted people off the bat, and I learned that I had to and ask them, like, all right, hey, what do you know about this and who can I call for this? I knew one other facility director down in this area, so I'd call on him, a couple of the contractors that I used on my old district, so I'd call on them and I'd even ask them like, hey, who else can I call for this? Really realize the value of networking and trust in your team.

Brian Gregory [00:04:38]:
That's great. Yeah. Assume positive intent.

Brandon Chabola [00:04:42]:

Brian Gregory [00:04:42]:
Right. Assume competence until you find otherwise. That's really good feedback. Yeah.

Brandon Chabola [00:04:47]:
And they led me in the right direction when stuff happens and they've been here for years and they still have the good intent for the district wanting to get things corrected. So it's been good.

Brian Gregory [00:04:58]:
Yeah. That's great, man. When I think about the worst mistakes I've made with senior hires at FMX, it's typically when somebody comes in and day two, they're like, this person made this mistake. This person made this mistake. They're trying to clean house. And it's like, hold on a second. These people have been here for a long time. They've proven their value.

Brian Gregory [00:05:17]:
You don't really know what we're doing yet. So the fact that you trusted your team doesn't mean that you're going to keep every single person and everything's not going to be changed. But assuming positive intent definitely goes a long way.

Brandon Chabola [00:05:29]:
Yes, absolutely.

Brian Gregory [00:05:31]:
Maybe tell me a little bit about your team building strategy. So obviously you've risen completely through the ranks. Has that impacted the way that you have promoted your team?

Brandon Chabola [00:05:41]:
Yes. I can go back from my old district, had a couple people that were interested in trying to move up from a general maintenance grounds position and get into HVAC or something like that. So I would help them along however I could, whether it was helping support them, getting the training needed, like a votec school, or if some vendors were offering some certain classes, I would make sure they knew about it and approve for them to do it, or just working alongside someone to get that exposure to help promote them. And then even here at Penn Hills, I've got a, one of my maintenance guys has HVAC background from a votec school from years ago, and he hasn't really had the opportunity to apply it. And I just had the conversation with him. It's like, hey, do you still want to pursue this? And if you do, it's like, let's work on it. Let's work on together. Let me give you the opportunity and just trying to plan for succession.

Brandon Chabola [00:06:33]:
And I have an HVAC guy right now. He's great. He's got a wealth of knowledge, 30 years of experience, but he's going to retire sooner than the other guy, so why not have him working with them alongside so you don't lose a ton of knowledge in the HVAC systems in this district?

Brian Gregory [00:06:50]:
Yeah, it's huge. We've heard from districts everywhere. Right? Like, labor shortages are like the biggest challenge. And beyond that, the nuance is we've got folks that have 30 years of experience that is irreplaceable and they're leaving. And so what do we do about that? What do we do about that? Like, your point about pairing somebody up with somebody that has that experience is huge. Have you seen any other things that have worked for you guys to keep that knowledge in, or at least document it?

Brandon Chabola [00:07:16]:
I try to document the best we can, just like even with my custodians and the day to day stuff that they do, I've asked them to. Sure, they have a job description, but it's a general job description. But my guy that comes in at six in the morning to open up the buildings, there's all kinds of little different things than he does that no one really knows about.

Brandon Chabola [00:07:37]:
It's like, put it on a piece of paper for me, spell it out. So if you're off tomorrow and I need to put someone in there that's never done it before, can go off your sheet and make it seamless so that everyone else in the building almost doesn't know you're off. I know you get into trades, they have an apprenticeship program, teach all the new people how to do stuff until they're a journeyman and a master and all that stuff. And school districts don't really do much with mentoring or have apprentice programs. At least I haven't seen that in Pennsylvania. That takes money to do, and it's all taxpayer money, so we got to be cognizant of that. But I think there's ways to train people on multifacets within the facilities. We don't leave big holes when people leave.

Brian Gregory [00:08:19]:
Makes total sense, like changing topics a little bit, too. Taking the path that you have towards leadership and super successful very fast. Do you ever miss anything from your earlier jobs that you had? And if so, how do you handle that? I do.

Brandon Chabola [00:08:34]:
I worked a lot on the HVAC systems and I enjoyed working on the low voltage controls, the building automation systems, making sure things were running properly and efficiently.

Brian Gregory [00:08:46]:
I hear you. I was kind of in a similar boat. The good thing about machines, they can be a pain in the butt. It could be really hard to figure out. But at the end of the day, they're logical. Like, you figure it out, it works. Yes, people not logical all the time. A little bit.

Brandon Chabola [00:09:03]:
No. People throw a million curveballs.

Brian Gregory [00:09:06]:

Brandon Chabola [00:09:06]:
And a piece of equipment, it's systematic. And I enjoyed working on that stuff. And my old district had two people in the district maintenance position and did the HVAC and stuff, but there'd still be times where I could come and help them if they got stumped on something or something like that. So I enjoyed that here. I haven't been able do that as much. I've been a lot busier just in my role and planning projects and everything else. There's been a couple of times where it's allowed me to have the opportunity to dive into a problem and I miss that.

Brian Gregory [00:09:39]:
Yeah, I think anybody that's come to your position, Brandon, like the way you have, revisiting that, even if it's a small part of your job, is kind of important, right. Just to ignite the passion and be there. And also I kind of ask, like, have you ever had situations where you've moved up maybe your best tech, only to find they want to go back to being a tech and not being a manager?

Brandon Chabola [00:10:00]:
I haven't come across that yet. It's always been a fear, and it's one of those. What's the one analogy? You always see that sometimes employers don't want to train people because they think they're going to leave. But why do you want to keep a mediocre employer a bad employee all the time? I'd rather train them and make them the best they can be. And if they want to go back to another position or we end up losing for some reason, in the end, I help make them a better person and more valuable. And I'd be hoping that the time I had them or time I worked with them was a great time period for us and they made a difference in the district.

Brian Gregory [00:10:37]:
Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I think sometimes there's a fallacy that you have to be a manager to make a good living or whatever, and that's not true. Sometimes it's true. I guess it depends on the organization. But sometimes your best HVAC tech, for example, probably serves the district best, being HVAC tech and themselves and becoming like the director of facilities or director of HVAC or whatever. That doesn't have to happen. I feel like sometimes we force that too much, and now we're also having know folks kind of staying where they're at. We've had situations, too, even at FMX where we move people up to manager spot.

Brian Gregory [00:11:13]:
And thankfully, most we've lost a few, unfortunately. But a few times we've had folks say, you know what, can I go back to my old job? I love the old job, and I love it when I hear that because it's so honest. There are benefits to moving up and there's responsibility and prestige, but if you're not a big ego person, those things don't matter that much. And so just kind of, what is the impact you're making? Right. Is it on managing new people or the thing that got you to the point that you're going to.

Brandon Chabola [00:11:47]:
For me, I'm a troubleshooter by nature, and ask my wife. She'll tell me about her day or something like that. If something doesn't go right, I'm trying to fix it for.

Brian Gregory [00:11:56]:
How does that work for you?

Brandon Chabola [00:11:58]:
It never goes well.

Brian Gregory [00:12:03]:
Just listen.

Brandon Chabola [00:12:05]:
Yes, I've learned to shut up and just listen.

Brian Gregory [00:12:08]:
Yeah, no, I hear you. Yeah. Trying to solve problems, I think that's like, it gets baked in your soul and then sometimes it's not helpful.

Brandon Chabola [00:12:16]:
Yeah. I've had some supervisors that weren't the best supervisors. They didn't treat people fairly, and I was a union rep for a while before I became supervisor, so I was fighting on the union side, trying to fix some of that stuff. So some of that has driven me to become a supervisor just so I can treat people right, try and show the best value that they can provide for the district and support them how I can. And a custodian, they have issues cleaning a classroom. If I inspect their area and it's not up to par, sometimes might be the custodian slacking, but it could also be classroom management on the teacher end or some really bad kids that aren't being disciplined in the right way or something. There's a lot of variables, and I'll dig into that stuff. I've been that custodian with those issues.

Brandon Chabola [00:13:01]:
I've been the groundsperson with those issues. So when they have those issues, I'm one of the first to stick up for them and say, hey, all right, let's talk to the coaches and have the kids clean up the grounds a little bit better, be responsible for their area. And that goes a long ways with getting the support from the department and then just making the appearance of everything better.

Brian Gregory [00:13:17]:
Yep. Brandon, when you think back over your journey to where you're at now, are there any kind of transformational leaps, whether it's learning that you had or an opportunity that somebody gave you or an experience that happened that really pushed you along?

Brandon Chabola [00:13:32]:
That's a thought one there.

Brian Gregory [00:13:33]:
Easy question.

Brandon Chabola [00:13:34]:
Yeah. Probably one of the biggest pushes that brought me to where I'm at now. Being a supervisor was having that superintendent come up to me because I went through votec for HVAC courses and industrial electricity and stuff. I got done with them, and then he came up to me, I don't even know if it was a year later, saying, hey, you should go for this facility management degree at the local college. Just having someone be that ability in me to go to the next step as a facility director, that's huge.

Brian Gregory [00:14:01]:
Yeah. And I think keeping that in mind, right. That we have that power to help others. If we give it to everybody, it dilutes it. But for the right folks, saying, you know what? You should go do this thing. I see greatness in you. That's huge.

Brandon Chabola [00:14:15]:

Brian Gregory [00:14:16]:
Similar to me, at a young out of college age, I had an opportunity and I didn't know what I didn't know and worked my butt off. And things are way different than I thought they would be for me. And once again, it goes back to somebody just seeing something and pushing you in a direction. So that's awesome. Do you want to pivot a little bit so I know you're part of organization there in Pennsylvania. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Brandon Chabola [00:14:40]:
Yes. There's a state organization called PASBO. It's the Pennsylvania association for School Business Officials, and they have local chapters, regional chapters for facility directors, business managers, transportation, and IT, and I'm one of the officers for our western, PA facility director association. When I was up in Erie, we had the northwest Facility director Association. I was an officer there, and then coming down here, had the opportunity to come the officer down here, and I wanted to jump at it. We have chapter meetings five times a year, and we always have some of the nearby facility directors come. We have vendors that come to it, and we always try and have some kind of professional development at each chapter meeting. So there's value to it for all of us there.

Brandon Chabola [00:15:25]:
And then there's roundtable discussion. That's some of the stuff you learn the most from is just talking to your peers, and there's no sense of recreating the wheel, and someone's dealt with the issues that you're having nine times out of ten, so it's invaluable to have that. We just had a chapter meeting yesterday, just talking about where the chapter is going and what professional development people want to see. And then we had a big vendor show in May that we're going to be having. We just lined up the keynote speaker for that. Start working on that here real soon.

Brian Gregory [00:15:54]:
What were some of the hot topics that folks are seeing the biggest one.

Brandon Chabola [00:15:56]:
Is retaining employees and finding employees. Right now. That's even our vendors there, they have the same issues. And some of our local districts have had some custodial positions open for over a year and a half. Now another one's trying to find a maintenance position that pays good money and can't find people to come in. I had two subs for my custodians and I just hired both of them, and I don't have any subs now. So trying to get coverage when people are off is challenging.

Brian Gregory [00:16:28]:
Where do you think this goes, Brandon? How do we fix this?

Brandon Chabola [00:16:31]:
I don't know. I haven't figured that one out yet because I think it's everywhere. You probably see it, too.

Brian Gregory [00:16:35]:
Oh, we see it everywhere. Yeah. I don't know. I mean, it's really hard to retain folks or recruit folks if they're making like, 50% of what they can make somewhere else or maybe 40% of what they can make in the private sector, and you'll find special people that really care about the kids, and that mission drives them so much that they'll do it. And then also there's perks. You don't have to travel. You're not flying to all these different places or driving like crazy, but it's hard. And a lot of these folks are starting their career.

Brian Gregory [00:17:04]:
They need the money. And as much as they care, they also have their own commitments. So it's so like, we've seen suggestions around trying to rehire recent retirees. Like, once they get tired of playing golf, there's only so much golf you can play. Bring them back, but don't bring them back and have them go change filters or do something like that. Bring them back. And you mentioned this earlier, Brandon, put them alongside a younger person and let them download their knowledge there. Try to extract as much as you can.

Brian Gregory [00:17:35]:
But then at the end of the day, either advocating for more budget, that's one of the things that we're looking at, is how can we help you and other facilities leaders make the case that, you know what? We're going to have to pay up for these positions. If we don't do that, the whole mission of K-12 education is going to start falling away. If the buildings are not maintained, kiddos are not going to have good results. Yeah, and it's obvious you need to have good teachers and you have good leadership, but you have to have good facilities, and this doesn't come automatically. You've got to have budget for it. I don't think you're going to win an election or something by funding facilities. But at the end of the day, at some point, we have to do it. And so I think having data and having an equal seat at the table to show this is what we're facing.

Brian Gregory [00:18:24]:
We need to pay custodian $80,000 a year or whatever it is to keep them, because they can make that somewhere else. We got to show it. But that's not easy. Obviously, nobody solved that yet, and education is a huge expense nationwide. It's not something like we can just fund that more, but I think we just have to look at how we're doing it and do it intelligently as we can.

Brandon Chabola [00:18:44]:
Yeah, I think it's almost a generational thing, too, because today's generation, I heard the example one time, they like the cafeteria style. They have a lot of options, and they want to change up often. So, going back to our parents, they found the jobs they wanted to retire from. They wanted to have the good health care and pension, and that's what they valued. And I know for Pennsylvania, the pension for a new hire today isn't the same for what I have after being in for 25 years. So that value is different. But then these newer generations also don't even. I don't know if they see the value of the pension or if they're concerned as much about the value.

Brandon Chabola [00:19:27]:
I know when I was younger, I didn't understand that the value of the pension. And now I look at it, and I'm looking at being able to retire in ten years with a full pension, and I'll be 55 years old. This is crazy.

Brian Gregory [00:19:38]:
Yeah. That's not normal. Well, I think there's also concern. Is that pension solvent? Right. It's one thing to say it's there. Is it there, then?

Brandon Chabola [00:19:49]:
Could I even afford to, because of health care? The next thing, and I would still be working. I don't know what I'd do, but I'd be figuring out my career when I grow up.

Brian Gregory [00:19:57]:
There you go back into some HVAC controls, or who knows? I'm getting into bridge building. We have a little property that we got here, and we built, like, a little wooden bridge there. That might be my retirement gig. I'll travel and build people bridges, but.

Brandon Chabola [00:20:11]:
There you go anyway.

Brian Gregory [00:20:12]:
Do something. Well, yeah. Interesting. So it's good. To your point, though, going back to the association, like, sharing these challenges, it doesn't solve them tomorrow, but I think there is strength. I don't want to call, like, unionizing, because I don't think that's what it is. But if everybody has the same challenge and we see that nationwide, we should do something about it. Yeah, we should do something about it.

Brian Gregory [00:20:36]:
And surely we can find something that's better than where we're at right now. Maybe it isn't a perfect solution, but we got to find something.

Brandon Chabola [00:20:43]:
I don't want to contract custodians out or anything like that. There's a value to having them in house, and I tell my department all the time, and they're the frontline workers. Everyone's first impression. And when you have a parent or the student, the teacher, whoever it is, coming onto our campus, if the campus looks good, then it sets a high standard for the district. If it doesn't look good, then it sets a poor image. And whether that parent's coming in to have a good meeting or a bad meeting with the principal or teacher or something like that, I don't want to set the tone for that meeting because the vestibule is right.

Brian Gregory [00:21:17]:
Right. And, Brandon, aren't there studies that show, like, results for students correlate to conditions of the buildings?

Brandon Chabola [00:21:25]:
Oh, absolutely.

Brian Gregory [00:21:26]:

Brandon Chabola [00:21:26]:
That and having air conditioning and clean it, good indoor air quality. And there's so many variables.

Brian Gregory [00:21:32]:
Yeah. So it makes sense. And it's always been front of mind. I think if there's no problem, nobody says, wow, this building is really comfortable. Lights aren't flickering. That's awesome. They say, oh, it's hot in here, it smells like lights flickering, whatever. And it is what it is.

Brian Gregory [00:21:50]:
I think everybody that goes into facilities at some level, you just have to, you know what? Suck that up. Nobody's going to give you a pat on the back because things are perfect. But we also have to realize that that has a huge impact, and if we can't fund this properly, there's going to be challenges.

Brandon Chabola [00:22:07]:
Yeah. Someone said it as, like, you need to sell your position in your department. And because we're in the world of education, I try and say we need to educate our building principals, our school board directors, and everything of what we do. Because 90% of our work is behind the scenes. No one sees it. Even when we do a renovation project, do a big HVAC project, when it's done, what do you see besides a new thermostat on the wall?

Brian Gregory [00:22:33]:
Nothing. The only time you're seeing is if something goes wrong. Yeah.

Brandon Chabola [00:22:36]:
So I've definitely learned to have meetings with them, give them updates, construction photos and stuff. I mean, have that, let them see everything that's going on and realize this is what we're doing.

Brian Gregory [00:22:49]:
Yeah. And be fair, I don't think there's any easy job in education and being an instructional staff. My wife's teacher for five years and been FFA advisor. Not easy. She worked like twice as hard as me, made half as much, and it was not easy. And I can only imagine being like an administrator, especially being on the school board level, dealing with, like, it's tough.

Brandon Chabola [00:23:11]:
But that's a volunteer position, and I give them all the credit in the.

Brian Gregory [00:23:15]:
World with COVID Oh, my gosh. It was crazy.

Brandon Chabola [00:23:17]:
Yeah. Decisions they had to make and the heat they get from the community and stuff, that's a tough position.

Brian Gregory [00:23:23]:
Often a no win situation, and your heart's in it for the right reasons anyway. But I think just making sure facilities has an equal seat at the table and everybody understands that if we don't address the funding gap that we have there, there's going to be problems that we can't solve with more teachers or better books or whatever. At the end of the day, we've learned that kids learn in buildings not at home, and those buildings have to be maintained. And that doesn't happen automatically.

Brandon Chabola [00:23:51]:
No, it doesn't. I've been fortunate here that everyone here understands that they understand we need to maintain our buildings. Unfortunately, they learned the hard way with some things that failed sooner than they should have. But we're getting it corrected and got a plan moving forward to keep things awesome.

Brian Gregory [00:24:08]:
All right. What? I'll respect your time here, Brandon. Usually we end each one of these podcasts with advice for others. And so specifically maybe for advice for others looking to become a facilities you, what advice would you give?

Brandon Chabola [00:24:22]:
I'm going to have to say, because I hear so many people say, I never want your job because of all the headaches. And every job has headaches. Doesn't matter what you do, there's a headache to it. So you can't focus on that. Focus on the positives. Want to be a facility director sometime? I mean, focus on how much change you can make in a district, and you're the sole role of what happens when a building gets built or renovated and how it's maintained. That's your sole purpose as a facility director. No one else is going to be able to do that besides you with your knowledge.

Brandon Chabola [00:24:54]:
So of course there's going to be headaches that come with it. But the pros are larger than the cons, for sure.

Brian Gregory [00:24:59]:
Bring some advil, I guess. Yeah.

Brandon Chabola [00:25:02]:
I tell people here all the time, things break every day. It's just sometimes there are bigger breaks that might cause emergencies or something like that, but you can't get excited or stressed about. It's just something broke and we got to fix.

Brian Gregory [00:25:13]:

Brandon Chabola [00:25:13]:
What our job is, right.

Brian Gregory [00:25:15]:
All right. Brandon, thank you so much for your time, man.

Brandon Chabola [00:25:17]:
Thank you. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Creators and Guests

Brian Gregory
Brian Gregory
Brian is the founder and CEO of FMX, a leading provider of facilities and maintenance management software.
Brandon Chabola
Brandon Chabola
Brandon Chabola is the Director of Plant Services at Penn Hills School District. He's very active with the Pennsylvania Association for School Business Officials (PASBO).
Strategies for Team Building and Mentorship
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