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Faces of Facilities: Maria Ruiz from UNICEF USA

May 28, 2024 | Public | 0 comments

“Always learn, practice, and apply. Find experts and ask them everything. Never be afraid to not know. Face the fear of not knowing and ask anyway.”

Those are the wise, humble words of Maria Ruiz, a life-long learner who serves as the facilities and operations manager at UNICEF USA. Headquartered in New York City’s Financial District, UNICEF USA is a nonprofit group dedicated to rallying the American public to support the world’s most vulnerable children through policies, funding, and advocacy.

In her role, Ruiz oversees facility maintenance, workspace assignments, vendor management, and security; product and materials inventory; capital and operating budget; and a staff of four, vendors, and contractors. Like many organizations post-pandemic, UNICEF USA has switched to a hybrid work model, with three current offices in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Ruiz also manages membership agreements for co-working or shared spaces for teams in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Ruiz has been in the facilities management industry for over a decade. Before joining UNICEF USA three years ago, she worked in the retail, healthcare, and transportation sectors. She’s an active member of the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) and is currently working on earning her CFM certification. To boost her lean operations skills during the pandemic, she also earned her Lean Six Sigma certification from Villanova University remotely.

To learn more about Ruiz and her take on industry issues, please read the “Faces of Facilities” interview below:

How did you get your start in the field?

I gained valuable facilities experience as an operational and retail manager at the flagship store for Bloomingdales in New York City over 20 years ago! I was first an intern as a manager in training and then was offered a full-time position soon after graduating from college. I learned everything about customer service, merchandising, inventory control, and logistics in one of the most iconic retail department stores in the world.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry, and why?

I kept thinking about a specific person or mentor who I can name, but there have been so many over the course of my career, in so many different ways and capacities, that I can’t just pinpoint one!

I have worked with such unique, influential, strong, empathetic, resilient professionals throughout my career. I’ve learned from electricians, engineers, track workers, clinical directors and nurses, site directors, and architects. The more I asked, learned, and then applied, the more they would teach me.

I value these professionals as true leaders of not only technical competencies but empathetic leaders and coaches willing to share their strengths to build my own. I value that tremendously, and I pay it forward with my current team.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

This is such a great question! Wow, my biggest mistake that comes to mind is assuming that people managing/development is easy once you are given the people manager position. I have managed small teams and some midsize teams in major industries, and I have learned that it’s THE most challenging and arduous job.

The responsibility of your own performance as well as others and then managing their physical, emotional, and mental well-being, day in and day out, and ensuring that they have the resources they need to do their work and not micromanage is an endeavor of major strength and patience.

I learned that I do not know it all, but I will be resourceful and inquisitive to learn and accept to be coached and continuously improve. I have learned to empower my team; to respect their insight and synergies with them; that command and control doesn’t work; and when you can lead with strengths and learn their strengths, you begin to develop their confidence and output. It’s amazing to see that all come together.

I also learned that you build this resilience and strength to deal much more efficiently and effectively with hard conversations and situations impacting the team. Then you have breakthroughs that allow you to build quality performing teams of people.

What are some of the biggest facilities management issues at your organization?

How to properly “right size” the organization’s real estate post-pandemic. Pre-pandemic our New York City headquarters housed almost 300 employees, five days a week; now according to our analysis, we see about 40 employees a week, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays being our most busy on-site days. Once a month, we also have “intentional engagement” days when employees are encouraged to come into the office to collaborate and socialize in person.

With over 70,000 square feet of space and it not being utilized as it used to be, we continue to have challenges as we are a very hybrid and flexible organization trying to come up with a way to bring folks back intentionally to utilize the space. In the meantime, my team and I continue to maintain a large empty space!

Because we’re a non-profit, mission-based organization, cost reduction and savings are also always at the forefront. At times we must “do more with less,” but as a Lean Six Sigma practitioner and visual leader, I’m hyper-aware of different types of waste, be it process or production. Many times, you see the waste and the defects long before anyone else can as you analyze the root cause. It can be difficult to have those who are sometimes lost in it see why it’s a waste and begin to map out for them how, as a team, we can make real change—and therein lies the challenge: the buy-in!

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

Every day is different! Being in FM is like having your own business. You have to always respond to all kinds of emergencies, staff issues, coverage issues, preventative maintenance, security, etc. It’s never a dull moment. I love being able to speak with the people on a daily basis and ensure that the built environment is safe, clean, sustainable, and comfortable while at the same time fostering positive, enhanced, and dynamic environments to ensure that they engage productively in their work!

What changes would you like to see in the FM industry?

More C-suite, higher-level positions for women. According to some recent webinars and IFMA reports, developing sustainable recruitment sources is needed to grow more participation in the FM industry. As women in FM, the more we put ourselves out there, the more we learn to be better and trailblaze.

How can company leaders make facilities management a value within their organization?

Embrace it. Walk the floors, sites, areas, and grounds. Talk to the teams! Include them in the room. Respect the multifaceted aspect of the profession. Make it always part of the program and the strategy for succession planning. Allow your FM leaders to participate in advocating for the FM programs they need to service the organization. Be open to having FM professionals in the room to create organizational change.

What are you most proud of?

Seeing my team empowered and feeling they have a voice. I value my ability to teach and be taught to be a better leader in this ever-changing FM landscape.

As someone who values knowing her strengths, I took part in an organizational coaching assessment called CliftonStrengths by Gallup, and it’s been life-changing for me. I have learned that my No. 1 strength is that I’m a learner. It was my big ah-ha moment.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Be humble yet proud of what you do and why you do it. I have been told by so many over the years, “I can’t do what you do. How do you do that?”

Often, in our FM roles, our work is not celebrated or elevated, but it’s so rewarding. The learning is endless. Always learn, practice, and apply. Find experts and ask them everything. Never be afraid to not know. Face the fear of not knowing and ask anyway.

Mentorship matters—get it and then share the knowledge, and always develop, empower, and engage your team. Listen to your team members. Own it. Be a visible leader. Get out and about and walk your sites, floors, shops, etc. Feel, see, smell, touch, talk, ask, and trust yourself.

Stay on top of technology. Treat your FM profession as your own entrepreneurial start-up and build it! Never lose your sense of humor, and share the humanity with people; get to know them, their triggers, their emotions, their ups and downs, and use it as a guide to serve them better. Listen more than you talk. I can go on and on—I have learned so much!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for this amazing opportunity, and I am humbled and grateful to have been seen as a Face of Facilities worth showcasing! It means a lot, and I am proud to help other women in FM shine their strengths and build their careers and pay it forward to keep the FM profession thriving!

Are you or a colleague an FM professional interested in being profiled for the “Faces of Facilities” series? Please contact Editor Joe Bebon at [email protected].

The post Faces of Facilities: Maria Ruiz from UNICEF USA appeared first on Facilities Management Advisor.


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