My experience, insights & Inspiration from the 2023 IFMA Conference Women in Facility Management Session
By Natalie Appleton, Chief Revenue Officer, NFS Technology
I recently had the privilege of attending an eye-opening session on Women in Facility Management during this year’s IFMA conference. The experience left me inspired and eager to share some thoughts about my journey as a female business leader- and the invaluable support I’ve received from both men and women in my professional life. It was also an opportunity to reflect on my experience juggling career aspirations with the responsibilities of motherhood. Something I know many women grapple with – and certainly many parents.
Empowerment through diversity
The IFMA Women’s session had an overwhelming turnout. It was standing room only – every single seat was occupied, with some attendees standing at the back. It was a testament to the importance of this discussion within our industry – and the need for connection. The panelists were seasoned professionals, each with a unique story of how they found their path in facility management.
One panelist said: “I needed a job when I was younger as a single parent, and it fit the bill. But I was successful and good at working with people and getting things done, so other roles and eventually managing and leadership became options.”
A common thread among these incredible women was the belief that “no two days are alike” in facility management. The variety in tasks, projects, and interactions keeps the role dynamic and rewarding. Seeing the audience actively engaging, sharing their experiences, and contributing to the conversation was heartening. It was a wonderful experience that spurred reflection on my path.
Gender in the Workplace: My Perspective
Reflecting on my journey, I’ve found that gender isn’t often at the forefront of my mind when navigating the workplace, whether in facility management or the technology sector. This is partly because I’ve been fortunate to work with incredibly supportive men who have empowered, mentored, and encouraged me.
Partnerships In Empowerment: The Men Who Paved My Path
Let me introduce you to some of the exceptional men who have supported me over the years:
- Charlie: From the beginning, Charlie has been a mentor and friend. He welcomed me warmly into the NFS family, ensuring I had the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and grow. His constant support and guidance over the years have been invaluable.
- Luis: Luis entrusted me with managing and growing the North American business, allowing me to make suggestions and decisions. His trust in my abilities has been a catalyst for success for both NFS and our clients.
- Raj: Despite my limited technical expertise, Raj’s willingness to share information and treat me as a peer in the IT realm has been incredibly empowering.
- Drew: Drew’s unwavering support and advice during challenging times have helped me hold my ground when needed. His dedication to our North American clients has been a pillar of stability.
I can’t help but wonder if my experience would have been different if I hadn’t had such a supportive team of male colleagues. The tech industry, in particular, has a gender imbalance, but my colleagues have shown that camaraderie transcends gender. Shared laughter over a few beers (or pints) is a great equalizer. I know this isn’t every woman’s experience (I’ve been incredibly lucky), but I believe our industries are evolving – for the better.
At NFS, I’ve also had the privilege of sometimes working alongside inspirational women leaders like Audrey and Laura. Laura is an exceptional leader – likely 95% of her team is male. I have watched her engage with prospective and current clients. She’s always available to listen and solve their problems while holding a firm but fair line. Her team widely respects her, and they will often admit that she is the hardest and most dedicated person in the entire team. I think Laura has a style of leading by example. She manages so many things but is always willing to take on tasks that may not be her responsibility, but they need to get done she will do it
Audrey has also been in a senior leadership role my entire time at NFS. She is also in a predominantly male team. Audrey, like Laura, takes ownership and gets things done. Their presence on the leadership team has shown me that leadership isn’t exclusive to men and that I, too, can aspire to lead.
My husband has been my rock, supporting my professional growth while considering what’s best for our family, especially our two daughters. He has continuously encouraged me to elevate myself professionally and take some great growth opportunities. We’ve had many discussions about balancing our careers and family life – making choices that prioritize our daughters’ well-being.
While I deeply miss my daughters during my travels, I hope they understand the importance of teamwork in our family. It’s my goal that they grow up knowing that it takes the commitment of fully engaged parents to run a household and provide support.
Ebb and Flow of Travel for Work
For many working mothers, the tug-of-war between professional commitments and the desire to be present at home can be especially challenging. I’ve experienced this firsthand, especially during frequent work-related travel. Over the years, I’ve traveled for my job at NFS, and this journey has evolved with my personal life. Initially, I was unattached and childless, but as my family grew, I adapted accordingly.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered an unexpected break from my travel routine, spanning 2 ½ years. Surprisingly, I cherished this time at home. Nevertheless, the return to business travel often ushers in tension within my household. The night before departing for 2-7 days, I meticulously plan and organize to meet my daughters’ needs. This includes keeping the family calendar and reminders up to date, considering school events, lunches, and snacks, managing homework, and ensuring dance uniforms are ready. The bittersweet conversation with my 8-year-old daughter, explaining my absence, reinforces the strong family bond and the importance of kindness, patience, and flexibility during my time away.
The Balancing Act of Remote Work
Another facet of my life as a working mother is the challenge of multitasking. The flexibility of hybrid and remote work arrangements has been a blessing. I can start my day early, allowing me to greet my daughters in the morning, prepare breakfast, pack lunches, and assist with their morning routines. My husband and I share these responsibilities, adapting to our meeting schedules. It requires diligent preparation the night before, as we both begin our workdays around 6:30 a.m.
I focus on my work throughout the day, but when my girls return home from school, I ensure I’m available to listen to their stories and experiences. Our schedule often involves a “quick turnaround” for extracurricular activities – including dance, book club, and choir, and it’s a testament to the importance of time management and teamwork.
A Pledge to Pay It Forward
Given the tremendous support I’ve received, I feel a personal responsibility to be a considerate leader. My approach may vastly differ from those who have influenced me, drawing from my hospitality background and unique experiences. Still, I am committed to nurturing and empowering the next generation of leaders.
Working parents face numerous challenges. It’s just plain hard. As a working mom and leader, I’m committed to supporting women and parents in the workplace by implementing a range of measures:
- Tapered return to work for maternity and paternity leave
- Hybrid and remote work flexibility (Pre-COVID and today)
- Frequent breaks for pregnant and nursing moms
- Flexible schedules for childcare and health issues
In striving to create a more supportive and accommodating workplace, the aim is to ease the burdens faced by working mothers, making it possible for them to excel both in their careers and as parents.
Overcoming the Myth of ‘Having It All’
As a working mother, there’s often the nagging feeling of being unable to give 100% to family and work simultaneously. It’s a common struggle faced by many, and I’m no exception. However, I’m determined to ensure that neither my family nor my work feels neglected. It’s about finding a balance that works for my family and me, and I’m continually learning and growing in the process.
The journey of a working mother is filled with ups and downs, but it’s a testament to the resilience, dedication, and adaptability of women in the workplace. By sharing our experiences and supporting one another, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and understanding work environment that accommodates the realities of working mothers.
In writing this, I’m grateful to my family and the incredible colleagues, mentors, and NFS for helping me continue my professional journey. Together, we can empower and inspire, regardless of gender, paving the way for a brighter future in all workplaces.