Ben Walker

Everyone seems to end up in the professional cleaning industry by accident. When I say accident, I don't mean in the sense of a comedy of tragic errors, but rather the Bob Ross meaning of the word, "happy accidents."

When I was 22 years old, I never could have predicted what I'd be doing today. Back then, my dream was to become some sort of war correspondent — an epic teller of truths, risking life and limb by immersing myself into a large conflict of nations. Even though my education focused on journalism, it was difficult finding work — let alone a correspondent position. I ended up as a freelancer for various local publications.

With a growing need to pay rent and student loans in the feast-or-famine reality of being a freelance writer, I headed off to find my first real full-time job. I landed a decent entry-level job as a technical writer for a manufacturer of dental products. In addition to remaining a freelance journalist, I took on a steady stream of ridiculous ventures to earn extra money including: a ring announcer for Muay Thai kickboxing tournaments; an occasional band vocalist; a restroom cleaner at a gym in exchange for a membership; and even an actor in a 60-second commercial (bonus points if you can find it on YouTube).

These details aren't to boast about my achievements, but instead to articulate a point I've noticed with most custodial managers I've had the privilege to work with. Much of my work takes me on the road, coaching operations and their management teams. Traditionally speaking, most custodial managers ended up in their role through one of three methods: promotion, absorption or coming in fresh from another, sometimes unrelated, field.

The custodial managers who have been promoted usually have done so steadily over a decades-long career. Those who have absorbed the custodial function have usually done so after experiencing success in another part of the facility management group such as maintenance or grounds. The newbies usually have a background that touched some sort of cleaning function such as HR or hospitality.

Whenever I sit down with these folks, a common refrain I hear is, "I never imagined that I'd be running a custodial department." Usually this is delivered with a bit of melancholy, apprehension or even disappointment.

Sure, few dreamt as a kid of being in their current position, but that's a myopic way of looking at things. Every single one of us has had interesting twists and turns in our career.

We all have had experiences, good and bad, that have helped us develop skills. It's important to remember that these are translatable to our current situations. Cleaning managers who have been promoted up over a decades-long career usually possess unique tribal knowledge that is very valuable to younger generations. Since the custodial industry is largely misunderstood, those who have absorbed it as another function of facility management have an opportunity to close the knowledge gap between the other functions. The newbies always bring fresh and unique perspective to the cleaning operation because they are able to apply what has been successful in other lines of business.

After all, I ended up here. I love it and I wouldn't change it for anything. I figured out how to apply the war correspondent dream to the cleaning profession. And there's a lot less violence.

Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA's bestselling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.