A Profile of Lisa James
Balancing Action & Communication On Campus

Lisa James

Lisa James
Associate Vice President,
Facilities and Campus Services Cornell University

Lisa James has always benefitted from sports in her life to balance free time, academic studies, and professional development in the field of facility management. Lisa is the Associate Vice President, Facilities and Campus Services at Cornell University.

Real-life learning began for Lisa through a series of internships, focused on graphic design, which didn’t appeal to her.

Just prior to attending college, Lisa changed her major to architecture, as she was drawn to the built environment, and eventually began working in construction management for K12 school renovation projects, which she loved, but found herself investing hours driving from site to site in Upstate New York to towns like Binghamton and Liverpool.

When a facility management position, closer to home at Cornell University opened, Lisa took a leap of faith and decided to go for it, despite having not previously worked in higher education facilities management.

Lisa worked diligently for eleven years in Cornell’s Division of Student and Campus Life on their facilities team, managing areas supporting athletics, student centers, Greek Life, and the university health center.

“That was interesting and fun,” she said. Lisa was promoted to Director of Facilities, which also encompassed housing and dining, about a third of the campus in terms of square footage.

Having successfully executed her responsibilities within a division, Lisa emerged through a national search to earn the lofty role of Associate Vice President of Facilities Management. As an outcome of her promotion Lisa and her diverse team of groundskeepers, custodians, tradespeople, maintenance staff, waste, and recycling specialists, and the seven directors who manage these departments are responsible for more than 16 million square feet of the Cornell campus.

Dealing with overlapping and unrelated emergencies is part of everyday facility life on campus. At one point, a significant chilled water leak was unable to be located for hours. This crisis launched a challenging workday that stretched well into the evening and overlapped with temperatures ranging from 45 to below zero over a 2-day period. Add a power outage and you get the picture.

Lisa is focusing her attention on leveraging the power of technology to increase the efficiency and capacity of her team.

“We're trying to streamline some of our processes and material procurement. Our team already uses iPads to receive their work orders. We’re trying to figure out what the optimal level of data collection is required to inform us better regarding the level and type of maintenance that we're applying to assets,” she explained.

Along the way, Lisa has earned LEED accreditation. Somehow, she finds time to play soccer, basketball, volleyball, and golf while raising three kids ranging in age from 10 to 19 years old. Add scuba diving, hiking, white water rafting and Lisa resembles Superwoman.

While campus life tends to be cyclical, helping students is often challenging.  New relationships emerge in the mix every semester as well as a wide variety of different tasks and projects.

“We’re always working short-staffed, so I’m constantly advocating for increased funding and staff,” she said. “I’m thinking about how I can improve my ability to address cultural shifts, and how to improve my communication skills with senior executives. Gearing up for those big conversations is important. I must think strategically about shifting communications among groups and the layers in between. I'm focused on making my team more efficient with the resources we have.”

Fortunately, Lisa is active in APPA for networking and discussing best practices and sharing stories from the front lines of higher education facility management. Lisa recently become involved in the Higher Education Facilities Forum.

“I do find networking with peers at other institutions to provide a huge amount of benefit. We joked a few times at the conference that if we don't even solve anything, we did enjoy just a little bit of therapy understanding that we're not in it alone and we have similar challenges,” she said.

Earlier in her career when she was working in construction, Lisa often found herself in the position of being the only young female on construction sites, where she was responsible for coordinating hundreds of men in the field. Some would say to her, “Is there anyone else here?” when seeking answers to construction related issues. She became used to re-establishing herself on every job site.

“I kind of let it roll off my back like a duck. I didn't let these situations bother me. I was confident in my abilities,” she said. “My advice to women considering a career in construction or facility management is to establish confidence in your skills and let everything else roll off your back.”


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