Great Expectations Property Managers Need Great People Skills to Fullfill Expectations

Great Expectations

Whether it’s a neighbor’s barking dog or a backed-up toilet, the problems of condominium owners and residents are always personal. Their homes are a haven–and an investment–so at times, even an easily-solved issue can feel like a catastrophe. And like it or not, catastrophes always land on the property manager’s desk.“Issues are always emotionally charged when you’re dealing strictly with a person’s living arrangements. The only person they can take it out on, if you will, who is not another resident or neighbor, is the property manager. The manager is really the only person who is obligated to listen, at least to a point,” says Julie Adamen, a 25-year veteran of the community management industry and the founderof Adamen, Inc, a nationwide consulting and employment firm specializing in manager placements.

Adamen points to what she feels are the most important traits a person needs to be successful in the demandingrole of a property manager: “Strong people skills and communication.”

“You can know everything about construction, accounting, and elevator maintenance, but that does not mean you will be a good community manager,” says Adamen. Instead, she says, great managers establish relationships based on “credibility and integrity.” When a manager has earned the trust and respect of board members, residents, co-workers, and outside vendors, everything else will fall into place, Adamen believes.

C. Jerry Ragosa, president and ownerof The Niles Company, one of the oldest and largest full-service real estate management companies in New England, has a similar view.

“Integrity is our calling card,” he says. “When we hire a new manager, I make sure he understands that at every site, he represents all the Niles employees—he represents me—and our work of over 100 years.”

Jim Collins, executive vice presidentand director of property management at Niles, adds another perspective: “You have to know a little bit about a lot of different disciplines. You have to juggle a multitude of tasks at one time, and you have to be able to prioritize all you’ve got going on.”

But how do they do it? What makesa good property manager into a great one?

Communication Essential

Communication is a practically unanimous answer.

“Communication is virtually instantaneous these days,” Ragosa says, noting that the technology of cell phones, walkie-talkies, and email has “substantially grown” the level of communication that is possible and is expected between managers and members of a community. “We are more able than we ever have been to discover and solve problems before they become big issues.”

“Negative thoughts occur in a vacuum,” Ragosa asserts. “Without communication from us, people at thesites can perceive a problem where none really exists.”

Additionally, Ragosa mentions that communication relates to the customers’ perceived level of service. For example, he says, a resident can walk in and find a problem solved, or the manager can call the resident and report the progress. Generally, the extra few minutes it takes to make the call goes a long way towards building confidence in the manager.

Adamen sees it this way: “You cannot establish credibility without the ability to communicate. You may very well have personal integrity, but if you are not able to share it with the people around you, you will not be credible.”

The group of people that surrounds a property manager is, in reality, several groups. Ragosa stresses the importance of communication between co-workers in his company. “We have an open-door policy. Managers are out on the sites daily and when they come back we want them to feel like they can speak to anyone in the company at any time to get advice or input.” A manager at Niles, Ragosa says, works closely with administrative and clerical staff, an accounting department, and a maintenance team in a “vertically-integrated” team concept of delivery.

“The biggest mistake a new manager can make is not to tell us what’s going on at a site,” Ragosa adds about their monthly meetings to discuss the properties one at a time with all the people involved in their management. “The manager must be explicitly honestand forthright, and say it like it is.”

Listening, he adds, is an important part of communication. “We’ve been successful all these years because we listen, and we are willing to adapt to change. We keep an open mind.”

“We’re humble,” Ragosa says, laughing, as if it’s hard to believe that anyone ever succeeds at the almost impossible challenge that community management represents. “What can I say? We’re humble,” he says again.

Working with a Board

The board of directors or board of trustees is the most important constituency a manager works with— if the board looks good, the manager does, too.

“When the board’s agenda for the year gets through,” explains Adamen, who writes and lectures widely in the community association industry, “the person who made it possible is not lost on them.”

Dennis Stark, president and treasurer of the Narrangansett Pier Condo-miniums in Narrangansett, Rhode Island, for 28 years, says the board self-managed their 17-unit property for the first 15 or so years after the development was built. As the units got older and maintenance demands increased, they sought out a property management company. The first company they hired, Stark says, didn’tlike working with a president who was as hands-on as he wanted to be. With their current company, the relationship works smoothly.

“They provide me the back-up that allows me to do this without making it a full-time job,” Stark explains.

Stark may be an unusual case; he does the budget, the books, and produces the annual report for his small development. Nonetheless, Stark is still an advocate for using a professional manager and says managers bring a lot to the table, especially when they bid out and oversee a major improvement. Despite what might be a rather singular situation with Stark, the property manager does essentially whatall managers need to do: understand what the board needs and provide that service in a first-class way.

Collins also relates a story about being a newly-hired management company for a high-end development in Boston that had been, until then, managed by the developer. After they were asked to draw up a budget for the property, they noticed that the association’s electric bills were “astronomical.” They brought in an energy conservationexpert, but “got nowhere.” They brought in an engineering firm, but again could not figure out what was going on.

“This was happening over the course of a year,” he says, “but we knew something was wrong, and we just stuck with it.” Ultimately, they brought in a second engineering firm that found that a meter was set up incorrectly so that it was recording and billing the association for electricity that was going to the units. The units were being billed also, so essentially, the residents were paying twice–once with their monthly bills and once to the common fund. The property manager was then able to take the situation to the electric provider and negotiate a refund of overpayment going back to the time the building opened. Wouldn’t you like to be the manager who came to your board with a $230,000 refund they weren’t expecting? The lesson here: be proactive and persistent.

While boards can have different expectations for managers, managers can also have expectations of boards. Collins says that it is the board’s responsibility to provide the manager with guidelines on policy.

“Policy decisions are usually not yes or no. They require a bit of finesse and negotiation,” he says, noting that is also a board’s task to make timely and clear decisions. The manager’s role is to provide a range of allowable options, whether for policy, maintenance, or improvements, and the board, amongst themselves, must determine a unified position. It is in a manager’s best interest, Collins adds, to use “communications and interpersonal skills–really, whatever it takes” to help move a board to consensus and avoid the “rocky political landscape” that can result from unhappy factions in a community.

Longevity Not Assured

“People roll in and out of this business fast,” Adamen reports.

The average manager makes $45K–$48K per year, she says, “whichisn’t that horrible, but we’re asking them to do a job that, in my opinion, is worth $65K–$70K.”

Although Adamen believes that most of the “people skills” necessary for a manager’s success are more born than made, she does feel that mentoring by experienced managers can be highly useful in getting new managers off on the right foot. Unfortunately, she says, the industry as a whole lacks middle management who can take on that role. “Experienced managers who become supervisors have the abilities tomentor someone, but are often constrained by the amount of time they have to devote to it,” says Adamen.

The Niles Company bucks the trend that Adamen describes with a conscious effort to create a company culture that supports managers and fosters a long-term commitment. Collins is coming up on his twenty-fifth year with the company; one senior manager is retiring soon after 40 years of service; and a few of the senior managers haveover 20 years on the job.

“We have recently hired a new manager,” Ragosa says, “and he probably thinks I’m his new big brother for all the times I’m in his office asking, ‘How’s it going? What are you hearing at the properties?’”

Another key to longevity, according to Adamen, is “professional detachment.” At the same time that managers must like people and building relationships, they also must maintain a degree of reserve, which protects their personal lives and their psyches.

“Relating to people in a professionalmanner is detachment,” Adamen explains. “Relating in a personal manner is not.”

Adamen circles back to residents and catastrophes and says that managers cannot get “sucked into feeling like it’s a personal attack” when someone is in their face, angry or yelling. Women, she says, who make up a “large number” of the portfolio managers, are particularly vulnerable to internalizing problems or conflicts. “They’re great managers because they can multi-task, but they also need to relate and empathize without getting emotionallyinvolved.”

The bottom line, according to Adamen, is that community management is a great business.

“We are not ageist. We are not racist. We are not sexist,” she trumpets. “We cannot be outsourced. We are recession-proof. No matter what is happening anywhere in the world, the garbage still needs to be picked up. In our industry, you can have a high school diploma or a master’s degree and you can do equally well if you have the right skill set.”

Lisa Oram is an editor and writer living in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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