As jugglers of multiple and oftentimes complex tasks, property managers must be adept at mediating between board members and unit owners, as well as resolving all manner of maintenance and legal issues. To this end, property managers don’t have 'typical' days, but rather varied and challenging ones that are often complicated, and require a particular skill set to navigate.
“I think a lot of it is just common sense. It's being able to remain objective, to be able to keep your cool, when you're getting bombarded from all different directions. You can't let your emotions dictate how you handle a situation, you have to be fair and consistent. A lot of it is your ability to communicate in a reasonable manner,” says Thomas A. Skweres, ACM regional vice president in Downers Grove. “I wish we could all have psychology and engineering degrees, but we don't. Property managers come from a lot of different backgrounds, but a good business sense is very important. You've got be like an entrepreneur or a jack of all trades.”
The Juggling Act
In order to do their respective jobs well, managers require a wide array of both concrete skills and specific personality traits. And while the size of the property dictates a manager's involvement and responsibilities to a large degree, there are a few traits that are common to any good manager. These professionals understand not only how to deal with boards and residents, but vendors and the ever-changing status of the property–whether its due to the environment, a lawsuit, dishonest contractors or changing board members. In the end, it is the board that ultimately entrusts the property manager to make the right call regardless of the situation.
Since the role of the board is essentially that of policy making, board members must take a team approach when working with a property manager. To this end, board members must read all reports, attend all meetings and make decisions that are in the overall interest of the community. But getting a buy-in from board members in all this requires some skill on the part of the manager.
“A manager wants to be professional and exercise their knowledge, but at the same time we have to remember we don't get a vote. As much as we feel like we're a part of these homes, I like to say at the end of the day we're just a property manager,” says Adam Stolberg, president of Advantage Management in Chicago. “As a manager, you want to present ideas and solutions. You have to try not to get emotional about it or take a side. We've had buildings where boards won't follow the law, and there is no resolution, and we've tendered our resignation to boards like that. We can't let our personal feelings get in the way, and we don't get a vote.”
The Personality Test
Lorne Michaels, creator of TV’s Saturday Night Live, once said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” For property managers, 'show time' is a continuously-moving target. As such, they have to be producer, director, actor, editor and cameraman. In short, they require a personality that can assume any of the 'hats' needed to wear on any given day.
“They have to be licensed and trained, and really just beyond the normal licensing and the hours or re-certification, they should seek out knowledge on their own by reading trade publications, or talking to vendors about what's available to their association,” says Laura Nicolini, vice president of Caruso Management Group, Inc. in Chicago. “Most managers are managing a portfolio, so they're literally managing multiple businesses at one time. So they have to be able to balance all of that work, be efficient and stay organized. It sounds cliché, but it's really critical,” she says.
Whereas a property manager might have a background in construction or be well-versed in business software operating programs, having the 'right' personality for the job is not easily taught. In some cases, it can’t be taught at all. It’s more so an inherent gift.
“I would say you have to be assertive, friendly, conscientious, see the big picture but also get down to the minutiae,” says Nicolini. “That's what you're dealing with. Working on a budget and sending out a newsletter are really very different skills, but you have to be able to do both.”
The ability to function calmly and effectively in adverse circumstances is also key for managers. “If you have a dysfunctional board, the manager needs to be able to guide them and get them to resolution, so they forget whatever they're butting heads about. That's probably the most difficult thing when your board is not getting along. If you're going off to bid on a project, you have to be able to get the bids in, put it in a format that's easy to understand, so the board isn't spending hours on documents just to make a decision,” says Nicolini.
As is the case with weather-related events, property managers have to understand the different needs and expectations of different associations in their portfolio. Some may be comprised of residents who come from different cultures and speak multiple languages; others may be home to many older residents who have special everyday needs, as well as considerations in times of crisis.
“I think that people are going to judge a property manager by how they handle the particular situations that that unit owner is asking about. Second, they look at how their lifestyle is affected by their property manager. Is the grass cut, are the hallways clean, is the snow removed in a timely manner? I think they want to live a good lifestyle, they want their property values to appreciate, they want to look at their home as their castle. They want to feel safe, comfortable, they want to feel that the price that they're paying is reasonable for where they're living. But a lot of property managers are just judged by the interaction they have with unit owners on a day-to-day basis,” says Skweres.
Poet Laureate Robert Frost once wrote, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” This sentiment holds true for property managers, all of whom benefit from the various programs designed to further their respective careers.
“This is an industry that is continuing to grow, that's fluid, there's laws that's not very clear so for managers to stay on top of this, they have to stay in tune. Managers need to read the trade publications, and write. Managers want to know that other people are going through the same things that they are. They don't want to feel like an island out there. They're making the same decisions that other managers do so they must be okay,” says Skweres.
Depending on the size of the property and allotted budget, a property manager might have as many as 10 properties in his or her portfolio. Conversely, some of the firm’s larger single properties have a property manager and an assistant manager. With each association having different needs and challenges, keeping abreast of industry standards, protocols, and best practices is crucial for any manager, regardless of their portfolio.
One of the industry leaders in education is the Community Associations Institute (CAI), which has several programs specifically for managers—CAI’s Professional Management Development Program (PMDP). The courses, which can be taken in a classroom setting or online, are designed to enhance skills, knowledge and job opportunities.
Many firms provide in-house training on different topics such as human resources, contracts, OSHA and work-life balance. Aside from CAI, which has an Illinois chapter located in Schaumburg, firms may also take advantage of courses and seminars provided by professional organizations such as the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), the Association of Condominium, Townhouse and Homeowners Associations (ACTHA), multiple law firms and approved education providers, as well as seminars hosted by The Chicagoland Cooperator itself at its annual Expo, which took place on October 22nd at the Navy Pier.
Checks & Balances
While most unit owners only see property managers when they need to respond to a complaint, or something that's gone wrong, they probably don't realize that they key for property managers is to actually be proactive as possible, in order to prevent as many of those complaints from happening in the first place.
“Certainly, proactive communication is better than responsive communication on things we can control and know about. That always puts homeowner’s minds at ease. If you've got a project coming on, and you can give them dates and give them exactly what's going to happen, it makes the inconveniences less inconvenient. The follow-up is no project goes exactly the plan, so communicating changes or adjustments is necessary so that the homeowners aren't surprised by it. There's also communication we can't proactively do, when there's problems or emergencies. We offer email or dropping notices under doors or website postings. We also have a text messaging service if we have to shut off water in the building,” says Stolberg.
So, whether a manager handles just a handful of boutique properties, or devotes 40+ hours per week to managing a single large development, communication, personal commitment to the job, and to professional enrichment are what separate the so-so from the super when it comes to management.
“We are much better managers when we are smoke detectors than fire alarms. We can do so much more proactively from an organizational standpoint, from a cost point. Things are always cheaper to fix when you want to not because you have to,” Stolberg says.
Brad King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman also contributed to this article.