Association Managers Are Struggling with Burnout - Management Companies Are Trying to Combat It
By: Nena Groskind
If you think about association management - and that's what we're going to do for the next 3,000 words or so - it's not hard to understand why burnout and high turnover are perennial problems. A manager's hours are long, the compensation less than stellar, and the stress levels often off the chart. The surprising thing is not that so many managers suffer from burnout, but that so many of them manage to avoid that fate.
The problem isn't new, "but it is better recognized today," David Abel, CMCA, senior manager at First Realty Management, says, although, he acknowledges, "better is a relative term. There was zero recognition of it in the past."
The burnout problem "ebbs and flows," Nancy Mandino, CMCA, AMS, vice president/portfolio management at The Dartmouth Group Inc. (AAMC, AMO), observes. "Just when you think you've got a handle on it, you hear someone else is leaving."
It isn't just the nature of the manager's job that contributes to burnout, Katie Wells, PCAM, CMCA, AMS, director of condominium management at Greater Boston Properties, believes. It's the make-up of the people who are drawn to it. "They are all type-A personalities," she notes. "They're driven, they crave challenges and stress."
But even the most driven managers, who thrive on stress, can only take so much of it. And association management drives many beyond that point.
Any effort to address burnout has to begin with an understanding of what motivates managers. And industry executives agree that the primary motivation is not money. Managers expect to be reasonably compensated for their wok, Abel says, "but no one is in this business for the money. You can't work as hard as managers work and wake up every day and say, 'I hate my job.'"
A Service Attitude
Managers have a "service attitude," says Pat Brawley, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, an industry consultant, whose firm, Central Management & Consulting Services, LLC, advises community associations and management companies. "Managers like problem-solving, they like working with people, they like making things better," and for the most part, Brawley believes, they enjoy what they do - until it burns them out.
If there is one characteristic that defines most managers, Brawley says, it is a drive to succeed. "That's what motivates them. That's what makes them feel good about their job and about themselves." It is also what burns many managers out, she contends, because the job itself often makes success impossible.
"Managers burn out because they want to do the best possible job for every client and for every property they have." But because they manage so many properties, have so many demands on their time and face so many pressures, Brawley says, they often find they "can't do the job they want to do."
It's not a single factor that makes the job impossible, she says but the accumulation of obstacles day after day that constantly block success: "It's the board member who doesn't like you and makes your life miserable; it's the board that doesn't value what you do; it's the boss who doesn't understand why you can't take on three more properties; it's the administrative staff that doesn't have time to produce the reports you need. It's all the ways our performance is constantly undermined. That's what burns people out."
Although few industry executives describe the burnout problem as bluntly as Brawley, most agree generally with her assessment of the issue. And management companies are adopting a variety of strategies to address it.
Some are trying to reduce the work load by providing more administrative support or (rarely) by reducing the number of properties in a manager's portfolio. Some are encouraging managers to take more time off (if they can), allowing them to telecommute, and offering "de-stressers" of various kinds - company-sponsored outings, pizza parties, casual Fridays, and the like. Many are seeking ways to recognize managers' achievements and demonstrate appreciation for their efforts.
An Individual Problem
Stress is an individual problem, Paul Gruczka, director of education and client satisfaction at The CWD Group, Inc., AAMC, in Seattle, WA says. "Different managers react differently to it." Some managers can comfortably handle 12 properties, while others feel "overworked" with five. The difference is defined, Gruczka says, not only by the personalities and capabilities of the managers, but by the size and complexity of their properties.
Gruczka focuses in part on manager education - giving them the tools that will help them operate more efficiently and manage the stress that is inherent in their work. "We work with them on setting the board's expecations ¨- about when they will return phone calls and attend meetings. We show them how to establish limits and create the space that every manager needs from time to time."
First Realty looks for ways to demonstrate "appreciation and support" for managers who spend much of their times solving problems and listening to complaints. Among other measures, the company presents plaques and cash awards at its annual meeting, recognizing the contributions of managers and staff members "at all levels." They also nominate managers for regional and national awards and have won several of them. This benefits the managers, but it is also "very good publicity for the company," Abel acknowledges. "It's a win-win."
Like First Realty, I&I Property Management in Fresno, CA seeks ways"°to let our staff know how much they are appreciated," Marge Imfeld, PCAM, a partner in the company, observes. But appreciation alone "isn't sufficient," she acknowledges. "We also allow our managers to take up to four hours in one day to attend school activities, take care of doctor's appointments," and handle other personal business. "Of course, "she adds, "this is contingent on managers not letting any necessary work fall through the cracks."
Which may explain why many companies have found that their managers are reluctant to take time off, even if they are allowed and even encouraged to do so. The fear that something will "fall through the cracks" and the additional work they know it will require make time off more a source of stress than a means of relieving it for many managers.
Like an increasing number of management companies, Dartmouth has made combating burnout and boosting manager morale a priority. A "Committee for Team Optimism" consisting of a portfolio manager, an administrative assistant, a receptionist, and an accounts payable staffer, is responsible for "suggesting creative ideas for improving the office atmosphere and keeping morale up," Mandino, explains. The committee's proposals have included wine and cheese parties for employees, family-oriented outings (a baseball game and an evening at the Symphony among them), and a "Get Moving" competition, in which employee teams strapped on pedometers and competed to see who could log the most miles.
Some of the ideas are "a little silly," Mandino admits, for example, encouraging employees to wear team jerseys the Friday before a "big game" for one of the Boston teams. But the goals are serious. "We're trying to make the office a safe haven" from the pressures managers and other employees face day-to-day, she explains.
One widely recognized source of stress for managers is the night meetings they have to attend. "It's what managers complain about most," Mandino says, making it a major target of burnout mitigation efforts. Dartmouth encourages boards to hold early morning meetings, which are not only appreciated by managers, but also more efficient, she says. "People have to get to work, so everyone gets down to business quickly" without the delays and distractions common in evening sessions.
Dartmouth also tries to insert contract language limiting the hours managers are expected to work and charging for time logged beyond that. If there are extra charges, Mandino says, "that money goes to our managers."
I&I, the California management company, discourages evening meetings by offering price concessions to associations willing to meet during the day instead. "We also make it clear to new clients that our contract is for meetings that start no later than 6 p.m. and last no longer than 90 minutes," Imfeld says. "If they want to meet longer or later or on weekends, we can do that, but our fee will be higher."
The Wrong Targets
Brawley thinks the focus on night meetings as a strategy for reducing stress, while well-intentioned, is misguided. For her, at least, "night meetings are no big deal. If everything goes as planned, if the preparation is there and the communication is there ¨- if board member have a clear discussion of the issues and make intelligent decisions, night meetings can be fabulous," she says. "Sometimes they are the most energizing thing I do all week."
Brawley also questions the long-term value of most ˇ°feel-good" morale-boosting efforts. "Managers don't need more pizza parties or more casual Fridays or more manager appreciation ceremonies," she says. They need a manageable work load and a corporate structure that understands their needs and provides the support they require.
Those are bigger, more complicated targets, to be sure, but many companies are taking aim at them. At I&I, for example, "every manager has an administrative assistant," Imfeld says. While few companies match that effort, many try to provide extra assistance to managers when they need it.
"We want managers to let us know if they are feeling overwhelmed," Wells at Greater Boston Properties says. But managers who express those concerns get more than a sympathetic ear, she emphasizes. "We work as a team. If managers need help, we try to do something to relieve their stress." That may mean providing more administrative help or asking another manager with a lighter load to pitch in for a while. "We don't just leave them out in left field," Wells says.
Dartmouth similarly encourages an atmosphere "where people help each other," Mandino says. "When someone has a problem, people drop what they're doing and help. We think that is pretty unique." It is also expected, Mandino says. "We make it clear to employees that we work as a team."
One aim of the "get moving" competition she described earlier was to build team spirit within the company. "Maintenance staff, portfolio managers and administrators- people who might not have known each other" formed the teams, Mandino explains, creating the personal connections that can facilitate collaboration and support.
The team spirit Mandino and Wells describe is laudable and necessary, Brawley agrees. But in her experience, it is also rare. Many managers are reluctant to ask for help, even if it is theoretically available, she says, because, "If you delegate, you have to be able to delegate with confidence. You have to know that the person to whom you are handing off a task will be as concerned about doing it well as you are." All too often, Brawley has found, the report she needed was buried on the desk of someone who didn't have time to work on it and didn't share her sense of urgency about getting it done.
Shared Vision Needed
What is needed and too often lacking in many management companies, Brawley suggests, is a shared corporate mission, recognizing that providing quality service to clients isn't just the manager's responsibility, but a shared goal to which everyone contributes.
First Realty uses a monthly staff training program to foster that broader view, teaching employees about other areas of the company so they can see where they fit into "the big picture," and understand more clearly how what they do or don't do affects others. "It builds a sense of caring and concern," Abel says, which may translate into stronger support for managers.
Reliable assistance can go some distance toward relieving manager stress, Brawley agrees. Having senior managers who listen to and respond to managers' concerns can also help. One of her former bosses, who was not at all sympathetic to her complaint about having too many properties in her portfolio, was responsive when she described a personality conflict that made it impossible for her to work effectively with a particular board. "He assigned another manager to the account," she says, and gave Brawley a different assignment.
Most management companies have had to deal with boards that make excessive demands on a manager's time or treat mangers and staff members badly. When that occurs, Imfeld says, "I talk to the client about it. If the problem continues, we give that association notice that we can no longer manage their account. That doesn't happen often," she says, "but it has happened. We try to serve our clients well and meet their needs, but we also have to [consider] our managers." And managers, she notes, "rarely get the appreciation they deserve," from the communities they serve.
"Board members sometimes forget managers are people," Wells agree. "They say, 'we can't meet until 8 because I have to get home from work and have dinner with my family.' They don't consider that managers have families too, and this means they won't get home until 11."
Training the Boards
Dartmouth tackles the lack of consideration issue by offering training sessions to new clients or to newly-elected boards, explaining what the manger does, what the board should reasonably expect and how they can work effectively together. Among other things, these sessions address the mismatch between the board's expectations and the contract's requirements - a disconnect that can be a major source of stress for managers.
Educating boards in this way makes the manager's job more tangible and more transparent, which is helpful, Abel agrees, but it isn't easy. For one thing, he notes, "It's hard to explain what managers do and the challenges they face without coming across as whining." For another, "Most boards and owners don't want to know what managers do. They don't want to see the turmoil underneath the calm surface. They just want everything to run smoothly."
Instead of the formal board training Dartmouth provides (which he says First Realty is also considering), Abel looks for"°teachable moments." For example, when an owner is being unreasonable, or unreasonably demanding, he will initiate a discussion with board members, pointing out that the owner is absorbing a disproportionate amount of the manager's time. "We ask how much of the community's time this owner should be allowed to take. If the budget calls for 14 hours and this owner takes 4 of them, we say, 'we can cover that, but what do you want us to take off of the list?'"
This doesn't solve the problem, Abel acknowledges. :"But it is an opportunity to create greater understanding," of the limitations on the manager's time - to explain to the board that the manager can't provide unlimited service for the agreed-on management fee.
The pressure community associations put on managers to do more is only part of the problem, Wells points out. Equally problematic, she believes is the pressure managers put on themselves. "All managers have higher expectations for themselves than anyone could ever impose on them," she says. So she is constantly telling managers to "chill. Stop e-mailing at 10:00 at night. Get a life."
A Mixed Message
That is good advice to be sure, but it is often part of a mixed message that begins with "take time for yourself" in one breath, followed by, "we've just acquired five new communities and you're responsible for three of them."
This mixed message get close to the heart of the burn-out problem and the difficulty in dealing with it: The problem is the work load ; the solutions that make a difference -reducing portfolios and increasing administrative support - require investments that squeeze already tight management company profit margins. That is the elephant in the room when industry executives talk about reducing manager burnout - impossible to ignore but uncomfortable to acknowledge.
Brawley's experience early in her career encapsulates the dilemma. Overwhelmed by her work load and frustrated by her inability ever to feel that she was doing her best, Brawley told her boss, "I am just barely getting things done. There is no way I can deal with this many properties and do an 'A' job." His response: "I don't want you to do an 'A' job; a C-plus job is fine."
Fine for the management company that knows A-level service costs more, perhaps; but not fine at all for managers, who, Brawley notes, will never be happy or feel successful doing C-plus work.
Interests are Misaligned
"This isn't a critique of management companies," Brawley emphasizes. It simply recognizes that the manager's need to feel successful and the company's need to make money create interests that are "fundamentally misaligned."
The solution is easy "if you're using a non-profit model," Abel notes. But structuring a for-profit model that creates the work environment managers need and provides the quality of service clients want, while ensuring the profit margins companies require is the challenge his company and others are facing.
Companies can't reduce manager work loads without reducing their profitability, Abel agrees. But overloading managers increases their stress, reduces their efficiency and their ability to deliver quality service and makes them more susceptible to burnout. At some point, he notes, "this circles back on itself." Managers leave, clients complain about the service they are getting, and management companies struggle with the consequences of both.
The obvious solution is to charge associations more for the services they receive. "It is in the interest of associations to pay more to create a sustainable model that will reduce manager turnover and provide the level of service they want," Abel agrees. But this idea - paying more for quality service - has always been a hard sell to community associations, and it is no easier today.
Some companies are finding ways, nonetheless, to cap the number of properties in a manager's portfolio. Dartmouth, for example, has set its maximum at six. A few companies are balancing profitability and manager workloads by limiting growth, keeping portfolios and staffing levels constant and increasing profitability by periodically culling the least profitable clients and replacing them with clients that either require fewer services or are willing to pay more for them.
"Every management company in the world is grappling with these issues," Gruczka says. "They're all trying to find the sweet spot that maximizes managers' capabilities without pushing them over the edge." That equation won't be the same for all companies, he emphasizes. Every company has to find the answers that work best for its business model and its employees.
'If it were easy," he says, "I wouldn't' be traveling all over the country doing presentations on how to retain staff. It's a constant, daily challenge."
An Individual Answer
Brawley doesn't think those answers exist. "You can't meet the needs of management companies and the needs of managers simultaneously," she says. That's why she decided that the solution for her - the only way she could be the manager she wants to be - was to leave the management company structure and operate on her own.
"I'm not in control," she says - acknowledging the reality of the association manager's job. "But I am in charge. I value myself and I know my limitations. I decide what my work load is going to be. I decide if I can take on another client. I decide if I have to work all weekend to complete a job. And I decide what I have to do to accomplish my goals. I never put myself in a position where I have so much work I can't possibly be successful." And she never tells herself that C-plus service would be acceptable.
Many of the problems she confronts - demanding clients, irascible board members, and natural disasters - are no different from the problems she would confront working for a management company. But burnout, she is confident, isn't going to be one of them.