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Growing Careers by Seeking the ‘Right Stuff’

May 2021

Top executives from a wide range of companies—large and small, owned and fee-managed, national, regional and locally focused—offer insight into what they look for when considering promotions and how they help employees develop the skills to move up the ladder.

Opportunities abound in the property management industry. Across the board, companies would prefer to promote a current employee over hiring an outsider. It’s good for business, it’s good for morale, decreases training needs and is less expensive. 

So how to get ahead?

Patrick M. Appleby 
President
WinnResidential

Patrick M. Appleby, a veteran of WinnCompanies for more than two decades, serves as President of both WinnResidential and WinnResidential Military Housing Services. In this role, he is responsible for directing the property management operations for the 105,000 apartment homes in the company's owned and managed portfolio, including more than 41,000 homes managed under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI).

“A customer-centric attitude and service experience are important for anyone seeking a position in property management at Winn,” says Appleby. “They will be responsible for the health, safety and satisfaction of the residents of our communities and for the quality of their community living experience. With those responsibilities comes a lot of patience and a willingness to work hard, juggle priorities and solve problems in a fast-paced environment.

“At the property manager level, previous affordable housing experience is also important. We are the largest manager of affordable housing in the country, so we look for people who have demonstrated an ability to overcome challenges and to get results individually and as part of a team. Many of these attributes also apply to individuals looking to break into the field at the maintenance level, along with previous experience in the trades, like HVAC, electrical or plumbing.

“Our people are the source of our success and we invest in them and their career development, starting with an onboarding program when they join us and robust learning and development programs as they seek to advance. We reward passion and hard work with learning and growth opportunities at every level. We’re very proud of how long our team members stay with us. More than 20% of our 3,600 team members have been here for 15 years or more. Some started as maintenance workers or property staff and have now progressed to become managers and executives.

“We build skills through an expansive learning and development function that offers customized, in-person trainings with subject matter experts, as well as a robust, online learning platform of on-demand classes. Mentoring and leadership development programs are a big part of our investment. Team members also are encouraged to earn professional credentials through industry groups.”

WinnCompanies also offers a program called WinnLEAD, which is “a year-long leadership development experience for high-potential employees who are identified as future leaders in the organization,” says Appleby. “Participants in WinnLEAD not only strengthen their cross-functional expertise through classroom, meeting and mentoring experiences; they also drive business results for the company by applying their expertise to real-time operational projects and challenges. We keep an active eye towards diversity and inclusion through the entire career development process.” 

WinnCompanies training and career development programs include one focused on maintenance and another focused on property management.

“Our WinnResidential Maintenance University program is designed to help maintenance professionals at all levels to build their skills and careers at WinnCompanies,” says Appleby. “The key components of the program are assessments, skill training and leadership development. Our military housing company offers a similar Maintenance University program and, since January 2020, 232 team members have used that program to complete more than 5,000 courses in pursuit of career growth.

“The Operations Leadership Development Program offers a property management curriculum with one track for property managers and another for senior and regional property managers. We’re also developing a Compliance Learning Series to focus on training in the field of affordable housing compliance.

“The top two intangible attributes that are beneficial to someone wanting to advance their career are resilience and resourcefulness. The past year has demonstrated that you need to be able to think on your feet, make smart choices and adapt to an ever-changing reality. Not only will you face daily unexpected challenges in your position, but you’ll be working in a field that is always changing. Law and regulatory demands change. Clients and client priorities change. The needs of residents change. In management roles, it’s also likely you’ll be working with team members who are in different regions and, sometimes, in different time zones.

“We value teamwork, innovation and mutual respect across the board. Advancement will be difficult if you’re not demonstrating that you can work respectfully and constructively with your team. While we recognize that everyone has a specialty or specific strength, you may face a roadblock if you have not demonstrated the broad knowledge and all-around skillset that’s expected when you advance to a position with more responsibility. When you combine our residential management and military housing companies, we operate in 23 states and the District of Columbia, so your willingness – or unwillingness – to relocate can also be a factor in advancing your career.

“We value our employees and prefer to promote from within. I have several favorite success stories, but I will focus on two colleagues I work with regularly. Lynne Chase started with the company as a property accountant in 1990. She moved through the ranks to the point where she was appointed at the start of 2021 to the Board of Directors of WinnCompanies and promoted to Chief Accounting Officer, making her responsible for all aspects of accounting, budgeting, financial reporting and internal controls for WinnResidential, WinnResidential Military Housing Services and WinnDevelopment.

“Another example is Tim Santucci, who started with us in 2000 as a maintenance technician at a medical office building. He was promoted in 2021 to Senior Vice President of Asset Management, making him responsible for physical and financial strategic planning, quality controls and financial performance of our owned portfolio of 118 properties in 12 states and the District of Columbia. It’s exciting to know that there are people within our organization right now who are following career paths similar to what Lynne and Tim experienced. That’s the kind of advancement we want to encourage and support for all of our team members.”

John Boriack
President
Veritas Equity Management

John Boriack started investing in single-family real estate immediately after graduating high school. Since 2008, Boriack has led his team in the acquisition, renovation and operation of six apartment communities in the Houston area totaling 1,258 units. Since 2014, Boriack and his team have won 19 industry awards from the Houston Apartment Association, Texas Apartment Association and National Apartment Association, including the National Independent Owner of the Year Award in 2015 and National Property of the Year in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Boriack’s company, Veritas Equity Management, has earned a spot on the list of “Houston’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For” for the last six years. He has been a member of the Board of Directors for the Houston Apartment Association since 2015, currently serving as its President. 

“We look for character and work ethic in a new employee,” Boriack says. “Not skills, necessarily. We can teach skills needed to do the job. We can’t teach honesty, integrity, passion, kindness or personal drive. A team member has to already have those personal qualities. We don’t typically require experience. In fact, we often target potential candidates outside the industry versus someone with industry experience because we operate very differently from most other third-party management companies, and it can be a difficult transition teaching someone our culture and values when so much ‘un-training’ is needed from previous employers who do things differently. If someone is wanting to break into the industry, and they are willing to come with a passionate drive coupled with high ethical standards, then we do everything we can to provide them a rewarding, meaningful and challenging position where they are given all the tools needed to realize their potential.

“Unlike many companies in the property management industry, we do not have a standard career ladder. In some ways we do, but I think it is foolish to have a strict career path progression that everyone must move through. For instance, the classic ladder climb in the property management category is to go from leasing consultant to assistant manager, to manager, to supervisor. However, we have found that some people may be phenomenal leasing consultants, but terrible assistant managers. Conversely, a person may be bad at sales [leasing] but excellent at collecting rent and managing the finances. So rather than try to plug someone into a cookie-cutter path—our Vice President of Operations does a phenomenal job at discerning a person’s unique strengths and gifts—and then plugging them in to the right seat that will allow them to excel at their responsibilities and maximize their potential.

“There are many intangible attributes that are beneficial to someone wanting to advance their career; I am going to give you three. First is personal integrity. Having a much higher ethical standard for yourself than others would put on you. Compromising on this front can yield short-term gains but typically at the expense of long-term advancement. Second is humility. God designed this world such that arrogance and pride will eventually lead to a person’s downfall. Staying humble will keep you grounded and relatable. And third is a passionate drive to excel. A mentor once told me to always be the smartest person in the room regarding what you are responsible for. You should always know more about your duties and what you have been given stewardship of than anyone else.

“A lack of perseverance and the pursuit of short-term gratification could lead to possible roadblocks in career advancement. Success is not achieved through big-time spotlight events, projects or accomplishments. Success is achieved by taking small, consistent, purposeful steps in the right direction over a long period of time regardless of feelings, emotions and difficult circumstances.”

Jim Krohn
President of Apartment Operations
Irvine Company

Jim Krohn, President of Apartment Operations is responsible for the management and operation of the Irvine Company’s portfolio of 125+ apartment communities totaling over 62,000 units throughout California. The Irvine Company is committed to a long-term ownership of a high-quality real estate portfolio and values its employees and their contributions to their success.

“For our onsite customer-facing positions, we look for individuals with a service mindset, high energy and the ability to clearly communicate,” says Krohn. “In all positions, integrity is a must. For those looking to advance their careers, demonstrating a high level of performance, having emotional intelligence, collaboration skills and the desire to self-improve is essential.

“We have many different career paths at our company that associates may consider, given our different business divisions. We also have a robust talent planning process annually in which we discuss the development of our top talent and conduct succession planning for our key leadership roles.”

Other formalized educational programs at the Irvine Company include:

“‘The Academy’ is our company’s Learning and Development group in which we offer development programs for our associates to learn and grow. The Academy offers leadership programs such as ‘Foundations for Managers,’ for people managers to learn the foundational principles of leadership; The ‘LINK’ Program [Leadership through Influence, Networking & Knowledge], which is an offering for individual contributors who collaborate and influence across divisions; and ‘ECL’ Early, Experienced and Executive Career Leadership programs designed to develop our leaders at different points in their leadership journey.

“In addition to robust training in leasing and resident services for our Apartments group, we also offer a specialized program for Maintenance Career Development. The ‘STEP’ Program [Service Technician Entry Program], which trains our porter associates with the necessary skills to advance to higher technical positions, such as a service technician.”

The Irvine Company also supports external education and offers a tuition reimbursement program.

When it comes to career advancement, the top intangible attribute that sets a person apart from others is “curiosity,” says Krohn. “The curious person is always asking questions, seeking the best way to accomplish a task, continually educating themselves, not only with industry knowledge but looking to learn in every area of life. The second intangible attribute is humility. My definition of humility is ‘confidence under control.’ A person who is confident in themselves and understands their life’s purpose never has to push their will upon others. They can speak their mind with conviction, handle constructive criticism and acknowledge their own strengths and areas of improvement.”

According to Krohn, “An industry professional needs to refrain from one, being self-serving and two, being afraid to make mistakes.

“First, most of our associates interact with customers on a daily basis, so ensuring you have the mindset to put others first before your own best interest is a key component of success. This also includes working with your own team. The ability to work collaboratively with others will result in higher productivity and a more enjoyable daily work environment.

“Second, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s in our nature to want to be perfect or perceived as perfect. Making mistakes can sometimes be your best teacher. Take responsibility, learn from them, and strive to be better than you were yesterday.

“The Irvine Company has numerous success stories of associates advancing their careers”, Krohn shared. “My favorite example would be Teresa Prestwood, our Senior Vice President of Community Management Operations. She currently oversees our 62,000-unit California portfolio.

“She started her career in this industry as a Leasing Consultant for a third-party management company that oversaw a portion of Irvine Company’s portfolio at the time. In 1991, she was hired by Irvine Company as a Community Manager, managing many lease-up communities before becoming a Regional Manager. She continued to grow her career with several promotions, including Vice President (leading the Orange County and Silicon Valley portfolios), and Regional Vice President where she helped develop our centralized services (Customer Resource Center). Now at nearly 30 years with the company, she maintains one of the longest tenures, is one of the most valued Irvine Company leaders and is a well-respected professional in our industry.”

Suan Tinsley
Partner/President
Dayrise Property Management

Suan Tinsley is the Owner of DayRise Property Management Company, which consists of 74 properties (20,659 units) across five states (Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Illinois). Before her role at Dayrise, Tinsley was Vice President and Director of Operations for the Finger Companies. She also worked as the Senior Vice President of Alliance Residential, where she oversaw more than 26,000 units.

Tinsley served as a board member for the Texas Apartment Association for 18 years, and currently works on the group’s Legislative and PAC Board of Trustees Committees.  She has been a board member for the Houston Apartment Association for nearly three decades and served as the group’s President in 2007. In 2016, she was elected to Director Emeritus.

“When I interview people, I am searching for that zest, that can-do attitude some people have,” Tinsley says. “Long ago, I was advised that you can train the brain but not the heart. That small idiom has served me well through the years. I am inspired by fresh people with an energetic positive spirit and enjoy the process of imparting knowledge and wisdom as they grow.

“At DayRise, we love to see our employees grow. We have our basic onboarding and training; however, we are currently developing many new programs with the assistance of our new Director of Training, Mona Vogele. She came from Southwest Airlines in addition to possessing a property management background. Her ideas are so innovative; we are anxious to roll out these new programs soon.” 

When asked about how they fill their positions, Tinsley shared, “Whenever we have a new position at DayRise, our employees are always considered first. There are even times when we reach out to an employee to find out why they did not apply. Positions are also posted publicly through the apartment associations.

“There are other soft skills that we look for in all candidates: Leadership skills, dependability, an openness to being mentored/coached, along with a willingness to step up to the plate and volunteer to do what it takes to get the job done. The ability to be a team player should not be overlooked. Without the ability to interact positively with other people, the ensuing lack of cooperation from others along with unnecessary roadblocks could sabotage what would be a successful project and makes everyone’s job harder.

“I have been fortunate to have so many smart, loyal and talented team members through the years. One of my favorite success stories is that of Juan Perez. Over 36 years ago, he was the Porter at my property. He has been the Maintenance Supervisor for The Finger Companies for 30 years. Knowing people like Juan keeps me excited about this industry.”

In Conclusion

Being immersed in the business of finding the “right candidate” for property management companies across the nation develops a sensitivity to the nuances of what defines the “right stuff” from both a client’s and candidate’s perspective. Make no mistake, opportunities with the same job title can actually be very different in execution.

It is just as important for anyone considering their next career move to take the time to conduct a personal audit. The questions were developed to aid an individual in clarifying what is important to them when evaluating career opportunities. There are no right or wrong answers and are for personal use only. 

It is not unusual to be drawn to the allure of a bigger title or more money; however, to thrive in a position, also consider how the Personal Career Audit priorities are being met. Recognize that to reach the next level, it is sometimes necessary to relocate or change companies if the structure limits the ability to move up. 

Clearly, the industry would prefer to hire from within whenever possible and supports growth in their employees to meet their future needs, but they vary in the path to achieve that with the different size of the firms. That said, it is apparent that the larger firms have more defined career paths, training and institutionalized structure. A smaller firm that equally values its employees will tend to offer a strong mentoring program with their training. As firms grow, and their needs and capability grow, they tend to put in a more structured and comprehensive development program. 

The key component that all expressed centers on what an employee brings to the firm. That can be summed up in one word: ATTITUDE. That quality is complemented by the words customer-centric, ethics, integrity, curiosity and zest. Employees who demonstrate these qualities from day one are most likely to be offered opportunity for growth and advancement.

Armed with top executive perspectives of the “right stuff,” career growth is not only possible, it can be targeted for individualized success.

Kenneth J. Bohan, CPC, CTS, is the winner of the NAA 2020 National Suppliers Council Achievement Award, an NAA delegate for the Houston Apartment Association and President of The Liberty Group, an executive search and national temporary services firm. He can be reached at 713 961-7666 or [email protected].