Nationwide, developers and property managers are facing a pressing issue—talent acquisition and retention.

At the recent Multifamily Executive Conference, property management expert R. Lee Harris, president and CEO at Cohen-Esrey Real Estate, moderated a panel of some of the industry’s most successful professionals to talk about this topic: Diane Batayeh, CEO of Village Green; Justin Marshall, COO of Fogelman Management Group; Lela Cirjakovic, EVP of operations at Waterton; and Del de Windt, CEO of Cardinal Group Cos.

The panelists shared their experiences with the audience, revealing what's worked and what hasn’t in finding, hiring, and keeping good staff.

Diane Batayeh, CEO of Village Green
Diane Batayeh, CEO of Village Green

The Right Recruit
Batayeh explained Village Green's three-pronged approach to staffing, which includes projecting her firm as a people organization disguised as a property management company. Village Green wants its employees to come to work happy about what they do, so it aims to hire for character first and then build a culture around that central trait.

First, Batayeh related, is using the right outreach method to target talent, because it’s not enough to just get a warm body in a position, obviously. Batayeh said this objective is much more difficult to achieve for service and maintenance positions than for sales roles. For the former, Village Green targets trade schools, along with colleges and universities with programs in hospitality.

Second, Village Green makes a concerted effort to make its brand known to potential job seekers by hosting job fairs to which the firm brings top Village Green executives who exemplify what success looks like at the company and show how to get there.

Third is the all-important power of referrals. There's no better way to attract talent than to have happy employees who let others know about their company. Village Green offers a finder's fee to employees who refer potential candidates. Waterton's Cirjakovic agrees it’s crucial to build the brand and to maintain a strong online reputation, because that’s the first place new talent will see you.

Compensation Packages
Fogelman's Marshall admitted that his firm has had difficulty finding good talent the past couple of years because there are so many new developments in places where Fogelman operates, creating intense competition for a very shallow hiring pool. The panelists agreed that people typically don’t go to college for property management and often fall into the field, so recruiting via college career programs generally isn’t an option. Fortunately, some universities are starting real estate curricula that may change that picture.

Lela Cirjakovic, EVP of operations at Waterton
Dave Suarez Lela Cirjakovic, EVP of operations at Waterton

Marshall pointed out that hiring maintenance crews is one of Fogelman’s biggest pain points.

“We've had to adjust our strategies [in that regard],” he said. “The way we're approaching it is market specific. We've seen markets that are extremely tight in the labor pool and offer pretty steep signing bonuses for maintenance workers, to get them from the hotel industry or private contractors. The right commission and bonus structure have become an important part of that approach.”

A good compensation package will also include health insurance.

Going Beyond Money
Even though compensation is important, all the panelists agreed that recruiting must go beyond money and perks. For that reason, each firm operates programs focused on purpose-driven objectives.

Justin Marshall, COO of Fogelman Management Group
Justin Marshall, COO of Fogelman Management Group

“People want purpose-driven companies,” Cardinal Group's de Windt said. “It’s much more important than total comp. You have to be a bigger purpose company than just a property management company. You need to align their comp with what you want to achieve.”

Village Green works in a similar, mission-focused fashion. The firm runs a charitable initiative aimed at achieving 10,000 hours of active volunteer work among its employees, an effort designed to reinforce the connection between the company and its apartment communities. As an added bonus, this work becomes part of the Village Green brand, drawing more candidates to the job pool, Batayeh said.

Marshall suggested making such volunteer initiatives personal for employees, noting that it’s important to know the staff by name.

“It’s really important to call people by their name and let them know that you know they're doing a good job for you,” Marshall said. “Millennials are more purpose-driven. They want to see it in action and not just words. It’s incredibly important to walk the walk and make sure they feel and know they're important enough for you to recognize them individually. For our culture, it’s personal, and it has to be.”

Del de Windt, CEO of Cardinal Group Cos.
Del de Windt, CEO of Cardinal Group Cos.

Team, Not Family
Is your staff a team or a family? Harris says he used to use the word "family" at Cohen-Esrey but then realized it was the wrong language.

“We really don’t want it to be family; we want it to be a team,” he said. “We don’t want it to be family because you can’t fire a family member. And sometimes you have to make the hard decisions and let someone go who isn’t performing.”

Cardinal also uses very specific language regarding its staff, and it’s all centered around "team," in order to very intentionally convey the right culture.

Village Green reinforces its concept of teamwork through its Village Green University initiative, which is based on a Disney model. The program taps Village Green executives and managers to be team facilitators. “Who better to train our people than our people?” Batayeh said.

Cirjakovic vouched for the value of the university concept, saying she attended it at one point in her career. She cited the value of the dedicated training associates at Waterton's corporate office.

De Windt started Cardinal 12 years ago and soon found a common lack of accountability throughout the organization to be very surprising and equally frustrating. In response, his executive team devised a system rooted in statistics. The team started a peer-to-peer training program, which has gradually evolved over the years. Now, the person who has the most to gain from the program is the on-site trainer, who earns incentives based on the success of the sales associate he or she trains. Cardinal has aligned the program's incentives according to its trainers' results, specifically to create the right attitude and sense of accountability. If the sales associate knows his or her own career success depends on that of the next recruit, that associate will engender responsibility among those being trained as well.

The Right People Keep Residents Happy
Of course, one of the most important reasons for hiring and retaining top-performing staff is the effect it ultimately has on your customers. Waterton, Cirjakovic said, works to understand its ideal resident and what that resident desires. She noted that because people value their time, Waterton focuses on making it easy to do business with the firm, offering various conveniences to match resident preferences, such as the option to pay rent online or in person.

More importantly, Cirjakovic remarked, Waterton sweats the small stuff to create memorable, actionable touch points in the customer’s experience at the firm's properties. As a result, in prioritizing its resources, Waterton places more emphasis on staff than amenities, in order to create that at-your-service experience.

Fogelman also places high value on the resident experience, paying special attention to its online reviews for customer feedback. Marshall said the company's residents don’t talk about appliances online, for example, but will discuss an interaction they've had with Fogelman staff.

“What we do differently is we don’t think our residents want to do everything online,” Marshall said. “We're doing parties and monthly events and more communal spaces to get to know each other and interact with our teams. We've been intentional about budgeting accordingly to create those experiences for our teams. We remind them that [these events are] an opportunity to create an experience for the resident and to look at them as an opportunity, not as a pain.”

Village Green, too, fosters authentic experiences with its associates. Batayeh told the story of one employee flagging down an ice cream truck to purchase a treat on a sweltering summer day for potential residents who were walking the property. The prospects not only rented; they sent a letter to the CEO praising the associate. Residents who sign a lease after a positive experience like this one are more likely to renew and be a constant ambassador for the brand. They'll also allow more wiggle room for mistakes, Batayeh added.

Take It Online
Cardinal Group is moving more toward an all-online marketing strategy. “If we do our jobs correctly, traditional marketing methods are no longer needed,” de Windt said.

Village Green and Fogelman use property managers to manage their online accounts. Marshall said it’s a culture change for managers, but a necessary one. “It’s your digital curb appeal. It’s just the same as physical atmosphere.”

Village Green's property managers are also trained to react to negative comments. Batayeh advises giving associates role-playing assignments; ensuring that they always take responsibility when a resident is unhappy; training them not to be defensive and to take positive action to resolve problems; and giving them ways to respond to a problem or elevate it to another level if the situation extends beyond their scope of responsibility. Village Green even started a campaign called Strive for 5, pitting property managers against each other to compete for five-star ratings.

The talent crunch session was one of dozens of valuable programs at the 2017 Multifamily Executive Conference. To learn more about them, visit And be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s conference, Sept. 17 to 19 at Bellagio in Las Vegas.