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MANSIONS & ESTATES – MAINTAINING THEM EFFICIENTLY

Written by Nanette Hebdige

Trying to break into the personal service arena? Do you think you have the mental quotient, moxie, distinction and gumption to become an efficient and accomplished EM? There’s a good reason many of these careers fly below radar – it takes a special breed to care for the homes and lifestyles of the very wealthy. The management of sprawling estates is not a task for the meek.

In an industry spotlighting Downton Abbey, UHNW folks want butlers, majordomos, ladies’ maids, housekeepers, chauffeurs, not to mention security guards. And at the root of it all is a talented EM to keep everything running like a battleship.

To have your candidacy taken into serious consideration you better not rely solely on your management style. Attention to detail, great admin skills, being meticulously efficient and uber-organized are just a few of the many attributes that will get you noticed.

With your mental quotient comes a large thinking cap and the ability to discern between being proactive and not reactive. Being an agile problem solver will work in your favor to deal with many oh-crap moments without breaking stride.

A job description means absolutely nothing, so get used to wearing a myriad of daily hats, be a Jack/Jaqueline of all trades and master of every single one.

You’ll find new meaning to the phrase “no task too big or too small”, as it will become a mantra you and your staff will live by. You’ll need to be conforming and humble, all the while leading by example. The moment you start thinking “that’s not my job” you better start packing or better yet, don’t even bother with this industry.

If you’re prepared to embrace 14-hour days, always be 10 steps ahead, breathe and live your job, have thick skin and be the “yes” man/woman, then this is the job for you.

You’ve also got to throw modesty and kindness into the mix; be discerning but firm. Don’t come in like a Hitler because you’ll lose staff that’s irreplaceable. Be open minded and have an open-door policy keeping ears and eyes open to be fair and not judgmental. (For staff management techniques read my article  – What Does Your Household Staff Say about You)

Your success depends on delegating and cross training, along with your excellent project management skills to keep you focused. One of the biggest mistakes EM’s make, comes from a lack of entrusting staff. Working in a collaborative team environment proves you’re not a micro manager and delegating will not only make you more efficient but also gain you that much needed edge to work together effectively. Your team will have confidence in you and vice versa.

No matter how many balls you’ve got in the air, you can’t let any drop. If you do, ensure there’s transparency and communication because your principal(s) will appreciate your honesty, if something’s gone wrong – own it.

The more accomplishments and exposure you bring to the table, the more marketable you’ll be. Here are a few pointers to make you more effective.

REMOVE DUDE FROM YOUR VOCAB

It’s not just the polish and distinction you bring to the role, it’s the communication skills that are equally important. Learn how your principals want your feedback. Business etiquette is vital, not only verbal but written, as many tasks will include handling your employer’s correspondence. Your principals are uber busy people and the sole purpose of your existence is to make their life easier and complication-free. Communicating concisely and effectively is key, but also determining the frequency and method: daily, weekly, monthly? Via email, text, phone call or face to face. Everyone’s management style is singularly different.

The same goes for when you’re communicating with your team. You always get more with honey than with vinegar, as the old saying goes “treat others the way you want to be treated” – with respect and kindness.

Maya Angelou said it perfectly, “People will forget what you’ve said, but they will never forget how you’ve made them feel”.

MUM’S THE WORD

Know what it means to sign an NDA and a Confidentiality Agreement. Not only of yourself but your staff, vendors and service providers. And if that means that you can’t tell your great grand-mama that you’re working for J-Lo then so be it. You’re Tutankhamen’s tomb – no matter what you see or overhear.

You’re exercising the utmost discretion, so in turn be aware of who’s gossiping. PA’s and EA’s are privy to all the 411 and if they are talking too much or recounting any daily shenanigans, that’s grounds for termination and you, as the EM, will have to ensure that NDA’s and Confidentially Agreements are constantly observed.

Outside vendors, services and contractors, after they have signed the NDA, will have to be informed of the levels of privacy in the estate and they’ll have to adhere to a certain code, such as not to wondering around and no photographs.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN – PRIVACY IS KEY

Not the same as mum’s the word. Just because you are sitting at the kitchen table looking over menus for the upcoming soiree and your principal walks into the kitchen, idle chitchat is unnecessary. Other that “Is there anything I can get you?”. Speak when spoken to, same goes for your staff.

Additionally, there will be certain situations taking place where your confidentiality and professionalism will be tested. UHNW folks have a vastly different lifestyle and we’re there to assist them and grant them privacy. For example, if there’s an argument between spouses, (I’ve seen it happen more than once) discretion is key, removing yourself to grant them space, as well as removing any other staff in the vicinity that might overhear.

READ BODY LANGUAGE

Knowing how to read body language is an essential quality that makes for a stellar EM. There’s no class for it and it takes years of observation to acquire. What does body language have to do with managing an estate? Believe me – a lot. For starters – learn to read your staff’s body language. For example, the housekeeper isn’t going to be forthcoming and divulge something’s that’s bothering her, so you’ll have to notice that she’s not her normal self. Indeed, you’ll have to also be conscious of behavior characteristics of the principals and the family. And yes, you’ll need to almost be a mind reader with intuitiveness and sharpness that will need to be developed.

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TMI

Since knowledge is power, be Wikipedia. Make it a point to be in the know about everything with regards to your principal’s lifestyle, their families, their guests and ultimately your staff. If you don’t know something, quickly check and provide the answer, filing it away for future reference and have the mental quotient to also know why you’ve been asked.

A TECH-NERD IS A GOOD NERD

The code word today is IT marksmanship. So you better become a techy because you don’t want to be labeled a dinosaur. Quickly familiarize yourself with Smart in-Home technologies Crestron, Savant, Lutron and security system operations. All have different user interfaces, but the op platforms stay pretty much the same – most are operated remotely through iPad and cell phones and a quick tutorial is easy to get on the internet.

Project Management software will be your BFF because running a home is like running a business. Trello, Asana, Jira and Slack are some good programs, as they allow you to set tasks in real time and prioritize them with trackable collaboration. Everything that is trackable, provides accountability. Train your team to use it regularly for maximum effectiveness. We all know if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed.

NOT THE NORM IS THE NORM

Learn to adjust to any situation without raising a brow. You may be asked if you love pets because you may have to care for them or supervise anyone handling the task. The pet collection may not only include Tiny, the Great Dane or a Guinea Pig with a Cartier diamond collar; it may have a buddy who’s a giraffe or an exotic cat. Don’t even blink if you’re asked for the best Feng Shui expert to make the homes holistic or if you know who’s a provider of emu meat for the next menu.

BE A CHEF? YES, BE A CHEF!

What if the chef isn’t available and you’ve been asked to prepare a simple meal? You’ll never know when you’ll have to bust out those pans and the EVOO. Knowing a rudimentary knowledge of cooking is an asset to add polish to your CV. Likewise, menu planning is key for any household and a solid knowledge of wines is equally as essential. Get to know the wine cellar intimately to select what pairs well with any course.

Even for a small gathering or large event, you need basic event planning knowledge to execute or assist planning the theme, menus, table décor, linens, china, glassware/flatware, flower and seating arrangements – even if the services of an expert event planner have been retained. Always plan for more of an attendance. If the gathering is for 15 people ensure there is enough food for 20/25, as there will be last minute invites.

For wine management techniques check out my article on How To Manage a Wine Cellar of Distinction

KNOW THAT BAR

The mixology of cocktails and beverages is equally as important as having the knowledge of how to decanter and select wines. You should know how to make a Highball, Whisky Sour or a Cosmo and how to chill a martini to perfection. You never know when someone is going to ask you to make an Old Fashioned, a watermelon Gimlet or want a Pickle-Back (yes, that’s really a drink).

BECOME MR. CARSON 

Diplomats and celebrities may be regular visitors and you’ll have to train your team on the correct protocol and etiquette to address VIP’s. Knowing when to be invisible but still available, so don’t be asking Shaq for his autograph and keep your star-stuck face composed and the same goes for your staff.

PRECIOUS POSSESSIONS

Class is something that can’t be bought, but possessions can and will be acquired. You better get well acquainted with what’s important to your principal(s). It could be a few bottles of Chateaux Margaux in the cellar (at $225K a pop), a Manolo Blahnik collection or Bonsai trees that are just as important as Nemo in the $850,000 fish tank.

YOUR NEW BFF IS THE CALENDAR

Even if you have the memory of an elephant, things will slip through the cracks, so without saying, your knowledge of calendar management should be colossal. You’ll be as busy as an air traffic controller, juggling appointments times and being savvy of numerous calendars will become your bible.

  • Principal’s Calendar – knowing where they are at all times for emergency purposes and don’t rely 100% on PA or EA’s to manage it – you may be asked to add to their calendars if they aren’t available.

  • Nannie’s Calendar – nannies will create their own calendar revolving around the kids’ activities, school enrollment dates, doctor appointments, friend birthdays etc but you’ll still have to be privy to the 411.

  • Staff Calendar – this one will be tracking PTO, vacation times, sick days, start/termination dates as well as performance reviews and when raises are due.

  • Household Calendar – a shared staff calendar will include any individual tasks, spring cleaning schedules, rotations, seasonal closet cycles and when your principals will be in residence.

  • Vendor Calendar – essential for keeping tabs of vendor appointments, household services, maintenance and repairs. Some principals are hands-on and want to be notified of household appointments, but some won’t care because that’s why you’re the EM. Ask what’s their communication preference – a weekly or monthly report.

ADMIN OPS

Depending on the complexity and size of the estate, oversight of security teams plays a fundamental part. That includes knowing who hands out guests passes, allows entry for contractors, trades and current staff and what entry codes have to be deactivated for terminated employees and services. NDA’s for everyone and newcomers will have log into a sign-in roster.

Throw in the mix vendor procurement, generating and maintaining databases, monthly/yearly budget management, scheduling, invoice and expenditures. RFP’s and contracts should be reviewed yearly and vetted for existing services, as well as the administration of daily and monthly household activities.

Additionally, ensure you’re creating a detailed household manual delineating policies and procedures which keeps everything running like a well-oiled machine. That should keep you busy in the evenings after you’ve pulled a 12-hour day.

INSIDE AND OUT

You need to bring some hands-on, property management knowledge. You don’t have to wear a tool belt around, but you need to know if any repairs are performed correctly by a handyman, maintenance crew or service contractors.

Are septic tanks emptied by the city or by a service provider? Where are they located? Have the generators and the alarm/security system been serviced regularly to withstand a power failure?

The same goes for the gardeners and landscape architects. Are they using their own tools that could potentially cross-contaminate the gardens (trees, foliage, shrubs, turf) from servicing other residences that may have plant diseases? Your recommendation to the principals should be that if the gardeners are an outside outfit they use equipment that is proprietary to the residence.

Is the pool getting serviced efficiently? Is there algae or pests in the water? How are the pumps working?

Ensure there’s pest control in place and that’s not just for rodents or vermin. In FL you have to deal with large iguanas, gators and snakes that have the attitude – Tu casa, Mi casa.

It’s your responsibility to ensure the movie theater runs, the home audio system is operational, every single lightbulb has been changed, every toilet has been flushed, appliances in the kitchen are operational, the wine cellar has the required daily temperature and humidity, batteries have been changed in all remotes and that the gym equipment is running optimally. And that’s just to name a few. And don’t forget the exotic cars in the garage – what’s their maintenance schedule and all the tags current?

SEASONAL RESIDENCES

Another task you’ll be spearheading is the preparation of any residences for holidays. Being there ahead of time (with staff you’re bringing or join staff you’ve hired for the season) to ready the residence for the pre-arrival of the family and guests. Have a standard punch list to ensure every system is running like a champ from HVAC, water heaters, fire suppression, plumbing and electrical. Ensure you have the list of local contractors (if there’s no property manager on site during the absence) because something will happen; that’s why they’re called emergencies.

Outdoor furniture needs to be predisposed and procurement established regarding food, drink and vitals.

EMERGENCY AND INSURANCE

Depending on the location of the residence, emergency procedures and action plans need to be established for areas susceptible to hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and storms. That also goes for fires and earthquakes. Some of the responsibilities will include tree trimming, regular generator maintenance and how the security company will handle emergencies and alarm procedures. Insurance policies should be checked to ensure proper and current coverage and also don’t forget to make provisions to warrant for the safe storage boats and vehicles.

It’s also a bonus to get CPR and First Aid certification.

PMI LICENSING 

Getting Project Management certified will be an added bonus. Estates will experience and require repairs, additions or renovations. The ability to interpret blueprints and knowledge of construction jargon is necessary when working with GC’s, architects or vendors to manage a project of large or small scale. Knowledge of interior design and having an aesthetic eye is also an important asset to maintain the interior and exterior appearance of the residence.

Familiarize yourself with relocation methods in case the family wants to move to other residences.

KEEPING UP WITH HOUSEKEEPING

You may not be required to fold unmentionables or scrub toilets, but housekeepers will look to you for guidance. Knowledge of certain cleaning materials and how to care for surfaces, fabrics and floors with products that won’t be harmful. Know the cleaning/maintenance rotation schedule and address it with the housekeeping staff. It’s your responsibility to ensure that these duties are carried out seamlessly and the work is performed by your team.

Antiques and priceless artwork will have to be given special consideration for their cleaning and maintenance.

Polishing of any silver, brass or copper will also have to be placed on a schedule as well as seasonal closet rotation for the members of the family.

Be sure that there are procedures in place for linens. Become acquainted with the proper care of delicate and unusual fabrics and clothing items. Familiarize yourself with the packing and unpacking to/from travel trips or different residences and know who’s responsible for handling the task.

FLSA LAWS IN YOUR STATE

Most info on domestic laws – FLSA – is usually accessible on any government website for every state, so you are in the know to safeguard the interests of your principals and prevent any staff conflict that could arise. Example – if the staff is required to work on statutory public holidays, is their time accountable for and their pay reflecting for hours worked? Tracking OT occurs, worker’s comp regulations, etc.

HR MANAGER’S HAT

You’ll have to bring a solid knowledge of HR to your role. Common practice, will be working with personnel agencies, drafting job descriptions, candidate prescreening/interviewing, on-boarding paperwork and tackling terminations. Training, coaching, counseling and dealing with conflict resolution are key responsibilities that fall under your jurisdiction. Not to mention staff scheduling, vacation tracking, basic supervision, health benefits and performance reviews. If the staff is required to wear a uniform, it’s also your responsibility that they keep their appearance neat and tidy.

Personnel files need to be thoroughly kept and any conflict/reprimands have to be documented in case it leads up to termination. Here is where we circle back to project management software and having the correct tools to track completion and accountability of staff.

 

In closing, here are some of the bare basics for successful estate management and many are coming to realize that the private service industry has a very compartmentalizing niche. You can’t start at the top without years of honing your skillset, because without tenure you’ll crash and burn.

Wrap your head around what “service” really means and ask yourself if this is the right career for you. In my opinion, it’s not being retained by the wealthiest or having the biggest pay check; the key is to find a good family to become a part of.

An old guy a long time ago said: “Pleasure in the work puts perfection in the work”. Aristotle 367 BC

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