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Talking Points

You seat the agent on a bare stool beneath a hot spotlight, a glass of water just beyond reach. Peppering the agent with questions, playing “good cop-bad cop,” insinuating that you already know everything you’re being told, you keep the agent off-balance, smiling inwardly when you see the first beads of sweat begin to form….

That’s no way to interview a prospective managing agent.

You welcome the agent with open arms, offering a refreshing beverage and assurances that you’re all friends here. You extol your building’s virtues, take the agent’s answers in good faith, and trust your gut to help you make the right choice.

That’s no way to interview a prospective new managing agent, either.

“Human decision-making, fundamentally, is emotionally based, and then we use our intellect to rationalize our emotional decision,” says Lee J. Colan, president of the business consultancy, The L Group, and the author of a number of books on leadership, including McGraw-Hill’s upcoming Engaging the Hearts and Minds of All Your Employees: How to Ignite Passionate Performance for Better Business Results. “What we try to do by having a defined structure and method in place is overlay a reasonable amount of rationality atop an inherently emotional, subjective process.”

Most co-op and condo board members are volunteers who don’t necessarily have experience in interviewing prospective hires. It can appear easy, like something anyone can do, but don’t be fooled: it’s the illusion of simplicity, of naturalness, that we’re seeing in all these things. Try any of them yourself, and you begin to appreciate all the hard work and thought that goes into making them appear simple.

 

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

But don’t worry – this doesn’t mean you need intensive training to be able to do a decent and effective interview. It just means that interviewing isn’t as simple as asking questions and making conversation. With a few pointers, however, you can learn how to ask directed inquiries and peek behind the veil of a salesperson’s charm to get full, honest answers and keep control of the interview – all without acting like the police or Pollyanna.

“It’s certainly an awesome responsibility,” says Ari Mintz, president of the block-long, 120-unit Manhasset Apartments co-op at 301 West 108th Street and 300 West 109th Street, “because it involves so much shareholder money” – both in the management firm’s actual fees and in the manager’s day-to-day handling of the operating budget. “You’ve got to have a deep understanding of what you’re about to do and want to do.”

And for all that, “it’s astonishing how poor the communication skills of some of these boards are,” notes Avi Horwitz, president of the 244-unit co-op at 130 West 67th Street, near Lincoln Center, and an accountant who frequently attends other buildings’ annual meetings professionally. “If you don’t have good skills, you’re not going to get it right. So before the interview, you have to determine who [on the board] has the best sense of relationship dynamics and body language and the ability to communicate well with people.”

None of that matters, however, unless you get your first step right, a step that has nothing to do with language skills or people rapport: do your research.

Make a list of exactly what the building needs – new windows, greater cleanliness, better staff relations, refinancing, whatever – and what the board wants in the relatively near future, such as greening initiatives, air-rights sales and other wish-list projects.

For example, Linda Lamel, a former college president who now heads the board at 150 East 61st Street in Manhattan, says of her co-op’s recent search for a new managing agent: “We had numerous problems with plumbing, and were about to embark on replacement of our risers” – 22 of them, spanning 130 units. Well before interviewing any candidates, her board sent requests to various companies outlining its priority for someone with specific knowledge of plumbing and HVAC systems, and experience in large-scale project management.

“We knew what our priorities were,” Lamel says. “That’s the first thing you have to do: isolate what the most important service is that you need for this management company to provide well. If your building has accounting or revenue issues, you might want [to focus on] someone who’s a good financial manager. If you’ve got a lot of factions in the building, you may want someone with mediation skills.”

Sometimes it’s something much simpler. When the managing agent for the Thwaites Terrace House co-op in the Bronx was leaving to join another company, recalls board president Peter Morello, “it was important for us to find someone with good organizational skills, experience with contractors and project management who would be able to get along with the building staff” – all pretty general – “and someone bilingual. Our super speaks Spanish and English, but one of our porters speaks only Spanish. It wasn’t a deal-breaker.” They did find a bilingual manager.

 

The Inner Views of Interviews

With your candidates selected, it’s time to conduct the actual interviews. At the very least, you need to see a minimum of three candidates and, assuming they’re all qualified, interview each of them more than once.

“Here we get to the three by three by three,” says Colan, referring to the standard matrix of corporate job interviews. “You should interview three agents at three different times by three different people. You want to maximize the number of inputs and the number of perspectives. You want a broad range of options, so three agents form a basis of comparison. You want them to come back several times since they don’t keep their game face on for more than a couple of interviews. As they get more comfortable, they start to let their guard down. You would be amazed at what they start divulging.” Dovetailing with that is the final point: “By having multiple people interview them, it minimizes the chance somebody’s going to get snowed.”

Having a board accountant and a board attorney on board mitigates the risk of a bad-fit agent creating long-term problems. As Lamel notes: “Board members are volunteers and you have to think about their time. Keep the candidates for a couple of hours if you want” – to help minimize the chance of being fooled by sales-pro charm – since, as she also says: “You’re making a credibility assessment. Most people will give you the answer they think you want to hear.”

There’s nothing wrong with being charmed by a candidate. In everyday settings, we want to know friendly, likable people – and while not discounting, by any means, the need for a management professional to be personable and approachable, boards need to think like business executives. When interviewing for a new agent at his old building years ago, says Mintz, the board chose a recommended trio of newcomers. “We had a good feeling about them – we liked these guys personally,” he says. “That was our biggest mistake.” While hiring the relatively low-cost agents did work well economically for the building, “they were inexperienced and it became a hardship for the board.”

 

Sharpening the Ask Blade

They key to all this, says Colan, “is not just asking random questions. Ask highly specific, open-ended questions. If you ask, ‘Do you have experience in such-and-such?’ They’ll say, ‘Yes, we do.’”

“Ask what differentiates their company from their competitors,” suggests veteran managing agent Dan Wurtzel, chief operating officer of Cooper Square Realty. “How are your property managers trained? How do you train and retrain building staff? What is your role in capital improvement projects? What’s your succession plan if the property manager retires or leaves the company [or otherwise] can no longer service the building?”

Yet open-ended questions aren’t a panacea. “People give vague responses – not maliciously; they just tend to – and as a culture we just accept it,” says Wurtzel. “But you need to investigate and not accept it. ‘Tell me about a situation just like ours and how did you handle it? Give me examples.’ Ask specific follow-up and behavior questions. ‘Tell me about a time you’ve done this or that.’”

Says Lamel: “We give them a situation that actually happened, where we knew how the current management company had handled it and whether correctly or not, and put that to the potential new manager.”

In that specific instance, the board gave a real-life scenario: workers must go into an apartment and open the walls to replace the riser. It will take about five hours, and there will be asbestos present. An elderly woman says she’ll go into another room but refuses to leave the apartment. How would you handle that? “If he or she says, ‘Get a board member,’ then, no,” chuckles Lamel, “that’s not the right person. Consult with us, yes, but hand it off to us? No.”

And don’t take the first answers to your questions. “Continue to drill down, don’t accept the first answer, keep asking for more,” Colan advises. “Understand that you are in control of the interview, and it’s important not to ‘sell’ the co-op. People get caught up in ‘We’re a great building, blah blah,’ and the table gets turned.”

Conversely, “Never try and intimidate somebody,” says Morello. “Some people like to do that to show power.” You’ll both get and present a more accurate picture of things, he suggests, “if you behave however you normally do at a board meeting.”

That said, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. “Ask if they have had any complaints filed against them,” says Horwitz. Would they answer truthfully? “Maybe not, but they should, because they don’t want it discovered that they lied to you.” A complaint “isn’t the kiss of death, but you need to get the relevant information to make a decision. The fact that a person got a complaint may simply be that someone may have been mad at the board and filed a complaint about the managing agent.”

Lamel’s board wants assurances of prompt contact. “We want the [agent’s] cell number and want to know the cell phone answers, and none of this ‘No calling after 10 p.m.’ or if there’s an emergency there’s a number where somebody calls somebody else. I never, ever want to call an agent’s phone and it can’t take a message because it’s full.” In return, her board offers its own assurances: “If you contact us about an issue or if you need a decision or a document signed, we make the commitment of 24-hour turnaround. We will not hold you up. We’re not a barrier to moving things along – and we expect the same from you. Don’t tell me somebody’s on vacation and not responding. Say, ‘I’m tied up with an emergency and I’ll get back to you tonight.’ And do.”

How long should interviews last? Within reason, as long as it takes to get your questions answered. Sometimes, unfortunately – usually from ineffective prescreening – “you know 10 minutes in it’s a waste of time,” Colan says. “But remember, sometimes our first impression gets overruled. If you’re 20, 30 minutes into an interview, though, it’s okay to cut it off: ‘Thank you for your time, and we’ll be in touch.’”

 

Back to Basics

In the course of asking open-ended questions specific to your building’s needs and wants, you don’t want to neglect asking basic questions. Standard questions, says Wurtzel, include: How often do you visit the building and do you visit on a regular schedule? How many buildings do you manage? Explain the support staff you have within your office. Do you have an assistant? Who processes sales packages? What is the company’s policy for handling emergencies?

You want to talk about the contract fees and get referrals. Suggests Morello: “See how they respond to your asking for a complete list of their buildings and the number of apartments in each, and ask if you can pick the referrals. That’s a good way to see if they have anything to hide, and whether they have good relationships with their buildings.”

One seldom-considered factor is geography, says Gary Paul, a former presidient and current board member at 106-108 West 87th Street in Manhatttan. “For a downtown company, if they don’t have any other buildings uptown, coming uptown to service your building would not be efficient. We know from experience the kind of time-wasting issues that come up with a managing agent in another part of town, and you want to be fair to the managing agent also.”

“I would certainly ask how they’d work with your current managing agent on a transition,” says Horwitz. “What do they expect in the transition in terms of the time frame – getting records and things like that. You want to get a sense of how aggressive they would be in getting the required information. I’d also ask if they’ve taken over any buildings from your current managing agent before, and you’d want to talk to that [building’s] board about how that went.”

When everything is done – homework and prescreening, doing multiple agent interviews with multiple board-members, asking specific, open-ended questions while remembering the basics, and checking referrals – don’t forget to close the loop with candidates not chosen.

“There’s no substitute for good manners,” says Colan. A board “can get a little bit arrogant, but it’s a small world and it’s important to have a good reputation. When you finish the last interview, tell them, ‘Thank you very much, we’re going to interview three other agents over the next few weeks, and afterward we’ll let you know if we’ve selected you or if we’ve found a better fit at this particular time.’”

Finally, it’s good to review every so often and talk to other managing agents; you may well end up choosing the same company again. And despite all your preparation, you have to hope you’re also blessed with some luck. “The agent we have now wasn’t our original choice,” says one board president. “Our original choice wound up involved in the corruption scandal of the 1990s. We went with our second choice and it turned out very well for us.”

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