A Look at Some Common
happen—they’re part of everybody’s learning curve. There are plenty of
opportunities to make mistakes in the course of running a residential
building; in nearly three decades in the building operations field, I’ve
both made and been witness to quite a few of them myself. The trick,
however, is to minimize the impact of our mistakes and make sure we don’t
make the same one more than once. Below you’ll find a short list of some of
the mistakes I’ve seen happen again and again in buildings all over the
city, along with tips on how to avoid such problems in your own building
Some are concrete—like knowing when your
building is due for a new boiler, for example—while others are more
ephemeral and people-focused. All will help things run more smoothly in your
building, whether you’re a board member, managing agent, or super.
Communication is Key
Failure to develop and use good
communication skills is probably the single biggest mistake made by
administrators, directors, and staff members in co-op and condo buildings.
Times have changed since the days of information on a need-to-know basis,
and communication between managers and supers is key to any building’s
functioning—along with communication between the super, the manager, the
board, the residents, other building staff, and any contractors who may be
working on the premises. When communication breaks down or is absent
altogether, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, so to
speak. This can be a disaster in the making. If you are not pleased with
your superintendent or manager, then the dissatisfaction needs to be
communicated to them in a civil way and not as a disciplinary action—more as
a corrective action.
One good way for boards, managers, staff,
and residents to communicate with each other is via e-mail. As a building
super, e-mail has made my life easier by reducing the time I spend playing
phone tag and automatically generating a record of what I communicated and
when. It also allows me to communicate the same thing to more then one
person at a time, and should I leave something out, I can always send an
amendment. If your building staff aren’t wired for e-mail, it makes sense to
get them online—the time and effort it saves is well worth the investment.
Supers are responsible for everything in
our building, from maintenance to staffing decisions to discipline when
staff members don’t perform up to scratch. A common mistake made by supers
is blaming performance problems entirely on staff members. For example, if
the doorman falls asleep or reads a newspaper on the job, it’s not really
the doorman’s fault. It’s the super’s fault for not properly training him or
Yet all too often, supers fail to see that
they play a role in the performance of their staff, preferring to see the
staff member in question as incompetent or lazy. And even if that is the
case, guess what? It’s still the super’s fault for not correcting,
motivating and improving his or her personnel.
Some supers just want to be the boss, with
no real responsibility. I was invited to give a speech on motivating staff
and self at a superintendents’ club meeting in Manhattan recently. Halfway
through my speech, one super stood up and said “I motivate my men by telling
them it’s either my way, or the highway!”
Management philosophies like that are worse
than no philosophy at all. Building staff don’t hire themselves, and they
don’t train and manage themselves either. A competent, capable super will
treat his or her employees with respect, and see to it that they have all
the skills and tools they need to do their job right.
To that end, it’s simply vital that the
super, manager and board members be on the same page—to leave the super and
his staff out of the building’s administrative loop is a big mistake,
because nobody knows what is going on in the building better then a good
super. Does your super attend board meetings for the first half hour or so?
Does he or she get regular memos and check-ins from management and the
board? Is the building staff kept current with new rules, procedures, and
projects? If you answered yes for your building, you’re on the right track.
While the super is probably the building
staff member with the most day-to-day contact with shareholders and owners,
managing agents get their share of contact as well—and with it the chance to
make some big mistakes of their own.
One error made time and again in the city’s
residential buildings is the famous old habit of avoiding nuisance
residents. Even if a shareholder or unit owner is the most irritating
person, and makes the most outlandish requests or demands of the manager or
board, it’s better to meet the problem head-on and get past it rather then
to hide from it. Ignoring the problem—and the person attached to it—only
breeds bad feeling, and will almost always come back to haunt the ignorers
eventually, either in the form of acrimony between neighbors, or something
worse, like a lawsuit.
Hand in hand with the mistake of ignoring
irksome residents is that of not returning phone calls to people
expeditiously. Let’s face it; building administrators are in the service
industry—service being the key word. After all, if you paid for a service
that was rendered to you unsatisfactorily, wouldn’t you feel cheated?
Wouldn’t you make a complaint? Shareholders and unit owners pay for a
service, and feel cheated when the service isn’t delivered. Delivering good
service can mean something as simple as returning a phone call
promptly—maybe not with a definite answer, or with the answer the caller
wants to hear, necessarily—because it means something to residents that you
took the time to hear their issue and give it your attention.
Paying attention and applying good
listening skills is a two-way street between board, management, and
residents. Occasionally though, managing agents can gum up the flow of
traffic between the sides by assuming they know what the board wants, or by
thinking that they know enough about how buildings work to make major policy
or maintenance decisions without outside input. A good managing agent can
certainly guide the board and building staff, but in the end, they need to
recognize the limits of their knowledge and expertise and let professional
specialists come in and handle certain problems, whether they be legal
issues or major capital repairs.
Board members aren’t immune to making
mistakes of their own, particularly when they let their personal feelings
get involved in the decision-making process. Oftentimes, boards don’t treat
the building like a business; they tend to micromanage things and fail to
communicate their ideas, plans, and decisions.
People who don’t have time to spare
shouldn’t be on the board—and people with too much time to spare should also
not be on the board. It takes time to be on a board, and too much time on
one’s hands tends to lead to micromanagement. Boards should have job
descriptions for the superintendent, for the managing agent and also should
make job descriptions for each position on the board. That clearly denotes
who does what, who’s responsible for answering to whom, and what the board’s
goals are for this term.
Lastly, many boards take their managing
agent and supers way too much for granted. We all are human, and need
reinforcement of a job well done now and then. We also need direction; not
just annoying lists of things to be done. gal issues or major capital
All Together Now
Too often, managers, boards, and staff
members simply assume the super is doing his job and knows what he is doing,
or they assume the manager knows everything about the building. He may be a
wealth of knowledge, but not everybody knows everything, and nobody should
be expected to. This routes back to communication; if communication is open
and unfettered, there’s no room for assumption—and the errors that can come
along with it.
Another mistake common to managers, supers,
and other building support staff is not taking advantages of continuing
education, and not being involved in an established industry organization.
Union schools offer what amounts to free
education—yet most supers don’t encourage their staff to take the courses.
If the super doesn’t belong to a union, he should approach the board and ask
if they would pay for courses. It can’t hurt to ask, and the new skills and
ideas passed around in the classroom setting can help supers and other
support staff members stay abreast of new technology, current trends in the
business, and even help them develop better interpersonal skills they can
apply on the job to make everything run more smoothly.
Continuing education helps us do a better
job, and belonging to a group helps by networking and by sharing good and
bad experiences—which in the long run leads to answers to common building
problems. Regardless of the issue—whether it has to do with the staff, or
management, or even the heating system or the roof, someone in the group has
gone through it or knows someone who has. Shared experiences help develop
ideas and answers.
When it comes right down to it, most of the
mistakes made by the staff and administration of residential buildings can
be assuaged or erased by slowing down, thinking ahead, and respecting fellow
professionals all up and down the spectrum.