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Multifamily Executive: 8 Ways to Build a Best-in-Class Multifamily Training Program

November 11, 2010

Last month, the Bascom Group hit a major milestone: It trained its 100th real estate intern, an accomplishment that began in 1996 when the Irvine, Calif.-based multifamily firm brought on its first intern (and third employee!) to help grow the firm.

“There were no altruistic intentions in the beginning,” recalls Bascom co-founder Jerry Fink. “Bascom was a startup company and had limited funds. The hiring of our first intern immediately increased productivity, expanded operations, and injected new energy and excitement into the company.”

Indeed, whether through a defined internship program or via broader employee training platforms, multifamily firms specializing in the guidance and education of their teams from maintenance to management typically find higher success rates in recruitment, retention, and corporate culture adoption.

At Houston-based Camden Property trust, executives point specifically to their training program as a game-changer that specifically resulted in the multifamily REIT being named to FORTUNE Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the past three years in a row. Likewise, the Bozzuto Group based in Greenbelt, Md., is finding greater commitment and efficiencies from its employees via successful training initiatives. Not coincidentally, Bozzuto was named one of the "Best Places to Work in the Greater Washington Area" by the Washington Business Journal.

Whether you are venturing into creating an employee training program for the first time or reinventing your existing platform in anticipation of future business growth, multifamily training experts say a lot has changed in the tutelage arena and offer the following training strategies for on-boarding, up-lifting, and advancing the careers of your staff.

1. Start from the beginning. Everyone loves advancement. Emphasize training programs and opportunities during the employee recruitment stage to help win the competition for top talent and set the tone of your corporate culture at the outset. “Training is a big sell in our recruitment process, “ says Camden vice president of employee development Margaret Plummer. “We explain to people coming in that we invest the time and effort to help train you and make you even better in your career and have an opportunity to grow.”

Training also implies quick and frequent promotions, particularly when it is spelled out in the recruitment process. “We discuss how our goal in training is to be sure employees moving up the ladder have the knowledge and skills to be successful in each new role,” says Bozzuto vice president of human resources Dan High. “When promoted employees are successful they are more likely to be happy and stay."

2. Deliver immediately. Empty corporate promises are quickly deleterious to employee morale and productivity and efficiency are the first to suffer. If you are offering training, get team members going right away: Employees ambitious enough to be attracted to training opportunities are also confident enough to jump right in with the sharks.

“Bascom throws interns into the mix immediately,” Fink says. “Internships are not for copying paper and running errands. Interns are expected to analyze properties and portfolios for revenue enhancement and expense reductions, and are provided training to complete analysis, provide recommendations, and ensure that actions are taken that can add value. There is no better way to learn how to swim than to be thrown into the pool.”

3. Ask, don’t tell. The best source of intel on what type of training employees need are the employees themselves. Frontline operators are keenly aware of the skill sets and technical functionality that will improve their performance and add a bottom-line boost to the team.

Also, don’t roll out training initiatives in the blind: Ask your team what they need and involve them in the development of programs and platforms. “A big part of what we do is reach out to on-site management teams to ask what it is that will help make them more successful in their role and also help us achieve operational goals, says Camden director of employee development Teresa Watson. “We’ll have focus groups to solicit their input. The greatest training successes come when they tell us what is going to be meaningful for them.”

4. Rely on in-house expertise. The queue of training specialists waiting to get in front of your team (and charge you for it) is an endless one. While some job training might require the help of an external expert, chances are your firm already has a talent and knowledge base across a multitude of disciplines. You hired them for their expertise, and whether it comes to mentorship or a one-ff brown bag lunch seminar, leveraging that intellectual property for training others should be a no-brainer. “We have daily mentorship and our senior executives also hold weekly classes teaching a variety of topics ranging from asset management, acquisitions, disposition, joint venture deal structuring, and capital markets,” Fink says.

5. Keep an eye on the clock. As positive as training can be, the word still evokes thoughts of grim classrooms and mind-numbing tedium. Training that is unfocused, or worse, unending will have little impact on staff, and could even backfire by reducing on-the job interest and motivation. Today’s attention spans are trained to grasp information quickly. Be comprehensive, but keep it short and sweet. “We are embracing the just-in-time training model,” Plummer says. “We are moving toward quick bytes of training that are targeted to specific skills and that do not take a lot of time to convey the information.”

Bozzuto also tries to keep the classroom effect minimized. “Our training needs to be as fast, easy, effortless, and efficient as possible,” High says.

6. Have fun. In addition to keeping training modules concise and focused, companies that incorporate community outreach, game playing, and exciting and enthusiastic aspects to training stand to see better success with employee education. At Camden, 400 site managers trained this year to perform a “flash mob” impromptu dance at the firm’s annual meeting to surprise company executives with their own personal statement on culture and cohesion at the REIT.

Bascom even requires interns to engage in some aspect of community service, including job fairs, afterschool programs, community clean-up, or even just a pool party. “Many of these programs require little to no cost but simply require leadership to organize,” Fink says of the lesson behind the laughter. “A community with these programs will result in higher occupancy, lower turnover, and a better quality resident.”

7. Recognize and reward. Training that occurs in a vacuum tends to maintain its original trajectory and inertia, meaning that it never really goes anywhere. Distinguishing employees who have completed training by putting their skills to the test on the job—and compensating them for it—provides invaluable recognition and encourages others to participate in the training effort.

At Camden, 35 percent of the firm’s 1,750 employees are graduates of the Camden University in-house degree program, and each one of them received an automatic 3.5 percent pay increase. “Immediate reinforcement of training back at the property is key,” Bozzuto’s High says. “We follow the ‘use it or lose it’ rule: An employee's supervisor must be committed to helping the employee transfer their new skills to their work activities.”

8. Forget the fear factor. While most employees are holding tight to jobs in the recession, training initiatives can still make corporate leaders apprehensive. Why train someone just to develop skill sets so they can work elsewhere? Getting beyond that antiquated outlook on career-pathing is essential for guaranteeing the success of any training platform—it likewise does wonders for executive confidence.  Bascom even provides the flexibility for interns to take off work during weekday hours for job interviews. “We encourage success in interviews and often provide guidance and company background information to the candidate so they can improve the chance of success,” Fink says.

Not surprisingly, some of the firm’s current equity partners and sources of new business are graduates of the Bascom internship program, and have come full circle in contributing back to the firm, whether they are technically on the payroll or not.