March 04, 2020

Brenda Cones: Making Standard Operating Procedures Matter

How do you build a work culture where multifamily standard operating procedures truly matter? Where new employees feel comfortable speaking up to make edits and teams collaborate to shape policy for the better? Brenda Cones, Senior Director of Systems & Operations at Embrey Partners, shares her voice on why it starts with work culture.

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Brenda Cones is a Director of Systems & Property Management Operations Trainer with experience working in the real estate industry as an onsite Community Manager and Regional Manager. Now Senior Director of Systems & Operations at Embrey Partners, Brenda is passionate about team building & leadership with strong organizational & time management skills.

Audio Transcript

Glennis Markison (00:05):
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo welcome to voices where we feature fresh perspectives and multifamily. Our guests share their voices on emerging trends, leadership strategies, and much more

Glennis Markison (00:23):
Today our guest is Brenda Cones, senior director of systems and operations training at Embrey Partners. She'll be discussing how multifamily companies can make their standard operating procedures matter. Hi, Brenda. Thanks so much for joining us on voices.

Brenda Cones (00:38):

Glennis Markison (00:38):
Thank you, Brenda. Yeah, so I'd love to just dive into your very complicated world of standard operating procedures. I think I'd first love to know how you got into this work.

Brenda Cones (00:50):
It's all in this industry and work my way up from there, which I think a lot of people do. This industry is so chockfull of policy and procedure and so when you start out at that lower level and to start learning it and then learning how it changes from year to year and changes from company to company, if you spend time absorbing that material and come to love it, you enjoy sharing with other people.

Glennis Markison (01:15):
Yeah, that's so true. I mean leveraging that onsite experience when you grow and grow and multifamily I think is kind of easily forgotten. But when you're at the level where you are and you want people to know how to do their jobs, you want them to be able to say, I know the answer to this question. Why is it so important to have a standard operating procedure?

Brenda Cones (01:36):
I think so people out on site feel encouraged to understand our industry and how they can accurately give information to both their incoming prospects as well as the residents. I think people feel great when they feel like they're sharing accurate information and they feel confident about that accurate information they are sharing. So keeping things universal so that we can share employees at different properties so that they feel like when they go to work in another property that they're sharing accurate information no matter where they are working in our industry for Embrey.

Glennis Markison (02:10):
Yeah, that's so true. And just some of the behind the scenes, like how is it on your end to have to organize and research all of us in information every week? I mean, what are some of the behind the scenes?

Brenda Cones (02:20):
It's a lot. I do, I'm a part of a lot of incoming information from various resources that kind of keep me up to date with different legislation that's come through that's changed our lease contracts, all the way to policies and procedures that we decide we want to change within the Embrey to better suit our employees.

Glennis Markison (02:42):
Yeah. And in a perfect world, how would you deliver that information to employees? How do you let them know that this standard operating procedure exists at all?

Brenda Cones (02:50):
I developed our SOP is all online and you know, employees, if they feel like they're not aware of a policy, they want to keep themselves in tune with what that is. They go to our policy procedures manual, which is an online living document and they can search for it. We have an advanced search toolbar and they can type in one word and it'll pull up any policy that has that word. I make changes to it based on incoming information that I may receive or company policies that change. And then I produce just kind of something fun called what's new Wednesday, I think in the property management industry everybody, every management company has a corporate office in one or two locations and then various apartment communities throughout the United States.

Glennis Markison (03:40):
So your only way to really relay that information is via email. And how do you make email stand out? How do you make it be something that they say to themselves, I need to read this today.

Brenda Cones (03:40):
This is important when they're getting so many emails day in and day out from residents and prospects and employees and corporate office and owners. So I developed a, what's new Wednesday just to make one day of the week that I send out any changes that I've made to the policy and procedures manual. And I always joke and say, I don't need you to read it on Wednesday. It's just called What's New Wednesday. So you can remember that that is a policy change. It does sound good, does it not? Yeah. Keep it, keep it in your inbox. And if it on Thursday or Friday, that's fine with me. I just want it to stand out as one day of the week that you're looking for something to meet from me. A lot of our employees have made a folder called what's new Wednesday and they slide their policies in there so they can refresh them at manager's meetings or site meetings that they may have. So just so that I came up with to just really try to streamline that.

Glennis Markison (04:37):
Yeah. And you really want to hone in on this notion of a living, breathing standard operating procedure. So part of that is you, you're doing this research, you're flexible and all these different topics, but what do you need? Just diving into this work culture piece, what is that missing piece where you need people to engage with you too? When they see that something's changing? How, how important is it that everybody is flexible to want to edit this?

Brenda Cones (04:59):
It's extremely important for our employees to feel comfortable enough to email me and say that they have heard of a policy coming up the pipeline to being comfortable saying, I worked at another company and our policy was like this and we felt like it really worked for our employees. It's really about sharing. I think we have a lot of us in this industry have worked for competitors and you want to believe that you have the best policies you can out there to serve both of your, both your residents, your prospects and your employees.

Glennis Markison (05:31):
Yeah. And on your end, I mean, how important is it to be receptive to the feedback that right now the document isn't perfect? Like is that a big part of your job where you say, Hey, you know what? Our company doesn't do this for mold inspections, but now that I know a new hire had a maybe better procedure around it, how important is it for you to be flexible that way too?

Brenda Cones (05:49):
A lot. It's very important. You have to be flexible and you have to be approachable. If you're, if you're not approachable, people won't feel, they can come to you and say, Hey, how about this? Or Hey, I heard this law is changing. We might need to look into it. I think it's, it's definitely approachability.

Glennis Markison (06:07):
Yeah. And how does that start? Do you think, even on an onboarding level, I mean, when you want to train somebody who's a community manager or a maintenance tech, what do you think is important for managers to convey? Just really from a start that people are allowed to speak up and to raise concerns.

Brenda Cones (06:21):
I think our regional managers are great at onboarding their employees and informing them, Hey, our support department is one of the best. We have great people in our support department who've been out on-site before and are here to help. And I think that helps. I think that makes the manager feel comfortable and it makes the new incoming employee feel like, Oh, these people are nice. They've been in my shoes. I can reach out to them and ask them the question. Yeah. As a support department to be approachable and be it'd be, there are people, you can't always be out on-site with them. So you need to deliver that message to the regionals and to the upper management that you are experienced. You have been in their shoes and you're here to help.

Glennis Markison (07:05):
Yeah. And I think also does, does humor play into this? Like there's, when I hear standard operating procedure, I know in your world that's just Tuesday, but to me I'm like, this must be so grave and important. Like how do you make this issue of procedures and seriousness? How do you make it approachable? Just from the outset talking about it, you know, how do you make people feel they can have a hand in it?

Brenda Cones (07:25):
A lot of clip art. You know, I think they get a lot of mundane emails day in and day out of things that, you know, residents or prospects are upset with. You know, where's the happy, where's the good time, where's the excitement, you know, as a manager and being out on-site, you really are, you're handling processes and you're handling upset residents and you're handling, you can possibly upset employees or employee issues and you know, policies and procedures, those aren't very fun. And when you change them frequently and as much as they change in this industry and it's just every time you turn around and you're like, Oh, a new policy I have to keep up with, I'm going to store this somewhere in some part of my brain to remember it can be overwhelming for them. And so I'm a bit of a jokester and we like to keep some comedy in it and try to keep your spirits up and a lot of humor and just trying to let them know that, you know, we understand we're here for you.

Glennis Markison (08:31):
Yeah. And I think that the message of we're here for you is so important when someone might be afraid to ask something. And just diving into a little bit, is there anything you notice about multifamily as an industry where maybe people don't all have the same backgrounds and so they might be a little scared to speak up? Like what do you think might inspire a little bit of hesitation just from a start to asking?

Brenda Cones (08:51):
I think, you know, most of us are in this industry and you're in this industry for a while and the other wasn't a property management degree. You don't go out and go to college and get a degree in this field. You come into it like I did. Someone said you should do, you should be a leasing consultant. And I answered with what is a leasing consultant. And then they proceeded to let me know what it was. I went into the industry and you learn by example from the people around you. A lot of the learning is done on the job and so it really is obtaining a lot of information day in, day out by error. Sometimes you don't answer the questions right because it wasn't in a a book at school. And you have to be okay with going, gosh, I didn't answer that right this time.

Glennis Markison (09:39):
Next time I'll refer to my manual, ask my manager, asked my support department so I can get it right the next time. So you really have to be okay with learning by possibly doing it wrong the first time around and then step right back up there the next time around and get it right. Yeah, no, I'd love to dive in to some examples on this. I mean, did you have somebody who's a maintenance tech, you know, brand new and they, they didn't quite get it right when they repaired something and they had to bend, look at the manual and really pour through some information? Yeah, I mean definitely at least in consultants when you come in as a leasing consultant, you know, you really, you're really dealing with, it's not as easy is I'm going to sit on a desk. When a customer comes in, I'm going to say, hi, how are you?

Brenda Cones (10:22):
There's a lot of fair housing policy involved of what you can and can't say. There's a lot of knowing the tour path, where does my manager want me to walk to head to this model apartment to show it? Which apartments am I sharing? You don't just hop in the back and grab a set of keys and hit the road. There really are process is set. So as a new incoming leasing consultant, you really are having to follow a lot of those rules to give the best presentation you can. It's a lot to absorb because most of us think, Oh, you just sit at this desk, somebody walks in to grab the key, go show an apartment. There's a lot that goes along with that. So I think there's incoming leasing consultant. Yeah. Made my fair share. Walking into an apartment I wasn't supposed to do that wasn't ready.

Glennis Markison (11:05):
And it is not what we do in our industry. You're really supposed to walk ready apartments and that can be embarrassing. You just taking a customer an apartment, it doesn't show your property the best. And so that's definitely a learning example. You won't do that again. Yeah. Yeah. And how is a manager able to say, Hey, like I know that the first time around it didn't go so well. How do you think a manager is able to kind of through conscientious feedback, encourage someone to do it right the next time, as opposed to saying, Hey, why didn't you read that manual? You know, what does that delicate dance there? I think a lot of times when I was out on site, it really is the conversation of saying, you know, Hey, you know, we have 300 apartments here, has a lot of apartments.

Glennis Markison (11:42):
You give 10 vacant right now I know in your mind you're thinking all 10 are ready for you to show. We want to share the best apartment we have and right now these, these two that are made ready, but our maintenance time spent maintenance team spent time getting on pain and getting the carpet clean and getting them look their best. So you can put your best sales face forward. And here's a list of the apartments that were shown today. Let's stick with this list. We want you to get this close. This is money in your pocket as far as a bonus is concerned. So let's work on making sure that we're providing you what we can provide you the best foot forward for the property. And you had to those apartments that you can make sure you sell that property, sell that apartment and close the deal.

Brenda Cones (12:23):
Wow, that's really wonderful. So it's framing it around that person's success and growth rather than, you know, why did you mess up and how did you mess up? It's a lot more like, Hey, I want to help you. Let me help you.

Brenda Cones (12:33):
These rules. It is that the big picture in the property management industry and I think in every industry that in our industry is it's a team. I mean, the managers try to achieve goals. The leasing consultant is trying to achieve personal goals with sales, not only for bonuses but also to achieve a higher goal for the property of income. The maintenance guy is trying to ensure that he doesn't spend too much money and keeps expenses at Bay. So you've got a team of people really balancing one checkbook and you know, most households you've got a husband or a wife or a spouse or partner. One person is managing that checkbook, not two, not three. When you start getting two or three involved, you can really, really mess up your books. It's property management. You're talking about really a team of people, five to eight sometimes on our property working as a collective team to do what I like to say, manage the overall checkbook, more income coming in and expenses going out. And so communication following policy, I'm looking at everybody for the greater good of what they're trying to accomplish is very important in this industry.

Glennis Markison (13:38):
Yeah, no, I think that that really is the angle when you make it seem collaborative and it's not, Oh my gain is your loss, this and that. I can really see how that builds. Like obviously trust between teams. So I'm curious now that we've been through some examples of a, you know, a policy gone wrong or not red and then the person has to really come back. What are some examples where someone, you know, you heard someone edited a policy and it just worked so well, like it worked as you want it to work. When you created this living breathing document

Brenda Cones (14:05):
You know, I have an example. We do a lot of brand new construction and so we have to hire, we have, I have to order a lot of new products for the properties. And so I've built a session in the SOP called new properties set up and it really allows those people who are opening a brand new property of, Oh, I need to order happy co, how do I get that product? Who's our salesperson? What am I supposed to do? How do I go about getting this product from my property? And they go into the SOP and they look under the new property startup folder and it says inspection. Now app. They click on that and within it'll say, how's to order the product? It'll specifically tell them exactly what they have to email to what I need order to order the product.

Brenda Cones (14:52):
I need to know the name of your property, how many units you have properly address, who you want set up as users. And had a situation recently where a manager referred to the SOP in Sydney over a beautiful email to Oh or a product and an I joked around with the regional and said, yeah, I've got a little tear in my eye about it. Because she had trained that that manager, she had informed that manager when it comes time for you to order a product based on your lease checklist or your new property checklist refer to the SOP. And he had done that for every product as the time came for him to order the product you'd go to the SOP that's exactly what I need. So I made a little joke and a little fun with the regional about how I'm going to read my eye and I just, I truly do get really pleased when I get an email in the support inbox telling me exactly what I need to order the product that they going back and forth with them to piecemeal. The information can be time-consuming for me when I'm dealing with a lot of property. So I'm just kind of that reward of someone using the SOP properly is, is really enjoyable for me and really makes me happy.

Glennis Markison (15:58):
Yeah, I mean it sounds like it makes, it must make the team happy too, to have that regional and you know, managers feel recognized and feel congratulated. Like do you think that's also a missing piece sometimes of work culture is when a manager empowers someone entry-level to speak up, raise a concern. Just to congratulate that manager. I mean, do you think that's kind of done enough?

Brenda Cones(16:17):
You know, I say never underestimate the value of a Pat on the back, I think. I think as you move up in any industry, sometimes that add all the back just kind of goes to, Oh, you're corporate, you don't really need to have that on the back. But we do. I think upper management still needs to feel appreciated and get that Pat on the back. And so I've been a regional before. I know what that job is like and I know that it can be pretty hairy. And so I think as a regional hearing from people in the support department and upper management that Hey, it seems very minor to you, but the fact that your employee did a great job in this area really saved other departments time and that employee is hearing you, that employee is hearing you as a regional say, Hey, if you need something, go to the SOP. And that's got to be rewarding for a regional to know that that employee is listening to them and hearing about and following instructions.

Glennis Markison (17:07):
Yeah, I mean that's what I think is so interesting about your work is that when you do it well and when you build this work culture where people feel confident and capable and really appreciated, it sounds like beyond just an SOP that is living and breathing, you have all these other ripple effects. So I'm curious like just does turnover kind of sorta decrease a bit? Do you see besides time-saving that you're also maybe diving into tougher projects together than you might have before? Like, I'd love to know more about these extra benefits when you've done so much legwork to create this kind of culture. We do.

Brenda Cones (17:36):
We had a meeting yesterday and there was a policy that someone was looking to change a regional, brought it up in the call and in the collective group, you know, our president was just like, well, Hey, why don't you guys come up with four or five samples of how you think it should be done? Disperse it amongst yourselves, come up with your favorite answer as a group and then send it to Brenda so she can put it in the SOP. And so really it was like, you know, as a, as a team, let's determine the best answer. And so today I've been watching emails go back and forth, all going. I like number one and two, I like number four and five. I like number three and four, just really collectively saying why they like each sample and which one are we gonna set as a policy so that we can get it to Brenda and get the SRP.

Brenda Cones (18:22):
So that we create that uniformity. It really is. And we have seven regionals working together to really decide where the best policies. Now, not everybody's going to get their way all the time, but I think as a group, we're such a diverse and such a diverse group of people. We have people who moved here from California, they live in Texas now and work for us. We've got people from other parts of the United States, your properties in Nashville and in Florida that have different laws and rules. So we're really relying on the regionals to obtain all that information and then work together as a group. That's, I think together that will work not only for third party management but for Emery managed properties as well as other States. Wow. Yeah. I mean, it really does sound like at its best, what you're building is a kind of trust, growing supportive culture.

Brenda Cones (19:10):
I mean all around. And, and did you know, through your onsite kind of rise into multifamily and getting into leadership that this would be possible? Or do you sometimes think like, wow, this is, this is how good it feels when you're doing this work? Well, I think it's pretty remarkable. I think the group of people that we have being so diverse and having such different skillsets you've got to know when maybe somebody else's way is probably a better way than you originally came up with and you've gotta be able to kind of back down and say, well, I thought my way was the best and maybe this person's way is the best. I've enjoyed it. Our regional group is great and they're all really great people to work with. We, we healthy debate, we have healthy debates just like anyone else or the fact that we get to debate is what's so great.

Brenda Cones (20:01):
And it's healthy, fun, loving debate. And at the end, we come up with an answer. And again, it might not be the one I wanted and it might not be the one Sherry wanted, but we've come up with an answer through healthy debate. We all gotta say, and there are times when the president will just jump in and say, we're going to do it this way. But most times she lets us kind of come to it on our own, which is fantastic. And that's a lot of how we set policy with every, yeah, I mean that's so wonderful I think because it fundamentally comes down to being heard, you know, just that respect of being heard. So I'm curious, speaking of listening for listeners out there, what do you think is the most important kind of set of traits to do your work well? Cause it just seems in multifamily at the best, there's flexibility around moving paths, releasing, you know, maybe maintenance and moving. And so if somebody thought about moving into your line of work, like what do you, what do you really think it takes? I would have to say time management and patience.

Glennis Markison (21:02):
Tell me more. Tell me more.

Brenda Cones (20:03):
When I first got into this role, I was very structured, under structured and organized. And I wake up in the morning and I say, this is what I'm going to do today. And I was able to do that as a regional. I mean there were times where maybe something would happen and it would shake my day on a little bit or for the most part, as a regional, I was able to say, I'm traveling today. I don't like to take calls while I'm traveling because if I've flown on a plane across the United States to be with the team, I don't need to be sitting in conference calls all day. I need to be with the team. So very structured like I wake up in the morning, I know what I'm going to do when I got into the support department and into this policy and procedures.

Brenda Cones (21:44):
You really have to step back because of a policy or procedures, a change, especially if it's going to change the legislation with us. With a lease contract, you really have to stop, drop and roll. I mean your plan for the day needs to be set aside. You really need to learn. You have to learn how to manage your time in a way that says, this is what I'm going to do today, but if something else comes at me, I'm going to have to get that done and come back to these items. And I like to say that I try to run a day or two ahead of myself so that I don't get flustered or upset or irritated or impatient about something that I wanted to do today. That was in my heart to do today that I had push it back. Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah, I know. It is. It's amazing to have that discipline and yet that flexibility, because when you have the discipline, you're not always excited by a curveball, and when you're interested in curveballs, you're not always disciplined enough to also greet these kinds of longstanding projects with any sort of happiness I had to find a special place.

Glennis Markison (22:30):
Well, it sounds like you're doing it wonderfully, Brenda, and I'm really, really grateful that you were able to share it with us on voices.

Brenda Cones (22:45):
Sure. I appreciate the opportunity. It's been great.

Glennis Markison (23:00):
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily or learn how to share your voice, go to You can find voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo, the leading real-time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritizing staff and resident wellbeing. That starts by listening to you the voices of multifamily. Thanks for listening.

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Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer and producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As HappyCo's Senior Content Producer, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.