October 06, 2020

Gina Lemon: Changing the Way Multifamily Hires

How do you stop turnover where it starts? Timberland Partners VP of HR Gina Lemon has a straightforward answer: change your questions to candidates. She shares how motivation-based interviewing can improve culture and retention all at once.

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The Short About Gina Lemon
With over twenty years in Human Resources, Gina’s career includes Fortune 500 companies including UPS, Target, Ameriprise Financial. She is known for attracting, building, and retaining talented employees and fashioning high-performing teams. Gina says joining Timberland Partners has been the best choice that she has made in her career, as the company truly embodies its vision, mission, and guiding principles. These days, Timberland Partners is making a strategic shift to select and grow talent in a different way — focusing on internal motivation and a candidate's attitude.

Audio Transcript

Gina Lemon 0:00
So there's a lot of things that we're a little bit afraid of, I think it's, you know, not only focusing on the recruitment piece, bringing the right people into your culture. The retention piece is big though, too, because you have to have the right culture that these people are going to want to not only come into, but to stay.

Glennis Markison 0:22
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in Multifamily. The industry is now facing a fundamental shift in workplace dynamics, resident experience and business operations. In Season Two of Voices, we'll feature multifamily leaders who are actively embracing change. Our guest today is Gina Lemon. She's Vice President of Human Resources at Timberland partners based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Gina has over 20 years of experience in human resources, including roles at Fortune 500 companies that include UPS, Target and Ameriprise Financial. In a push to prevent turnover at Timberland Partners, Gina has been working to fundamentally change the way the company selects and grows talent. Today on Voices, Gina discusses how she's making this happen from identifying turnover trends, to researching hiring strategies, to getting manager buy-in. And of course, the results. Thank you so much for joining us, Gina.

Gina Lemon 1:19
Thank you, Glennis. This is wonderful. I appreciate you spotlighting our company.

Glennis Markison 1:24
Absolutely. So I'm curious if you could just get us started by telling us a little bit about your growth and human resources just going from Fortune 500 to multifamily.

Gina Lemon 1:33
Definitely. Well, I started my career out in UPS, I was a recruiter for them. And then I moved my way over to target where I really focused for five years of my career on benefits. And then, I just wanted more. So I went over to Ameriprise Financial and went into a different area of Human Resources focusing on employee relations. And then the stock market crash happened. And I had the opportunity to redefine my career yet again, and really said to myself that I wanted to focus on more variety instead of going deep in all these functional areas of HR. So I went over to a defence contractor and it was a generalist. And you know, as I've grown in my career, my family has also grown. So I have two small children, and really took a look at my values and the life that I wanted to create long term. And I wanted to come to a smaller company and really focus on my values and gain alignment with those and have really great leadership. And I found Timberland Partners. And what's really funny about my story is that my parents were also in property management when I was a kid. So my parents were caretakers for the DNS management company, which is now Steven Scott in the Minneapolis market. So, I started in property management, and maybe I'll finish my career in property management.

Glennis Markison 2:52
Yeah, no, that's a wonderful backstory. I mean, I'm curious, especially the environment at Timberland, what drew you to that environment when you could have kind of joined any multifamily company, especially with your family roots?

Gina Lemon 3:03
Yeah, definitely. I think definitely the president of the company, Bob Fransen. It's a family-based business. And I had never worked in the family-based business. So that was very intriguing. And Bob has a very inspirational leader. So he has built this culture of trust and transparency and authenticity. And that really drew me in it wasn't that he was just talking the talk. I think our company really walks the walk. When I came in. Everyone knew the vision mission and guiding principles. And I have never worked for a company where every single team member, not only could recite those, but really live them. So it was just a completely 180 shift. From a culture perspective, what I've experienced in the past, I would experience people walking on top of each other and playing a political game. And it felt more like a family. So that's what drew me in.

Glennis Markison 3:52
Wow, it's so unusual, honestly, to be able to recite the values. I mean, let's write let's talk about rare. So, but I do understand that you were at Timberland, you've been there nine years so, company triples in size, since you first joined and have a longest growth period. I understand there was a bit of turnover you saw. So can you kind of describe how that took shape?

Gina Lemon 4:12
Definitely. So yeah, I'm coming up on my nine year anniversary in December. And we did triple in size. So we had to make sure that we're really putting together a solid foundation. And we really were seeing just lots of turnover and we had assessments were very decentralized from a recruiting perspective. And we just wanted to continue to build upon the solid foundation because we're going to grow so we've tripled in size. We started out with 150 team members and now we're a little over 450 and we wanted to make sure that we everyone have the right tools to be able to accomplish the job. We also put in really closely to when I started a team member engagement survey. I think that helped us a lot. Just really to be able to hear the concerns of the team members, so we've implemented a lot of different facets and changed a lot of different facets of our company. We put in a manager Advisory Committee, a service manager Advisory Committee, we've been doing quarterly conference calls, which every single team member can participate on. We even have yearly annual leadership conferences, although we had to take a pause in 2020, where not only our senior leaders would join that here in Minneapolis, but then we would also invite our million-dollar sales club winners, and we would invite our mentors. So we've developed a mentor program and a green track development program for our team members just really focused on hearing and listening to the needs of our team members.

Glennis Markison 5:42
Yeah, I mean, can you dive in just even more to the importance of valuing recruitment and retention? I mean, it seems like you were juggling both sides. But I think sometimes people just think, oh, we'll hire the right people. And then they'll just grow and it'll be fine. But can you talk about why it's important to really think about both?

Gina Lemon 5:57
Yeah, I think it's not just the chicken or the egg. So I like to use analogies. And it's really about so you can get the right people into the culture. However, if your culture is not able to absorb them, and to hear them, I love how everyone talks about millennials. And I personally love millennials, because they're not a problem. They're a big enough group, and they have a big enough voice. I think what's sad for me as a Gen X er, is like, I've been saying the same thing. But I just didn't have a big enough, you know, group or a big enough voice to make change happen. So that's what's disheartening or sad for me is like, we all know how to treat people well. We all know how to create this culture. I think in our society, we're just moving really quickly. And we don't take the time to pause and say, what is it that you need? Instead of saying, how are you we can say, How are you today? Or we can go a little bit deeper and say, how are you feeling today? So there's a lot of things that were a little bit afraid of, I think it's you know, not only focusing on the recruitment piece, bringing the right people into your culture. The retention piece is big, though, too, because you have to have the right culture that these people are going to want to not only come into, but to stay. So if you don't have a culture where everyone can raise their hand and be a leader and speak up, then your people who want to raise their hand and speak up are not going to feel valued.

Glennis Markison 7:18
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, part of this puzzle seems to be accountability. And then part of that seems to be alignment. And if you're not on the same page, what are the goals? This and that? Can you talk about those two pieces to accountability and alignment when you're forming any sort of hiring and culture strategy? Where were those play in? And why?

Gina Lemon 7:34
Definitely. So alignment is really big for me, because if our senior leadership team doesn't buy into it, then it's not going to go very far. And everyone wants to have a choice, and have an option of whether they participate or not. So I think from an alignment perspective, I don't care if it's a B, or C, honestly. But if everyone can say, yeah, it's a or Oh, yeah, it's B, or, oh, you know, what, actually C is the best option. And I think it allows everyone to be at the table and be heard. So alignment is really big, because there's more energy and momentum. And we can go faster if we take the time, in the beginning to go slow. And say that, well, there's the three options that I think might work. And so we did that with how we built our retention and recruitment strategy. And then the accountability is this really big word that we talk a lot about. And I think there's things that are underneath accountability. So you have to have the right tools. And I shared this analogy with my supervisor, if you tell me to build a house, I don't have the tools in my office to get that done. I don't know if our team members have the right tools to get that done. So really, I tried to break it down and be really simple and really clear. Like if you want to house I can build you an awesome post it note house with my post it notes, right. But if you want me to build a house, and I'm going to tell you, you're going to have an outhouse because I'm not going to do plumbing. If you want a house and you give me a hammer and some nails and some wood, like I might be able to get something that looks like a house done, it still won't be up to code.

Glennis Markison 9:10
Full disclosure, full disclosure, right?

Gina Lemon 9:13
The House might fall down on you sign a waiver. So I think it's one of those things where we love to use these really big words of accountability. And then when you break that down, if people don't have the right tools, and it's just kind of this double-edged sword of like, we're not getting the right tools, and I'm hiring the wrong people. And then you want me to help them be high potential, you know, making really good investments for our company. So we just had to back the train way up and say, You know what, we need the right tools. We're very decentralized in our recruiting process, and how if we give the right tools, then I can hold people accountable. So we really just stripped everything away to say What does everyone need? And we asked our team members to we said what are the things that you need to be more successful and let's be let's be honest, we have properties that have maybe four or five people at them, and they might have someone in their positions for a year or two years. But then when they have to hire that leasing consultant, now, they haven't touched hiring in two years. Right? So how can I make sure that two years later, someone's still gonna know how to hire high potential talent because they're not touching it all the time, either. They're, you know, managing all the residents and helping in a lot of other ways, not just focused on the talent acquisition or the development maybe. Yeah, I mean, this is really a great segue into the type of interviewing you thought would be best to make all these changes possible. So I understand that you were juggling between motivation based and behavioral. Can you talk about those kind of main differences, and in the end, which one you felt would be a better fit? Oh, definitely. So we have done behavioral based interviewing, honestly, for my whole career in HR and Timberland partners was no different. I think behavioral based interviewing is really the status quo way for how you hire someone. And it's really about asking someone a specific time that they've done something and you get this answer. Sometimes we might even call what I say leading the witness, where we say, Tell me about a time where you positively did something, because we all want happy stories. Right? Right. We want happy voices, not sad and angry voices.

Glennis Markison 11:18
On the podcast called Voices, yeah!

Gina Lemon 11:20
I know, right? That's, like, you're gonna like this, right? And so what I think is interesting is that you have to be able to have the sad and angry voices be heard, so that you can get to happy. It's kind of like COVID right now, right? Like, we have to maybe go through the storm to see the rainbow. So what we really did is we heard this woman, Carol Quinn, who founded this motivation based interviewing process. And we dug in to say, Wow, is this really the next version of our hiring process? So I learned a little bit more about her, I read her whole book. And then we said, You know what, I don't have the expertise to really lead this. But let's have one of her consultants come in and lead us through some training. So we got all of our regional vice presidents, our senior vice president of property management, our Chief Operating Officer, myself, and all of the regional managers, so really our senior leadership team for the field. And we said, here's the training, what do you think, and the training was really great, because I even didn't know what was coming because I just read the book. So what was wonderful is that she really helped us learn a lot about attitude. And we spent a good three hours just talking about how human beings have attitudes. And that our brain really forms a lot of what we think about the world. And how we show up. So one of the interesting things for me is that we all have obstacles in our life, I'll go really basic, because I love this one, because I was teaching my son how to ride his bike. At the time, when we went through this training, it was early May of 2018. And I was frustrated because my son didn't want to, you know, get on his bike. He was like, give me a training wheels. And I said, Okay, well, here's the obstacle. So we all have obstacles, right? No one comes out into the world knowing how to ride a bike. So that's what part of the training was is we all have these obstacles. And really, it's about how we overcome the obstacle is what we call learning process. How are you going to continue to overcome the obstacle and as an example, learn how to bike. So sometimes we have to fall sometimes we have to skin, our knee, but the propensity for us to be able to learn how to bike is there, we just have to learn how to balance and learn how to do all these things. But then we can bike or we can swim, or any of these skills that we didn't necessarily know how to do at first. So we really fell in love with motivation based interviewing, because it is a shift, talking about really the skills and the passion and the internal motivation or the attitude that someone has, that helps us understand that they could really take any sort of challenging situation and work through it on their own. So I think that's the purpose of what we're all trying to do. Right. We all want leaders at every level of our organisation to make the best choices to serve the customer.

Glennis Markison 14:14
Yeah, absolutely. And so in in an interview setting, I mean, how does that look as the questions you behavioural is kind of like, why did things go so happily, you know, but patient? I mean, what is that question like?

Gina Lemon 14:25
Yeah, so you know, what, I have a couple of examples that I can share with you, you know, a really easy one is customer service, right? That's a competency or skill set that I want my team to have. So a great customer service question that we all might be asking, is, tell me about a time when you satisfied a customer? Right? That would be the behavioural based interview question. Tell me about a time when you satisfied a customer. The motivation based way to ask that is again, we still want this specific time, but here's the language shift. Tell me about a specific time you dealt with it customer who had an unreasonable request. Nice. So now I shift it to leave it open ended so they can tell me a positive or negative experience and the customers obstacle that they're trying to overcome is this unreasonable request?

So I'm not leading them to tell me an answer. And what I really want to say is okay, it was unreasonable. And did they just go get their community manager or someone else to help overcome the obstacle? Or did they really try option A and then option B and an option C. And maybe the customer is, you know, request was still unreasonable. And they left not satisfied. Or maybe we had to say, after going through option A, B, and C, we got them to their manager, but I want to see the pattern of behaviour where they're trying to overcome the obstacle instead of just saying, Oh, that's unreasonable. I'm gonna go get my manager. Right. So there's, there's a shift there. Another one that I really like, is conflict management. So we might say, Tell me about a time when you and coworker during didn't get along? And, you know, what did you do to rectify the situation? Right? Like, we're always really curious about how the rectification happened. But let's be honest, how many times can we not rectify an issue with our coworker or with our boss, and we just go to another company? Right. So this shift of language is Tell me about a specific time when you had a disagreement with a co worker. So when I'm not asking for what the outcome is, I'm leaving that open for the candidate to fill in the blank.

Glennis Markison 16:28
Yeah, that's wonderful. I mean, without that leading kind of angle, you really are letting them reveal so much more.

Gina Lemon 16:34
I think so.

Glennis Markison 16:35
Yeah. No, it's fascinating. So this sounds like I mean, you must have felt pretty convinced along with the managers you had in these trainings with the consultant. But ultimately, when you made the decision to go with this type of interview style, was there extra training from there? I mean, how did you communicate? Hey, Timberland is now really moving into this motivation-based approach. Here's how we're teaching you to get there. How did that look?

Gina Lemon 16:55
Yep, definitely. So we needed to get the buy in, like I spent an alignment of all of our senior leaders. And we had that pretty quickly. Although, you know, we all had to kind of put our ego aside for a minute, because we had been using behavioural based interview approach for such a long time. So we had to, you know, really kind of play with it. And experimental a little bit, our learning and development team really had to put all of our competencies together to say, you know, really, what does it look like to have a successful leasing consultant? And what are the competencies that we need them to have? And then we, you know, got really clear on that and said, Okay, so we need to continue to roll this out to our community managers and our service supervisors, because they're the ones that are out there hiring people day in and day out. So our learning and development team as well as the HR team, we went out to all of our different regions, we kind of what we call a road show, where we went to the different regions, and we continued on that training path, and made sure that everyone understood why we're shifting to look at passion and attitude over skill. You know, we clearly would love to have people that are skilled on our team. However, if we have and we hire a passion attitude first, and then skill set as a as a maybe, then we might be able to hire more high potential candidates. So we went and we made sure that all of our managers were trained. And then the next question that you're probably going to ask me is what happens when someone leaves because community managers might turn over to right, so we have a process where we bring all of our community managers insight, and now we're doing it virtually for 2020. But we give them a three day kind of down and deep overview, not only of motivation based interviewing, but really of what their job is as a community manager. And we let them know all the resources and tools so that we can say, Hey, we're here for you, they need all of our departments in the home office, we go through a deep dive on everything, to make sure that they're aligned. And what's really great is we don't make them develop the tools. We've developed the tools that our home office, so they can just plug and play. So for all of our positions, we have at least four interview guides that can be used in our interviewing process has the frontline hiring leader doing an interview, and then we also have their next skip level leader do a secondary interview. So we're using not only one motivation-based interview guide, but two, and there's different competencies that are within each of those interview guides. Wow, upping the ante as they say, I like this a lot. So I'm curious, let's get your results. I mean, how are you defining success once you started this more than a year ago? And how is it looked on the ground once you changed approaches? Yeah, so one of the claims to fame that Carol has a she said that you're not going to or you're going to make less hiring mistakes, we still are human, so we might make one or two. Right? She can't claim that you'll never make a hiring mistake again. Because, you know, we get in our way sometimes. However, what she has claimed is that your retention rates will increase over time. And when you make a higher you're probably going to make less hiring mistakes. So, those people that tend to leave you within the first one month, three months, six months, you're going to have less of that. And here's the cool thing is I want to tell you about the results for MBI. But then I just want to back up a little bit and tell you about our growth overall. So we've tripled in sizes we've been, you know, since I've been with the company, and then 2019, that was a 13% growth. So in 2018, we had 365, team members 2018 2019, we went to 412. And by the end of 2020, we'll probably have 465, which is that 13% growth rate, then we've also had a 13% promotion rate over those years. So what's great is I crunched some numbers right before this podcast. I hadn't done it before this more it was anecdotal. But I knew you wanted some tough numbers.

Glennis Markison 20:47
And you're about to deliver I can sense it.

Gina Lemon 20:49
I'm about to deliver, I would say I would say mostly deliver, I still think we have a little bit of a gap to close. So I'll tell you about that too. Because it's not all you know, roses and sunshine. But for community managers, service techs and service supervisors in that space, since we've done the training, we've been able to double their length of service, wow, for those three groups. And then what's great is even in the length of service and not hire not having turnover within the first six months, we've we're also growing that. So anecdotally the numbers are matching up, we you know, it's hard year over year, because there's so many dynamics that are changing. But when we bucket all those people, we are seeing the length of service grow, and we're not having as much turnover, our turnover is lowering. And that less than six month bucket, we're still not to zero yet, because we're constantly moving and ebbing and flowing. But I'm seeing the numbers move in the right direction, which is exciting. The one challenge that we're still having this those leasing consultants, I think that that's a position that's front level to the company. And there's a lot of growth opportunity within the Office structure. We also are not we don't have a lot of penetration in all of the states that we're in. So we might lose a leasing consultant to a competitor. But where we're seeing the challenges is part time leasing consultants. I don't think that's a winning proposition. I think that we need to make a move to more full time leasing consultants so we don't lose them. So even though MBI is a piece of the puzzle, and I think it's a huge piece of the puzzle, if other people aren't using it, it could be where you're not going to get those high potentials in. But then we're still trying to peel the onion, right. There's still other levers that we can move to continue to lower turnover, but MBI has been a huge impact.

Glennis Markison 22:35
Yeah, I mean, it's so refreshing to hear to that you're like, Okay, this seems to be going well, but how does it get better? With the kind of very ambitious multifamily leaders listening are thinking, and they're like, Alright, we've done this really well. But what's the next step? so well in here?

Gina Lemon 22:47
Yeah, here's what's really great story. Our company loves sports analogies and yay for sports analogies. But we're not playing a finite game. This, I see I see it as an infinite game. So there's always an opportunity to be better.

Glennis Markison 23:02
I love that. No, I think it's so refreshing to hear. And I think just like in our last couple of minutes, I'm curious how with all of this investment you put into the new hiring strategy, but also retention, how did current managers kind of gel with this new hungry motivated population? And then just as a final note, like, the pandemic has strained, any and all work dynamics across the world everywhere? So how did you kind of at first integrate these two kind of new hires and current managers? And then just if you could touch on the ways that with the remote setting, many of these dynamics could have been challenged, but maybe people are really still seizing the day together?

Gina Lemon 23:38
Definitely. You know, I think on us, you hit it on the mark, like we entered this storm so strong, because we were preparing a year, a year and a half ago for this to happen. We really felt like we were in our ninth any night, you know, whatever. It comes after the ninth and 10th, right. Like, I think baseball only has nine maps you owe to the HR person, I don't know, we might we might need to pull on the CFO, I will we're lost.

I know. Right? So what's interesting is that, I think 90 plus percent of our organization was on board. I'm pretty sure that 10% of our organization struggled, I could see that happening in real time. Because as you're doing a training and you're talking about attitude, you've got to go internal first. So all of us really struggled with ooh, do we show up with external attitudes? And what does that look like? And what's really wonderful is all of our senior leaders, we gave permission to each other to be called out. We said, yeah, it was awesome. We're like, if we show up with an external attitude, will you please let me know and so everyone got on board with that and said, Yes. And then you have people that are in your purview. And for example, I ordered lunch at one of these trainings, and someone came over to me and said, My lunches in here but there was three boxes over on the counter. They just happen to have labels on it is the Panera lunch if you're familiar with that. And this person said, Well, my lunch isn't here. I said, well, let's go, you know, let's open the boxes, and even open the boxes, right? So I'm like leaving the labels wrong. Maybe what's in the box is actually there and your lunch? And then she looked at the boxes, too. We said no, because it didn't have this key was salad. But one box had the key was salad. And she was still adamant that this wasn't her lunch. And I said, Well, what kind of sandwiches you ordered turkey had said ham, I'm like, okay, I was like, Can we open up the sandwich? And lo and behold, what do you think we found? I really hope the ending is Turkey for the purposes of turkey sandwich. Right? So I think the challenge is, is that we have to grow our own awareness first, before we can hold people accountable to their awareness. So it says you have to learn about yourself first, before you can ever think that you understand or know others. So we really as senior leaders have focused on our own development and what that looks like to support others because guess what, then you go into the land of a pandemic, right. And not to say that pandemics didn't exist before this, but now everyone really is experiencing this together. So, the right talent really has helped pull us through. You know, we just had our cap x tours. And I heard anecdotally that there were leasing consultants that pulled out their notebooks and wanted to learn from our senior leaders. I don't think I've heard stories like that before. Also, I'm a parent, and I've struggled with the whole back to school season. So I could only imagine that our other team members were might be struggling with back to school season. And I sent out a lot of resources from our EAP providers. And usually, when HR sends out a memo or a notice or information, you don't get a lot of response back and I was blown away one of our community managers out in Tennessee, short and simple response. It was to the fact of I'm not a parent, and thank you for sending this information out. I was like, Wow, so the person who's not a parent sent me a thank you. That's so wonderful. It's just beautiful. Yeah, it just it warms my heart because I know that we're hiring talent that cares and wants to really be serving our customers and our customers live with us. We have a very unique set of customers. So I need a very unique set of team members.

Glennis Markison 27:20
Gina, you're doing a wonderful, wonderful job and I'm so grateful that you share these insights and voices.

Glennis Markison 27:25
Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been my pleasure.

Glennis Markison 27:33
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily, or learn how to share your voice, head to voices.happy.com. You can find voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by happy.co, 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 well that starts by listening to you the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison, thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast that will help us share the voices of multifamily.

Our Host

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.

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