I recall when I first spoke with “Sam.” [I am using a pseudonym for the purposes of discretion and maintaining the privacy of the individuals involved in “Sam’s” story] At the time, over 12 years ago, I was working for my previous employer and interviewing House Managers for an important client. We were having to dig deep to find qualified candidates. I can say it today, but we were struggling to find that perfect fit.
I do not recall exactly how we found Sam. He might have responded to an advertisement or we might have sourced him through our network. What I can say that I do remember with perfect clarity is thinking “Bingo! We’ve found the right guy in Sam.” It is not often in the recruiting business when you encounter a candidate that checks off so many boxes that you conclude with 99% certainty that the right individual has been sourced for the client. Sam was that guy.
We had to reach abroad to find Sam and when he finally arrived in Toronto, he was everything (and more) than we expected. He was, and still is, polished and sophisticated with a diverse background and skillset that would prove so useful to his employers for so many years. Like all good House Managers, Sam’s role grew along with his employers’ needs. If Sam was the right guy 12 years ago, he is that much better today.
When the idea of interviewing a House Manager occurred to me, I immediately thought of Sam. Being the discrete guy I am, I double-checked with Sam’s employers that they would be comfortable with an article that maintained their privacy. The answer? “We’re fine with it so long as Sam is okay with it.” I like that answer because it exemplifies the sort of mutual respect and trust that develops between Private Service Professionals who are good at what they do and the families for whom they work.
This interview occurred between Sam’s family vacation and one of his busiest seasons as a House Manager. It went like this:
Tell me how you got into the house management field?
My background is in luxury hotel management.
How did you find your first job?
I was working on a small Caribbean Island in the Grenadines as a Food and Beverage Manager. It was the only hotel on the island. The island consists of many private homes. One day a homeowner said they were looking for someone to run their property which consisted of 16 staff; a chef, butler, driver, maintenance crew, gardener, assistant secretary as well as housekeepers. The home was used to invite family and friends to experience a luxury vacation of lifetime. At first I was not interested in a career move into the private household sector. My career path up until that point had been dedicated to advancing in the luxury hotel industry. It was actually two trusted friends who convinced me that I had nothing to lose and should at least go for the interview [Lesson? Always go for the interview. You have nothing to lose as Sam says.]. So I went for the interview, I got the job and stayed with my employer for 4 years.
Tell me about your first day/week in your current position.
It started with a general meeting conducted by the lady of the house. I was introduced to all the employees. Expectations were set out and my role as house manager (it was a newly created position) was explained to the staff. To settle in, I spent the day looking around, taking notes and having one-on-one chats with each staff to understand their duties and get to know them.
Can you tell me what a House Manager does?
As the House Manager my first responsibility is to ensure all the needs of my employers are met.
The goal is to create a stress-free environment where my employer does not have to worry about day-to-day operations or security of the properties. As “CEO” of the household, you have a lot on your plate ensuring all runs smoothly. As a result the House Manager resides at the top of the chain of command, just after the owners. Being this person I set all standards of service and I am trusted by the owner to hire/release staff, pay household bills, organize repairs, keep records of household administrative activities and care for valuable possessions such as antiques, wines, silverware, china, paintings, classic vehicles among a lot of other responsibilities. In a sense I am expected to handle all the unpredictable needs of the household while the housekeepers, for example, manage the predictable ones such as cleaning and laundry.
With multiple properties, I very often travel ahead of my employer to get the property ready for their arrival and bring the staff at the site up to speed on any necessary changes or service requirements. With my staff, I am part of an advance team.
How would you describe your role in your employers’ lives?
As a House Manager you develop a very personal relationship with your employer. You know the intimate details of their lives and have to be trusted that each and every detail will always remain private and behind closed doors.
My employers have an extremely busy schedule between work and social responsibilities, so their home needs to be their sanctuary. My role is to create calm. To do this I make sure the household is run in an efficient manner at all times. Extreme attention to detail is key to success. I am constantly attentive to the needs of every member of the household. Through my partnership with my team, I facilitate a flexible work schedule so that those needs are accommodated whenever required.
What are the most difficult aspects of your job?
Just as with the hotel and restaurant industries I would say that the late nights, working weekends and holidays can be challenging for many people. I work every weekend almost all year around, meaning no skiing in the winter or BBQs in the summer with family and friends. But that’s the job I signed up for, so I can’t complain about it. Although it can be challenging at times, I have to say I love what I do!
What do you love about it?
Each day is different and you never know what to expect when you get up in the morning. On top of that I work for amazing people. This job is defined by who you work for. I truly respect the family I work for. They are people with strong family values and big hearts. They are people who give back to the community and the rest of the world with little to no fanfare. I work for what we between us call “the 1% exception.” Others care about what they drive, what they own, who they know and how big the rock on the finger is. That is not the family I work for. It’s one of the reasons I have enjoyed working for them over the last 12 years.
I have read and heard from other House Managers that they sometimes feel isolated in their jobs. Do you ever feel that way? What do you do to overcome it?
Absolutely not. I am surrounded by an amazing team of people in each of my employers’ properties. I can fully rely on them. They are my “working family” and without them nothing would be possible. I truly could not achieve anything without them. I also have a great relation with all our trades and suppliers and I therefore never feel isolated in any aspect of my work.
What are some of the pitfalls of being a House Manager? How do you avoid these?
Confusing your life with the lives of my employers is a major one. Sometimes you can slide into trying to copy or get as close as you can to their lifestyle and you may not realize it’s happening. It’s important to be realistic; you might earn a good income but you still can’t afford Michelin star restaurants every month or take your family on a private yacht in the south of France or spend thousands of dollars on clothes, etc. Thanks to my wife, my parents, my family, and friends, however, I have received plenty of help to stay grounded and realistic.
We always hear about not crossing professional boundaries and always reminding yourself that you are doing a job and are not a member of the family. I suppose this sounds fine and easy in principle. My question is when you are with a family for as long as you have been and you see births, birthdays, holiday celebrations, illness and, sadly, death, don’t lines become blurred?
Absolutely not. The line should never become blurry. If it does, then you have lost your sense of professionalism. Never forget that you are an employee. Don’t forget that you are present at those events because you work and you have a job to do, not because you have been invited! Don’t become over familiar. Stay professional at all times!
You’re human after all and with that comes emotions. Were there ever times when you thought that the job was beyond your coping and/or skill level?
Never. Because of my education, my European background and everything I got exposed to as a kid and a young man (both in my personal life and my positions in hotels/restaurants), I felt I always had the proper skills to do this job. Of course you still learn and you have some grey days, but like any cloudy day you can rest assured that the sun will always return.
What advice do you have for people thinking of becoming a House Manager?
You have to be a hardworking individual. It helps to be well educated, creative and an intuitive thinker. You definitely have to be very resourceful.
I believe people should know in advance that when you get home after working a 12-14 hour day and you are unwilling to answer your emails or your phone, then this job is not for you. If you are not willing to put your employer first then this life style is not for you. The right person for this job must be adaptable to the standards and needs of their employer.
What do you think are the most important character traits of a good House Manager?
Patience. A calm demeanour. Being a good listener. Loyalty. Tact. These are things that come to mind. I would also add to always conduct yourself in a highly respectable and personable manner.
Same question but for skills?
Organized. Team leader. You need to have in-depth technical knowledge in all the areas of house maintenance, cleaning, entertaining, technologies, clothing, cars, food, wine and menu planning. Being master of as many domains as possible is essential.
Can you describe for me the ideal House Manager?
Good attitude. Good manners. Attention to detail. Total discretion; always remember that you will see everything but be expected to say nothing. A good House Manager also quietly and discretely thinks ahead to ensure that every detail of the household occurs with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss.
I would also add that absolute dedication to your employer is core to the role. Part of this involves a House Manager being adaptable in order to mesh well with each employer’s personality. It’s the only way for the relationship to last for the long term. Being adaptable also entails taking on any role within the household. For example, when required I can find myself cooking breakfast lunch and/or dinner, making a bed, cleaning a washroom, ironing shirts, driving my employer to a social event, changing lightbulbs… You get the picture, I’m sure.
Are there days when you feel under appreciated for all you do. How do you handle that?
Being a House Manager is not about you. This is important to remember. Your role is to ensure the well being of everyone and everything.
What advice can you share about training to become a House Manager?
You need to make sure you understand the lifestyle and that you have the character for the role first. The rest of the tools/skills required can be learned.
Are there boundaries that govern a House Manager’s responsibilities?
It really all depends on your employer. I had one position where the homeowner had absolutely no interest in the details pertaining to the daily running of the house. I just had to make the decisions myself. This meant that I had zero excuse if something wasn’t working or wasn’t up to standard when my employer would arrive.
In another situation I had to report each day for every single dollar spent. I’d say that it’s impossible to work under those circumstances; there is so much time wasted.
My current position is a good mix between both the above examples. I have the discretionary power to spend and I am accountable by reporting once a month through financial statements. Further, because my employers are very much involved in their household, I report issues as they occur. They are discussed and decisions are reached. If the cost of a project is running higher, for example, I don’t hesitate to bring it to my employers’ attention so that a decision can be made. So there is clarity in my role. When the time comes to pay bills, matters are straightforward since everything has been pre-approved.
What are your three best tips for managing staff?
Set a good example and be respectful of their culture and background. Maintain good communication. Acknowledge their good work. Be authentic and straight forward with them. Oh, sorry. That’s more than three tips, but there is so much more that goes into doing a good job of managing staff.
Is there a professional code of ethics for House Managers? If not, what do you use to guide you?
Two words: Stay Professional! I also follow my heart. If you stand still for a while you will hear what your heart is telling you to do, to speak, to act. You will realize your heart has a voice and it will bring you back to your roots and to the education given to you by your parents.
As you look back on your career, do you have any regrets or things you would have done differently?
No. I am a strong believer everything happens for a reason and the “Big Man” above has a plan for each of us and so far I am pretty happy with the plans he has had for me.
And with those humble words my interview with Sam came to a close. I have written elsewhere about Private Service as an honourable profession. In reviewing Sam’s answers and picking up on key words like loyalty, honesty, hard work, respect and professionalism, I believe that much more in what I have previously written. Private Service is an honourable profession and Sam is an honourable House Manager. As for me, it was an honour to have the opportunity to chat with him.
Interview for Estate & Manor Magazine organized and written by Scott Munden who is the founder of Portico Staffing. Private service professionals can learn more about Portico Staffing by visiting their website >>> https://www.porticostaff.com