I am often asked by individuals with varying professional and educational backgrounds for suggestions on ways to “break in to” the Private Service field. Specifically, I am most frequently asked for ideas on how one might become a Household Manager.
It is a good question with no straight-forward answer. How does one get a start in such a highly-niche field? The pathway to becoming a Household Manager is not the same as that for a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. It is an unusual position with different traditions depending on where you happen to live. It is also a position that can be highly rewarding, financially and otherwise. That people are interested in the field, should not come as a surprise.
When I am asked the question, I always begin with another question… “What do you know about the field of Household Management?” More often than not, there are some misconceptions that need clearing up. Many people, for example, think you start at the top with that alluring 6-figure salary (you don’t). Others, think that Household Management is similar to a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 job (it isn’t).
Most people, however, have done their research and pretty much know what is entailed by the job. Their big question is “how do I enter the field?” For 20 years I have given that question a lot of thought. Setting aside the option of school (there are a few), here are a some suggestions…
Remember that the success of any Household Manager is in the breadth of their skill set. Also keep in mind that the position falls under the umbrella of Hospitality. Household Managers take on all kinds of different roles at any given moment during any given day. It follows, therefore, that the more you can offer a prospective Employer, the better an Applicant you become.
My advice always begins with locating a thorough job description for Household Manager. Review it, line item by line item, and identify the skills and attributes you have that correspond (even tangentially) to the description. Pay attention to what are often called “transferrable skills.” These are those skills that are sufficiently general that they apply from one industry to another. Staff Management is a classic example.
Once you have completed that process, start identifying the gaps in your experience. Gaps can run the gamut from wine knowledge to creating an Excel spreadsheet. Remember that the rule of thumb for making yourself marketable as a Household Manager is the more you can offer an Employer, the more valuable you become to them.
So take courses, volunteer your time, apply to work in positions that might feel junior but will add to your skillset. Areas that come to mind include such things as…
Develop Your Service Skills
To do this, research the best waitstaff company in your location. The best ones offer some training as opposed to sending you out to the lions. Learn as much as possible. Try to work different kinds of events that include household dinner parties, cocktail parties, cocktail dinners, corporate events, weddings, bar / bat mitzvahs, and so on. Try to work different stations. One event might be strictly devoted to hors d’oeuvres and plated service, while another might have you at a bar mixing and serving drinks. The bottom-line is that all Household Managers MUST know how to set a perfect table and provide various forms of service for their Principals, so this experience is essential.
Develop Your Mixology Skills
A Household Manager should know how to make an excellent martini. It is not rocket science, but their is skill involved. Purchase a good book that contains classic recipes (you never know when someone will ask for an Old Fashioned) as well as newer cocktails. Some good guidebooks include Gary Regan’s “The Joy of Mixology,” “The Ultimate Bar Book” by Mittie Hellmich, or “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide.”
Improve Your Software Skills
Microsoft Office is still a “go to” for Household Managers. Excel is a very powerful program that can be used to manage inventories, par stock management, keep event diaries, log the likes and dislikes of Employers and their Guests, and so on. Further, it is critical that a Household Manager know how to write correspondence that will represent their Employers in such a way that they will be proud of their Manager. There are few things more troublesome than a Household Manager who cannot correctly address a business letter or an invitation. Employers rely on their Managers for such things.
So, in addition to taking a day-course in Excel, buy a copy of the most recent edition of Emily Post. While you are at it, I would also recommend picking up at least one of Letitia Baldrige’s excellent books on business etiquette.
Make It Your Business To Learn All You Can About Housekeeping and Laundry
Many Hospitality Schools preach the gospel of “you can’t manage if you don’t know how to do.” I agree with this dictum. It is difficult to manage a housekeeper if you do not know how a marble floor should be washed. How can an Employer have confidence in their Manager if they do not know how a cashmere sweater should be cleaned? In other words, all Household Managers must be prepared to step into any position they are asked to manage. That means, if a laundress calls in sick, the Household Manager should know how to iron a gentleman’s shirt or hand-wash fine woollens. It is not uncommon for Household Managers to “manage by doing.”
There are some excellent books to help in this area. Cheryl Mendelson’s still excellent “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House” is a very good start. She also has a good book on laundry. I also suggest the encyclopedic Martha Stewart’s “Homekeeping Handbook.” I might not always agree with its advice, but it is thorough.
Have Rudimentary Kitchen Skills
Most cities these days have cooking schools. While most Household Managers do not do cooking on a regular basis (many others do), they often will fill in on the Chef’s day off. Further, Household Managers will often have a role in menu planning. There is an ebb and flow to good menu planning. For example, you do not want to start off with something so spicy that the palettes of guests will be blown apart. A Household Manager should know this and be able to help guide their Principal accordingly. A Household Manager should also know what a “mise-en-place” is. They should know what a braise is and how to simply grill fish and prepare a simple vinaigrette. They should educate their palette by going to good restaurants. Most of all, they should how to keep a kitchen spotless and hygienic.
Know Your Etiquette
While this is far from a simple task, it also is not brain surgery. There are so many excellent etiquette guidebooks available that a Household Manager should have no excuse how a diplomat should be addressed. I am not suggesting that such knowledge be at the tip of the tongue of Household Managers. I am, however, suggesting that resources are there. They simply need to be used. There is also always the option of looking into various Protocol and Etiquette schools that are scattered around the world.
Be In The Know
A culturally out of touch Household Manager is a sad entity. I know this sounds harsh, but I hold firmly to the idea that all good Household Managers are naturally curious and always on the look out for something new and fresh. They should read restaurant reviews. They should be aware of art shows. They should know the films that will be of interest to the family for whom they work. In other words, all good Household Managers are a resource for their Employers.
While a Household Manager is not a Chauffeur, they will often be called upon to do driving for their Principals. Why not, therefore, take a defensive driving course? Read up on correct protocol and etiquette for chauffeurs. Know how to open and close a car door. Always keep an umbrella on hand and know how to use it. Get to know your city and its routes. Most of these tips are available on-line with just a little resourceful digging
Get your CPR and First Aid Certification. It does not take long and does not cost much. It will, however, add value to your resumé.
Learn Household Jargon
All Household Managers will, at some point, be in a position where they are negotiating with a contractor to have household work performed. It would be helpful when dealing with a roofer to know what a soffit is. It would be helpful to know exactly what areas are controlled by the Crestron® system. I am not suggesting for a second that a Household Manager should have the knowledge of a roofer or the skill of a Crestron® programmer. I am, however, arguing that knowing the jargon establishes credibility with the vendor so that they will think twice about trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
Familiarize Yourself With Your Location’s Labour Laws
Usually this information is available on-line on a government’s website. I am not suggesting that Household Managers become labour lawyers – quite the opposite in fact. All good Household Managers know when to call in the experts. I am, however, suggesting that a Household Manager should have a rudimentary understanding of an Employer’s obligations under law. For example, at what point does over-time occur? What are the laws guiding statutory holidays? Are their regulations that govern hiring and firing, and so on? While family’s often have access to Human Resource departments, they do not always make use of them. A good Household Manager will want to keep their Employers on the safe side of the law.
Read, Read, Read…
Successful Household Managers are curious people and information junkies. When they have the time, they are often voracious readers of magazines and books that help them stay on top of trends and improve their skills. It is not always possible to get training in every area, but it is usually possible to pick up a book or magazine and learn or improve upon a skill or obtain a helpful bit of information.
I recognize that, like other fields, a person new to Household Management will inevitably hit the “do you have any experience” wall. I am aware that the vast majority of Employers want to hire experience. This is not the same thing though as ALL Employers wanting to hire experience. Some do look for transferrable skills, and the personality click that can occur during an interview should never be discounted. This is one of the areas where Private Service is different from working in an office. If you get that valuable first interview, achieving “likeability” is a significant first step into the Household Management door. I also would never discount the value of reaching out to a professional to create a knock-out cover letter and resumé.
One doesn’t become a Household Manager over the course of 4 to 8 weeks. It takes some deep digging to enter the field and achieve success, but it is a doable exercise. The thing to remember is that you will never start at the top. After all, name the field where one starts their career at the very top. As with a lawyer or doctor, a hopeful Household Manager must be prepared to put in time and to be continually adding to their skillset.
My last piece of advice is to think carefully about what “Service Mentality” means to you. What is it? Do you have it? Are you prepared to give a portion of yourself for the sake of another?And if you are not, maybe this is not the right career path for you. Private Service is not for everyone. I would argue that it is for a select few, which is why it is such a niche field. Consider these last few sentences to be some food for additional thought and good luck on your journey.
Calling out to all Household Managers… What tips can you share with people interested in breaking in to the field?
Written by the president of Portico Staffing, which is a private household staffing agency located in Toronto serving families of distinction across North America