Personal Assistant to Estate Manager to Chief of Staff. What does it take? In an interview with Stephanie, the Vice President of ACPA.

I had the pleasure of meeting Stephanie, the Vice President of ACPA (Association Celebrity Personal Assistants), in my office back in August. She has had an impressive career in private service, but I was also struck by how she endeavors to educate her Principals in the area of Human Resources and setting up the appropriate procedures. I asked her to sit down with me and share her story with me.

Gold:
Stephanie, how did you find your way into Private Service?

Stephanie:
I was working at USC while finishing my Master’s Degree in Public Administration. I knew I didn’t want to stay in a large organization but I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. I also had a part time job at the Learning Annex helping coordinate the meeting for their more notable speakers and I really liked doing that. One of my coworkers was the sister of Hank Azaria and it was from her I heard about the Personal Assistant career.

At that time, you could buy a paper list of celebrities and their mailing addresses so I ended up getting that and sending out 500 resumes with a cover letter explaining why I thought my skills would transfer well. I got a part-time job within a week working for Julia Sweeney from SNL. I got additional work from that mailing, but most of my work has come by word of mouth. My first full time job ended up being with Hank. And then I was qualified to join the ACPA.

Gold:
How long have they been around by the way?

Stephanie:
ACPA started in 1992 so it’s been 27 years.

Gold:
How long have they been around when you joined?

Stephanie:
I joined in 1994 so they had only been around for only 2 years. There is only 1 member who has been the Association as long as I have and she only beats me by a few months.
Gold:
Is ACPA for profit?

Stephanie:
ACPA is not for profit. The members pay dues. We have meetings to introduce new vendors and cover topics important to our industry. The ACPA has a Job Bank where Employers can post their jobs for free.

Gold:
How long into your career before you landed that first prestigious Estate Management job?

Stephanie:
I worked for Faye Dunaway for a few years and I was doing many things you would consider Personal Assisting, but also the house was part of the job. My next job had a lot of moving parts, multiple homes, construction, moves so, naturally I spent my time on what needed to be done, which was mostly the Estate Management aspects.

Gold:
What advice would you give to someone who has an interest in getting into private service?

Stephanie:
Come and hang out with me – I love sharing tips and tricks with people who are interested in private service careers. Figure out how your experience can translate and reach out to domestic agencies and groups that center around domestic service. And just start talking to people – tell everyone what you want to do.

Gold:
What technology and apps do you use that you find to be invaluable to assist you in your job?

Stephanie:
I love TSheets which is a mobile time tracking app. I can track, manage and report payroll easily. It helps to keep costs down – especially related to overtime because the employees are notified they are approaching overtime so they know they need to wrap up their day.

And it helps with clarity the staff has a record of everything at their fingertips. One of my soap boxes is to set up systems so there is no room for resentment. Clear and exact so neither staff nor principals feel taken advantage of.

There is a base fee for T-Sheets and then you pay per employee. It’s made for any industry. You can tailor to meet your needs and to make sure everything is legally compliant. It tracks everything: vacations, sick time and has some other apps it works with to track expenses and run payroll and other fun stuff. And you can figure out if you are using resources … are you spending more money by having your highest paid employee running to get groceries, etc.

I also like G-Suite; email, calendar and Google Drive. I compartmentalize the calendars so that each house, each principal, each kid has their own calendar. That way there is access to everything but also the ability to calendars if you just want to see yours.

I also use expense, task and list programs, but I haven’t found the perfect ones yet.

Gold:
What else do you implement right away when taking a new role?

Stephanie:
First I talk to everyone, find out what they like/don’t like, what they think is working/not working, etc, I’ll see if people have job and employee agreements and review any standard operating procedures. If they don’t, I put them in place. Same with maintenance schedules – everything that is the bones of the household.

Gold:
If you are in a new Estate Management role, how do you handle an underperforming employee? What is your firing policy?

Stephanie:
I would first try to find out what the problem is – is it a lack of training, lack of ability or is it an attitude problem? Regardless of the issue, I would council and train and document. Proper documentation helps avoid lawsuits so it is always important, but it is critical when you may have to terminate an employee. Documentation serves two purposes; it clearly spells out what is required of the employee and is the backup in case of a lawsuit. Documentation is important even when the employment is “at-will”.

When I have clients who come to me for multiple private placement roles, one of which being an Estate Manager, I always recommend staffing the Estate Manager first, then staffing the rest of the positions. What are your beliefs?

Stephanie:
Absolutely, it can be very tricky to come in with existing staff so it is much better to hire the highest position first.

Gold:
How long have you been with you current employer? Also, how did you get this role?

Stephanie:
17 years. I got the job through the ACPA job bank.

Gold:
Wow, that is an impressive amount of time with your employer. We will not mention his name for privacy reasons, but I will say your principal has an equally impressive movie career.

Stephanie:
His body of work is impressive, as is his kindness. He is a wonderful good man.

Gold:
What is your position with the ACPA?

Stephanie:
I am the Vice-President, and I also run the job bank.

Gold:
Other than job bank, what else do they do?

Stephanie:
We also have BOB (Best of the Best) so that we can share contacts. When members have requests, for instance, they need dancing poodles for a party, they can ask the membership if anyone has a contact. By the way, dancing poodles was a real request and there was a member who had a contact. Most of the requests are not so jazzy – gardeners, computer techs, travel agents and the like.

Gold:
Is it used quite a bit?

Stephanie:
Yes, it is really one of the things that is most useful to me, personally. When you ask the membership of people doing the same sorts of things for the same sorts of people, you know the recommendations are more likely to be solid. When you work for celebrities and/or people with great wealth, it is easier to work with vendors who have ‘been there, done that’. It cuts down on the ‘may I have your autograph’ questions.

Gold:
What other organizations or websites do you think are valuable?

Stephanie:
Definitely, the EMC (Estate Managers Coalition) is a great group. I’m working with a couple of vendors I met at one of their events.
Gold:
What do you believe is paramount for an Estate Manager to implement for their employers?

Stephanie:
This is one of my other soap boxes and an area where I believe the most improvement can be made. I think it is important to educate employers and employees alike that a household that employs staff is a company – beit small or large and should be run like a company. Some employers reject this idea for a myriad of reasons but time and time again I have shown employers how running the household like a company is in everyone’s best interest. Everyone knows what is expected, everything is legal and there are boundaries in place.

Gold:
Do you believe in uniforms?

Stephanie
I think that uniforms are an excellent idea. They are a hard sell for many employers, but, the reason I encourage uniforms is that it is a visual reminder of boundaries It doesn’t have to be formal or old school (but it certainly can), it can be a simple as khakis and a polo shirt. I encourage uniforms for every hourly employee.

Speaking of hourly employees, that’s another thing that is important for employers to know: so many workers are misclassified and mis-paid because it is easier to pay people a salary. The problem is, it can be against the law and you open yourself to lawsuits and penalties which could add up being much steeper than doing it right in the first place.

Gold:
Do you have a payroll company you recommend?

Stephanie:
I do it through a QB (QuickBooks) Payroll.

Gold:
What is your advice for a Personal Assistant, who wants to grow into an Estate Management role?

Stephanie:
There is a fine line between a Personal Assistant and an Estate Manager. They are very often combined. Most of the Personal Assistants I know are also doing the job of an Estate Management. So, I’d say, most of them are already there. Then, there is another fine line between an Estate Manager and Chief of Staff, Family Office. It depends on what you’re focusing most of your day doing. If you are spending most of your day picking up dry cleaning, etc. look for areas in the Estate that need more attention and perfect those.

Gold:
I am glad you brought that up. What is the difference between an Estate Manager and a Chief of Staff ? What is the significant difference in their job duties?

Stephanie:
Again, it is a fine line but I would say it depends on what you spend most of your day doing. If most of your day is dealing with the physical property and vendors, that is an Estate Manager. If most of your time is spent dealing with staff, payroll, benefits, financials then you are more likely a Chief of Staff.

Gold:
Do you have any suggestions regarding how to move from an Estate Manager to a Chief of Staff?

Stephanie:
If you see a need that has to do with the people, you fill it. Do the research and bring it to your principal and explain what you want to do and why. And then you keep current on employment law.

Gold:
How do you keep current?

Stephanie:
I hired an HR lawyer to review our policies and procedures. I am on her email list so I am notified when there are any changes to the city, county, state or federal laws.

Gold:
What in this industry would you like to see changed?

Stephanie:
I wish every household that employed staff would run like a company – for everyone’s benefit. And if I could go estate to estate, and help them set that up, I would gladly do it.

Gold:
Do you see value in using an agency as a candidate? Please be candidly honest.

Stephanie:
When you find a good agency you can work with, it’s invaluable. The sheer volume or resumes I receive if I go on Monster or Indeed is overwhelming and 98% of them don’t meet the requirements. When you work with an agency they do all the weeding and you get a handful of qualified candidates which is manageable. Having said that, I’m very specific. Some agencies want you to bend you to how they do, and have always done business. I work with agencies that are willing to partner and to think outside the box.

Gold:
What is a major benefit for a principal in hiring an Estate Manager?

Stephanie:
It is one of the first things I ask employers – “What do you want?” Do you want to manage the nitty gritty of the daily running of the household or do you want to be golfing or running your film company or… anything else? You don’t have to be in the trenches to be involved in your life – that’s a common misconception. Do you really want to be the bad guy in your own home? Do you want peace of mind that you home is well-run, that you, your family and assets are protected, and that your employees are treated well? If you want the latter, then hire an Estate Manager or Chief of Staff. Hire a good one, be a cohesive team and present a unified front to the rest of the employees.

Gold:
I know personally, for myself, when I was a Personal Assistant/Estate Manager, managing the expectations of a couple was difficult. I had my “boss”, but I also had his significant other giving me requests. How do you prioritize when working for a couple?

Stephanie:
Good agreements avoid conflicts, so be clear on what the job is. If you feel that you are getting competing requests or that the job has changed, it is up to you to manage those boundaries. Have a conversation to get clarity on your employer’s expectations, and do this before you become resentful.

Gold:
Stephanie, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your wealth of knowledge and viewpoint with me today. I hope this interview will be an inspiration to other young women and men getting into this industry.

Stephanie:
Gold, thank you for having me, it was my pleasure. I love that you share my passion for this industry and I look forward to partnering in the future.

Belle
gold@riveterconsulting.com
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