A Bright Future for Community Association Management: An Interview with CAI President Cat Carmichael

Last modified on October 30th, 2019

More than 70 million residents live in community associations today, according to research by the Community Association Institute. And since 61% of all new construction built for sale is in community associations, that number is only expected to grow — and along with it, the demand for qualified, professional community association managers.

When it comes to preparing community association management professionals for the job, there is perhaps no organization better suited than the Community Association Institute, and no individual more qualified to share insight than current CAI President and Strategy 123 CEO Cat Carmichael.

Cat brings three decades of experience as a management company executive and a financial services professional to her role at Strategy 123, a consulting firm specializing in services for HOA management companies. After serving on the board of trustees at the Community Association Institute, she was elected as the 2019 President of the organization. 

We had a unique opportunity to ask Cat to share her insights on the future of the community association management industry, top habits that professionals in this field must have to succeed, and advice on how to create work-life balance in the midst of the around-the-clock demands that are part of the job. 

AppFolio: “Do you see any trends on the horizon that community association managers should be doing more to prepare for now?”

Cat: “First, the supply of trained, qualified professional managers is not keeping up with the demand for them. One of the best things a manager can do is develop themselves and develop the next generation of talent. Don’t think of this as age-specific. The next generation of managers may be a 50-year-old who is changing careers. Or a military veteran who has completed their service. Or a parent who is returning to the workforce after time off with their families.  

Second, using technology is the new normal. Managers must be comfortable with multiple channels of communication so that homeowners can communicate however they feel the most comfortable – whether it’s online or via smartphone technology.  

People have become accustomed to The Amazon Experience. They want a single contact experience. They want to pay quickly, access information quickly, and report issues quickly. If they can communicate a need with one click, they will.

People do not want to toggle between multiple platforms in order to complete a transaction on Amazon. They don’t want to do that with their association either.

Finally, if you can predict it, you should be able to program for it. Community management is a people centered business, but many of the things that management companies do are predictable and repeatable. 

For example, every year, the Board approves a budget for operating and reserve expenses. Then, maybe the Board hires a pool contractor to provide monthly maintenance. The core maintenance fee is an obligation of the association by contract. Yes, there may be extra services needed during the month, but the maintenance fee can be automatically paid via ACH. Each year, you can set and forget the contract fee because it’s budgeted, contracted, and expected. Imagine the freedom when it is no longer necessary to write paper checks for exactly the same amount to exactly the same vendor, every month.” 

AppFolio: “Do you have any advice for community association managers who are interested in moving towards a management or leadership position?” 

Cat: “There is tremendous growth potential for professional managers to turn a job into a lifelong career.  Opportunities abound for educated and networked professionals. Career-driven community managers should continuously enhance their knowledge and experience by accepting challenging assignments with professional curiosity and dedication. They should also obtain and maintain professional credentials through CAI or any state-specific education.  

Enhance the depth and reach of relationships with other colleagues to create a powerful professional network. Fellow managers, business partners, and homeowner leaders could be the source of new opportunities for a manager. Attend as many professional events as you can including seminars, trade shows, and professional educational and social events. You never know when an unscripted, informal conversation can plant a seed that grows into an opportunity.

Get out from your desk and spend time in your communities. You can’t manage properties from a desk.  There, you will see and hear what matters most to your clients, and what they want you to do to help make their communities a great place to live.

Always strive to manage your communities in the highest and best condition. Creating great communities will lead to a robust referral network and a great reputation for the manager who helped the board create it.

Most importantly, live the professional life that you want to live. Model how you want your employer to see the future you. Share your knowledge and expertise to become the “go-to” authority in your office. Are you the manager who knows the most about elections? How about CC&R amendments? Obtaining a bank loan? If you can help your colleagues understand how you were successful with one of these demanding management challenges, you are sharing your experience for the good of the company and its clients.”

AppFolio: “What are some of the most common misconceptions that boards, homeowners, or the general public have regarding the work that professional community association managers perform?”

Cat: “Too many board members and homeowners see the manager as a taskmaster, rather than a high-level, consultative advisor.  

Managers are and should be recognized as high-level professionals equivalent to the other professionals who serve a community. In order to be perceived that way, managers are in a perfect position to establish expectations about the role they play and the vital role the board plays. It should be at the time of the first meeting with a client, and at every subsequent annual meeting, that the manager leads a conversation around who does what and what role will the manager and the board play in governing the community.”

AppFolio: “Why would you encourage anyone in the community association management industry to seek professional credentials such as the CMCA, AMS, or PCAM? Can you share any advice about which credentials to consider?” 

Cat: “Professional credentials and designations through CAI are the gold standard for community managers. In addition, it is incumbent on the manager to explain to the client what the credential means to them.  

The CMCA credential is considered the essential credential. It is a high level, high stakes, professional achievement. It proves that the candidate has the knowledge, skills and abilities to apply to community management. The requirements are developed by other industry thought leaders who determine what a credentialed manager should know and how that knowledge is applied.

The most esteemed designation professional managers can earn is the PCAM, which is Professional Community Association Manager.  There have been over 3,000 PCAM designations earned which makes PCAM designated managers highly sought for all opportunities serving community associations.  The prestigious PCAM is esteemed and respected worldwide. Professionals who earn and maintain the PCAM are highly employable in a vast array of job opportunities both in management or even working with a Business Partner.

Most importantly, homeowner leaders who serve their communities are best supported by credentialed managers.  The manager/client relationship is one of trust, so it makes sense to place that trust in someone who invests in his or her career with a credential so they can be the best advisor for a board.”

AppFolio: “How can both community association managers and board members make the most out of their time?”

Cat: “Stay in your lane. Managers have unique knowledge gained from their experience and education. Board members also know what they want their community to be like. Managers don’t know what board members know because it’s their community. Board members don’t know what managers know because they practice the art of community management every day.  

This is a partnership.  Respect each other’s important contributions.  

Managers should only do what only the manager can do. Board members should only do what only board members can do. Look at it this way; if the manager asks the board how they want their community to be, the manager can respond accordingly. Managers can do amazing things when the proper vision and proper budget is given to them.”  

AppFolio: “What can Community Association Managers do to  achieve more balance in life despite the inherently demanding nature of the job?” 

Cat: “Community management is a wonderful job and a challenging and rewarding profession. It is dynamic, changing, and different every day.  Despite the cool vibe of professional management, the 24-hour nature of managing communities can cause burn out.  

It is essential to unplug after a certain time at night – I suggest 6 p.m. and on weekends. Most management companies have reliable after-hours emergency response protocol so true emergencies will be handled. Other professional services, like attorneys and accountants, have regular office hours that clients abide by.“

You can find more in-depth research on community associations from CAI here, or visit the Strategy 123 website for more information on Cat’s work.

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