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The Dark Side of Unicorn Roles

unicorn, horn, horse

Once upon a consultation, a tale unfolded that transcended the ordinary. The alluring prospect of managing multiple mansions with a minuscule staff often beckons in the opulent world of high-net-worth families, where sprawling estates and jet-setting lifestyles intertwine. A recent consultation with a family office director brought to light the complexities that can ensue when well-intentioned principals delve into the world of hybrid roles within the private service industry. This journey through a captivating saga sheds light on the pitfalls, challenges, and potential downsides of embracing a hybrid staffing model.

Setting the Scene

Imagine a family whose entrepreneurial roots have blossomed into a nationally acclaimed company, standing proudly as a paragon of workplace excellence. Now, at the precipice of generational transition, the second generation is gracefully aging, and their offspring (Gen 3) are poised to inherit the leadership mantle while concurrently navigating the nuances of building their own families.

Against this backdrop of success, a constellation of several properties graces the couple’s portfolio. Two primary estates – a cool mountain mansion for summers and a beachfront mansion for winter, a ranch, a few full-service condos, a home in the Caribbean, and another in Europe, complete with several boats and aircraft. This opulent portfolio sets the stage for an intricately woven tapestry, with just a few staff behind the scenes holding it all together.

The Cast

A meticulous and commendable staff hierarchy was established to orchestrate the seamless functioning of this portfolio. However, upon closer inspection, the initially apparent order revealed many nuanced challenges. When private service staff serve double or triple duty or are labeled with unconventional titles, they are said to hold hybrid roles or dubbed unicorns due to the unique nature of a precise set of responsibilities.

The protagonist of this tale is the Personal Assistant, an individual who once held the role of head of HR and office manager. Tasked with juggling responsibilities remotely, the Personal Assistant’s role has evolved to encompass 90% personal and 10% corporate affairs. This includes coordinating the couple’s extensive personal and corporate travel logistics and assuming the sole responsibility of bookkeeping for all assets and properties. The once-clear lines between roles become blurred as the Personal Assistant leads staffing queries and initial interviews for the next housekeeper. As she yearns for retirement, an office filled with 20 years of paperwork and a head full of protocols makes it much more challenging to fully onboard a millennial tech-savvy successor.

Leading the staff is Mrs. Principal, the default Estate Manager who distributes each day’s list of tasks to the residential staff. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the well-crafted org chart, developed by the family over several decades, is beginning to strain under the weight of evolving needs and impending generational shifts.

The title of Property Attendant, an invention of the family, symbolizes the evolving challenges for unicorns. These attendants, originally hired as handymen and groundskeepers, find their authority confined to executing the list of tasks delegated by Mrs. Principal. Without direct reports or decision-making authority, their role lacks the managerial prowess needed to move their careers forward, leading to a vacuum in effective leadership.

The Housekeepers, traditionally tasked with the meticulous care of residences, are burdened with various responsibilities extending far beyond what one would presume. Burnout becomes an unfortunate side effect as they struggle to cope with errands, travel between multiple properties, and diverse tasks not part of the traditional job descriptions.

The Hybrid Paradox

Despite the couple’s commendable efforts in creating a bespoke organizational chart, the narrative turns as the long-term, dedicated staff members seek new roles or prepare to retire. Replacing these unicorns in a world of thoroughbreds is nearly impossible. With each passing year, the challenges become more pronounced, signaling the need for change in every role.

Mrs. Principal, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, finds herself managing multiple properties without a foundational education or experience in estate management. As her philanthropic commitments multiply, time becomes an elusive commodity, and the demands on her expertise in juggling a myriad of responsibilities reach new heights. Now in her 60s, it is high time for her to prioritize her passions and relinquish her duties, along with the authority needed to successfully execute those duties, to a trained and experienced Estate Manager or, better yet, a Director of Residence.

While every successful Personal Assistant embodies a Jack or Jill of All Trades persona, the search for her replacement must include a dedicated travel professional to navigate the complexities of heavy personal and corporate travel schedules. Full bookkeeping for a dozen properties, boats, planes, and two adults can be a daunting feat for those “willing to learn,” and outsourcing all the bookkeeping to a qualified professional with a degree in accounting would alleviate the burden on the PA, allowing her ample time to perform her “real” duties.

Property Attendants. This title does not exist, nor should it EVER enter the Private Service vernacular. These men have never been granted permission to make decisions or direct other staff. Their authority is limited to the execution of the list of tasks doled out each day by Mrs Principal and reporting back any issues that may have arisen during their shift for her to manage. Property Managers manage things. Estate Managers manage people and property. Ranch Managers manage ranches, including the staff, livestock, buildings, and operations. These manager roles are trusted with the authority to make prudent decisions and purchases on behalf of the families they serve. They are versed in managing staff and guest services, providing a nearly invisible level of service to the precise expectations and preferences of the principals.

Industry experts teach that it takes one Housekeeper 8 hours to clean 1,000 square feet and two hours to collect, sort, pretreat, launder, dry, press, fold, and put away one load of laundry. These hours do not include deep cleaning, event preparations, or special requests. Tasks such as staff communication, household and personal errands, travel to additional properties, seasonal turns, polishing collections of silver, walking the dog, airport runs, guest pampering, or following vendors around the house are managed by Personal Assistants, Household Managers, or Estate Managers.

Historical Context

Traditional roles in the private service industry date back to the Middle Ages for Butlers and in ancient Greece and Rome for Housekeepers. Fans of Downton Abbey watched the staff rigidly adhere to the protocols of the house, each with their own set of duties but able to fill in for the others in times of need. Such a structure provides comprehensive, invisible, and efficient service to the estate, with trusted staff always at the ready.

Principals mean well when they hire one person to perform the work of two or three roles, calling them Hybrid Roles. Often, it starts because they don’t want too many people around the house, either for privacy or lower payroll obligations. It can also be difficult for Principals to relinquish the authority needed to manage a large property and staff.

Aspects often overlooked when imposing new tasks on current staff is the long-term viability of success for this task being managed by that member of staff. Tasks outside the traditional roles and duties often run counter to the personality, skills, and preferences of that member of staff. Just because someone else performs a given set of duties does not mean anyone can (or should) do them. For instance, housekeepers are more likely than not quiet, self-directed introverts who can become flustered when someone interrupts their daily routine. Nannies are often outgoing, energetic, creative, and fun individuals who love being around people.

When looking at a Myers-Briggs or Clifton Strengths report of these two staff members, one can immediately see that they land on opposite sides of the page. Yes, a housekeeper can watch the kids occasionally, and yes, a nanny can scrub a toilet. Problems arise when these tasks occur more than once in a blue moon or “just this one time.” Eventually, staff tend to become resentful and burned out, causing unexpected or rapid turnover on the estate.

A Unicorn’s Next Role

Staff who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of excellence in private service are said to have a “service heart,” they are willing to move heaven and earth to meet the whims, wishes, and needs of their principal. Because of this service heart, they often take on more duties than they should. As these duties pile up over time, they often shift the balance of time and proficiency away from traditional tasks to the obscure, leading to burnout.

While their principals benefit from the custom-tailored roster of services, the staff’s skills often move farther away from the norm. This can leave them with significant gaps in missing experience with evolving technologies.

Obscure or misused titles have similar adverse effects when staff draft their next resume. Since Property Attendant is a foreign concept, it can be challenging to understand what that role is. Many hiring managers will brush past it without a second thought, and an accompanying letter of reference will not overshadow the strange and unfamiliar title.

One can easily understand how this PA became the bookkeeper, how the Housekeeper jets to open and close other houses, and how the Property Attendants are limited to attending to their daily task lists. A need arose; someone was willing to take on duties outside of their traditional job descriptions; those duties then became expected, and their time was slowly reallocated until the “other duties” became “primary duties,” and everyone made it work. Until it didn’t.

The Search for Replacement Unicorns

Sadly, many HNW/UHNW Principals have laughed at centuries of tradition in private staffing, thinking that they should manage their estates themselves, only to find that hiring new unicorns becomes more challenging with each new hire.

Until the Principals hand off the reigns of their estate to a trained Estate Manager or Director of Residence, their family office or Domestic Placement Agency will spend an excessive amount of time digging through mountains of resumes looking for the next Property Attendant or PA who excels in travel and bookkeeping. They will run through a series of hopeful candidates doomed to fail – simply because they can never replace the previous unicorn.

Magic Awaits

The fairytale solution for HNW/UHNW Principals is to engage a trusted Domestic Placement Agent or Staffing Consultant and heed their expert advice. The transition and realignment of staff titles and duties won’t be easy, quick, or without bumps along the way. Ultimately, the level of service, curated atmosphere, and staff culture will improve exponentially. By leveraging the talents and passions of experienced and trained private staff, Principals will have much more time and freedom to devote to their families, passions, careers, and hobbies and begin to enjoy the luxurious benefits of their hard-earned wealth. All because unicorns, it seems, are hard to find.

By Natalie Asper Hudson, Founder + President, Private Service Alliance




© 2024 Private Service Alliance, all rights reserved

keynote Speaker

Picture of Nicole Middendorf

Nicole Middendorf

CEO of Prosperwell Financial and Wealth Advisor with RJFS

Nicole is a money maven, a knowledge junkie, and a born coach. Nicole became an entrepreneur in 2003 when she launched her wealth management firm. She is the author of five books, the mother of two phenomenal children, a world traveler, a philanthropist, and an accomplished public speaker.

Nicole shares financial advice and real-life perspective on saving, planning, and investing with audiences across the country. Her primary goal is to take complicated subjects and make them easy to understand. She works hard to empower people to make crucial, positive changes in their own lives.

Picture of Nicole Middendorf

Nicole Middendorf

CEO of Prosperwell Financial and Wealth Advisor with RJFS

Nicole is a money maven, a knowledge junkie, and a born coach. Nicole became an entrepreneur in 2003 when she launched her wealth management firm. She is the author of five books, the mother of two phenomenal children, a world traveler, a philanthropist, and an accomplished public speaker.

Nicole shares financial advice and real-life perspective on saving, planning, and investing with audiences across the country. Her primary goal is to take complicated subjects and make them easy to understand. She works hard to empower people to make crucial, positive changes in their own lives.

Prosperwell Financial provides personalized wealth management advice to effectively guide you through every stage of life. Our advisors help to plan your way toward true financial happiness, including financial retirement planning, college education savings, estate planning, asset management, insurance, and financial divorce planning. Founded by Wealth Advisor and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst Nicole Middendorf, Prosperwell Financial serves individuals and executives all across the U.S. We help you gain the confidence needed to be in control of your financial happiness.

The Wealth Advisors at Prosperwell Financial take the time to learn about you. We want to know your goals, dreams, and desires. As a mentor and coach, we guide you through the process of discovering your financial options and possibilities. Whether that means planning for retirement, converting an IRA, working with a 401k, or wealth management services, Prosperwell Financial will have you covered.

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