Lessons Learned While Working at a “Hell on Wheels” Apartment Community


Every apartment community has its own unique personality. In fact, it is very likely that the one you are working at right now will fall into one of the following three personality categories:

1. Hell on Wheels: A difficult, demanding, back-breaking, problematic community.

2. Easy-Going: An average, occasional challenge, mostly pleasant community.

3. Push Button: A simple, no sweat, uncomplicated, “daily vacation” community.

If you are currently working at a “Hell on wheels” type of community there is good news. You are being challenged! I know it might feel more like a daily struggle but there are plenty of differences between the two. The energy of a challenge is totally different from the energy of a struggle. One sucks the life out of you, while the other makes you stronger—really.

  • A struggle makes you want to shrink back. A challenge helps you grow.
  • A struggle wants you to give up or give in. A challenge encourages you to press on.
  • A struggle breaks your strength. A challenge develops your strength.
  • A struggle exposes what’s lacking. A challenge unveils abundance.
  • A struggle says, “You can’t do this.” A challenge says, “You have what it takes.”

Through each challenge and conflict, you become energized.

Here’s the thing – leadership IS a full-contact sport and it’s certainly not made for bench-warmers. Great leaders often rise out of great conflict. Don’t fear it; embrace it—it’s your job. The key is to recognize the conflict before it hits you head on, understand the nature of the challenge, and bring a swift and just resolution to it. This comes with experience.

Put on Your Daily Armor

You may have heard the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” Lemons are like the “sour” challenges of life. Dynamic leaders use problem-solving skills to turn those lemons into sweet success; like lemonade!

The Armor…

1. Think about the problem

2. Consider information and choices

3. Talk to others involved

4. Solve the problem

Problem-Solving Skills in Action

If you have spent any time in this industry I expect that you have some amazing stories of your own to share. In fact, I would love to hear about them. Here are a few of my own—the challenge, the approach, and the outcome.

The Employee Challenge

I became very close friends with my assistant manager. We decided that it would be a good idea to become roommates and save money. Genius! Her work performance began to deteriorate, and I was advised by my supervisor that I needed to write her up. If she didn’t improve within 30 days—terminate. Oh, what a joyful time this was in my career.

Think about the problem– What? Remember, business is business, it’s not personal. Just follow the procedure in the policy manual. So, I set up a meeting in my office and presented the issue to her. She was fuming mad, but agreed to sign the counseling slip. The next 30 days were not enjoyable at work or at home.

Consider information and choice– She did not improve. In fact, her performance was worse than before. My supervisor encouraged me to terminate her, ask for her keys, and give her 30-days to vacate. Oh, I guess I failed to tell my supervisor that she lived with ME! Surely she will leave quietly and not force me to evict her.

Talk to others involved– Although she was no longer an employee, she was still living on the property in MY apartment. You could have cut the air with a knife. But, she had no money and no place to go—so she stayed for the full 30 days. I consulted my supervisor and our legal counsel because I had a very bad feeling that this situation was about to become very hairy.

Solve the problem– As I feared, I had to evict her from my apartment. She fought it until the very end. It was not pretty. Needless to say, we are not friends anymore.

I learned a couple valuable lessons from this experience:

  • Don’t befriend your employees, and if you do, you must be able to separate your friendship from business.
  • Don’t let your emotions drive your decisions. Think before you act.

The Property Challenge

There were so many it was difficult to choose just one. So, as to not discriminate, I decided to simply list all of the ones that are deeply seeded in my memory under “think about the problem.”

Think about the problem

  • FBI surveillance on multiple residents.
  • Mangrove Trees surrounding the perimeter of the property and obstructing expensive views
  • Not enough parking for 100% resident occupancy
  • An entry-gate that would fail hourly and the arm would hit the cars as they would pass
  • High maintenance, high demanding “lawyer” residents
  • Hallways that would flood when it rained. Then the paint would peel.
  • Formosan termites
  • Murder and suicide
  • Backed up lift-stations
  • Employee-resident relationships gone bad
  • Employee theft and drug addiction
  • Sink holes
  • Deteriorating Masonite siding falling off buildings

How many times over the years have you witnessed otherwise savvy professionals self-destruct because they wouldn’t engage a challenge or a conflict like some of those listed above? Putting one’s head in the sand and hoping that things will pass you by is not the most effective methodology for problem-solving. Or even worse, letting one’s emotions drive decisions. It is not at all uncommon to see what might have been a non-event manifest itself into a monumental problem if not resolved early on.

So the question then becomes how will you respond when your next challenge arises? The more experience you have with challenges the more likely you are able to minimize the severity by dealing with it quickly, and in some cases even move into prevention mode.

We all know the story of Thomas Edison. Although the exact number of tries has been debated, ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 attempts, it’s safe to say he faced challenges, tried, and failed a whole lot before he successfully created his beacon of light. His response to his repeated challenges and failures, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

I wonder if he ever managed a “Hell on Wheels” apartment community because this pretty much sums it up. We learn from failure, we learn in the trenches. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. Great lessons can be learned while working at a “Hell on Wheels” apartment community.

Maria Lawson
Vice President of Training and Development
Ellis Partners in Management Solutions