Putting People First is
A conversation with Robert Gettys
For over a decade, Robert Gettys has brought his strategic mindset, his technological talent — and his idealism — to Grace Hill. He’s played a key role in many of our most important developments as a company.
Despite that long view, Robert’s mind is always sharply focused on today, and tomorrow. With so much going on in the multifamily housing industry — not to mention, here at Grace Hill — it seemed like the ideal time to check in with him on where we’ve been, and where he sees us going.
Robert, you’ve had a storied career, and quite a bit of longevity, at Grace Hill. Tell me a little about your background, and how you came to help this remarkable company grow.
You know, my wife is more shocked than anybody that I’ve been somewhere as long as I’ve been at Grace Hill! But for me, it really comes down to people. That’s the core of who I am — helping people solve some of the challenges they’re facing, and find their way to where they want to be. My parents were both educators, so they enjoyed watching young people develop. And I found ways, through a corporate career, to try and do those same things — sometimes through products I was involved with, sometimes through my role within the organization.
A lot of people, when they think of multifamily housing, they think of it as kind of a financial industry. And certainly, on the investment side, it is. But, on the operational side, it is 100% about people. Our clients — we’re dealing with them in their most intimate environment: their home. We’re there when their dog’s dying, the kids have birthdays, they lose a job or they get a job. So, that’s a very special place to be involved.
Grace Hill is the best of both worlds: we’re a leader in an industry whose products are all about training people — who help other people. It’s a relational industry. And you know, our company is built on relationships, too. No matter your position, you don’t last in this industry if you’re not a people person. So I guess that at least partially explains my longevity here!
You’re one of those rare executives who’s equally at home in the worlds of technology and business strategy. I’m curious how you view the interplay between them.
Certainly, if you look at my resume, you do see kind of a consistent bouncing between the operational side of the house and the technology-focused side. And I guess that’s a bit of a paradox, because on the technology side you’re generally trying to solve a problem using a tool kit with a very ordered, efficient approach. On the operational side, you may be trying to solve the same problem, but you’re doing so through a completely different lens: people.
At the core of it all is understanding how to address a problem or opportunity — and being able to communicate across various functions. Moving between those two worlds and “translating” the people side for the technology side, and vice versa, has always been a strength of mine, and maybe that’s why I’ve oscillated between those two over my career. And I do think, in an industry with a technology-based product like ours, that being able to speak both languages is essential.
One thing that I find really interesting about Grace Hill is how the company sits at the intersection of two very different kinds of systems — learning systems and property management systems. One is proprietary to you, and the other would be software your clients already use. How do you handle the challenge of integrating those systems?
If you think about it, we’re a “learning and development” company. That’s also how we approach integration — by learning and then developing.
When you are working with larger property management systems — most of whom already have their own core property management, ERP or HRIS systems — it’s really important to understand exactly how to integrate your offering so you can add the right value, without being seen as a big mosquito flying around the room (which, let’s face it, is often the case with software as a service, or SaaS, providers.)
We don’t make you go to a bunch of consultants to integrate our core product into your daily operations. We have a fantastic team internally that takes care of that for you. They understand what we do, what systems our clients have, and how to accomplish a seamless integration. And I can tell you, we’re on a path to developing more and more robust, repeatable standard integrations.
Bottom line: we are in the SaaS business. Most providers just put the software into it. But we’re also in the people business — and that’s why we also prioritize the service part of that offering. Because we know, for our clients to be successful using our product, we need to meet them where they are.
I’d like to delve a little deeper into Grace Hill’s philosophy around technology, and how its role may have changed over the years. How important is it to own your own technology?
It’s hugely important. The opportunity to own (and scale) your own technology has increased dramatically even in the last 5–10 years, and that’s partly because of cloud technology. Not having to worry about investing in hard infrastructure — and engineers to manage and maintain it — means we can put our resources solely into developing and managing our products, and rolling them out to our clients as needed.
And, because the material we deal with is constantly evolving, we’ve been able to build the infrastructure and use technology to address those shifting requirements, and make it scalable. You used to need anywhere from 3 to 5 times the amount of staff we have now to handle the hardware and installs. Today we are able to be both more innovative and more nimble in serving our clients’ needs.
A great example is how we’ve been able to respond to the growing need for sexual harassment training in light of the #MeToo movement. If we didn’t own our platform and our own content and infrastructure, we could not have so quickly rolled out a solution that nobody else has — where, based on your location, we serve up the content you need, with no headaches. You can’t do that if you only own one piece of the equation.
Another great example is our workplace violence series, which contains active-shooter training. To be honest, on our original roadmap, it felt like a great add-on piece that people could subscribe to if they wanted it. But then we sat down as a company and asked ourselves, isn’t this what every client needs — to provide a safe place for their people at work and a safe place for their residents to live?
So we decided to just give it to our clients — bundle it as part of our offering. And we could make that decision because we own everything. Not only did we know it was the right thing to do, we also knew we could actually execute on it, and quickly. Again, that comes back to our core belief in service and agility.
So what is your process for bringing new tools to the market? How do you decide what to roll out? And what kinds of new products can your customers expect to see in the coming year?
First of all, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, technology is just a bright, shiny object. Our commitment to our clients isn’t that we’re always going to be on the bleeding edge of technology — but that we will always strive to be on the leading edge of the right technology.
We’re constantly evaluating how a given piece of technology could be applied to solve the core issues we focus on. Our criteria are threefold: can it actually help us (a) solve a problem that we can’t solve today, (b) solve it better than we already do today, or (c) give our clients access to technology that they wouldn’t ordinarily have access to?
In terms of new tools, we see a lot of great opportunities for content. We’ve already made some forays into localized training, with the “preventing sexual harassment” training. You’re going to see us continue to explore ways to use technology to drive localized training — but then also localized delivery of that material, not just in the training space. “So, okay you’ve trained me on that, I understand it. Okay, now I’m presented with that scenario. I need to quickly be able just to refresh my brain and make sure that I get steps two and three right.” That’s part of us bringing the policies and procedures into play.
Another part is the assessment step we took with Validate. There’s a lot of technology in the assessment world, and while mystery shopping is something we believe in completely, I’m personally spending a lot of time evaluating the myriad technologies designed to assess how people are performing on-site. We’re focusing on ways of shortening that feedback loop, and targeting it even more closely on a skill level, so that our clients can zero in on the specific things to be worked on.
We also know that mobile is continuing to grow. Again, if we had been on the bleeding edge of technology and had gone whole hog into thinking everybody was going to be taking the training on their phone, we would have had significant issues — because there are a lot of workplace law issues around people training on devices that they own. So, we want to understand the technology. We want to provide it in a way that makes sense. And we want to make sure it’s applicable and we don’t get our clients in trouble by rolling something out… then finding out that they can’t use it.
I’ll give you an example: 7 or 8 years ago, we were really focused on the social media piece. We wrote a feature into our software where, after you took a Grace Hill course, you could press a button and post it to your LinkedIn profile or onto Facebook. And yet, despite the fact that everybody was beating the drum of “you need to have social,” not a single one of our clients rolled it out, because all of them got wrapped around the idea of controlling their social media presence. So, we learned from that. We want to make sure we understand what our clients can actually use and what will benefit them — and not just jump on a hot trend.
I’d like to talk about data security for a moment, because obviously it’s on everyone’s mind these days. Not just the risks around cloud technology, but also just basic data privacy. What is Grace Hill doing about these concerns?
We are in a position where we are stewards of a lot of information — from the proprietary intellectual property (including policies and procedures) our clients put on our platform to our own processes, content and source code. And we treat all of that with the utmost seriousness.
When it comes to security, we don’t try to rewire the world. We use the people who do that for a living. We partner with companies like AWS to host our infrastructure and we build out all of our data stores and tools within their environment, which embeds best practices and best-in-class security, and is continuously updated. So, by default and from Day One, we’re working in an environment of extreme compliance. And from there, we work with each client to understand what their needs are.
When we evaluate infrastructure decisions, our first and most important consideration is security. When we work with contractors, we have all the procedures in place so that they only have access to what they need to have access to. From the development process all the way through to the production release and the client interface process, security is top of our mind. Every single day.
Obviously you’re much more than a technologist. In your current role of VP of business development, I’m sure you’re constantly looking at potential strategic partnerships. What’s your approach to developing these?
There are two core areas when it comes to forming strategic partnerships for Grace Hill. I’ll start with the simplest.
One of the biggest challenges our clients face with technology today is that there is just so much of it. They probably work with five or ten apps in their day-to-day operations — whether it is a resident rewards app, social media reputation, or a host of others. And then of course they have to train on each one. What companies really want is a holistic approach — to look at who needs to use what, and develop a true training profile of each person.
So, we’ve made a big effort to start acquiring content from other vendors in the industry, and putting it onto our platform for our clients to use, generally with the idea that it’s a no-cost add. Our joint clients can then manage their full training of on-site people in one place. For example, we’re partnering with Entrata to get all of their training content onto our platform, directly updated by them.
We’ve got other vendors in the industry that we’re starting to work with, too, and I anticipate a huge increase in the volume of content on our platform over the next 12 to 18 months, with the goal being that our clients will now have a single place to manage and train their people — and automate that through our tools.
The second area is what I would call technical and product partnerships. For example, we have one with Elizabeth Moreland Consulting, who is the de facto expert on tax credit programs in the housing sector, with whom we have built out a content series which we market jointly.
And we have a product application extension with Zoom, where we integrated their best-of-breed tools — communications, webinar, remote meeting technology — so our clients can build a course and hold real-time sessions, right there on our platform. Their learners don’t have to go anywhere to register, and it even records attendance automatically.
And that’s just the beginning. We’re continuing to reach out and look at other technologies that we can integrate into our products. But our guiding principle will always be the same: to integrate the right technology in an easy-to-use way, so that our clients can use it without a lot of additional cost. We leverage our volume discount and pass it on to our clients. We look at it not as a profit generator, but as a relationship enhancer.
So I’d like to end with a simple question for you, Robert: What are you most proud of having achieved with Grace Hill?
Because I’m a people person, the biggest thing I’m proud of is that I’ve been able to see the people I work with grow in important ways. I’ve watched people move from entry-level positions into roles of great authority, both within Grace Hill and outside. And I feel that’s because at Grace Hill, I’ve been able to carve out a niche where I’m able to do the things I’m passionate about — which allows people around me, hopefully, to reach their own goals and become who they want to be.
At the end of the day, there’s no good way to put my role on an org chart. It’s a hybrid role, and sometimes I even ask myself: What the heck do I do all day? But when you sit down and draw it out, I get to do exactly what I love to do, what I feel like I’m meant to do, what I want to do. And I’m really proud that I’m still here — and that there is still so much runway in front of us at Grace Hill to continue our mission.