Building Successful Companies by Assembling Great Teams

Leaders of commercial real estate firms across the country share their tips for creating a culture that binds associates together toward common goals.

February 15, 2018

A recent Forbes article argues “[t]he chief job of any leader is to hire a tremendous team and organize them to fulfill the team’s mission.” It’s hard to disagree with this assessment and simple to understand the idea. Good leaders create good teams. But buried in that thought is a bedeviling truth: When the team isn’t working, it’s a leadership problem.

So how can you create a results-oriented culture of teamwork at your firm? The answer is simple: Strong leaders are committed to consistently working to cultivate an environment that attracts and rewards talented team players. 

Creating a Company Culture to Attract & Keep Talent

Company culture can be difficult to pin down. It’s hard to establish, can change unexpectedly, and is difficult to repair once it sours. For Kevin Maggiacomo, CEO of SVN International Corp., everything hinges on the feeling of trust. “In every corporate culture, there are certain ‘enemies of trust,’ Maggiacomo explains, “such as inconsistent messaging, locked doors, and locked drawers with zero collaboration and so on.” Those things are culture killers, eroding confidence in leadership and creating an ‘every person for themselves’ attitude that is toxic to team building. 

“Organizational trust is built over time, and must be maintained and restored when damaged,” Maggiacomo says. In fact, the ongoing process of proactively cultivating trust is more important than ever before. “Look, trust, in an increasingly chaotic political and corporate environment, is being demanded,” he argues, “and will separate those companies who are built to last from the also-rans.” Empowering your teams to succeed, allowing them to fail and learn from the experience, and celebrating their victories without claiming them as your own are keys to establishing trust in the workplace.

However, trust can extend even further into the things your firm does outside of the office.

“When a person joins a firm, they want to be proud of it,” says Mike Reagan, SVP of RE/MAX Commercial. A positive culture must involve training, education, mentoring, and coaching. And in today’s business world, it must also extend into your personal life.

“We have a 25-year relationship with Children’s Miracle Networks Hospitals,” Reagan explains, “and we’ve generated millions for local hospitals.” Cultivating this environment allows people to feel part of something. It’s a source of pride and respect in the community, allowing your team to know “they are making a difference with your corporate culture and giving back,” Reagan says.

In addition to these more philosophical concerns, a culture of trust can pivot on concrete issues. “They say ‘it’s never about the money’—it’s always about the money,” Jay Olshonsky, president of NAI Global, explains. “So you have to pay at the top end of the scale. But I tend to feel great culture is a combo of the money and the work.”

Olshonsky believes the biggest key to developing an attractive culture at your firm is allowing talented employees to do their own thing within the boundaries of what commercial real estate is. “One of my favorite expressions,” he says, “is if you work for a person or a company that often says ‘you can’t’ or ‘no, we don’t do it that way,’ you need to run away.” Olshonsky feels this is true of any company: “Creating a culture of ‘you can’ or ‘let’s try’ is the best way to attract and retain talent.”

The Difference Is Millennial

With the overwhelming number of young professionals entering the field and gravitating into positions of authority, change is in the air. This can be cause for concern among some who value doing things the way they’ve always been done. But is this a forward-thinking attitude or does it prevent adapting to inevitable change?

“Sometimes millennials get lumped in a category that’s unfair,” Olshonsky says. “I hear a lot of my older peers, in all industries, say they’re lazy or don’t work the same way we work. I find that’s not the case.” Having a strong millennial presence on your team is similar to landing good employees from any age or demographic. “You have to find the one out of ten willing to go the extra mile,” Olshonsky argues. “That 10 percent who, if you delegate the authority, are willing to take it and excel.” Team builders must be willing to educate, train, and explain and not simply dismiss someone with new ideas.

Olshonsky takes this belief a step further, working to ensure mentoring goes both ways on his teams by stressing the importance of what he calls ‘reverse mentoring,’ where younger employees help older team members learn about new technologies, business trends, and other emerging issues. “I work differently as a result of our reverse mentoring,” Olshonsky says. “I have a laptop and a smart phone and I can run the company from almost anywhere.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of NAR's Commercial Connections magazine 

Reagan also advocates for the vitality of embracing changing trends and creating learning experiences for your teams. “It is so important in a team scenario to know commercial real estate isn’t a textbook environment,” Reagan explains.  Commercial real estate is a relationship business with long-term collaborations between your teams and your clients. “It’s boots on the ground and conversations,” Reagan says, “and it’s vital to cultivate a willingness to help each other and an interest in closing deals as a team.”

Reagan feels today’s commercial real estate industry, with as many as four generations of real estate practitioners working together, creates a really powerful dynamic. “This synergy is critical for all the team members,” Reagan explains. Partnerships and coaching will guide younger practitioners, but it’s their individualism that will make them successful and keep your firm prepared for shifts in technology and workflow. He emphasizes embracing new ways of thinking as a sign of wisdom, “especially in real estate because it’s a relationship biz.”

Embracing change can also be fun and rewarding. Maggiacomo suggests offering rankings, awards, and incentives to team members, a strategy that allows your team to “play on a national and global playing field” and “award true leaders.”

Try creating a flexible organizational structure where team members feel free to invest in real estate ownership, development, and related projects. “While we are very careful to avoid conflicts of interest and always put the clients’ interest first, the opportunity be a part of the deal in addition to earning a fee is one that rewards many of our advisors and helps them build true wealth.”

This can be a powerful incentive to attract millennials in particular, since they can often be concerned about income and debt in ways older generations aren’t. “Our advisers don’t just get paychecks,” Maggiacomo says. “They also participate in making their communities better places to live, work, and play.” This can be true of any commercial real estate transaction for any firm and making this level of investment a priority for your teams can be a source of real satisfaction.

Building Your Team with a National Firm

Team building can also be a pragmatic pursuit, centering on the concrete question of whether your company is to be independent or join a larger, existing company. What is the context where your team will be built and where will your positive culture exist?

There are definitely advantages to going boutique—most notable among them is keeping the lion’s share of profits. However, investing in or licensing through a national commercial franchise carries many unseen advantages beyond the basic bottom line. Maggiacomo sums it up succinctly: “There is no ‘recreating the wheel’—that’s time-intensive and very costly, if a person is even able to pull off.”

So what are the benefits to using a wheel that works? Perhaps the biggest is that the existing referral network at a national firm is much larger. “Approximately 90 percent of real estate biz tends to be transacted locally,” says Olshonsky, “but you will find jobs where having more reach is beneficial. A national firm gives you that reach.”

Reagan agrees. “It’s important to know and represent your entire network. In addition to continuous education, you should build an extensive network and relationships with subject matter experts so you’re prepared to manage clients’ needs across all market segments and around the globe.  It keeps you in the conversation as a trusted adviser.”

In the end, practitioners have to decide what kind of company they want to be and how they want to work. While it may come as a surprise, Maggiacomo, Reagan, and Olshonsky all emphasize how national firms can accommodate small entrepreneurial outfits in local markets while also providing vetted technology, discounts on education, and an international network of connections. It’s a powerful argument and one worth considering as your team grows and prospers.

Jacob Knabb

Jacob S. Knabb is the director of Commercial Services at Chicago Association of REALTORS®.