Paying It Forward

Looking to script a meaningful career? Mentoring plays a powerful role.

May 1, 2012

For many real estate practitioners, having—or being—a mentor is a natural step in building a blockbuster career. Learning the business from a book or a course just doesn’t cut it. Formalized mentorship programs are part of the culture at large franchises such as Keller Williams and Coldwell Banker. Such programs also play a crucial role in REALTOR® associations, where prospective leaders are identified and shepherded. What does a successful mentoring relationship look like? Practitioners on both sides say the arrangements are as diverse as the individuals themselves.

A Motherly Approach

Caryn Schmidt Prall had a long line of mentors on her way to becoming one herself. As the assistant team leader and director of business development at Keller Williams Amarillo in Amarillo, Texas, Schmidt Prall is the third generation of women in her family to work in real estate. Her grandmother was a broker. Her mother, Pat Schmidt, is an associate with Keller Williams in Glen Ellyn, Ill., where Schmidt Prall grew up and lived until moving to Columbus, Ohio, for college.

In Columbus, Schmidt Prall was recruited to Keller Williams by Cindy Braun. “She went to closings with me and went over my reports and inspections,” recalls Schmidt Prall, who later relocated to Denver before settling in Austin. “On my first deal, I didn’t read the termite report. Cindy caught it. She also got me involved in the office, which was huge.”

To hear Braun tell it, she didn’t do much for Schmidt Prall, whom she describes as a dynamo. “She’d follow me on a listing, I’d go with her on a listing. We didn’t have a set way of doing things,” says Braun, co-owner of Keller Williams Classic Properties. “I said, ‘Just follow me around and pick up as much as you can.’ She picked up a lot.”

Braun says she doesn’t think of herself as a mentor in any formal sense of the word, but she certainly fits the definition: A wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter. “I am motherly,” says Braun, who’s currently helping a woman in her late 50s who’d lost her previous job. “She was a salesperson at a car dealership. I told her, ‘You can do this. Just use me as a backup.’ ”

In fact, Schmidt Prall says her relationship with Braun felt very much like that of parent and child. “I knew that whatever I did reflected on Cindy. Her name and reputation were on the line, too,” she says.

Braun says the most important lesson for new associates is that they’re working for the buyer or the seller—it’s not their deal. Beyond that, she says, it’s vital for a mentor to know what particular help someone needs. Some rookies, like the former car salesperson, know how to sell but need to learn the intricacies of real estate. Others need help with marketing.

What Braun had done informally for her, Schmidt Prall now essentially does full-time as assistant team leader and director of business development for her office in Austin. She says the most important element of a mentoring relationship is trust; the toughest part is letting people make mistakes. “This is hard for me,” she says, “but they won’t learn if you do it for them.”

Funny, someone else says pretty much the same thing.

“You’re going to make mistakes,” Braun says. “You need to learn from them.”

Discovered! A Mini-Jaret

Jaret Whitney could scarcely believe his eyes when 19-year-old Logan Wilson handed him a business card for his company, Chore Solutions. Like Wilson, Whitney had had his own business at 19. He, too, did chores for the elderly.

“He’s me at 19,” says Whitney, owner of Exit Realty Tri-County in Mt. Dora, Fla.

Wilson first contacted Whitney after seeing him driving around town in a yellow Hummer. He sent Whitney an e-mail asking about shadowing opportunities, and the two met in person the next day. Today, Wilson is actively selling real estate. He attends classes at Florida State University in Tallahassee during the week (checking in on business between classes) and makes the four-hour drive home on Fridays to sell real estate.

“Logan is my star pupil,” Whitney says. “It took me six years to find him. He’s going to be a top producer.”

Whitney’s mentoring relationship with Wilson is structured and scheduled. The pair talk almost daily via video conference. Whitney gives Wilson assignments, including cold calling. Every Wednesday, they have a mastermind professional support group meeting with other agents. On the weekends, Wilson shadows Whitney, prospects, and reads books on selling.

Wilson says his mentor “goes above and beyond. We’ll partner in things so I get the education,” he says. “It’s not ‘Watch me do it,’ it’s ‘Go do it, and I’ll make sure you do it right.’ That’s free education. I can’t thank him enough.”

Outside of work, Whitney and Wilson go shooting together, and Whitney gives advice his mentor gave him at the same age: Success isn’t about becoming a millionaire; it’s about knowing that you rebound from failure. “That stuck with me,” Whitney says. “My uncle was a millionaire. He lost it all and could never recover. Logan and I have spent a lot of time talking about that.”

Product of Good Mentors

Mentoring is no less important when you’re learning the ropes of association leadership, says Gary Rogers, broker-owner of RE/MAX On The Charles in Waltham, Mass. Rogers was president of the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS® in 2009 and is currently vice chair of NAR’s Communications Committee. (Among that committee’s tasks is oversight of REALTOR® Magazine.) As Rogers moved into volunteer leadership positions within his state and local associations, he gravitated toward people “who had habits I wished I had. I am absolutely the product of good mentor relationships,” he says.

Before Rogers ran for secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS®, for example, one mentor made sure he was appointed to the finance committee, taught him the key things to look for in financial reports, and critiqued his presentations. “He taught me about preparing numbers inside and out before you present them in a meeting,” Rogers says. “Anyone can show you how to plug numbers into a spreadsheet, but why are the numbers important? Mentors broaden your scope of understanding.”

Another mentor taught Rogers the all-important skill of finding moderation. It was a lesson he took to heart as he moved up the leadership ranks. “When you’re getting something accomplished, it’s addictive,” Rogers says. “Someone older and more experienced took me aside and said I was overextending myself.”

That helped him learn to be strategic in his NAR involvement, respectfully declining some opportunities because they weren’t the best fit for his skill set.

Gaining the skills you need to become an effective association leader takes time, Rogers says. “There’s such a learning curve; you don’t know what you don’t know,” he says. “It’s very social, and it can be political. There are a lot of facets to it.”

Choosing a mentor shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. “You’re not going to pick someone out of a hat,” Rogers says. “And don’t ask someone to mentor you until you have a strong relationship.”

In fact, he says, the best mentorships form “without even acknowledging that’s what is going on. There’s something about the person you respect and admire, something that you want to be like, or you wouldn’t ask for the person’s advice.”

A Two-Way Street

Todd Shipman’s real estate career started  in 1997  when he “walked into a quintessential small brokerage that was full of  [association] leadership.” The office was Lakes Sotheby’s International Realty in Edina, Minn. The broker was Ed Anderson, a local and state REALTOR® association president who was also active in NAR.

Anderson died  in 1998 at age 52 following complications from heart surgery, but  he left a remarkable legacy. “He set the example,” Shipman says. “From my office of nine people came six local presidents. … It was a great experience.”

For Shipman, 50, association volunteer work led to serving as chair of the regional MLS and sitting on the NAR Strategic Planning Committee. “It’s countless hours, with a deep sense of joy and achievement,” he says.

Another former colleague Shipman considers a mentor is Mark Allen, who today serves as Minneapolis Area Association of REALTORS® CEO. Allen, 54, says he’s a mentor “only if it doesn’t imply some kind of seniority.  I hope I live my life in a way that people see as an example they would seek to replicate. I look to others myself. We all learn every day.”

It’s the duty of association leaders to identify and nurture their replacements, Allen says. It’s also to their benefit. “As you become successful, it’s easy to settle for the status quo,” he says. “But if you want to continue to be successful, you need to embrace change. If you have younger people involved in your life, it helps you do that.”

Echoing Rogers’ experience, Shipman says his mentor relationships have been more or less organic, informal partnerships with like-minded individuals. But that doesn’t mean the relationships aren’t deliberate: Finding a mentor requires “enough insight to identify people and hook your wagon to them. Be aggressive. You can’t be shy. You have to make ‘the ask.’ The other piece of it is that you do the same thing for other people.”

As both a mentor and a mentee, Shipman has learned that the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. “You’re there to learn and to contribute. It’s not a one-way street,” he says. “Mentors expect something back. You force them to rethink what they’re doing. If you’re not feeling the win-win, you have to get out.” 

Creating a Successful Mentoring Relationship

Mentoring has shifted over the years, says Lois J. Zachary, director of the Phoenix-based Center for Mentoring Excellence and the author of several books on mentoring, from a concept of taking a person under one’s wing to that of being a “guide on the side.”

“In today’s model, the mentor is much more of a facilitator than an authoritarian figure,” she says, “someone to help you find the answers yourself rather than transferring knowledge.”

The most successful mentoring relationships are learning partnerships where a mentor and mentee work collaboratively toward mutually defined goals. “Learning is the process, the product, and the purpose of mentoring,” she says.

There’s a difference between being a coach and being a mentor, Zachary notes. Coaching is about boosting performance in the present; mentoring is about growth and development in the future. All mentors are coaches, but not all coaches are mentors.

One trait that coaches and mentors have in common, though, is that sometimes they’re paid and sometimes they’re volunteers. In many real estate offices, for example, new sales associates are paired with a veteran who receives a portion of the commission from their first few deals.

If you’re looking for a mentor, first determine what you want to learn and what kind of mentoring you want. It could be an individual relationship, a group setting, or a “whole bunch of mentors” who each help you with different areas, Zachary says. Create a list of criteria for a mentor, prioritize the list to identify your two or three must-haves (much like what salespeople tell buyers to do when they’re looking for a house), and then start reaching out to your network.

A list of criteria is helpful, Zachary notes, because it helps you make an objective decision instead of getting dazzled by a person’s reputation or bowled over by chemistry. “Look for people who have achieved what you hope to achieve,” she says.