Challenges, Pitfalls And Sage Advice: Starting A Real Estate Brokerage


What does good leadership look like in 2022? How can you put your best foot forward where you work, whether you’re managing a team or an entire company? In March, we’ll plumb the topic through Q&As from top-tier industry leaders, contributions from Inman columnists (the leaders in their field) and more. Then we’ll keep the leadership conversation going in person at Inman Disconnect in late March in Palm Springs, California.

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What does it take to start a successful brokerage as opposed to being an independent agent or running a team? Although men face many of the same business-related issues, women have a unique set of other challenges that men seldom experience. 

According to NAR, 65 percent of all Realtors are female. Yet in 2017, when the California Association of Realtors (CAR) ranked their top 100 brokerages by volume, only 16 were run by women. This led CAR to launch its WomanUP! Initiative with the goal of increasing the number of women in brokerage leadership. 

Based on the three years of research I conducted for CAR, 15 years of running Awesome Females in Real Estate Conferences, plus feedback from the broker sessions at Inman Connect, here are the primary reasons women start their own brokerages, 10 unique challenges men seldom face, and how successful female broker-owners have overcome these challenges.

3 primary reasons women start their own brokerages

Based upon the WomanUP! research, women start their own brokerages for three primary reasons:

  • They wanted a company/brand that reflected their vision and values.
  • It didn’t work out with their previous company.
  • They needed a career that would accommodate their childcare needs. 

The WomanUP! research showed that approximately 90 percent of the women who started their own brokerages preferred to take that risk rather than remaining at a company that was not in alignment with their vision and values. 

10 unique challenges women face and how they meet them

What types of challenges do women face as they launch their brokerages that very few men face? 

Know your priorities

As you launch your new brokerage, you must focus on four key priorities: 

  • Recruiting
  • Retention
  • Building profitability
  • Putting the customer experience first

The recruiting environment today is probably the fiercest ever with well-funded companies offering millions of dollars of signing bonuses, ownership opportunities, and a wide variety of other perks.

Advice: Joanie Young, Sotheby’s Real Estate and past founder of Young Real Estate

I always advise people not to go into the industry on a wing and a prayer. So often broker/owners talk about their Gross Commission Income (GCI). It is not what you make that counts — it is what you keep of what you make. You can’t take GCI to the bank!

You need money management skills and you must be well-funded to remain profitable. Because the industry is cyclical, you must also be fiscally prepared to operate your business during the down times. It’s not always rosy

Unlike men who seldom have to worry about their family’s support when they make a business decision, Young goes on to explain this is not the case for women: 

It’s also critical that your family understands your commitment. In this industry, they all must be on board. 

Strike a balance between work and family

The most frequently mentioned issue that women launching brokerages face is balancing their business life with their personal life. What is the appropriate amount of work? How can I find more time to spend with my family?

Sabrina Brown, Broker/CEO Brown and Brown Real Estate, described what happened to make her stop being consumed by work: 

The lesson is that life is short. I used to just be consumed by my work. I didn’t spend the time with my family like I needed to do because my focus was always on work. Then my mom had a stroke, and I became her primary caregiver. That made me realize that I needed to slow down and look at what’s really important. Not only can I still work and be successful, but I can have time with my family as well. 

Advice: Never sell your family short. Work to align your job and your family and never lose sight of what matters most. The hard truth is that working all the time is unsustainable. Everyone needs “white space” in their schedules to recharge. Being less busy, having quiet time to think and plan, reduces your stress and makes you more effective as well. 

This is especially important when you’re personally facing a serious illness or other adversity. Gretchen Pearson shared how cancer changed the direction of her career: 

Part of the reason I went out on my own was that I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Having cancer makes you realize that this is just business. It cuts through all the other stuff, making you look at what really matters. It reminds you of the importance of serving our communities and customers. I’m never lonely and I have people who make me laugh. It’s business, it’s not life, and that’s a great gift. 

Create a winning mindset

Pushing through the hard stuff requires the right mindset. Mindset affects your ability to succeed, to persist through the trials and tribulations you encounter both at home and at work, as well as shaping how your leadership will positively or negatively impact the people in your organization.

Creating a winning mindset requires total commitment to your vision as well as the role you will play in making that vision a reality. If you don’t believe in your vision, no one else will. Surrounding yourself with the right people is also essential to creating and maintaining a positive mindset. 

Advice: Irma Vargas, President Tierra Properties Realtors, recommends: 

You must believe in yourself and surround yourself with those who believe in you. Stay away from the downers. It’s easy to find people who will discourage you versus surrounding yourself with people who will encourage you and believe in you. Everyone always has a little bit of self-doubt. Find your own voice, rather than being silent for fear of not saying the right things or worried about what the other people are thinking. If you don’t get yourself out there, if you’re not willing to speak out, you will never make it happen.

Beware of the quiet the naysayers 

When Sherry Chris, President and CEO of the Realogy Expansion Brands portfolio, decided she would launch the Better Homes and Gardens (BH&G) brand for Realogy in the midst of the Great Recession, well-meaning friends advised against it. Chris’s vision, determination and well-honed business skills guided BH&G through those early years to become a major success while many other brokerages failed. 

One of the most surprising findings from the WomanUP! research was the high percentage of women who were repeatedly told, “You won’t make it in real estate” or “You’ll never make it as a broker.” 

 Advice: Becky Blair, President and Principal, Coldwell Banker Commercial Blair Westmac, one of the top commercial real estate firms in the country, described what she encountered when she decided to go into commercial real estate: 

You will always get the naysayers and people who try to tear you down. When people do that, you have to realize that it’s more about them and what’s going in their life, rather than anything you’ve done. There will always be people who attack you because that’s how they feel better about themselves. 

Counter negative self-talk 

Self-doubt and negative self-talk were a huge issue for almost every woman I interviewed. The difference between an effective leader and someone who is stopped by the negative voices in their head is the ability to create action steps that distance them from the negativity. 

Advice: Here are two different strategies for coping with negative self-talk: 

Barb Betts, Broker-owner of RE Collective explains:  

The most difficult obstacle for me was overcoming the negative self-talk in myself. I work on that every day by using affirmations and positive quotes. I also start my day by journaling first thing in the morning and writing down the positive outcomes I want for the day. Turning off the negative self-talk is the hardest thing I face each day. 

Melissa Zavala, Broker-Owner Broadpoint Properties described her experience:

Like most people, I struggle with negative self-talk every day. The external obstacles I have experienced include criticisms, difficult personalities and bullies in the business. To be successful, you must have a thick skin, be yourself, be transparent and align yourself with people that you enjoy being around. This is one of the best ways to help you deflect all the toxins that come from negativity.

Fight Discrimination

Whether it was being told that they should be home baking cookies, that they are bossy, crazy, and should calm down, or standing up to a superior who used the vilest of slurs to describe them, the women who start their own brokerages refuse to be victims. Instead, these incidents often motivated them to take action that not only benefitted themselves but other women both inside and outside the industry as well. 

Advice: Avoid making excuses for your gender. According to Colleen Badagliacco, Senior Vice President Legacy Real Estate and Associates:  

No one should rely on their gender. In fact, I never felt my gender held me back. If I did or didn’t accomplish something, it wasn’t based upon my gender. 

Here’s how Kendyl Young, Broker/Owner Diggs, described the choice women face: 

Don’t make excuses for your gender. Lots of women have had to sacrifice. Their efforts and their resistance have allowed me to do what I do. But on an individual basis, you must make a choice — are you going to inhabit the resistance or are you going to inhabit your greatness? While you can do both, one of them is going to be your mistress. 

Learn to say ‘no’ 

One of the most important skills effective women leaders share is their ability to say “No” without any explanation required. This goes hand-in-hand with not taking things personally. Women often feel they must justify or explain their decisions. As one of my long-time mentors advises: 

“No” is a complete sentence. 

Saying “No” is especially problematic for new broker-owners who must continue to sell to keep their new brokerage afloat. They are often tempted to do everything themselves and frequently have trouble delegating. 

Advice: Sheryl Lynn Johnson, Co-owner of Aviara Real Estate explains the cost of a broker’s inability to say “No”, especially for new leaders who haven’t learned to delegate. 

Just because you are capable of something doesn’t mean you need to say “Yes” to it. The reason is that every time you say “yes” to something, you are saying “No” to something else.

Retain agents and staff and keep them motivated

Your agents and staff are your greatest asset and often your greatest challenge. Keeping them motivated and helping them when they face personal challenges can be difficult. This is especially difficult when you must also focus on recruiting, retention and profitability. 

Joanna Odabashian, CEO and Co-owner at Keller Williams Fresno, explains the crux of the problem: 

People are a great resource, but they can also be an obstacle as well. Working through their drama and issues in order to help them become successful is full of challenges. Everyone has things that they are dealing with, and sometimes life can be really hard on them. I work with the most incredible agents, but they all have things going on in their life. 

Advice: Marion Henon, founder of Marvin Gardens Real Estate, which was acquired by Red Oak Realty, advises why it’s so important to also care for yourself. 

Do the best you can. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of those around you. My job is to be of service to my agents, and their job is to be of service to their clients. The leadership role is about keeping everyone on track, staying focused on what our values are and determining where we are going.

Don’t fear failure  

When it comes to operating a brokerage, you must accept that you will experience failure. What matters most, however, is how quickly you recover. Virtually all the successful female leaders I have worked with have the same attitude about their failures and mistakes: fail quickly, learn from your mistakes and move on. 

Advice:  Valerie Torelli, the founder of Torelli Realty, describes her attitude towards her mistakes: 

I love making mistakes — they’re the best because that’s when I learn. Every time I make a mistake, I focus on being grateful first. Next, I analyze what got me there including how I was responsible for creating the situation. What could I have done differently? What triggered my reaction? 

It’s easy to feel vulnerable, inadequate and to beat ourselves up. What a waste of energy. I choose not to feel ashamed about making a mistake. Instead, I use it as a warm-up for my next act. 

This one small change in my thinking has had a tremendous impact on how I see the world and how wonderful the world I live in is. I believe we all come from fear. I used my fear of failure to work harder and smarter. When I did fail, I always tried to fail forward. 

Embrace your role as the leader

Whether it’s her own company, being a manager, or stepping into an executive role with a large company, once the woman takes on a leadership role, she must embrace it completely. 

Advice: Vanessa Bergmark outlined the true magnitude of what this means: 

The owner or manager doesn’t have the luxury not to lead. You must show up for all of it. Some people like the glory of the title, but don’t want the massive responsibility of what it entails. If you sign up for it, it’s totally your baby, so see it through. 

Bad day? Don’t want to get out of bed? Have that conversation? Critique that top producer? Discipline that employee? You don’t have a choice. Don’t allow yourself to only do what you enjoy in the role; push through the hard stuff. Your people and your company depend on it.

The path to success for women IS different

Tami Pardee, founder and CEO Pardee Properties, summed up how the path to success for women differs from that of men: 

Women are natural leaders and nurturers and are strategic. Sometimes we’re tempted to get all armored up like men and we’re not men. The power is in being a woman leader — nurturing, loving and connected. If you do that, you will get a lot further than any man.





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