Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from New York

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting Monday at home, conducting my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I hopped on an early flight to Uncasville, Connecticut for an incredible event at the Mohegan Sun, led by Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England Properties/New York Properties/Hudson Valley Properties President and President and CEO Candace Adams. I congratulated the team on stage and was with them for a fantastic celebration, including a team dinner on Wednesday night. The energy at the event was electric. It was the first time many of those team members had seen each other in person since the pandemic began. Candace did a fantastic job as emcee, and we heard from Steven and Debbie Domber, Steven James, Brad Loe and Allan Dalton. It was amazing to see how fired up Steven James and Brad Loe are to take over the New York market. When he spoke, Steven’s passion and energy left no doubt in anyone’s mind that his prediction to be No. 1 in New York would happen soon.

Today, we drove to Rye Brook, New York and spent the afternoon with Houlihan Lawrence and President and CEO Liz Nunan where we toured the Houlihan Lawrence offices and had a luncheon in the Houlihan Lawrence Agent Development Center. I gave a leadership presentation and then attended an agent networking open house.

We then drove to Manhattan, where I write this post to you now, and because the Big Apple is so inspiring to me, it’s our topic for today.

New York City has a vibe unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s palpable. You can practically reach out and touch it, as it buzzes in shades of taxi-cab yellow and skyscraper gray across the city that never sleeps. Here are a few ways I’ve been inspired by the people and places of this global metropolis:

First in, last out. In his aptly named book, “First In, Last Out,” New York City Fire Department (FDNY) Battalion Chief John Salka explains how the FDNY’s strategies can be applied to any business and any leader. By first in and last out, Salka references the idea that a leader, just like those who lead the FDNY, should always be the proverbial first one to charge into the room when it’s on fire, and the last one to leave before the fire is completely extinguished. It’s a lesson in ultimate accountability; as the leader, you are the person others follow and you also set the example, never abandoning even a burning building until the flames of challenge are extinguished and you’re treading on safer, more sustainable, more successful ground.

Gratitude unlocks endless improvement. When asked for our #LeadershipPGI social media series about the one thing she’s doing this week to become better than she was last week, Liz Nunan said this: “Practice daily gratitude. I find that it leads to a more positive mindset, helps when I need to deal with adversity, and has helped me build strong relationships, both personally and professionally.” Gratitude, as I say, is an attitude! And while it helps strengthen your mindset, as Liz explains, it also helps you on your path of perpetual improvement. With gratitude, you look forward, you think positively, and you see the potential in situations rather than whatever is holding you back.

Your team can never hear enough how much you appreciate them. When Candace Adams was asked the same question – “What are you doing to improve this week so you’re even better than you were last week?” – she said: “I am going to reach out to as many people as I can to say thank you for who they are and what they do.” And showing how much you care isn’t just good for strengthening trust, connection, and respect among your team, it also strengthens the team itself. In a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, authors Kerry Roberts Gibson, Kate O’Leary and Joseph R. Weintraub wrote that letting your team know you appreciate them enhances productivity and the team’s ability to perform given tasks. Why? Because everyone wants to know that the hard work they’re putting in doesn’t go unnoticed.

Team members need a voice – and that voice must be heard. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, authors Bruce A. Strong and Mary Lee Kennedy documented the process of change at the New York Public Library, one of the largest public libraries worldwide. An estimated 18 million people visit the library each year. (And one of them was Sylvester Stallone who wrote the screenplay to “Rocky” in three days at the New York Public Library.) So, when it became clear the library needed to shift its strategies amid an ever-changing digital world, what did the leaders at the New York Public Library do? They asked employees exactly what should happen next. In the spring of 2014, any of the 2,500 staff members had the chance to speak directly with senior leaders, offering their best ideas to digitize the library system. The staff was asked to propose, test and advocate solutions. The senior leaders provided guidance, support, resources and made decisions on those ideas, but it was the staff whose ideas would be carried through. “The project expanded their sense of belonging,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review. And it’s a lesson any leader can take back to their teams. Sometimes problems can’t be solved unilaterally, and instead it takes a collaborative, concerted effort by all to create the change you seek, whether it’s digitizing a massive public library in NYC or providing even better service to your clients.

So, what’s the message? Artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.” And I felt that this week in New York. It’s a city that constantly reminds us that sometimes leadership is a set of principles, sometimes it’s a system of execution and sometimes, it’s a feeling that guides us exactly where we want – and need – to go.

Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from Coach K

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I participated in an early morning Berkshire Hathaway Energy call followed by our monthly CEO leadership virtual meeting. On Wednesday, I attended meetings in San Jose, California and today, I spoke and trained the team at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Chicago on mindset and the West Coast Offense for running a real estate company or team. Of course, I also sat down to write this post to you.

Our topic today revolves around a key leadership figure, a college coach so influential in the world of basketball and beyond, that as the NBA playoffs continue, you can see his impact on game play. He coached a total of 68 NBA draft picks, 42 of whom went in the first round.

I’m speaking, of course, about the legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski, also known as “Coach K.” His incredible career took off in 1980 after Duke University hired him to coach the Blue Devils’ basketball program. He’d been coach at Army West Point for five seasons, and while it would be a few more years before the Blue Devils became a powerhouse college basketball team, in 1985-1986, the team won ACC regular-season and tournament titles.

Here are a few more impressive stats about Coach K: He’s coached 37 All-Americans, nine national players of the year and a total of 208 players.

“A leader has to be positive about all things that happen to his team,” he once said. “Look at nothing in the past as failure.”

In the spirit of Coach K’s philosophy of looking back to build a brighter future, let’s do a full court press on his leadership skills:

Each interaction with a player on your team matters. Sports Illustrated, in a tribute article to Coach K, noted that his “success does not come from what he does with X’s and O’s. It is in his ability to shape people into a team.” It’s true. What is a team but a collection of varying personalities, cultures, backgrounds, and experiences that must somehow come together for the collective good of all? Somehow, they must make it work – or to quote a concept from last week’s Thoughts on Leadership, they must find their swing. Coach K understood the last player on the bench might play a pivotal role in the upcoming game; the person playing the best might not be the player going full out, even if the scoreboard says they are. One player who is clearly struggling might need kind words while another player struggling in the exact same way might need some tough love. He once said: “When you first assemble a group, it’s not a team right off the bat. It’s just a collection of individuals.” Coach K’s magic can be found in those small, daily interactions and the way he calculated how each one transformed his group of players into a fierce, winning team.

A good leader can adapt to changes and doesn’t fear making tough decisions. Coach K said: “The truth is that many people set rules to keep from making decisions. Not me. I don’t want to be a manager or a dictator. I want to be a leader – and leadership is ongoing, adjustable, flexible, and dynamic.”

A winning team is a tough team to beat. In 2010, Sports Illustrated described Duke’s performance as “emblematic of a team that finished 35-5 and won with toughness rather than style.” Before a pivotal game, Coach K wrote four words on the locker room’s white board: STRONG. TOGETHER. TALK. CRASH. Strong is a reference to their team strength. Together speaks to their team chemistry. Talk is about their ability to communicate among the team. Crash refers to their willingness to crash the boards. Why? Because the team is tough, willing to do whatever it takes – and not just whatever is convenient – to win.

Humility means progress. Coach K once said, “It’s perfectly fine to say you’re not good enough. The question is, what do you do to be good enough?” In other words, be humble enough to admit your mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with not being at the level you want to be, as long as you come up with a plan, the “what you do” to take actionable, measurable steps toward progress. In 2008, the day before Team USA would compete in the summer Olympics (Coach K was selected as their coach) he was asked about the team’s prospect of winning gold. His answer? “I think we’re humble enough to do it.”

Your team needs to believe in your mission, otherwise winning is impossible. Participation in the Olympics is contested by some NBA team owners because they’re afraid their star players will get injured during a game played with smaller compensation compared with their NBA salaries. (Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban did not mince words on this topic. He said: “I can’t think of anything more ridiculous and stupid than giving away the best assets from a for-profit business to somebody else to make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.”) So, when Coach K inherited Team USA, there were already underlying challenges, and the dilemma was how to instill pride and purpose in his players when NBA owners weren’t confident they should be there. In a short amount of time, he had to get the players to trust him, and he had to be a strong enough leader to earn that trust. (He once said, “In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.”) How did he do it? He didn’t just get his players to play well, he got them to believe in the reason they were there. And buoyed by that belief, Team USA defeated Spain 118-107 to win gold.

So, what’s the message? Coach K was head coach at Duke for 42 seasons and has a 1,202-367 record with five national championships and 13 Final Four appearances to his name. You’d think a coach with this kind of Hall of Fame career would say winning is everything. But here’s one final quote from Coach K that speaks to the why behind his leadership: “You have to work hard at staying in contact with your friends, so your relationships will continue and live on,” he said. “Friendships, along with love, make life worth living.”

Coach K presenting Dalton MacAfee with annual Coach K West Point student-athlete award. Dalton, an Army Ranger and former captain of West Point Hockey and varsity lacrosse player, is the son of Heisman Trophy finalist and three time Notre Dame All American Ken MacAfee, and nephew of our own Allan Dalton who was a former Boston Celtic draft choice.

Thoughts on Leadership: Leadership Lessons from 2022 Masters Winner Scottie Scheffler

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting the work week early with a Sunday flight to Carlsbad, California, so I could conduct my Monday morning meetings from my hotel room (and not while traveling). On Monday morning, I participated in the Berkshire Hathaway Energy meeting and completed all my WIG calls from 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At 3 p.m. I joined a session for the Zillow Industry Forum, which I attended through Wednesday. And I am back in Northern California today where I’m now sitting down to write you this post.

Like many people, I spent last weekend watching the 2022 Masters. (I’ve written before about the iconic golf tournament, read the post here.) I’ve long been fascinated with the Masters, and it’s probably because golf holds a special place in my heart. As a senior in high school, I started a job at Cherry Chase Golf and Swim Club in Sunnyvale, California, which I held through college. After graduating from San Jose State University, I was appointed General Manager of the Cherry Chase Golf and Swim Club. After a developer bought the land, I got my real estate license to sell the new homes that would be developed there. I had just $1 in my pocket, and I was determined to work harder than anyone else to find success. I look back on those formative years and realize how they’ve shaped my career and the way I approach leadership today.

But back to the Masters … No. 1 ranked PGA Tour golfer Scottie Scheffler finished in first place, three strokes ahead of second-placed Rory Mcllroy. It was Scheffler’s first major title. When asked immediately after the win how he felt about being the 2022 Masters champion, Scheffler said with humility: “Pretty tired.”

Being number one doesn’t happen by accident. It takes consistent work, a focus on your Wildly Important Goals and a strong, positive mindset of a winner. I watched on TV as Scheffler walked off the green and greeted his family and close friends, and you could just tell he’s not only a great golfer but also a great person. 

Here are a few facts about the newly minted Masters champion:

He started at a very young age. The Scheffler family borrowed money to allow their young son (then just age 6) to join the Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas where he began working with Randy Smith, head golf professional at Royal Oaks Country Club, who became his swing coach. Though he was just six years old, Scheffler had the focus and drive (quite literally) of a champion. Smith recalls their first meeting: “I walked down, his parents were there, and they introduced him, and he took his hat off, shook my hand then went back to hitting balls.”

His job is his passion. In high school, Scheffler played lacrosse, basketball, baseball, and football but golf was always his number one passion. “My whole life, I knew how much I loved golf,” he told Golf Digest reporter Keely Levins. “It was the one sport I always wanted to be playing, regardless of the season.”

He knows the importance of a good swing. In the offseason, Scheffler took a trip to the Scotty Cameron Putter Studio in San Marcos, California and switched one of his clubs to a Scotty Cameron by Titleist Special Select Timeless Tourtype GSS. Right after the switch, he got his first tour win. The week of the Masters, he felt like the club was off. Tour reps examined the putter and realized he was right – the loft and lie angles were off from where they should be, so the putter was adjusted the day before the Masters began. The idea that swing takes perfect synchronicity and mechanics to achieve is a sentiment echoed in one of my favorite books, “The Boys in The Boat” by Daniel James Brown:

“There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that not a single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action – each subtle turning of wrists – must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation. Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.”

So, what’s the message? When he won the Masters, Sheffler became part of an exclusive club – one of only a few players to win the Masters in the start immediately following their World No. 1 status. He joins Ian Woosman, Fred Couples, Tiger Woods, and Dustin Johnson in this feat, and proves to the world that with passion, perseverance, a positive mindset and a putter with the right loft and lie angles, anyone can win.

Pictured: Our CEO of Allie Beth Allman, Keith Conlon played golf on Tuesday with 2022 Masters Champion Scottie Sheffler. (Keith, you can let me know how it feels to tee off right after the No. 1 golfer in the world has striked one 308 yards right down the middle of the fairway.) Sheffler is giving the University of Texas Hook ‘em sign and in case you don’t know, Keith is with the TCU Horned Frogs. In another twist of coincidence, Allie Beth Allman agent Alex Perry was the listing agent and Allie Beth Allman agent Ashley Ferguson was the selling agent for Sheffler’s home.

Thoughts on Leadership: Lessons from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me starting Monday at home with my typical WIG calls then traveling to Atlanta, Georgia for the Realty Alliance General Membership Meeting. The conference was filled with valuable takeaways and insights from trailblazers, disruptors, and visionaries in the world of real estate and beyond. There was one keynote that had a particular impact on me, delivered by Horst Schulze, co-founder, and former president of the Ritz-Carlton Company. I’ve written about the Ritz-Carlton Gold Standard for operations before, but to refresh your memory these are a few of the Gold Standard values that guide the company and its team members to operate with impeccable service and the highest standards of performance, execution and leadership:

  1. I build strong relationships and create guests for life.
  2. I am empowered to create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests.
  3. I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve customer experience.
  4. I own and immediately resolve problems.
  5. I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
  6. I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
  7. I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.

In his presentation, Horst Schulze told an interesting story that is the epitome of accountability in action. He said that if there was an underperforming hotel, he would give the general manager three months to turn things around; if they didn’t, he’d go to the hotel, sit in the GM’s office, and have the GM sit in the corner and watch Schulze turn hotel operations around. Talk about accountability!

Here are a few other lessons from Schulze:

Top performers pick up the trash. What’s one trait of a top performer? They pick up the trash, says Schulze. When something isn’t taken care of, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty and do it themselves. Wait around for someone else to do a job you may not want to do, and you’ll be waiting forever. And who can perform if they’re just sitting there waiting for something to happen? Make it happen yourself, Schulze explains.

Don’t ever be late. To Schulze, one of the greatest insults is tardiness. He says it doesn’t matter if you’re thirty seconds or thirty minutes late; when you’re late, you’re late and it is a sign of disrespect and a lack of care. You arranged for someone else to meet you at a particular time and place (even if it’s virtually), you have a duty to be there at that exact moment, too.

Managers push, leaders inspire. Managers control the hierarchy of an organization, says Schulze but they don’t have real buy-in when it comes to the overall success of the team or their ability to inspire their team to reach new levels of greatness; they simply care that profits are increasing and the business is growing. A leader is someone who gets that team members to want to do their job. They know an inspired employee is a passionate employee and that dedication to excellence spills out into all aspects of the company.

Excellent customer service can cost you – and that’s OK. At the Ritz-Carlton, it was common practice to spend money to keep guests happy. In fact, every employee could spend up to $2,000 per guest, per incident to right a wrong. Sometimes this meant purchasing a meal for a guest who was dissatisfied but sometimes, it was even more extensive. At the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun, Mexico, for example, hotel employees used that money to buy metal detectors when a young couple on their honeymoon lost their wedding band on the beach. At another location, one guest – a mother with a two-year-old son – realized her son lost his favorite Thomas & Friends train toy while they were packing up to leave the hotel and head to the airport. Frantic, the mother mentioned the missing toy to one of the Ritz-Carlton employees and called the loss “heartbreaking.” The employees helped the mother search for the toy to no avail, so they simply went to the nearest toy store and purchased a new one for the woman’s son. They gave it to him with a note that said, ‘Thomas took a long vacation but he’s back now and included a few photos of the Thomas toy in various locations around the hotel. The mother said she would tell anyone she met that Ritz-Carlton won her business for life.

So, what’s the message? Horst Schulze is widely regarded as an icon in the service and hospitality industry, not only because he led his company with excellence but also because he instilled the idea that excellence should not be a sometimes-endeavor; it is an always-endeavor and with perpetual improvement, impeccable service, and an empowered team, you can achieve this excellence no matter what business you’re in or what customers you serve.

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