Lessons of Leadership from COVID-19
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Evergreen Capital's Trevor Calton was featured in the July/August 2020 issue of Real Estate Business magazine. Reprinted here with permission.
FIVE DAYS. That’s how long Seth Lejeune, leader of a six-agent team at RE/MAX Homepoint in Royersford, Pa., took to evaluate how to address his business operations in the face of a shutdown due to the pandemic.
“It was from about a day before we knew our governor was definitely going to shut us down to a few days after that where, as a leader, I had to take stock of where everyone was, not just on my team, but in my family and in another company I own where I employ 120 people,” he recalls. “The real problem in Pennsylvania was that we real estate professionals were considered nonessential for two months. We were actually shut down.
“I had to hand-hold six people who weren’t able to generate business,” says Lejeune. “I had to figure out how to not be tone deaf and to be more inspirational and leadership oriented. After those five days, I took the reins.”
There’s a leadership lesson in that five-day mark, and that’s to take the time you need to effectively plan before you respond to any crisis. “My brand isn’t about sell, sell, sell,” he adds.
“I wanted to be sure what I was putting out there was consistent with my brand and what people were feeling at the time. “Over time, I put out a lot of blog articles, but they weren’t as 'salesy' and were more funny and inspirational,” Lejeune recalls. “People I’ve talked to since then have said that what I was posting was a breath of fresh air considering all the politics of the time. That was nice to see. But, more importantly, most people didn’t
notice that I missed five days.”
Lejeune isn’t the only already-strong real estate broker or team leader who got a crash course in leadership at the highest levels as a result of COVID-19. Here are five more lessons he and others have taken away from this trial by fire.
Jeff Lichtenstein, CEO of Echo Fine Properties, leads more than 50 people at his Palm Beach
Gardens, Fla., company, and he’s not afraid to admit today that the COVID-19 crisis scared
him when it surfaced.
“I was very fearful at first,” he recalls. “COVID-19 was a complete unknown; nobody
has really gone through one of these pandemics. So I started doing projections, beginning
with a ridiculous scenario: What if we had no business for a year and a half? Then I made
other projections based on modeling that was out there on COVID-19. As you tackle each
scenario, the fear part subsides.”
Lichtenstein also checked in with people he respects from all over the country, including
in industries unrelated to real estate. “I talked to a lot of thought leaders I personally know
and trust, including grammar school friends in different industries,” he states. “One is the
president of a bank. Another is a Harvard University grad who’s a financial advisor. There’s also a history professor.
“I go to those friends to get a completely different perspective,” he notes. “I also talked to real estate brokers around the country. I try to rely on different sources and to look at history to determine how things are different today than in the past. It was all part of an effort to analyze what was going on and to get good advice. There’s been clarity in talking to people.
“Things were moving very fast,” Lichtenstein notes. “When an earthquake happens, the
ground is going to shift, and you have to shift with it.”
The pandemic was a striking reminder of this lesson for Trevor T. Calton, president
of Evergreen Capital Advisors in Portland, Oregon, where he manages commercial mortgage brokers, some of whom are also real estate agents. “A principle I’ve always
believed in,” he explains. “Is that you can’t be a healthy employee without being a healthy
person. My team is only as strong as my team members, and the pandemic highlighted that.
“Early on, I realized we were all going to be dramatically impacted, but in different ways,”
explains Calton. “If we leaders aren’t paying attention to what our team members are
experiencing, we’re not focusing on the business holistically. I have one person on my team who, for instance, cuts loose and takes care of herself by playing pickup basketball games at the local park. She told me she was struggling because all the parks are closed. That has to be trying.
“Another of my brokers is really social,” he adds. “He’s a great networker and a big foodie, and he loves to take people out to try new restaurants. He’s also been stuck at home not being able to do what he loves. It’s really important to have empathy for all of my people.
“I’ve checked in with my people frequently, and whenever I’ve done that, the first thing I’ve done is to ask how they’re doing personally,” says Calton. “I start with the person before I talk about business. I ask if there’s anything they need and if there’s anything I can do for them. I want them to know that’s what matters and that I care about them as people first.”
Lichtenstein agrees. “I found that more one-on-one, long calls were needed,” he says. “It was like private tutoring. You have to know what’s going on in your team members’ world
as human beings. Everyone has an individual story. Is their spouse the primary breadwinner
through a restaurant they own, so that agent now needs to focus on helping their restaurant?
Maybe an agent has three kids, and now home schooling takes a priority? Perhaps there’s a
health issue in an agent’s family. And overall, how does each person react to fear?”
Calton has eased up on schedules and deadlines. “It started with me,” he explains. “I’m a single dad with two kids, a junior and a senior in high school, and they needed my attention during the day. And some of my team members have younger kids.
“It was very clear we had to be disrupted,” adds Calton. “I’ve been getting up earlier and
working in the evenings, and that requires my own flexibility. I’m making sure everyone
understands that flexibility applies to everyone and that this is an opportunity for us to examine our internal business processes. Do we need to keep doing things the things we’ve been doing? If so, are there ways to optimize what we’re doing?”
In addition, Calton has stopped imposing goals and deadlines on his team members. “I’m not telling them, ‘I need this by a certain time,’” he explains. “I’m asking, ‘When do you think we can get this done’ or ‘When do you think we can set a deadline for this?’ Giving people that control alleviates a lot of pressure people place on themselves.”
“Since everyone was uncertain from a health and economic standpoint, I rallied my troops
to home in on their SWOTs and business plans so that when the market opened up, it’d be like we were shot out of a cannon,” explains Lejeune. “That was part of that five-day deliberation. I decided we weren’t going to waste this time and that I was going to take my team through a process they otherwise wouldn’t have had time to do in a spring market.”
Winnie Smith, CRB, SFR®, AHWD, RENE, broker consultant at RE/MAX Advance Realty
in Miami, agrees. “We continued training sessions and encouraged use of NAR’s Right
Tools, Right Now discounts to build skills for the coming year,” she states.
For Lichtenstein, the new opportunity was to fast forward a program he’d been toying with before the pandemic. “The lesson for me was to try things you’d been thinking of,” he says.
Pre-pandemic, the company had what it calls ECHO TV, an hour of online real estate video
for the public. The remote-working world was a perfect opportunity to expand and improve
the programming. “We did profiles on different businesses before the pandemic, but we’d never live streamed,” says Lichtenstein. “I thought: How do we take all these videos we’ve done and reach people during the pandemic? The thought was there before this happened, but we really began pursuing it.”
ECHO TV now includes daily programming on Facebook, which the company streams into other media, such as LinkedIn and YouTube. “During the pandemic, we were interviewing three to four people a day from local businesses, such as chiropractors and restaurants, about whatever they were doing,” he explains. “We call it Local Comm-UNITY. We’re running programming throughout the day now, and it’s about the community as well as real estate. We’ve also built a custom page on our website. Every time we go live, it says, ‘Live’ with a red dot.”
For Smith, the pandemic was a reminder of the importance of staying in touch with agents and consumers to be a voice of vital information.
“Zoom meetings gave a sense of inclusion and participation that’s critical,” she explains. “We used them primarily for sharing information with agents to keep them calm and stabilized. We also asked agents to share what they found to be best practices in applying for loans, along with which lenders were funding. That gave them a sense of connection to each other and helped them understand they weren’t alone.
“I also shared on our-office-agent-only Facebook page information intended for
agents to use to reach out to consumers,” adds Smith. “A hot topic was the effect of the
ban on evictions by landlords. This type of information was helpful to consumers and showed our agents to be the pros they are.”
No doubt, videoconferencing became a lifeline during the crisis, but Calton found that too
much video connectivity was unhealthy; sometimes, a simple phone call is better than a video chat. “Video calls shouldn’t be your primary means of communicating,” he advises. “I noticed right away that every time I’d get off a Zoom call, I’d be drained. It’s just not what our brains are accustomed to doing, and it can quickly drain people of their energy and enthusiasm.
“We do a lot of business over the phone, anyway, and there isn’t a necessity to be on a video call for everything we do,” says Calton. “Now I use group video conferencing sparingly and only for specific purposes, such as introducing a new employee or making an exciting announcement. I keep the length of the calls to a minimum, I provide an agenda at the beginning, and I let people know in advance about how long the call will last.”
Lichtenstein agrees that it’s important to stay in touch, and the lesson he learned was that, even in a crisis, a sense of humor and the right attitude can keep people connected and open to moving forward as a team. “It was important for me to keep things loose,” he says. “I don’t mind having some fun and laughter because you need some of that.
“One of our agents, Dan Uzzi, loves reading books,” explains Lichtenstein. “One day, I asked him, ‘What book would you give to the other people on the panel to read?’ People are going to see the tone you set, and it was important for me to convey with my actions that I was confident that we were all going to get through this.”
While Lejeune wouldn’t wish another crisis on his company, the industry, or the country, he’s
grateful for the unplanned immersion course the pandemic enrolled him in. “I guess you could say it was a two-month team-building exercise,” says Lejeune. “I was reminded that, while I’ve always had a human approach to my team, my expectations aren’t necessarily theirs. I got a birds’-eye view into who my team members are that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. This experience definitely broadened my acumen for being a team leader.”
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