In order to develop our Leadership theme his month, I interviewed Fiona Cork of Red Dot Estate Agents – a company she formed 5 years ago after her previous 4 years of working in the Estate Agency industry. She set up the business with 2 other partners, one of them “silent” and 2 support staff. Now, despite the rigours of the housing market and the virtual collapse of the banking/finance market, she employs 9 staff.
The housing market is a notoriously difficult and competitive sector. Most estate agents tend to focus on a local area so there is always direct competition from other agents for all properties and clients. Additionally, with the advent and growth of the online buying/selling market, the options for home owners are becoming increasingly more creative and accessible. So, in the light of these challenges, how does Fiona view the role of leader and which qualities are most relevant for her to navigate her business through these troubled waters?
For consistency, I steered the chat through the framework of the survey we just completed at the3rdi and the results formed the basis of our discussions. Fiona highlighted 4 critical aspects of leadership – motivation, hands on, integrity and charisma. Motivation figures very highly throughout the survey and for Fiona it means leading by example.
“I always ensure that whatever I ask my staff to do, I have/am doing it myself.” A definite case of ‘do as I do‘ not the more frequently encountered ‘do as I say‘. This is definitely reflected in her other choices of critical attributes. Her integrity, for example, could possibly be threatened if she was not so hands on and this is understandable in a small, service-driven business. Also, she highly values charisma.”
“It is important to remember that whenever I am out, with clients or business partners, that I represent the company and not just myself. I try to ensure that I am engaging, professional and easy to deal with because this is how I want people to see the business. I kind of represent the whole company image”. Once again, integrity is supported by consistency, authenticity and communication skills.
“It is not simply a case of putting on a face. Standards of enthusiasm and service are very important. You have to be approachable but you also have to deliver the promises you make which is why communication and consistency are also important. Integrity comes from all of these things; if you cannot be trusted to deliver your promises and standards of service, and that means all of the staff, then customers simply go somewhere else.”
“I do expect my staff to try their best at all times. I am realistic enough to understand that it is not their business and that they may not always match my own levels but if they are trying their best and hopefully improving, then that is all I can ask”.
In addition, she saw technical/product knowledge (of the housing and financial markets) as also being important as is direct experience. Leading by example is reflected here too. My understanding of this is that because staff can come from a variety of fields – administration, finance, sales – and possess different levels of direct and indirect experience, her own behaviour sets the required benchmark. It would be of little use, however, if her ability to communicate these standards (as well as by her own behaviour) and so communication is equally important. It may seem that Fiona is a typical ‘hands on‘ leader but this is not simply the case. She recognises the use and communication of office policies and procedures in their role of supporting more detached management.
“I cannot do everything and having clear procedures and documents are a major way to ensure that standards are understood and consistency of service is maintained. Communication is a two way process though and I am always willing to listen to staff ideas”.
So what is not as important to Fiona? What are those qualities least required? There were three. Open-ness, qualifications and uniqueness. Open-ness was a little surprising to me so I asked her to explain.
“It’s not that I don’t communicate but it a small business some more strategic or sensitive things have to stay with the senior staff and directors because it has a very direct impact on the staff. I tend to filter some of the information rather than spread any disruption or fears. That’s just how it is for directors I think”.
“Qualifications are important but so are common sense and some experience. That is what I look for when interviewing – I look more for experience, charisma for sales staff, level-headedness and common sense and I try to develop a strong sense of loyalty”. Once again, leading by example is a recurring theme.
Rather surprisingly ‘uniqueness‘ scored very lowly. My own view is that leaders are almost by definition unique as there are thousands of managers and millions of support roles but only a relatively few leaders. And this is not just a statistical fact. Leaders, in my experience, have to back up authenticity, skills and experience with a heavy dose of personal vision and motivation or why would they not remain “in the pack” so to speak. To emerge as a leader rather than a manager is to me a personal mission, an internal drive but Fiona’s view reflected those within the survey as a whole so it is either a natural humility within the “leader community” or that my own perspective is out of kilter. On that point I will muse.
Generally speaking then Fiona confirmed the findings of the survey as a whole. She simply applies them (uniquely in my opinion!) in a manner that reflects her own personality into her own business, and this in the absence of any management training, personal development courses and MBA’s. This raises more questions. If these results reflect the results of the whole survey of leadership qualities, in which “qualifications” came out in the not required/not applicable categories then why do big companies spend millions of pounds on MBA courses for their managers? Also, if integrity, authenticity and communication appear as critical in the survey, should businesses focus on training courses that develop these properties?
Just a thought.
I would like to thank Fiona for her time, free time for the entrepreneur is always at a premium.
Maybe time-management should be a consideration too?!