Top execs discuss their success tips, lessons learned

Q. With the economy rebounding, have you expanded your workforce or do you have plans to expand? Or are you holding the line?

Wagner: We have constantly been increasing our workforce as we grow in business volume as well as with our expansion into other business sectors.

Hohmann: We were hiring at a steady rate before the recession. The recession slowed hiring in 2009 but did not result in layoffs. Instead we focused and worked very hard to prepare for the rebound. We quickly resumed our hiring and have expanded significantly since then. We have plans to continue this expansion well beyond 2020.

Flood: We have grown by 50 head count (70 to 120) over the last 12 months. We expect to add 20 to 25 in 2014.

Q. What lessons did you learn during the recession with keeping employees driven and fulfilled?

Wagner: Two lessons. One, find the opportunity. There is always opportunity. Our job as leaders is to identify opportunities and trends, then teach our real estate agents how to take advantage of them. Two, keep the spirits up. We must always be beacons of hope. Some of our agents and staff probably didn't understand exactly why we staged so many gatherings. The reason is simple: If some degree of suffering is inevitable, it is much more tolerable when people stick together and support one another.

Hohmann: [Employees] want to be accountable for achievable goals and want to be appreciated and rewarded for achieving them. In addition, they want to have faith in the long-term viability of their company as a form of family security. Companies should work closely with them to establish these goals and must communicate regularly and openly with progress made and problems encountered. The end result will be high morale and increased productivity.

Flood: Based on the severity of the real estate downturn and related mortgage banking downturn, we had an extreme challenge in motivating our associates. We were honest with our view of the prospects, both current and going forward. We encouraged better personal and professional financial stewardship.

Q. Does the recovery present any challenges for maintaining a satisfied workforce?

Wagner: Yes. In order to meet the demands related to an increased workload, we often look to reallocate or outsource certain duties. Also, some employees can be leery of any change – even change that is positive. I have learned that communication is important in keeping employees from feeling threatened or insecure. They need to be shown the benefits of change. Conveying that reality can be a challenge.

Hohmann: No. We have had our Customer Driven Leadership (CDL) culture in place since 1995 and have consistently had a very satisfied workforce, as evidenced by less than 1 percent voluntary turnover on average and extremely low turnover in general.

Flood: I think our industry was so severely impacted that most [companies] have adjusted their expectations. All have learned to appreciate a simple concept. First, we focus on how to best insure job security. Second, we use variable, performance-based pay to keep fixed costs as efficient as possible.

Q: How much do you invest in formal training of employees? Do you instead — or additionally — rely on coaching or mentoring programs?

Wagner: Most of our training is hands-on. We also have our in-house Real Estate School, which we refer to as a Career Center.

Hohmann: We do not "budget" for training. We provide what is needed. Training and developing our people is a strategic focus. We provide many avenues, including formal classroom training, self-paced online training, professional conferences and tuition reimbursement.

Flood: We are generally hiring experienced professionals, although we have trained several new [employees] without experience. The majority of training we provide is supported internally.

Q. Have you added programs recently to reward and/or retain employees? Are you contemplating adding any?

Wagner: We are always adding programs. Whenever we increase our value proposition, the result will always be a higher agent retention rate. In the last 12 months, we launched our group coaching program and tripled our real estate class offerings. After a six-year hiatus, we are in the process of re-launching our Commercial and Land division. For our salaried agent support staff, we have increased our benefits package.

Hohmann: We have heavily rewarded productive behavior with a "report card" bonus, paid quarterly to the entire team; an individual bonus paid quarterly based on individual scores, and "profit serving," paid annually. In addition, we have a wide range of "health participation" rewards.

Flood: Our retention rate for associates has been extraordinarily high, around 95 [percent]. We believe this reflects a highly competitive compensation system. We are adding an incentive based on exceeding customer satisfaction targets.

Q: Increasingly, the “workplace” is becoming 24/7 as employees remain connected through e-mail and text message. Does your company encourage or allow workers to operate around-the-clock, or has it taken steps to discourage or curb it?

Wagner: Our real estate agents are always encouraged to think of themselves as entrepreneurs and private business owners. We teach the pros and cons of a 24/7 type of lifestyle. We feel our [full-time] employees serve and support our agents more when they can have some time off. They predominantly work a traditional corporate schedule.

Hohmann: Our family-oriented culture has discouraged the 24/7 work environment. Our expectation is for a 40-hour work week. We do not text or email associates after hours unless it is to communicate something such as a weather-related emergency. We are extremely productive during business hours and believe that interfering in the after-hours time is destructive and will be detrimental to the morale.

Flood: We do not encourage 24/7 connection. We are advocates of work-life balance with a view that productivity is higher for those who have balance.

Q: How much more nowadays are you using blogs, e-mails, texts or other relatively new methods of internal communications? Or are you more of an old-fashioned, face-to-face communicator?

Wagner: Our forte is providing a face-to-face support structure [for agents]. On the brokerage management side, we often have four brokers with doors open, ready to provide solutions to the technical stuff. On the non-personal side, we just launched a communications platform that provides every imaginable electronic communicational tool ever dreamed of from one dashboard.

Hohmann: I use emails or texts for very simple issues, but face-to-face for everything else.

Flood: We utilize video conferencing, text, email and phone as well as face-to-face to communicate.

Q: In terms of hiring philosophy, what have you learned from past mistakes and changed in how you go about choosing employees?

Wagner: I have learned that the DISC model is a valuable tool for hiring and managing. You need high "D's" to assure leadership. If you can keep "I's" heads on straight, they can move mountains for an organization. It has taken me a long time to realize that a staff should be predominantly comprised of "S's" – people who are supporters.

Hohmann: We have learned that it's very important to do the right things on the front end. This can slow the hiring process, but we also have a higher overall success rate. We place a lot of emphasis on having a good attitude. Candidates whom we believe possess the right skills may be invited to our offices for in-person interviews with a combination of managers and the teams themselves. Candidates who successfully pass the team interview process are then tested and interviewed by our contracted occupational psychologist. The psychologist prepares a report based on the results of the tests and the interview administered to the candidate. We end the process if there are red flags. There have been instances in the past when we have chosen to disregard or minimize red flags, and we were almost always proven wrong.

Flood: We hire based on first confirming that our values are shared. Our mission is "serving others before self." We save conversations regarding background, experience, compensation and productivity for the second part of our interview discussion. I interview every candidate to ensure we have a clarity of understanding regarding values and other expectations specific to the role they will play.

Q: With many successful companies urging its employees to be risk-takers in terms of innovation, how do you handle situations where someone’s idea fails? Do you prefer the cautious approach among workers?

Wagner: No manager loves the word "risk," but we encourage our employees to be innovative and to experiment. I believe we have an environment that accepts mistakes that might come as a result of experimentation. With our agents, we are always promoting that you can't do what everyone else is doing and be ultra-successful. You must think outside the box. Some new ideas will work and some ideas will not.

Hohmann: With risk, there is a higher chance of failure but also a higher chance of great accomplishment. We prefer our [employees] take some risk. They are not penalized or punished if they did a good analysis and acted with common sense. We encourage taking some risk coupled with thoughtful consideration and risk mitigation.

Flood: We work in a highly regulated industry that requires us to vet all ideas to ensure that they comply. We do, however, invite all [employees] to offer any ideas that could potentially help. We share with them that there are no bad ideas while saying we may not act on all ideas. If we decide to execute an idea, we do so as a team with the view that, if we find success, it likely can become a best practice for all. If it does not succeed, we collectively accept the outcome so no one individual feels like they failed.