Vija Williams of the Kirkland (Wash.) market center lost millions in a matter of moments – and most of her team within a few months. Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to her.
It was May of 2016, and Vija Williams was living the dream.
With her at the helm, The Vija Group was 17 members strong and closed roughly $70 million, earning the title of No. 1 sales team in the Keller Williams Eastside market center in Kirkland, Wash.
After an arduous two years working to assemble her team, Williams was finally at the point where she could move out of production – her goal all along. A listing specialist was on board to take over her day-to-day role, and she felt ready to ascend to the next level of leadership.
With a strong pipeline and full confidence in her team, Williams took a leave of absence, spending seven weeks away on business and personal travel.
A Shock to the System
It was August when she returned, and she was scheduled to meet Monday morning with the new listing specialist to regroup. Instead, her excitement turned to heartbreak as she received shocking news. The person she had handpicked to run her office tendered her resignation – then handed Williams paperwork, effectively canceling $10 million in listing inventory.
“She had gone to each seller and had them cancel the listing while trying to take team members with her,” Williams recalls. Over the next few months, the majority of Williams’ sales team left. The final blow was in December, when her longtime administrative assistant left to join a competing team. In less than a year, her group had gone from 17 to just a handful of members. Pummeled, Williams thought about leaving the business entirely.
“I had many inner analyses: ‘Should I cut my losses at this point?’ ‘Am I cut out to be a leader of people?’ I doubted everything, and I really did think about quitting,” she recalls.
But that didn’t feel like the right answer either. During one of her lowest points, she met her mentor for lunch. Williams was so upset that she couldn’t eat. Her mentor encouraged her not to give up, saying, “I’m not just going to watch you throw this talent away.”
Deep down, Williams truly believed that she was meant to influence and develop people. She loved real estate and saw it as a way to accomplish both her dreams and her calling. So, she decided to stay and fight for her business.
“The rebuilding came from within, 100 percent, and the rebuilding was about me and my leadership,” says Williams. “In retrospect I was a horrible leader. Deep down I knew I was a good leader; I just had to face things I didn’t want to.”
Williams began by reading leadership books and thought about Gary Keller who, in the mid-1980s, lost seven of his top 10 producers to a competitor in a tough economy. He had used the experience to make changes and relaunch with more vigor than ever before. She could do the same with the support of her husband and her KW MAPS Coach.
During this period of deep introspection, Williams began to embrace the idea that this devastating fallout held important lessons and opportunity.
“I had to face weaknesses and face who I’ve become, which wasn’t easy,” she reflects. “It’s not easy to change and I had to change everything. I’m a very fast-paced person and I like fast growth, which is what happened and why my team ultimately crumbled. We did 700 percent growth in four years. And for me, that was too fast.”
Losing her team humbled her deeply. Now, it was time to get back to basics and implement the models and systems that Gary Keller outlined in his book The Millionaire Real Estate Agent – the lessons that countless agents worldwide had used to build their thriving real estate businesses – and take another run at fulfilling her dream.
Rebuilding on a Strong Foundation
Even after suffering such a setback, Williams wasn’t going to shrink her goals. And now, when those around her assume she is going to downsize this time around, she’s got a standard response.
“I always say, ‘No – the goals have not changed; I have not wavered on my goals.’ What has changed, though, are my tactics, and that means the speed of growth has been changed, not the actual growth itself,” she says.
She did, however, change her approach to hiring. No agent becomes part of The Vija Group until they come to a team meeting and gain fellow team members’ approval. She also vowed to commit to Career Visioning – Keller Williams’ systematic approach to hiring.
“When I was doing my analysis of the breakdown, I realized I was skipping a lot of steps and following a very broad outline of the Career Visioning process and not really adhering to it. We adhere to it now.”
Additionally, Williams realized that she had been so focused on hitting her numbers that she didn’t pay enough attention to culture. Even if it takes more time to find the right people, it’s essential that they are a good fit with her new team, she says.
“My job is to preen and recruit. I find the best candidates and attempt to assess whether or not I think they can cut it in real estate. If I think they will do well, it’s then up to my team to determine if the candidate is a cultural fit. Culture is of paramount importance after what happened,” she says.
No More ‘Business as Usual’
Williams also implemented a new approach to some of her internal office norms. No one has a private office anymore, including herself. The “open floor plan” approach boosts collaboration and transparency. Williams is able to maintain a clear picture of everyone’s day-to-day activities as she works right alongside them.
“Before, I had an office that I would just kind of walk in and hole myself up in. And I would go through almost whole days without any interaction with team members.” That’s changed. “Gary says that, in a certain sense, leadership is wandering around, being there,” she states. Additionally, Williams and her team members have adopted “massive accountability.” Every Monday, the team meets for a Power Up at 8:30 a.m., where everyone puts their ONE Thing they want to accomplish that week on a white board, and she checks up with them throughout the week. “What’s your ONE Thing for the day?” she asks. Or, “How did you do on your ONE Thing today?” They report daily numbers on a Slack channel – an instant messaging system – to ensure everyone is meeting their goals for contacts, appointments, listings, recruitment, and to provide support to one other. Each team member sees everything because transparency is now a core value, she says.
“IT’S BEEN INCREDIBLE TO BE A PART OF VIJA’S GROWTH OVER THE YEARS. ONE OF HER GREATEST STRENGTHS IS REALIZING AND PUTTING INTO ACTION WHAT HER TEAM NEEDS TO BE SUCCESSFUL.”
– Josh Parker
“Our culture of transparency allows us to have buy-in into one another’s goals and successes,” shares Josh Parker, a member of The Vija Group. “If I know my teammate’s goal for the month and they aren’t pacing, we can have a real conversation as to what’s going on and how we can get back on track. Likewise with my own goals. If I’m not on target to reach my monthly or quarterly numbers, Vija and I work together to map out additional prospecting ideas.”
Williams realizes that, while she thought she was being transparent in the past, she really wasn’t. She made decisions and sprung them on her team members … she called the shots. Today, she is mindful about seeking buy-in, and the team is now invested in the decisions that are made, she says.
The concept of congruence – the alignment of beliefs and actions – is vital to the team’s success. Five of her team members have decided to model their belief in real estate as a wealth-building tool: each has agreed to buy a home by the end of the year. It may be a primary residence, vacation home, or investment property, but the goal has given each member a big why in motivating them to reach their goals.
A Big Vision Stands Resolute
Although the team is smaller than years past, the vision is still big, Williams says. Her goal is to have 20 agents and close $100 million in the next few years.
By stripping emotion out of her experience, facing it, learning the lesson quickly, and then pivoting – with her new team by her side – Williams is confident she’ll get there. Her renewed focus on leadership has made a significant impact on her team.
“It’s been incredible to be a part of Vija’s growth over the years. One of her greatest strengths is realizing and putting into action what her team needs in order to be successful,” says Parker.
Williams says she’s “awesome at failing” and encourages more people to get good at it.
“You don’t get to take big swings in life and live big huge lives without big huge failures. You don’t get one without the other. And so, the question isn’t, ‘Are you going to fail?’ The question is, ‘How well are you going to fail?’ When you get good at it, you can bounce back stronger than ever.”