Vija Williams – Creating a Culture Where Teams Stay Put

February 5, 2019

Five months ago, I went from managing my own team of seven to leading 1,300 agents across six real estate brokerages. As director of growth for Ben Kinney Companies, a big chunk of my role requires creating a culture where teams stay put.

But the truth is that culture is an overused word. Instead, the word I focus on is community.

I was shocked when I read a few years ago that a poll of millennials revealed they actually want to come into an office to work. They don’t want to work alone at home. For awhile, I’d thought our society was mobilizing to a telecommuting workforce where everybody was a man on an island, but the opposite has turned out to be true. Think about apps like Zoom and Slack – all these tools exist solely to create a sense of community and integration in a mobile workforce.

I’ve come to realize that it’s not about where you are physically when it comes to creating a happy work environment. It’s about feeling a sense of connectedness.

And I learned that lesson the hard way.

In May of 2016, I had 17 members on my team and had closed around $70 million. I’d finally reached my goal of moving out of production and had a listing specialist on board to take over my day-to-day work while I took a leave of absence for business and personal travel. Three months later, I walked back into the office and received the biggest blow of my career – the person I’d trusted to take over my role had tendered her resignation, canceled $10 million of listing inventory, and poached many of my team members.

I won’t lie. At that point, I thought about calling it quits. I didn’t know if I could come back from such a loss. But, ultimately, I dug deep and decided to fight for my business. In retrospect, I realized I was a terrible leader , so I set out to work on my leadership skills and figure out how to create a culture where people wanted to stay. When I took on my role at Ben Kinney Companies, I suddenly had to do this on a much bigger scale, and here are the two basic tenets that guide me.

First, the basic foundational aspect of a team is trust. When trust is broken, nothing else you do matters. What I come back to every day and filter all our activities through is asking myself, “What creates trust?” For me, the answer is transparency and communication. It’s what was lacking in my prior iteration. When I came on the scene in my new role, we had six market centers that were largely separate from each other, so I’ve been tasked with creating a large community with open communication channels and transparency.

The biggest advice I have for engendering trust is to over communicate. If you see people behind closed doors constantly and don’t know how your leaders are spending their time, you lose trust. At Keller Williams, I look at Gary Keller, who tells us everything that’s happening all the time. It’s a very transparent culture, and it makes all the difference in feeling excited about your work.

One of the first things I did when my team fell apart was move out of my private office and into a communal office with my team members. Gary Keller has said that leadership is largely about wandering around and being visible and present in front of people. By moving into our communal office, I was present a lot. My team members could hear me on the phone. They knew I was engaged in our team.

Second, it’s so important as leaders to model that we care about the people on our teams. Leaders who aren’t empathetic risk losing their entire team. That’s what’s at stake. It happened to me.

Make it a goal every day to give one word of acknowledgment to someone. It can be a kind word, a text, a social media post, a phone call, or an email. You can build in systems for it, like group texts or a team Facebook group, so your whole team sees those words of praise.

When your team needs support, it’s another opportunity to show you care. I’m not a player-coach anymore, but I have 17 years of sales experience, so when someone is struggling, I put my phone down, give them my full attention, and tell them, “I want to tell you a story about when I failed. Here’s what I did to turn it around. I understand how hard this is, but I know you’re going to come through it.”

When people talk about loyalty or staying where they are, it’s not because someone assigned a monetary value to them. It’s because they have relationships with the people they work with. It’s because people have shown they care about them.

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