Get real: Becoming an authentic leader
Great leadership is not as complicated as it seems: Just be authentic and lead the way you want to be led

by Jessica Bates, Associate Editor, BOMA Magazine — Originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of BOMA Magazine — Just because someone is a manager doesn’t necessarily mean they are a leader. So says Terri Maxwell, president and CEO of Talent On Purpose, a business consulting firm that helps companies build a performance culture. “I think most of us have seen people in managerial positions who were not natural leaders,” she says. “Just as many of us have been inspired and motivated by people who were, say, interns.”

In her experience, leadership often happens in “pockets” in organizations rather than originating from the top down. The most successful organizations leverage this dynamic, encouraging leadership qualities in every employee and fostering strong teams. This is particularly important in commercial real estate where people with different strengths and skill sets must work together towards common goals. Likewise, the most successful employees will take time to learn how to lead people well rather than simply angling for the next rung on the corporate ladder. And, Maxwell emphasizes, while someone can reach a management position without being a good leader, their career will often stall unless they can develop the necessary skills.

Becoming a “great leader” may seem like a lofty and abstract goal, but, says Maxwell, it’s actually quite simple. “We tend to make great leadership much more complicated and mysterious than it really is,” she says. “It all boils down to two basic ideas: Be yourself, and lead the way you’d want to be led.” She describes this approach as “authentic leadership.”  For some, it comes naturally; for others, this approach will simply never click. But, for the majority of us in the middle, authentic leadership can be learned.

Bad Bosses

Ironically, many great leaders start out learning what not to do. “We’ve all worked for people we’ve learned a lot from simply because we did not want to be like them,” says Marla Maloney, CPM, president of Asset Services for the Americas for Cushman & Wakefield. “There are many people in leadership positions who try to lead through fear and dominance, but that strategy breaks down over the long term.”

Poor leadership often is the result of ignorance or fear. “Some people have this understanding that knowledge is power, so they will hide information from their employees in order to retain that power,” explains Maxwell. “But, they don’t realize that information is only valuable when it’s being shared and used effectively.” Likewise, ineffective bosses will avoid speaking to their employees directly about a problem or concern, relying instead on office rumors or passive-aggressive comments.They don’t communicate clear expectations or follow up on progress.

Weak managers often are uninvolved in what their employees do day-today, sometimes making unreasonable demands without understanding limitations. They also may not be good at recognizing and enforcing workplace boundaries, expecting a level of trust and closeness with employees that has not been earned.

All of these behaviors come at a cost. Commercial property management often requires unpredictable hours—and some weeks can be long and difficult. If managers want to avoid high turnover, they need to reconsider how they are interacting with their employees. Maloney, who has helped Cushman & Wakefield merge with several companies over the years, has lots of experience with what inspires loyalty and hard work from employees. “I strongly believe that people stay with leaders,not companies,” says Maloney. “If you can create a collaborative environment and build trust, people will stay.” When first developing leadership skills, start by considering what kind of boss you would prefer to have and emulate that. Most people, for example, would prefer a leader who is open and direct, listens to them, remains calm and steady under pressure and involves others in decisions that will affect them.

“If you are closed to outside ideas, you are destined to fail. Nothing is sacred; you have to allow yourself to be challenged and surprised.”
– Boyd Zoccola, BOMA Fellow, Hokanson Companies, Inc.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, some bad managers may be trying too hard. “A lot of people have an idea in their head of what it means to be ‘The Boss’ and they try to do that rather than figure out the style that actually works best for them,” explains Maxwell. Being “The Boss” doesn’t have to mean being domineering, expecting to be obeyed without question, hiding information and creating rigid guidelines for employees. That approach, notes Maxwell, is actually the weakest type of leadership.

Instead, she advises clients to be thoughtful about their own strengths, weaknesses and general personality traits and go from there: Are you an introvert? Do you use humor to put people at ease? Are you highly organized? Are you a perfectionist? Becoming a leader does not mean fundamentally changing the person you are; rather, it means relying on the best parts of yourself to support and inspire others while being aware of your own shortcomings.

For example, Maloney considers herself a “people person” who strongly believes in teamwork. She also has an intuitive understanding of what it takes to build loyalty. Maloney recalls a time in her own life when she was unusually distracted and repeatedly absent from work for a few months while dealing with a difficult family situation. “I wasn’t at my best during that time, but I was open about the situation and both our company leadership and my employees were wonderful about it,” she says. “And, I promise you, that little bit of understanding guaranteed my loyalty and commitment for many years.”

Particularly in commercial real estate, where employees are often asked to work long hours and be “on call” for tenants, the benefits of being flexible and understanding when personal issues arise for a good employee often will far outweigh any temporary disruption. “You have to let people be human,” says Maloney. “It comes down to respect and understanding.” Leveraging these natural skills and personal life experiences can distinguish a truly great leader.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Because leadership can be present anywhere in an organization, those in charge can benefit greatly from collaboration with their team. Charla Rios, executive vice president of Property Management with DCT Industrial, says her leadership style is collaborative, democratic and highly adaptive. “If I ever barged into a room and started barking orders, people would worry about me!” she jokes. “I have great people working with me—why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise as much as possible? I continue to be amazed by my team’s creativity, drive and ability to build strong customer relationships.”

Boyd Zoccola, BOMA Fellow, executive vice president at Hokanson Companies, Inc., also prides himself on being a “consensus builder” who values a variety of outside opinions and perspectives. “If you are closed to outside ideas, you are destined to fail,” he says. “Nothing is sacred; you have to allow yourself to be challenged and surprised.” But, he warns that leaders cannot entertain endless debate and input; they have to actually lead. “Once I get a picture of the situation and everyone’s viewpoints, I make a decision—even if that means I don’t have every single detail,” explains Zoccola. “As a leader, you have to keep moving or nothing will get done.”

This process goes much more smoothly if leaders have developed strong communication with their team– and earned their trust. Leadership expert Maxwell warns, “Some people want to jump ahead and assume people trust them because they are in charge, but, in reality, trust is earned.” Simply listening to others’ ideas and opinions can go a long way towards building this, as well as giving credit where it’s due. “I’m happy to be surrounded by people who are more talented than me,” Zoccola laughs. “To me, being a great leader isn’t about being the best at every single thing or even pretending to be; it’s about managing teams, bringing out the best in others and making good decisions.”

Likewise, being a great leader means being willing to train your replacement. “I want people to want my job,” says Rios. “That means they are paying attention and working hard.” If employees don’t feel they are being supported or given room to grow, they are much more likely to leave. Mentorship and growth should be a major priority for an organization, which means devoting the necessary employee time and resources. In fact, Maxwell suggests that leaders should devote as much as 20 percent of their time to mentoring and fostering growth in those around them.

Rules to Lead By

Even if they truly believe strong teamwork and collaboration are important, some leaders may struggle to put this into practice. Stewart Geise, managing director of Asset Services in Central Texas for CBRE, says it’s about knowing when to step in and when to step back. “I want to empower my people to become decision-makers, but I also need to ensure everyone is communicating effectively,” he says. For example, a team may include both a highly capable assistant property manager and a top-notch building engineer who can’t seem to work together without conflict. It’s their manager’s job to step in and see where communication is breaking down.

“I strongly believe that people stay with leaders, not companies.”
– Maria Maloney, Cushman & Wakefield

It’s often helpful to avoid assigning blame. “Great leaders always assume positive intent from the start,” says Maxwell. “Most people are trying to do their jobs well, but something may be getting in their way—you have to listen to what that is.” Geise describes his management style as that of a “coach” who observes the team and makes corrections and suggestions as needed. As in the case of the assistant property manager and engineer, their relationship might be improved simply by aligning their schedules and agreeing on the best method of communication to help build trust. As a former officer in the Marines, Geise understands how high-pressure situations can put stress on team dynamics. “You don’t want team members to see each other as the enemy or as competition,” he says. “I try to focus on team goals and help people find meaning in the work they do, even if that meaning is just helping each other have a better day at work.”

And, strong communication starts with leadership. Employees should all have clear goals and expectations, as well as the resources they need to meet these goals. There’s a balance between holding people accountable and providing them with the training and support they need, explains Geise. When all else fails, however, it may be time to make a difficult decision. “Ultimately, if one team member keeps causing problems for everyone else, you have to make a tough choice about staffing,” says Geise. “You can give someone every opportunity to succeed, but sometimes they just aren’t a good fit for the organization.” These decisions should be made for the wellbeing of the team, rather than the manager’s personal preferences. Leaders rarely get to choose who they work with, which means they need to learn to work with all types of people.

Allowing for flexibility in employee roles also can stave off tensions and poor performance. “You will get people a lot more enthusiastic about their roles if you can tailor it to their preferences and strengths as much as possible,” reveals Maxwell. “For example, have someone on your team who is really good at getting people excited about something? Put them in charge of tenant events.” This may mean putting people in roles even if they don’t have the typical background for it. If you notice a team member has a natural talent and passion for something, that can be worth far more than previous experience or even degree requirements. “You need to be willing to look at how a team is actually functioning or how an employee is actually working rather than how you expect things to be,” suggests Maxwell.

It also means accepting occasional failure—both in your employees and in yourself. “When someone tries something that fails, I want to know they’ve learned from it,” says Shelby Christensen, senior vice president of Real Estate Operations for Liberty Property Trust. “If they’ve learned from it and we can take that information and strengthen our efforts in the future, it’s not a failure.” Christensen adds that fear of failure can be debilitating. “Just reflect and move on,” she advises.

Likewise, it’s vital to celebrate successes. “Property management can be a bit of a grind if you’re not taking time to reward milestones and achievements,” says Christensen. She recommends rewarding team efforts in particular, even if they are requirements of the job. Taking your team out to lunch when the budget is finalized or bringing in donuts to celebrate a successful fire drill can go a long way towards boosting team morale and helping people feel appreciated. But, rewards don’t always have to be tangible; praise and appreciation go a long way in helping people feel like their contributions are meaningful and valued. And, that goes for leaders, too. “The greatest praise I can hear is that my team is doing a fantastic job,” says Christensen. “I take great pride in their accomplishments.”

First Steps to the Top

For those who want to start developing more leadership skills, there are a few simple ways to start. Many BOMA local associations offer resources for leadership development. CBRE’s Geise is a graduate of Houston BOMA’s Leadership Lyceum, a program designed to help emerging professionals develop overall leadership skills. “It was a really well-done program that helped me figure out how to apply my skills and leadership experience within the industry,” he recalls.

Time and time again, industry leaders mention how important developing public speaking skills were on their path to leadership. Perry Schonfeld, BOMA Fellow, principal and chief operating officer at LBA Realty, says, “It’s so critical to be able to stand up in front of a crowd and focus on your message and know how to deliver it effectively.” Enrolling in a public speaking class or joining an organization like Toastmasters can be a good start.

“[Leadership] all boils down to two basic ideas: Be yourself, and lead the way you’d want to be led.”
– Terri Maxwell, Talent On Purpose

Finding a mentor can be crucial for building your career, but becoming a mentor also can be incredibly valuable. “We’re always hearing this and that about millennials and generational differences, but if you develop relationships with younger leaders you realize that these differences may be overstated,” Schonfeld says. “But, you do gain a fresh perspective that comes from being new to the workforce and the industry.” People at every stage of their career will benefit from becoming more involved with their BOMA local associations and BOMA International. Many leadership opportunities are available through BOMA to allow members to both develop and demonstrate their ability to lead effectively—from chairing a local committee to running for a BOMA International officer position.

Schonfeld also emphasizes the importance for leaders to never stop learning —even when they get to the C-suite. A member of BOMA International’s National Advisory Council (NAC)—along with Liberty Property Trust’s Christensen, who chairs the group made up of senior executives from leading commercial real estate companies—Schonfeld says he benefits from interacting with fellow industry leaders. “It’s so valuable to be in a room with such a diverse group of people to learn from,” he says. “What are they doing well? What can I learn from them about where the industry is heading? There’s always more to discover.”

Christensen adds that leaders do best when they can stay humble. “I can’t stress enough the importance of being thoughtful, reflective and intentional when it comes to leading; it will help you in so many ways,” she says.

Above all, be real. “People can tell if you’re being fake—particularly the younger generation of workers who are especially demotivated by inauthenticity,” warns Maxwell. “No one wants to follow someone who isn’t being genuine with them.”

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.