Leadership

Defend the Brand

Seth Godin’s blog post today “Defender of the brand” was a salient reminder of what we’re aiming to do. In the piece, he reminds his readers that a Marketing Officer’s first duty is to ensure the brand experience is one of quality. All the ads in the world are meaningless if the execution of the business is poor.

In my experience, the best advertising, amenity upgrade, or value-add is an operations system that works well. Many people take their systems for granted but spend five minutes talking to the person answering the phone and you’ll see that isn’t the case. Tap on any area of the business and you’ll find ad hoc patches pasted on by an insufficiently supported front-line staff.

I’ve met too many people that think focusing on the surface details will be enough to make a difference. Sure, superior finishes, polished marketing, remarkable design will all have a positive impact. However, without an enjoyable, engaged staff that feels supported and heard, it won’t mean much.

The student housing business is full of bright shiny underperforming assets and always has been. It’s not all metal, glass, and stone. It’s also hearts and minds.

Want to get the best performance out of any business? Here’s the recipe:

  1. Listen and support the people doing the work. Make their lives as easy as possible; solve their problems with them. Their problems are your problems.
  2. Let those people help your customers have an easy/fun experience.
  3. Rinse, repeat.

Do this ruthlessly. Over and over again. Defend the brand by ensuring what the brand stands for is a quality experience.

“Be Quick, but Don’t Hurry”

John Wooden was arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time. While leading the UCLA Bruins the guy won 10 National titles in 12 years, including seven in a row. You don’t get to that status without dropping some serious wisdom along the way.

And that brings us to our title; one of Wooden’s best pieces of advice.

*Quickness is decisiveness manifest.
*Quickness is confidence made of form.
*Quickness is controlled, elegant.
*Quickness is the hallmark of a professional; someone fully focused on the requirements of the moment.
*Quickness is keeping your actions to what you can control and nothing else.

*Hurrying is desperation manifest.
*Hurrying is a product of fear.
*Hurrying is unrehearsed, impromptu, inelegant.
*Hurrying is erratic, panicked, disconnected from the moment.
*Hurrying is what happens when we fail to give the future its due respect and consideration.

We’ll never avoid needing to hurry. We can’t prepare or plan for everything life will throw at us. But we can aim to be quick in situations we can reasonably anticipate. We can build models and tools to help us become quicker. We can analyze our own actions to find ways to get closer to the moment when it comes around again.

Next time you find yourself saying “hurry up” consider if there’s an opportunity in the future to make that moment one of quickness.

As an aside I’ll offer you this fun bit of info. Like all great pioneers, Wooden attempted to form a system to explain his path; the Wooden Pyramid of Success.

Even if you’ve never heard of Wooden you may get a sense the Pyramid is familiar somehow. That would be Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness from Parks & Rec. I can only imagine the fun the writer’s of the show had in putting this together.

A quick word on how to Know Yourself

Ethan Hawke breaks down something pretty cool in this short Ted Talk and in the interest of time I’ll pull out the quote that stunned me.

“We’re here to help each other, but first we have to survive, and then we have to thrive.

To thrive, to express ourselves, we have to know ourselves. What do you love?

If you get close to what you love who you are is revealed to yourself and it expands.”

And there it is.

I don’t see enough people embracing what they love. Maybe they don’t know what they love because they’re afraid to get close to it because it may not be cool.

Maybe they avoided it earlier in life because it didn’t fit into who they thought they were or the mold they were trying to fill.

The happiest people we’ve ever met, whether wildly successful or not, knew exactly what they loved and let that love reveal themselves to themselves. It’s far easier to say no and to say yes when you know who you are and you’re sure of it.

What do you love? How did it reveal yourself to you?

The Test of a Leader

Retired USMC LtGen George Flynn

Retired USMC LtGen George Flynn has a test for leaders and it’s insanely
simple.

“If they ask you how you’re doing they actually care about the
answer.”

How many people above you have asked how you were and not cared a whiff? How
many haven’t even asked how you were doing? In my experience, it’s most. And I
think that’s why we’re so passionate about the leaders we’ve had in our lives
that have truly cared about the answer to that question. 

 

In another quote, LtGen Flynn says “The cost of leadership is
self-interest.” I don’t think you cease to have self-interest, but you check
it at the door when thinking about the well-being of your people.

Who was the last person you asked about their day? Did you care? 

Push Decision Making Down

Captain David Marquet of the USS Santa Fe turned his ship from worst to first by pushing decision making – and with it, commitment, innovation, passion – down the org chart.

As I’ve written about before, the default position of most in charge is “no.” There’s precious little upside to saying yes, especially if you’re not completely versed in the scenario or stakes. And who has time to get versed in the scenario? So, the response is silence; static at the other end of the line. “No” wins the game by default.

In this video, Captain Marquet discusses how he went from a “permission-based” system to an “intentions-based” one and the results that came with it.

The captain decided to reverse the polarity of the decision-making. In a conventional organization, the top gathers data from the people closest to the product/service, mull it over, and then dictates back what is to happen next. They are always reactive, and usually reacting later than needed to be of much use. Most of the time management didn’t know a problem existed until it had already been solved by the front lines, or at least a patch had been created that allowed the mission to continue.

I watched my former mentor, Nathan Collier, wrestle with this first hand. He lamented early in my career that as we continued to grow as an organization we’d face new challenges in communication and decision making. How could we react swiftly and competently if we decision-makers in the organization couldn’t or wouldn’t make timely decisions? The first time I heard this was in 2004 and it became a theme that ran for years and haunted most conversations with general managers and up. Few had good answers.

In one moment of quiet introspection with 35 or more stuffed into a conference room someone slammed the table and shouted “Get ‘er done!” The room was silent for all of twenty seconds before this interruption and that was enough to kill the mood. They didn’t get it – this wasn’t something to be muscled through.

What got you here won’t get you there.

Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

Nathan liked that quote and I understood why he’d employ it week after week. The acumen and systems that built the backbone of a local company were all but useless for managing a decentralized company that would span cities and states. He found Captain Marquet’s book inspirational and the era of “I intend to” (or “IIT”) was launched around 2008.

Now, all a GM needed was to send an email to their Regional Manager with IIT in the subject line and their proposed course of action. They’d flesh out their reasoning in the body, but that was it. If not responded to 48 hours later they were free to proceed.

And then it ended as quickly as it began.

There were 4-5 Regional Managers inundated with “IIT” emails from 25-30 GMs declaring their intent to do everything from approve capital repairs to changing marketing campaigns. Regionals had 48 hours to respond with a reason not to do whatever that thing was or the GM was free to carry it out. Regionals couldn’t keep up as a backlog of delayed projects suddenly sprang back to life. Someone had to pull the plug and a massive financial crisis was the hard yank needed.

I think the problem was due to two issues:

  1. There was such a backlog of things that were ignored/delayed that it was too much all at once. Especially for too few people to vet in any meaningful way. People that were still responsible for the outcomes of these decisions.
  2. The GMs were young. The vast majority of us were under 30 and experience was in short supply. One of the perks about the early days of working for the Collier Companies was that one could gain a ton of experience very early in one’s career. It wasn’t uncommon for PT leasing agents to become a GM within 12 months if they were bright and motivated. What they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm and energy. That lack of experience fell on the Regional Managers who were very experienced, most having worked in the industry for at least ten years at that point. Put simply, the system was unbalanced.

I write all this now as our new venture has me pondering the right approach to leadership, culture, and how we want to build our new enterprise for success. What got me here won’t get me there. I can’t be the guy in the room solving problems. I can’t take every phone call, create the daily agenda, or decide what’s best for every moving piece of what I’m sure will become a sprawling empire in the coming years.

As we hire our first GM, how do we build a culture that will keep decision-making close to those affected by the decisions? What areas do we focus on controlling and what do we encourage the site staff to innovate and create? 

I have some ideas and I’m realizing that not knowing is pretty exciting. I’m ready to be surprised by what we find and what we decide to do as an organization going forward.

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” or Coach Taylor meets Sun Tzu

Everyone loves a good motivational speech and there are few better than the ones from our favorite movies. The one where Rocky says that’s how winning is done. The one where Al Pacino talks about the game being one of inches and the inches are all around us. The one in Independence Day where President Bill Pullman says they won’t go quietly into that good night. Stellar stuff, all.

As much as I love them, I can’t use them every day. What I can use is a mantra, and not from a movie but a TV show – the long canceled Friday Night Lights. It’s simple and startlingly prescient. I can’t stop seeing it everywhere.

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”

I think of this when we get something wrong because we allowed ourselves to become easily swayed by the information we didn’t bother to interrogate. I find myself muttering it when someone makes a stunning reversal and course corrects after allowing the truth of the situation to come to them.

All that, and honestly, I’m a sucker for six words. There’s music to that number, arriving in two-word pairs. Hemmingway once won a contest by penning a compelling story with only six words: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” My first Mission Statement at CVI was only six words: “Be professional, Solve problems, Create value.” Distilling something meaningful into six words is an art and I’m its favorite patron.

Clear Eyes

The ability to see. The ability to identify what is happening all around you and not deluding yourself about the conditions on the ground, in the air, or in your own heart. You can see it all and you need that ability if you’re going to do anything meaningful.

Any idiot can make decrees or decisions while not knowing what’s happening; that’s most of life. What an effective agent of change needs is the ability to discern what the hell is happening; both inside and outside themselves.

Sun Tzu says any winning General must master the Five Factors:

  • The Purpose
  • The Weather
  • The Terrain
  • The Leadership
  • The System

You can’t master anything if you can’t see it. And not just with your eyes. You need to see it with every part of your understanding. You especially need to see that which you’re inclined or incentivized not to see. Clear Eyes is of supreme importance and so it comes first. As mantras go, this one is fire.

  • The Purpose is the cause, the morality; what are we fighting for? Is this who we are? Do we know?
  • The Weather is the conditions. If not the rain or wind then the market forces at work.
  • The Terrain is the ground, the topography. If not a battlefield then the shelf or the venue the sales battle will be fought.
  • The Leadership is not only those in charge but those whose influence exceeds their titles. How capable are your leaders to produce and adapt on the fly?
  • The System is my favorite. It’s the thing that accounts and adapts (or should) for all the strengths and weaknesses of the others on this list. It’s what we have the most control over if we’d only recognize it and give it its due.

The General who masters the Five Factors will win every engagement, even if they don’t. Clear Eyes reminds us that we should never lie to ourselves. Self-awareness is one of our most powerful weapons if we’ll develop it properly.

How many times have you seen a person, organization, or company, fail because they couldn’t see clearly; because they refused to see clearly? Too many.

Full Hearts

Are you in to it? Do you believe in what you’re saying? Do you believe and trust in what you’re doing? Does what you do each day, right now, resonate with your core beliefs?

Can you stay focused and dedicated when things get tough and your path gets blocked? Can you fight through self-doubt, stumbles, and the hellish unknown? Can you manage to lose a battle without losing yourself?

Can’t Lose

There are two types of losses; the one on the scoreboard and the one in your mind. You can’t fully control the first kind of loss. You can plan, scrap, and brawl with all your might and you may still lose when the points are tallied. The second kind though? That’s all you.

Keep your vision clear. Don’t lie to yourself, ever, about anything.
Walk your talk. Believe in what you’re doing and be prepared for the way to get rough. Don’t lose yourself.

Do those two things and you’ll never lose.

D-Day, Logistics, and Student Housing Turn

Today is the 74th anniversary of D-Day (aka, Operation Overlord); the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe by Allied forces. The “D” just stands for “Day” and was a term used for any important military day, though now it has become synonymous with Overlord.

No doubt you’re familiar with D-Day, if only because you’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan” which begins with the beach landing. It was (and remains) the largest amphibious military invasion in the history of mankind, and it was a massive success.

Thinking about D-Day made me think about General Dwight D. Eisenhower as he was the Allied supreme commander for the invasion, and further how Eisenhower thought about logistics. In fact, it was his experience with logistics during his time in the military that influenced his decision to create the Interstate Highway System as President in 1956. One of the provisions was that every five miles of the system needed to have a stretch straight and long enough that a fully loaded C-130 should be able to use it as a runway in the event of war.

Eisenhower_d-day

The invasion was really a culmination of several other operations which required the build-up of men and materials. Infantry, ships, boats, ammunition, supplies, rations, fuel, everything needed to support the invasion had to be amassed and then put into motion flawlessly. Can you fathom?

bythenumbers2

Instead of warships, this isn’t much different than the maintenance supplies you may need for turn.

The fact that they knew what they needed, got it where it needed to be and when it needed to be there is an accomplishment so vast it’s impossible to fully appreciate.

If you’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan” then you have a snapshot of what the initial landing likely looked like to the first guys that showed up.

Dday beaches

A lot like a Turn schedule if you think about it.

In the world of Student Housing, our D-Day is “Turn” or the period where students move out en masse around the end of July while a new set moves-in a couple of weeks later. In the middle of our operation, we’re gathering intelligence, making repairs, painting, cleaning, moving furniture, replacing flooring and fixtures as needed, and getting everything ready for a new group of students and their parents.

At Knights Circle, we have some 2,500+ rooms, and we’ll typically turn between 1300-1650 rooms in about two weeks. Every room is unique and we have to record its condition, schedule the work, and ensure everything is shiny by move-in day – regardless of how the previous college student left it. Clearly, you can see how logistics matter, if you’re not already familiar yourself.

Most of the industry uses something like a dry erase board or a legal pad. If you’re turning 100 rooms, maybe that works, but for most places turning 500 or more rooms, that’s insane. Could you imagine Eisenhower overseeing D-Day with a clipboard?

I created an all-in-one solution which we dub our Placement Book or Turn Board, depending on what we’re doing. We use a spreadsheet as opposed to a Google Sheet due to the sheer size and number of calculations necessary to track the mammoth amounts of data. For smaller communities, a Google Sheet is a great solution as it can be accessed anywhere and multiple users can access it in real time. However, I recommend having as few chefs in the kitchen as possible, lest the broth be spoiled.

PB

Placement Book, aka Turn board for managing 2500+ beds.

We keep it updated throughout the year with who lives where, and who have renewed their leases in their current unit. This allows us to do all kinds of things without confusion and creates instant access to information for everyone on the team. Early move-ins? Late Move-outs? Transfers? Need to track carpet replacement for 786 rooms scattered among 2500? No problems at all.

TurnStats

Turnover Stats by building and by phase. This allows us to adjust which days we want to do which buildings depending on how many beds there are to turn in that building. 

Our latest iterations have also integrated real-time move-out inspection data so we know what level of painting, cleaning, or maintenance we may need to assign to our vendors. And our vendors LOVE working with us for this reason as they can get as many printouts as they want.

Due to how much automation we’ve built into our operation, we’re able to run full audits of various databases, conduct our roommate matching, get solid estimates for turn, and keep an accurate picture of our capital inventory by the unit and overall.

Turn is the most difficult part of the business and it hinges entirely on logistics. Accuracy ensures efficiency, which means people don’t get burnt out through long hours, which means their quality of work is better, which leads to fewer mistakes. Everything starts with accuracy and speed – two things most people don’t get at the same time.

The entire operation is a massive logistics game and winning it means winning your whole year. If you’re in Student Housing, and you want a consultation on how you can make your turn the best it can be with what you have, feel free to drop me a line. I love talking to other people in the industry about turn.

I’m no Eisenhower, but the lesson of D-Day hasn’t been lost on me.

 

When you think you know what you’re looking for.

In this undated video (probably 2008), Best Selling Author Malcolm Gladwell explains how we have a fundamental mismatch problem in how we assess which people will be successful in a given field. He starts with the differences between NBA scouting combine results and how players actually wind up fairing in the league and then goes on to point out all sorts of other gaps as only Gladwell can

The whole talk is fantastic as Gladwell may be the greatest storyteller of our time. I could listen to the man read a Swahili phone book and I would swear it was Les Miserables.

Gladwell’s point here is that we absolutely suck when it comes to using criteria that will give us a meaningful incite to the how well a person will perform in a given role. For Teachers, we require all manner of certificates only to find these have virtually no impact on the actual performance of the teacher. Job interviews are generally only good for finding out if you’re attracted to someone, it turns out. Or perhaps they’re only useful for discovering if someone is very good in social interaction, but for all sorts of other jobs, how well one does in an interview translates poorly to the ultimate role they’ll have should they be hired.

Around ten years ago we had a major issue in a tough market where our newest Community Managers were getting their clocks cleaned. Their teams couldn’t sell to save their lives, and these new Managers were grossly incapable of teaching them how to sell as they’d never done it before themselves. How did this happen?

It turns out that we’d been promoting “Rental Managers” aka “Assistant Community Managers” who were responsible for collecting rent, running reports, and that’s about it. They avoided sales related work like it had two types of the plague. So, of course, when they got promoted to their own ship they had no idea how to hire for sales ability or how to teach it.

Why would we do this? Because the people in charge of minting the new Community Managers were people who lived in glass offices and who dealt a lot with reports. Guess who typically had great reports? Rental Managers. They were two peas in a pod. Of course, the Brass new that sales mattered, but they overlooked this factor when hiring because they liked the cut of the RM’s jib. They could see a bit of themselves in these up-and-comers, and did you see how clean their reports were? Plus they tended to LOOK like Community Managers.

The most vital component in a Community Manager at the time (in the toughest student rental market in the country) was the ability to rent units, the ability to hire people who could do likewise, and the ability to train the uninitiated on their team. And here we were hiring without any real regard for that fact. The people we should have been promoting to these roles were our best salespeople who lacked any of the care or ability for the paperwork reporting. That’s a relatively easy problem to solve – at least far easier than a whole team at a community that can’t sell ice water at noon in Phoenix.

Maybe the answer would have been to split the job into equal halves; give two nearby communities to a pair of Managers. One would be in charge of the sales and training for each while the other handled the books and reporting. The two would compliment one another and with any luck, some of their skills would rub off on each other. Maybe an Area Manager would have been the way to go, with a couple of executive salespeople put in place to cover the selling and training. There’s any number of solutions, but we were wildly wrong on our criteria for assessing a simple promotion and it cost us big.

I’m sure this mismatch is all too common for you as well. How many times have you experienced one in your life, where you or your organization made decisions on things by assessing criteria that mattered not a bit in determining the outcome or the best course of action? What blinded you? How did you eventually see past it, or have you?

“I Intend To”

Bureaucracy is a bitch.

What few people realize is that as an upper level exec, in a lot of too many organizations, there’s virtually no natural incentive to approve… well, anything. If you don’t approve requests or initiatives, what can go wrong? You don’t get some (rare) praise for accomplishing something – big deal. But if you approve something and it goes wrong??

As a young Community Manager, if I had a broken hot tub that needed a $1.6k repair and it was over my $500 spending limit, I’d need express written approval.  No biggie, right? I’ll just email my boss and get an answer.

After multiple follow ups, weeks later, there’s no answer beyond the yawning chasm of silence. Why wouldn’t they just tell me ‘no’ if that’s what they wanted? Because not answering the question meant they were the safest they could be.

See, there’s risk in saying yes to things. What if someone comes along later and says you screwed up by approving that thing which could have been done cheaper, better, differently, etc…? What if I get yelled at? What if… something something bad feeling?

I wasn’t alone. A LOT of my cohorts’ bosses did the same thing. Ignore, brush off, delay, deflect, slow roll, forget – anything to not have to take a stand on something that should be easy because the fear was always at their neck that they’d get ripped for it. They wanted express permission from the owner before they’d be ok saying yes. What point was there for their existence then? We could just get the permission from the owner if that’s all it was.

When the issue finally reached crisis level, the owner had the foresight to implement the system that Simon mentions at the 33 minute mark in this video: “I Intend To.”

The way it worked was, if we needed to do something and couldn’t get an answer, we’d fire off an email with “IIT:” in the subject line. If we weren’t told NO within 48 hours, we were free to do it. It changed the onus from getting approval to bosses having to say NO if they felt something shouldn’t be done.

As you can imagine, things improved immediately. Bosses who didn’t have good reasons to say no, besides their personal fear, could tacitly approve something without lifting a finger. Oh happy day!

And don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say there shouldn’t be checks and balances and proper vetting of capital requests. By all means, I’d include how many bids I’d received, what the nature of the issue was, what the repair proposed was, why that was a rational way to proceed and what the timeline would be. I’d proactively try to answer every question I could get to make sure it was in line with our company’s values and goals.

Bottom line or TL;DR: There’s all kinds of benefit in empowering your people as opposed to teaching them to subsist on compliance. Your people aren’t the problem, your environment, your culture are the problem.

Eliminate bureaucracy, breed commitment by increasing your team’s involvement.

 

Show Up. Or, Why Omelets Don’t Matter.

Note: this is a classic post from July 2012, hope you enjoy.

We’re all presented with a thousand decisions in a day – even the ones we don’t make are technically decisions – and I observed a few today and I thought I would share as I feel they are:

1. Completely random – so a good example of our lives.

2. Indicative of a theme I’d like to touch on – but let’s not spoil the fun just yet.

First, we have a Bistro at work which serves between 4 and 12 thousand meals a week. No biggie there, we’re getting quite good at it. One of our front line people is the best – totally awesome. She makes remarkable omelets with the deft precision of a Samurai, that happens to hold a personal grudge against unborn chickens.

Mmmmmm Omelet

 

 

 

 

On this particular morning we’re hosting a large sports camp which features 120 kids and assorted coaches. Towards the end of breakfast this omelet samurai asks me if she can make one of her famous omelets for the Head Coach (it’s his camp) as she wasn’t sure if he paid or not. This concern was voiced directly in front of said Coach whose business we’re eager to retain – omelets are never extra with breakfast.

Second: I’m told that we reportedly rebuffed a new Resident who relayed that their AC was not in working order on Saturday. As it didn’t constitute an “extreme emergency” we told them to wait for Monday. For those not familiar with Florida in late July, allow me to put down rumors about the unending cold front we experience during this time of year. In fact, we have Emergency Maintenance defined as “No AC when the temp outside is over 85 degrees.” I believe it was 99 on this particular day, though it could have been 93.

Third: A Senior Associate informs me that a parent is on the phone and wishes to renew their kid’s lease under an old offer letter we sent out weeks ago. The current offer is a much better deal for the Resident/Parent and we always offer unsigned leases the current deal.

It's that easy

So, what do all these have in common? This question haunted my entire day.

 

 

At my old place of work, we had these portraits of all the employees on the wall and each had a quote that supposedly the person lived by. The majority said some fluff like “Seize the day” though one stood out to me for its simplicity and eloquence. It read simply “SHOW UP.”

I thought “Is this good?” and let it marinate. Then, after a half hour, I grilled it up with some delicious business acumen and served it with a glass of “OH YEAH.” The words were from a new friend named Dan O’Connor and I couldn’t help but roll around in their brilliance. SHOW UP! How deep did those words go?

The decisions I cited all shared a lack of “showing up” – not in the physical sense, but in the other, deeper sense. Of being mentally “there” where things really happen. I’ve come to appreciate that the big difference between getting it done and saying we gave it our best, is the belief that by simply standing our post, that we’ve managed to “show up.”

Not by a long shot.

It’s not stupidity or ignorance of lack of experience – these three individuals are all some of our best. Seriously, I tout their drive and desire constantly. This was a case of not being there mentally, in a moment, and that’s all there is.

Make the omelet! Paid or not, who cares!? I’ve never beaten or punished someone for giving away three eggs and some veggies! Take a chance! On the guy you KNOW is the “The GUY” we’re trying to impress. Don’t call him a cheapskate in front of his face!

What, exactly is “an extreme emergency” pray tell? As opposed to a regular emergency? Which we don’t care about? If Weather.com tells you it’s 83.5 degrees outside and they’re not happy, call it in!

They want to renew and you want to pick a fight? Over someone giving you their hard-earned money? TAKE IT! By any means! Make it EASY for them! Fall all over yourself to accommodate them and make them happy! That’s what we do!

I felt failure today. Failure in transmitting the message. I often state that “It’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter” though I recognize not everyone hears this message. That is my fault and it’s my charge to make sure it’s known, and known well. Not with bigger bull horns, but with a better plan – not more regulation, but with more discussion. Conversations build empires and right now? I have a fiefdom.

“The single biggest misconception about communication is the belief that it has occurred.”