Student Housing

The 9 Questions Leaders Ask

A friend recently commented on a post where I stated that great leaders ask great questions. In fact, I believe that to be the bulwark of their mission. But what kinds? Here are a few from the top of my head:

  1. Who are we and who do we want to be as an organization? Everything flows from this question and its importance shouldn’t be overlooked – and it begs the next one…
  2. What does that look like in practice? If we’re going to do it, we should have an idea of what we’re aiming at.
  3. What does success look like in this instance? How do we know if we’ve achieved our mission? If we don’t know there’s not much point in pursuing it.
  4. What traits does an organization possess that we aspire to be? Who are our role models? Is there someone doing it incredibly well already? What do we want to adopt from what they’re doing?
  5. What’s the craziest thing you’d do if you owned this company? Often times asking questions without the limits of rational conditions gets the mind to say things it wouldn’t normally. Pick at the thread and trace it back to the underlying point of the statement – see what it’s trying to say.
  6. Does this fit our mission? Southwest airlines is famous for being “The low cost airline” so their CEO famously stated they wouldn’t  add salads on a flight from Vegas to Seattle as it didn’t fit the mission. What are we doing that’s outside our mission?
  7. Why are we doing this and not something else? A number of factors pop up that make us do things: pride, ease, cost, budgets, etc…. this can be a great moment to educate our team by explaining the thought process of what we do and why.
  8. If you were a client/customer would you buy this? How would you feel about the policy/practice? It can be a good reflection to see how our decisions affect others and if we’d be OK with them. It may seem small internally, but it always resonates outward.
  9. What’s our guiding philosophy say in regards to this proposal? A leader is never done wondering if their current practices are in alignment with the companies goals and ethos.

Ultimately, I think the leader is tasked with keeping forever in mind the ultimate goals and philosophy of the organization and further charged with keeping them sacred – to make sure that everything taken on comports with that world view. Or, if confronted with a new situation that compels change of the founding philosophy, to make the hard changes and sell them to the rest of the team.

As always, nothing important happens without meaningful communication.

So what which questions do you think your group should ask, often?

Not Quite Ready to Live…

Not Quite Ready to Live...

I’m not sure why it feels this way, but I’m sure it’s not just me. In fact, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who actually said it first, and hell, that was what, 130 years ago?

Sure, there’s the tired expressions like “life is what happens when you’re making plans” and “life is the journey not the destination.” True to both of those, though not very useful in ridding us of this annoying tickle in our brain stem – the one that nags us that we’re just not LIVING, you know?

I think what Emerson meant, and what bothers me most, is the recognition that the “living” we’re never doing, is the kind that forces us to meld our highest desires and our most basic actions.

We want to be productive, but ‘damn it! the Oscars are on!’ We want to be more connected to our friends, but we can’t put down our smart phones for the person in the room telling us about their day. We want to get further ahead in life, but we neglect to take the steps to make it happen on our own.

Obtaining the authentic kind of living, the only true happiness available, is a process that requires nearly reckless independence from the rest of humanity. It requires that no one else set the docket for your day or your life besides you – even if that means you’re out of the loop on a lot of trivial things.

I don’t mean run off to a cabin in the woods (it’s been done before), I mean one has to reject a whole slate of obligations, or observances of custom in order to pair it down to what ultimately matters. To give those things, and little else, the total time and attention to live an authentic life.

Who gives a damn if you’re fast approaching 40 and there’s not a suitable candidate for a spouse in sight? Are you happy with your life? Do you do the things you’d ultimately love to do and say to hell with the rest? Do you work to make yourself the kind of person you’d like to be? REALLY like to be?

I can promise you this: If you are truly happy – No bullshit, actually, infectiously, enthusiastically, forest-fire-of-confidence-happy, then you won’t have a problem finding a spouse. Or a job. Or a friend. Or a good time on a Friday night.

Because you’ll make those things happen on your own. You’ll decide for yourself what a good time is and won’t have it decided for you by some televised guidos with a penchant for fist-pumping. Unless you like fist pumping, in your heart of hearts, in which case go nuts.

I think the “getting ready to live” is the idea that one day, we’ll just wake up and ‘want’ to; do all the things that are good for us, or what others would like us to do, or what we think we’d like ourselves to do. That doesn’t happen – it just results in more waiting for us to magically align with something we think we want or are told we want.

Don’t wait. Don’t think your going to wake up with a series of immutable desires that compel you to; work out, fall in love with accounting, or go to church three times a week.

Do: focus on what you love and what an actual life you’d die for looks like, and what steps exist between you and that life.

The happiest people around never hide their passion, and give few damns about what anyone ultimately thinks. No way that’s a coincidence.

Thank God It’s Monday! No, Seriously…

I have a confession: I love Mondays. Yeah, you heard it – Mondays rule.

Mondays suck for some people. They used to suck for me. I first learned “TGIF” when I was in elementary school. First heard my parents play drive-time afternoon radio on the way home from school about how awesome it was that one didn’t have to work for two days. It seemed, well… normal.

If you work for someone else and you view your work as something that’s just a requirement and not a huge opportunity, then TGIF makes sense as a mantra. Me? I’d prefer not to go through life that way and you don’t have to either.

Hat tip to Eric Thomas (the super intense guy in this video) for coining the alternate term, “TGIM.” If you haven’t seen his other videos, I highly recommend them as opposed to a shot of 5-hour energy. His passion is infectious and worthy of imitation. If you care about being the best version of yourself possible, then this is what you need to get behind. To hell with YOLO, all you need to know is that Monday is the starting gun of awesomeness.

Monday is where you get to shake off two days of lethargy and open up an early lead on the rest of the pack. Well rested, you can hunker down and attack the week, making Friday hope you never arrive for when you do, you’ll surely slay it with the intensity of an apex predator.

Any work, even work for someone else, should be in the service of your ultimate goals. Where do you want to go and who do you want to be? Working gets us there and Monday is a damn fine place to start. Fridays often piss me off as I wish I had another day to get more done in that week. In fact, regardless of how much we got done, another day would always be welcome. Monday guarantees you four more whereas Friday promises none.

JFK once said, “Don’t pray for easier lives, pray to be stronger men.” With the same sentiment, don’t wish for easier days, wish for greater opportunity – and nothing has more opportunity in it than a Monday morning, pregnant with possibility.

Your Silence Isn’t Helping Anyone…

Your silence isn’t helping anyone. Least of all you.

Sure, it fits with all the things you’ve been told. That it’s better to “fly under the radar” and to “live to fight another battle.” The problem is you aren’t looking for any battles. And you definitely aren’t looking to live another day – because you’re not doing any living right now. At least not the kind that matters.

I’m not talking about rock climbing and cliff diving and all the risky things one does with one’s life that might provide a rare dose of adrenaline. I’m talking about the day-to-day living that would do a lot to make you happier and more successful. It’s easy to be daring when jumping out of a plane with a trained instructor strapped to your posterior, but another thing altogether to open your mouth at the next meeting and say the unpopular thing that needs to be said.

Forgive me, I’ve been reading/listening to an insane amount of Seth Godin lately, and like all good philosopher poets (we’re calling a “marketing guru” this now? – I am) they have their ONE. BIG. THING. And Godin’s is seductively simple: Make Art. Cause a ruckus. Be bold. Sure, there’s a lot more, but this is the overarching summary in my eyes. And it’s a summation that rings big ass church bells in my noggin.

As a business leader and overall fan of the human condition, I’m constantly motivated by learning what motivates people – or as I’m finding out – what holds them back. My current project is leading a team of 40+ in the daily operations of an off-campus Student Housing community near UCF. It’s exhilarating and every bit a seething mass of awesomeness. At the same time, a big part of my role is as teacher to a number of them whom are still in college and finding their way in the world. This is the messiest part, and also my favorite.

On certain days (read: the best days) I pontificate a lot. My passion gets to run free and I become a whirling dervish of know-how. I try to start with underlying principles and work up from there to the more concrete issue at hand. If you don’t know the “why” you won’t care about the “how”, I always think.

With that in mind, and a good dose of Godin in my ears, I’ve come to believe the biggest restraining force working on anyone is the fear of being wrong. No one likes it and frankly, we’re not taught how to deal with it and accept it. In fact, we’re taught to avoid the whole possibility entirely:

  • If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
  • Everyone has their own opinion
  • Who are you to say?
  • There’s a time and a place and this isn’t it. (Never is!)
  • Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. (this is my favorite)

It’s all part of the same thing. Sit down. Stay quiet. Hide your art. Hide your knowledge. Hide your passion. No one can crap all over your dream if you don’t actually do anything to make it concrete. This extends past dreams to mere notions of “wouldn’t this be cool…” so we don’t dare do anything we’re not explicitly told to.

It sucks. And I’ve known this for as long as I can remember. I’m done with it.

I’ve had a great career thus far and I owe it entirely to my inability to shut my pie hole. I say the wrong things at the wrong times. I break rules and conventions when they don’t suit the mission and act as obstacles to our goals. I don’t do this recklessly, but do you realize how many rules exist because some idiot not following it could do real damage?

And failure has been a big part of it. I’ve screwed up royally for sure. Mostly, I’ve finished with far more success than not, and in failing, have cleared a new path of others who could benefit from my failure. It gets seen, it gets celebrated. “Whoops, I did something stupid guys – but this is why I did it.”

So speak up. Stand up. Be counted on. Be a part of whatever it is you’re already a part of instead of just dipping in your seat to avoid getting called on. Guess what? They know you’re there and they know you’ve got nothing to say. Isn’t that way worse than being thought stupid?

Prepare. Learn. Think. And sit up straight next time, lean forward and open that mouth god gave you. Your living doesn’t happen on the weekends or in a mountain – it happens wherever you are, everyday.

Worst case? They fire you for looking/thinking/saying something stupid. You move on, get a new gig, and you are in a better place for it. And most importantly you’ve learned something.

Your silence? No one wants that. Unless a movie is on. Then by all means shut up.

Short Doesn’t Mean ‘Memorable’…

I had a realization today, as I addressed about a dozen members of our “Bistro 106” staff and it was this:

Company culture best gets communicated through the stories we tell.

We have this sign posted in a few places around the community – namely on the inside of doors from the kitchen to the dining room. Each person there probably touches it 20 times per day. Yet, no one could name all six words of the mission statement. Yes, I said ‘six WORDS’.

Short doesn't necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Short doesn’t necessarily mean memorable. At least not by itself.

Please know, I take full responsibility for this.

A culture that doesn’t get talked about – that doesn’t have stories told about it – won’t spread.

Realizing this, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.  So I explained how we’d come up with these six words and in this combination: It was because NOT doing these three things was the source of all of our problems, at every level of our organization.

I offered specifics on all the unprofessional, buck-passing, value-crushing things we’d done in the past. It wasn’t pretty, and many of our newer recruits (say 50%) were surprised to hear that this had been the case. The veterans just nodded their heads and recalled how bad things had been. Not that they’re perfect now – in fact, that was partly the reason for this meeting – to take us from a “rules culture” to a “philosophical” one. A culture where people’s passions were aroused and their minds dwelled on their work.

I told stories about two versions of our business: one in which we hold these key components in our hearts and our brains every moment, and another version where we did whatever we wanted. Not hard to imagine how these two worlds would look after a short while.

Nearly as bad was the version in which everyone was simply a wage-slave and wasn’t permitted to think or act for the greater goals of our company. What a miserable life that would be.

In fact, I told them all that if I couldn’t enjoy what I did for a living, I would:
1. Seek to change it for the better through action and suggestions.    If that didn’t work I’d have to…
2. Find work elsewhere, or if that was somehow impossible I’d…
3. Kill myself.

Actually, that last one is a little drastic, but I use the hyperbole for effect. It’s that important to me – people ought to enjoy what they spend the overwhelming majority of their time doing! Anything else is insanity.

Sure, more rules and “Carrot & Stick” management can get any group to be better, but it has it’s limits. It’s rooted in the industrial revolution’s relationship between labor and management. Toyota has long since shown that even for cranking out widgets, it’s a poor model for running a team. Then why should we use it for running people who are supposed to surprise and delight our clients.

I always hated meetings where a group gets yelled at for what a few have failed to do properly. In fact, I hate groups. I love teams, but I hate groups. I’ll always prefer to have a meeting with a team and get them excited about the things we need to do to succeed. When you do this, the carrots and the sticks take care of themselves.

Screw it! Or, Service is the Small Things.

If you know me, then you know I’m constantly fixated on the little things that should give businesses an edge. Wherever I am I want to think deeply about the nature of the organization and find the areas we can attack to get a leg up on our competition. Not every area of a market is one in which you want to compete head-to-head, so you pick your spots. The fronts you always fight on are the same everywhere: cleanliness, marketing, operations, etc…

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And, of course, “Customer Service” always seems to be one of those areas that companies want to improve. I cringe when I hear “we really want to focus on customer service this year” as this is often the hallmark of the bureaucrat. The type that only cares about metrics of things like hold times and ever more manuals and binders. Piling rules on top of rules, salting the earth so nothing can ever grow again. 

It’s not that customer service is an ignoble pursuit, or a futile one. It’s that it is often completely misunderstood. The same mistakes occur again and again and precious few realize it and go a different path. The most common mistakes?

  1. Rigid adherence to scripture- The people actually charged with providing service are rarely taught how to think. They are taught what to repeat: company dogma. Dogma never explains the philosophical underpinnings for policies, or at least the realities that created them, it just says “we can’t do that.” 
  2. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – Sure, you’re sorry that you can’t waive this fee, or return their money, or honor this deal, but are you empathizing? Often times people know the answer before they ask, but they want you to soothe their feelings. Saying “sorry” and meaning “sorry” are two very different things.
  3. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance” is a great example of what we should be teaching in a service industry. Not ALL situations are the same. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do for someone, focus on what you can do for them. Don’t be a bureaucrat. Be a person with a brain and a desire to solve problems.

The other day I was asked by a team member if we’d put a few screws in a wall for a Resident that wanted to hang some pictures but lacked a drill to do so himself. Now, we’ve been building-the-Hoover-Dam-busy of late, but this would only take a few moments. I’m glad we didn’t reflexively tell the Resident “no” as that would have been just an awful waste of an opportunity. I’m glad for moments like this because they clarify what we’re about and what we’re not. It’s a reminder to teach what we believe.

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If you take away anything from this post I hope it’s this:

Hire smart, motivated people. Then teach them HOW to think about your business the same way YOU think about it. Let them do what needs doing.

Rinse & repeat as needed.

That’s it. Free thinking, capable individuals who know the mission will always outperform robotic “representatives” droning out “I’m sorry” for a misapplied policy.

Yo Universe, I’m real happy for ya, and I’m a let ya finish…

Yo Universe, I'm real happy for ya, and I'm a let ya finish...

Am I telling Einstein to shut up?

Am I listening today? Really listening? To my team? To my managers? To my clients? To the data? To the market?

Am I so eager to make the world fit in to nice neat little boxes that I’m not actually letting it finish its sentence? Am I telling the universe “Immaletyafinish but Rob had one of the greatest ideas about sales ever”…?

I’m pretty sharp, right? I’m rarely surprised and thus I think I’m already “in the know” about most things in my comfort zone. Do I really need to wait to the end of the story before making up my mind or formulating a response?

A thousand times: YES.

What am I missing out on today because I’m not attuned to what’s happening right in front of my face? Is my swag getting so big it’s threatening to block my view of reality?

Are you listening today? Or are you hurrying to tell today what you know?

You were in Vietnam?

As usual, Seth Godin’s blog delivers succinct brilliance. Today’s is about the quickest way to bring about change, which he relays within three points. Spoilers: the answer is not electing someone to the Presidency.

Coming up in the Student Housing Industry in Gainesville (Go Gators), I worked as a Community Manager for an outfit that had 24 other such managers in the same market. We all managed similar assets (more or less) and were nearly exclusively in our early/mid-twenties. As such, we were eager to make names for ourselves and vault up the hierarchy. Competition was rampant and ruled the day – though it was nearly always friendly – akin to sibling rivalry. Read: A fun place to work.

As you’d expect; a few of us were terrible each year, most were average, and a few were incredible successes. I’m happy to report I was always in that last group – the ones who won every single year, in the country’s toughest Student Housing market.

To put it in perspective: if Student Housing is the Vietnam war – working in Gainesville is being in the shit.

When we’d get together after hours or at events, other Managers in the second group (average) would lament to me that I always got whatever I asked for – in regards to permission for certain types of promotions or money for improvements.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. I learned after the first year to never ask for anything. When you ask permission you give people the chance to say no. After all, saying ‘no’ insures you don’t screw something up and waste time or money by doing something new – and by definition – unproven. Saying ‘yes’ means you could fall on your face and they’d be blamed for authorizing your blunder. Guess which response got chosen almost reflexively?

That’s when I let them know that I just did what I thought best for the company and for my asset.

If I knew a “Cooler-Scooter” was going to draw attention on campus and actually make my Leasing people want to flyer (thus increasing our success in leading traffic to the property) then what was the big deal? Spend the $500. But what if someone got hurt? Are you kidding me?!

That was the part that they couldn’t get comfortable with. They wanted the blessing and the political cover to do what they thought best without any possible blow back if it pulled a giant Hindenburg. No risk – all reward. Life doesn’t work that way.

Here’s my spin on Seth’s advice:

Don’t demand the power or ask permission – just do what needs doing and make sure it falls in line with your company’s culture and beliefs.
Take the Responsibility for what happens next – if you decide to spend money on a marketing venture and it doesn’t bear fruit, own that and state what you’d do differently.
If you succeed in your venture you won’t be alone. “Success has a thousand fathers, Failure is an orphan.” Share the parentage with anyone who helped or assisted and be gracious. People will let you get away with being the Maverick if they know you’re not going rouge and losing touch with the greater team.

Probably the biggest thing I’ve failed to mention is that you have to believe in what you’re doing, overpoweringly so. If you owned the company and this was your money at play, would you do the same? If you hesitate even an instant in answering that question, slow down. Stop. There’s always tomorrow.

“Be Confident”… why didn’t I think of that?

A friend recently posted a very nice Facebook update that read something akin to “Be Confident. Be Fierce. Be Rad.”

Confidence

Ok, she didn’t actually say “Be rad” but that would have been a nice touch.

As I was in an introspective place when I read it, I thought “Oh, why didn’t I think of that? I’m going to be confident today! Psssshhh.” As though confidence is a thing you decide to do vs. a thing you either are or aren’t. Try: “Be experienced today” and see how far you get. Confidence, like experience, is a thing that once obtained tends to become a part of you. Before you blow me up here, I know there are a myriad of exceptions and confidence can be lost – but just go with me on this one.

Working in Student Housing, one of the hardest things to do is to get College Student Leasing Specialists to be confident in the selling process. To most people, sales is a filthy, perverse word readily eliciting the image of a car salesman wearing tweed and twirling his waxed mustache, like some silent-film-era-villain, while he forces some damsel into purchasing a Jetta at 13.9% interest – with an extended warranty. Terrible things, no doubt.

So before I can tell them to “Ask for the sale! Close EVERY lease!” (read: Be Confident) and do my best Alec Baldwin impression from “Glenngary Glen Ross” I need to build their confidence. There are multiple ways of doing this but I have my favorites that tend to resonate with everyone.

Often I’ll ask them to tell me about their last big purchase. Inevitably this is a laptop. When I ask them how they decided which one to buy from the endless sea of choices they’ll inform me that they went into a Best Buy and told the person what they wanted and that person told them which was right for them. VOILA! SUCCESS! Could it really be that easy? 

You want confidence? Here it is: These people are coming to you because you are that person! You’re the expert! People buy things from people who they believe know more than them on the subject and have the solution to their problem! Your prospective Residents WANT YOU TO ASK THEM TO SIGN A LEASE! They may not consciously know it, but they want to be told. A guy doesn’t walk on the lot lest he wants to buy.

Alec Baldwin - "Second prize is a set of steak knives"

So true Alec. So true. 

Often, after this exchange, confidence levels soar as our Leasing people understand their role in a new light, and their own capabilities. The frame changes from, “can I ask someone to sign a $10k lease after 45 minutes of meeting them?” to “can I attempt to solve someone’s problem that is looking to me to do just that?”

p.s. 2nd prize is a set of steak knives. 

Instead of imploring someone to be “something”, can you help to actually make them “something”? Can you offer a quote, a perspective, a new way of looking at things that helps make them; confident, proud, assertive, aware, concerned, involved – or any other adjective?