Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and the start of the most wonderful time of the year for millions of Americans. No, we’re not talking about Christmas.
Christmas hasn’t been the most wonderful time of the year since Hollywood started shooting movies in color and American society, as a whole, decided to transform a religious holiday into an orgy of consumerism and a festival of awkward family gatherings.
We’re talking about the start of National Football League season. Football beats baseball as the nation’s most popular sport (with a 29 percent margin, compared with baseball’s 14 percent).
Experts and pundits cite numerous reasons why football has become America’s Sport. Some say it’s the parity between the teams (27 of 32 teams have made the playoffs in the past five years). Others tut-tut that the ascendancy of football is linked to an American penchant for violence and mayhem. And still others think the popularity of football has to do with gambling.
I say the experts are all missing the real reason: Americans love football because it is the sport that emphasizes teamwork more than any other. We’re all rugged individualists who treasure our personal freedoms — but this country didn’t get built by mom-and-pop stores that refused to cooperate.
Americans invented or perfected the modern corporation, mass production, mass communication, and of course … football. We love our individualism, but when it comes to getting things done we love the sight of individuals getting together, working toward a common goal, and becoming a single team.
There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’
Every major American sport emphasizes teamwork to some extent. But baseball ultimately comes down to a duel between the pitcher and the batter — a mano-a-mano contest of strength and skill.
When Albert Pujols gets up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, two outs, and a man in scoring position, his teammates can do nothing to influence whether he gets the game-winning hit or grounds out to third. Their contribution is limited to clapping and shouting encouragement at Prince Albert.
Basketball has always been about superstars like Jordan and Bird to some extent; last year, we were treated to a playoff team employing the sophisticated offensive strategy known as "Give the ball to Lebron and get out of the way."
Hockey … well, we’re talking about major U.S. sports here.
In football, every superstar athlete should know that his success is intimately and intricately linked to the performance of his teammates. Tom Brady, the golden boy uber-quarterback of the 2000s, set the single-season passing record in 2007.
But the NFL fan knows that without receivers to catch the ball those passes become incompletions, and without an offensive line and a pass-blocking running back, Brady ends up on his back rather than throwing for another touchdown.
The NFL fan knows that without the coaching of Bill Belichick, without the hard work of offensive coordinator, line coaches, running back coaches, film analysts, trainers and medical staff, Tom Brady never becomes the superstar he is.
I realized just how true this is when I started playing fantasy football a couple of years ago. Although fantasy football is focused purely on an individual player’s statistics, in reality you have to consider the totality of the team.
The best example is Matt Cassel, an unheralded player who had never started a college game before an injury to Tom Brady catapulted him into the spotlight as the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots for the 2008 season. He then passed for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns in a magical season. …CONTINUED
Judged purely on individual performance, Matt Cassel would be one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, fantasy-wise, in 2009. Trouble is, he was traded to Kansas City. Now his offensive line isn’t the same, his receiving corps isn’t the same, and his coaching staff isn’t the same.
Cassel still has the same talent he did in 2008 (probably), but the team around him is nowhere near the same quality. And he suffers as a result.
Why the hell do we care?
I’m sure that some of you are saying, "That’s all fascinating, Rob, but why the hell am I reading about this on Inman? Isn’t this more for ESPN or some football message board?" Bear with me.
I believe real estate more and more is becoming a team activity, not an individual game.
For example, the proliferation of agent teams over the past few years has been dizzying. While no data is available as to the precise number of agent teams in the industry today, five years ago the agent team was something of an anomaly, whereas today every brokerage company has to think about how to accommodate teams in its structure.
Anecdotally, most major markets in the U.S. are dominated by agent teams (or brokerages that act in precisely the same manner) with a division of labor between listing agents, buyer agents, administrators and support staff. At least one major company, Keller Williams, is encouraging the formation of agent teams throughout its network.
Yet, through my consulting work and elsewhere, I am finding that few teams (and brokerages) think thoroughly about what teamwork actually means. Far too many resemble a haphazard collection of individuals pursuing their own self-interest rather than a unified group working toward common goals, with incentives aligned accordingly.
An administrator is hired simply because the team leader got too busy, rather than because of a thought-out plan as to what functions that administrator will fill and how he will improve the team as a whole.
Buyer agents are brought in, but the lead-management process is ill-defined and hazy, and incentives are set up in such a way to encourage each "buyer agent" to spend as much time as possible farming his own listings.
Transaction coordinators are hired — ostensibly to help move transactions along — but often do very little except fill out paperwork, and agents remain de facto transaction managers, as well.
In football terms, this looks like a team where every play is "go long" and there’s no coordination between the offensive line, the running back, and the quarterback. It’s more backyard football and less professional football.
The difference: strategy and management
When analyzed this way, the difference between a successful NFL franchise and a mediocre one, even in the age of parity, comes down to strategy and management.
And an argument could be made that great management overcomes weak strategy every time. I submit that the difference between a successful team/brokerage and a struggling one will come down to strategy and management rather than personnel.
You could have a team of superstar agents, each one a top producer, but fail miserably, as there is no "scheme" to the business. Everyone does his or her own thing, barely talks to each other, and the organization devolves to a loose confederation of fiefdoms. The solution is strategy: a plan of attack or defense that leverages the strengths of each individual performer and minimizes the weaknesses of each. …CONTINUED
Even when a strategy is set, and everyone is playing from the same playbook, management becomes critical. It isn’t enough to set strategy; you have to manage the execution.
"Let’s capture 30 percent of the listings in these six ZIP codes" might be a fine strategic goal, but without coordinating all of the people, ensuring that each person is doing his or her job, carrying out responsibilities fully and contributing to the team as a whole, there is a breakdown in the process.
I’d like to make two observations here.
First, if teamwork — defined by strategy and management — is the key to success, then addition by subtraction is the rule rather than the exception.
Just as successful NFL franchises ship out troublesome egomaniacs despite their individual talent, successful brokerage/teams will let go of the top producer who can’t work in a team. The resulting unity of the team as a whole is worth losing that individual’s "contribution."
Second, teamwork is built on performance, not on feelings. The NFL quarterback has to be able to rely on his teammates to provide effective blocking, precise route-running and so on in order to be able to perform his job as a quarterback. If he starts questioning whether his teammates can actually perform, he will try to compensate and make mistakes.
The depth chart on an NFL team isn’t simply about dealing with injury; it’s also a reminder to each and every starter that no job is guaranteed. If the big lead generator in a team is to pass on a lead, he has to know that it will be handled by his teammates professionally, efficiently, and up to his standards of performance.
If the buyer agent hands off the transaction to a coordinator, she has to know that the coordinator will get the job done without having to look over his shoulder constantly.
The ideal team, then, is one where egos are checked at the door, where each person knows what his or her assignment is, works hard at executing that assignment, and holds each other accountable to the whole team.
It is one where strategy is clear, with clear responsibilities, clear authority and clear accountability. It is one where the leader is paying attention to managing each team member, removing troublemakers as necessary, and constantly upgrading each position to have the team as a whole be an effective unit.
Question of when, not if
I believe, based on observations of the more successful practitioners, that emphasis on teamwork is the future of the industry. This isn’t about "business models" or such theoretical frameworks. This is about getting things done, serving the customer better, and making more money.
Individual one-man shops, if successful, evolve into small teams that evolve into larger teams. Brokerages live and die by how well they can foster a team environment rather than an "every man for himself" environment.
With the growing importance of technology, of the Web, of educated customers and of access to information, it is unrealistic to believe that a single person can be expert in everything that goes into the modern real estate brokerage practice.
For teams, it’s not a question of if they will come to dominate, but rather when they will come to dominate the landscape.
You may as well start thinking about it. And successful NFL franchises are sources for inspiration and ideas. So how’s your depth chart?
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor.