Female leaders in the real estate industry share their hard-won wisdom on how they struggled to rise to the top.

Last month, more than 500 of the industry’s top women leaders met at the California Association of Realtors’ WomanUP! conference.

The sessions were packed with inspiring stories, useful business building information for brokerage leaders and agents, plus a wealth of strategies on how to build your leadership skills. Here are some highlights. 

Overcoming unconscious bias 

Imagine that you’re working with two relocation buyers who must purchase this weekend. While you’re out showing them property, you spot an open house on a new listing and show it.

The successful tech CEO who owns the property just happens to be at home. Your buyers fall in love with the house, but your biggest nemesis is there showing the property as well.

You overhear the two other buyers say that they can pay all cash for the house because the company where they work just went public. 

Now picture what each of these individuals look like — each one of the four buyers, the tech CEO, and the agent who is your nemesis. Do you have a clear picture in your mind of each of these individuals? 

Now answer these questions: 

  • Was the tech CEO a woman? 
  • Were the buyers who had just done an IPO Baby Boomers? 
  • Were the two buyers in each case a married man and woman? 
  • Were either of the IPO buyers African American or Hispanic? 
  • How was your nemesis different from you in terms of age, appearance, values, or other factors? 

Valerie Alexander, the author of How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace, Despite Having Female Brains and Happiness as a Second Language, used an example much like the one above to illustrate how unconscious bias works. She then asked the audience to repeat the exercise and to note how the people you imagined differed from the first time.   

The impact of unconscious bias

According to Alexander, unconscious bias occurs when you encounter someone who is unlike you and your body reacts by releasing cortisol, causing a fight or flight response. 

Alexander has also found that unconscious bias keeps women out of senior leadership roles. 

For example, male CEOs have trouble replacing themselves with female CEOs. Because there are so few female CEOs, selecting a woman as a successor is a minefield filled with risk. As Alexander quipped: 

“Women over 40 are perceived as being both invisible and dangerous. Who would have thought that we turn 40 we become Ninjas!”

Overcoming unconscious bias at work and at home

Unconscious bias can result in fair housing violations, can cause incorrect assumptions about another person because they differ from you in some way, as well as creating obstacles that can negatively impact your business and personal life. 

One of the most common places unconscious bias occurs is whom we interrupt while they’re still speaking. To deal with this issue, if John cuts off Jane before she has finished speaking, respond by saying:

“John, would you please pause? I don’t believe Jane has finished speaking yet. Jane, would you finish making your comments?”

For women who hold leadership positions, Alexander encourages them to identify high potential performers, advocate for their advancement inside their organization, while also helping them to avoid being pigeon-holed into low level work.  

Why women start their own brokerages

Like it or not, unconscious bias exists in the workplace. Three years of WomanUP! research confirms that many women who start their own brokerages tried to find their place in an existing brokerage model.

When the frustration became too great or when the company was a mismatch with their core values, they finally decide to start their own brokerages. Other motivators include childcare issues, being able to move at speed with market shifts, and to quickly implement change when needed, something that can be quite cumbersome in large brokerages.  

How women hold themselves back

A Hewlett Packard study showed that women feel they must meet all the job requirements to apply for a position, whereas men apply when they meet about 60 percent.

In addition, the WomanUP! research showed there’s a widespread perception that  “there is not enough room at the table” or they haven’t earned the right to be at the table. Tyler Perry’s response to this situation is: If there’s not enough room at the table, build your own table!

Alyssa Hellman, director of the Go School of Real Estate, notes that opening your own brokerage allows you to create something where nothing existed before.

How can you tell when it’s time for a change? As one panelist observed: “If the business doesn’t give you excitement, then it’s time to exit.”

Naysayers and unconscious bias

Virtually every woman we interviewed over the last three years had to deal with well-meaning naysayers warning them that starting their own company was risky at best, or even telling  them point blank they would fail. This begs the question, do men encounter the same thing? 

Climbing the corporate ladder

What does it take to climb to the top of the corporate ladder? Here are three strategies that  Mary Lee Blalock, President and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California, recommends: 

  • Run through the cracks in the door.  Go, ask, bring a solution, and be bold! Don’t expect it—earn it!  
  • Be the change you want to be. If you don’t embrace change and lead the way, you’ll be left behind.
  • The higher the position you have, the better your team needs to be. Don’t change who you are, but do change your skillset.

Vikki Bartholomae, chief success officer at Side real estate and former president of eXp, says that her road to leadership success was achieved by “volunteering my way into positions.” 

Christine Kim, President of Climb Real Estate, points out that there’s no perfect time to take action. Instead, as her mom advised her many years ago: “Show up—the path is never the way you think it’s going to be.”

Confront your fears

The two primary obstacles that prevent both agents and brokers from achieving their goals are fear of failure and the inability to choose uncertainty over unhappiness. 

People who achieve their goals experience fear, but take action anyway. When they fail, they pick themselves up, learn from the experience, and then move forward to what’s next. 

Vanessa Bergmark, owner and CEO of Red Oak Realty, suggests, “fear setting” (a term coined by Tim Ferris) as a powerful way to deal with your fears and to take action anyway. Here’s what to do: 

  • Begin by writing down each of your fears.
  • Identify the worst case scenario that could occur. 
  • Rank order each item using a scale from 1-10 (with 1 being the lowest level of fear and 10 the highest.) 
  • Once you have defined your fears, you can then “repair” the fear or find a work-around. You may also see that the circumstances are not as dire as you first believed. 

Here’s another great piece of advice. The next time you’re feeling stuck or are afraid of failing, remember this quote from Erin Hanson: 

And if you ask, “What if I fall?” 

Oh, my darling, what if you fly? 

Bernice Ross, President and CEO of BrokerageUP and RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, author and trainer with over 1,000 published articles. Learn about her broker/manager training programs designed for women, by women, at BrokerageUp.com and her new agent sales training at RealEstateCoach.com/newagent.

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