Numerous leaders at real estate companies today stepped into their roles without prior real estate experience. They say that was actually an advantage.

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Ryan Schneider hadn’t actually heard of Realogy when he first began talking to the company about working there.

The man who now serves as the CEO of Realogy — the largest company of its kind, by the way — recently told Inman that he was familiar with some of Realogy’s various brands. So, big names like Coldwell Banker and Sotheby’s. He had even used an agent from a Realogy company to buy a house at one point.

But as for the actual parent company itself, Schneider wasn’t immediately familiar with it.

Ryan Schneider

“Realogy’s board was doing its succession planning and as part of that someone who was on another public company board recommended that we connect,” Schneider recently told Inman. “So I sat down with the Realogy chairman for a lunch. I hadn’t heard of Realogy as an entity, but I was really impressed with everything I learned.”

Schneider was at that time running the largest division at finance and credit card company Capital One. But he ultimately liked what he heard enough to make the jump to Realogy at the end of 2017. And the rest, as they say, is history.

At the time, the decision to hire Schneider — who never worked as an agent but would have to oversee hundreds of thousands of them — may have seemed like an unconventional choice. Though it’s not unusual for large companies to bring in outside talent, many big names in legacy real estate firms climbed the ladder of their own industry. Gary Keller, for example, has been working in the business since the late 1970s. Adam Contos, the current head of RE/MAX, started at the company doing regional development way back in 2004.

Schneider’s story, obviously, is different. But it also represents a pattern happening right now at big companies and small, at legacy firms and startups, in which outside voices are increasingly important keys to success. It’s a pattern intimately connected to the rapid rise of new technologies. And its one that many leaders believe is key to surviving in an era of massive disruption.

The keys to innovation

Josh Team’s career has followed a similar path to Schneider’s.

Josh Team

Once upon a time, Team was helping major brands like Mercedes, Google and Bank of America carryout digital projects as an executive at advertising firm RAPP. Then in early 2015, Team was named one of Business Insider‘s “30 under 30” most creative people in advertising. The award got the attention of Gary Keller.

“What I’ve come to learn is that Gary Keller had given that list to the HR team and said, ‘we should try to be in a relationship with some of those people,'” Team recently told Inman. “And Keller Williams reached out to me.”

Team explained that, at the time, he had already been considering switching up his career and was looking at a few different industries. However, he added, “real estate was lower on my list” because he didn’t “think of it as innovative.”

But Team’s perception changed after talking to the people at Keller Williams, and by June 2015 he had become the firm’s chief innovation officer. In 2019, he was promoted to president of the company, capping an astonishingly quick rise to the top of one of real estate’s most renowned legacy players.

According to Team, there are real advantages for companies that ultimately follow a similar trajectory and bring in talent from outside the industry. For one thing, such companies will be more nimble and able to innovate.

He also argued that incumbent companies staffed by industry veterans will rarely be willing to reinvent themselves, even if they really ought to. An outsider, on the other hand, can help shake up the status quo and force a company to evolve — which is something real estate firms increasingly have to grapple with.

“The truth is you have to look outside the real estate industry to build expertise that’s never been in the real estate industry before,” Team added. “There’s no doubt that the real estate industry is expanding right now. New ideas are being tested, new concepts are being invented. Any time an industry expands like that it creates opportunities for everyone. The organizations that are going to be able to take advantage of that are the ones that have new thinking.”

Patti Girardi’s experience illustrates this idea.

Patti Girardi

Girardi is currently the chief marketing officer for rental amenities company Valet Living, but previously worked as a TV executive, and then as vice president at a major food service management firm. She told Inman that these past roles involved figuring out what different demographics want out of products. For example, she used to work with companies that supplied food to colleges, which required learning about the preferences of people in their late teens and 20s.

“What’s really neat about brand work and positioning the food service brand was that it really broadened my worldview in terms of getting to know different generations,” she said. “It’s been kind of exciting because I’ve been able to take those insights into how different cohorts see living and apply them at Valet Living.”

Guy Gal also saw the benefits of bringing an outside perspective first hand. Gal serves as the CEO of San Francisco-based brokerage Side, which he co-founded in 2017. Gal founded two other companies prior to Side, and eventually came to see that there was an opportunity in real estate after talking to members of the industry about the challenges they faced. Bu he ultimately concluded that “having that outside perspective allowed us to see things differently.”

“It wasn’t a hotel company that started Airbnb and it wasn’t a taxi company that started Uber,” Gal explained. “It took somebody taking lots of taxis and saying, ‘this is awful.'”

In Schneider’s case, he arrived at Realogy with the understanding that he wasn’t “an expert or a savant” on the topic of buying and selling houses. But he was an expert in transactions, could see that the real estate industry was fragmented, and that change was coming. Past roles had taught him, he explained, to be a “learner.”

And that skill was more essential for Realogy than hiring someone who had deep experience in one particular business.

“If you’re not pairing with new skills and new thinking from other industries,” he said, “you’re likely to get left behind as the pace of change accelerates.”

Getting the right leadership mix

John Berkowitz didn’t actually set out to start a real estate company.

John Berkowitz

Berkowitz is something of a serial entrepreneur and in 2005 co-founded Yodle, which helped local businesses compete online. When Yodle sold in 2015 for nearly $350 million, Berkowitz recently told Inman, he began looking for his next opportunity and ended up founding OJO Labs.

Today, OJO has proprietary artificial intelligence software that it uses for text message-based conversations with homebuyers. The software can also scan real estate photos.

But there was a time in the early days of the company when it wasn’t necessarily going to be focused on real estate at all.

“We started building that technology, that digital advisor technology in 2015,” Berkowitz recalled. “And we spent a year vetting the different applications for that technology.”

In the beginning, Berkowitz said that the OJO team explored using the company’s technology for everything from healthcare to finance to sales. They even talked to leaders at companies including Samsung and JetBlue and Marriott.

But eventually they realized real estate represented a space where there was a huge opportunity, and a need for more innovation.

“And so we decided in 2016 that we were going to go all in,” Berkowitz added.

What’s significant about this story is that up until that point, none of the people involved had any significant real estate experience. And Berkowitz was frank about his own inexperience with the sector.

“I was a complete industry outsider,” he recalled. “I was a consumer who had bought and sold homes and had a horrible experience. I knew that I didn’t know anything about this industry.”

But Berkowitz also had a plan to solve that problem: He hired real estate veterans, including former Keller Williams CEO Chris Heller.

Berkowitz said that he and Heller now argue about strategy “on a daily basis,” but having an outsider and an insider leading the company together gives OJO a significant advantage. The company isn’t beholden to status quo the way a legacy company might be, but it also doesn’t “miss out on known truths” that only insiders understand, Berkowitz said.

In addition to running OJO, Berkowitz also invests in and consults with new startups. And he said that many fall into the trap of having a leadership team that either entirely comes from the tech world, or entirely from real estate. And that’s a problem.

“Either of the extremes is really bad,” Berkowitz argued. “If you don’t have balanced, thoughtful leadership in the company, people like Chris Heller, you end up making mistakes.”

This idea of mixing outsiders and insiders came up again and again in conversations for this story.

Team, for example, said that Keller Williams regularly evaluates the industry landscape and “the thing we typically see is an organization being too tech driven or two real estate driven.” The result is often real estate products that lean to steeply into the tech world, or ” good ideas in real estate that don’t get implemented.”

“You have to have a balance,” he added.

Victor Lund — founding partner at WAV Group Consulting and another leader who didn’t start out selling houses — argued a similar point. He highlighted Compass, noting that Robert Reffkin came from a financial background, rather than from the real estate industry (though Reffkin has spoken often about how his mother worked in real estate). But in order to climb to the top ranks of the brokerage world, Compass married Reffkin’s leadership with that of real estate veterans.

“Compass went out and hired the best real estate agents in the world,” Lund explained, “and then acquired two of the best companies in the world.”

Schneider agreed with the idea that companies need both old and new voices. He said that after joining Realogy, he got up to speed on the industry by consulting with the company’s vast number of industry veterans, including individual agents and franchisees.

“It was a steep learning curve,” he added, “but I had people helping me.”

Schneider also pointed out that Realogy is currently beefing up its staff of software engineers, most of whom don’t have any prior experience in real estate specifically. The point was that mixing insiders and outsiders can be useful up and down the totem pole.

“I think companies need an increasing mix of skills from inside and outside the industry,” Schneider added.

The attributes of a successful outsider

Amy Bridget Pooser loves liberal arts grads.

Amy Bridget Pooser

Pooser is the chief operating and chief people officer for Convene, which works with companies to create customized office spaces. Pooser has been at the company since early last year, before which she worked in healthcare software and later worked as a consultant. She ended up at Convene after the firm turned to her for consulting services — making her another example of someone who has hopped from industry to industry.

In her current role Pooser is responsible for, among other things, hiring. And she told Inman that rather than looking for people who have experience in one specific industry or another, she wants them to have “growth company DNA.”

“It’s really about attitude, values and raw talent,” she explained. “Whether we’re talking about a line level worker or an executive.”

Asked about the specific backgrounds Pooser looks for in people who might land a job at her company, she didn’t point to one specific trajectory. Instead, Pooser said she’s “a huge fan of liberal arts graduates because as a liberal arts graduate you learn to read and write.”

The idea, she continued, is that successful people — particularly but not exclusively leaders — understand problem solving. And that’s more important than if they’ve worked in any particular field before.

“Real estate is the field on which all of this plays out,” she added, “but it’s really for me about applying the principles of leading in a hyper-growth context that have allowed me to enter Convene and be successful over time.”

Girardi, of Valet Living, also said that companies would do well to have leaders who resemble in some way the consumers of their products. In other words, checking boxes for a specific background doesn’t need to be the priority.

“In the housing industry we serve residents from all industries and all walks of life,” she said. “As a marketer, the fact that we have a diverse leadership team is very much an advantage in terms of being able to connect with the ultimate consumers of our products and services.”

Guy Gal

Gal, of Side, said that leaders coming into real estate from other industries also need to be aware of what they don’t know, and work hard to get up to speed. In the lead up to Side’s launch, for example, Gal talked to a multitude of top agents, spent months compiling 400 pages of notes and even took classes, among other things.

“A successful leader coming into real estate needs to lead from behind,” he explained, “which is to say they need to listen. They need to develop a very nuanced understanding of the players and who is doing what.”

The challenges outsiders face

Though the people who spoke to Inman for this story were generally in agreement that outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to a real estate company, they were also frank that there are challenges as well.

For example, Team pointed out that there “some steep learning curves” when it comes to things like industry relationships and data usage.

“People just assume listing data is all normalized in some national repository,” Team said. “The learning curve in real estate is actually one of the most understated things that most people can’t get their head around.”

Lund also said that understanding the complicated multiple listing service (MLS) landscape — which includes a dizzying array of ownership and licensing models — can pose a challenge for outsiders.

“When you talk about something like an MLS you have to appreciate that they’re all super different,” he explained. “Then when it gets to data and data licensing, the complexity becomes even more significant.”

And then there’s the simple fact that outsiders may face an uphill battle when it comes to innovating within an established environment.

“It’s hard to essentially burn old methods,” Berkowitz explained. “You have to give power to that diverse thinking and be comfortable with the new view. It’s hard.”

Still, the leaders who spoke with Inman for this story agreed that in an age when the real estate industry is changing rapidly, adaptation is essential.

“I think the value of an outsider will be there at any level,” Berkowitz added.

The outsiders become insiders

Ryan Schneider may have been a real estate industry outsider when he first walked through the door of Realogy, but he still showed up with ideas.

“I had a hypothesis, looking from the outside in, that real estate was lagging other industries in the pace of tech change and transformation,” he told Inman. “And being in the industry for a few years, I think the opportunity is even bigger than I thought it was.”

Time has largely proven Schneider right. During his tenure at the helm of Realogy, the company has released an array of technology products, launched and expanded an iBuyer program, partnered with OJO for a new customer relationship manager, and embarked on a variety of other initiatives.

All of which is to say, Realogy has been right in the thick of fast and furious changes that are sweeping the broader industry.

So is Schneider now an outsider or an insider? The answer probably isn’t really important — he runs Realogy, after all — but it highlights how yesterday’s fresh voices have reshaped the industry, sometimes in their own image.

The industry, however, is also shaping them. Schneider said that in addition to talking to and learning from agents during his time at Realogy, he’s also been meaning to join their ranks.

“One of the things on my to do list is that I’d love to go get my license,” he explained, “just to go get that experience that agents go through.”

Update: This post was updated after publication with additional commentary from Side CEO Guy Gal

Email Jim Dalrymple II

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