An assistant manager at Coldwell Banker shares how her office adapted to the coronavirus throughout March and the important leadership lessons she’s learned since then.

Sourced from various real estate pros all over the country, this recurring column features stories of what agents are seeing on the front lines and what others can draw from those experiences. 

Two short months ago, I met my son, who was on a break from college, in New York City. I rode the New Jersey Transit and the subway. We walked all over Manhattan and stopped to eat at restaurants. I soaked up as many hugs as I could get at the time, thinking it would be another six weeks till I’d see him again. 

This was around March 7, and back then, concerns about the coronavirus were just starting. They were still minor, though. The only change I remember was seeing employees at a few stores persistently wiping door handles.

Just a few days later, I was back to work in Annapolis, Maryland. I work as an assistant manager at a Coldwell Banker office with over 150 agents. Throughout the week, we started hearing more and more about the coronavirus. The topic permeated news narratives.

I decided to pick up some extra cleaning supplies, but bleach wipes were missing from stores. I could see how the situation was escalating. At the office, there was chatter about the cancellation of Coldwell Banker Mid-Atlantic region’s awards night. One of the recent visitors to the MGM National Harbor, which would’ve been the site of the event, had contracted the virus.

My mental inflection point came on March 13, as branch managers attended a video call with Ryan Gorman, president and CEO of Coldwell Banker, located in New Jersey. On that call, Gorman gave the first instructions to limit access to our branch offices and implement remote work plans scheduled to last through March.

Our team went through the same logistical steps many offices did — rerouting deliveries, shifting schedules and forwarding phones. By office hours the following Monday morning, we were fully able to conduct office activities remotely or while social distancing. 

After three weeks of remote work as a manager, I was furloughed in the first round of staff reductions beginning April 6. Since then, I’ve returned to agent status, but not before being reminded of these important lessons for leaders. 

Great leaders empower people

By the end of Gorman’s conference call on March 13, I thoroughly understood our leaders’ expectations and felt confident in making the decisions to implement their intent. No, I didn’t have all the answers to the smaller details, but I knew what was supposed to happen on the macro level, and I understood it was up to our local team to take care of the micro.

It’s OK to say you don’t know yet

On March 13, we were essentially handed 10 pieces of a 50-piece puzzle. We were empowered to create another 10 pieces in our local office, and from those 20, we had a good picture started, which we could communicate to our agents. And on many days since then, new pieces have been unveiled and laid into place.

That said, everyone — from Gorman and Reology CEO Ryan Schneider, down to the individual agent and staff member — had to say at one point, “I don’t know yet.” And it’s OK to not know now, but still pursue the puzzle to the end and make the next best decision in the meantime.

Silence is not leadership

Good leaders communicate promptly with their subordinates. That seems obvious, but I saw many in our industry lag and reel while processing the barrage of new information.

Instead of sitting in their own wonder or waiting for signals from a competitor, they needed to take decisive action and inform their people. In the military, it’s called a warning order. Say, “here are the five things I know right now. Standby for more.” Those who said nothing or paused to look over their competitor’s shoulder lost credibility with their people and lost the opportunity to set the pace. 

Government leveled the field

In Maryland, our Governor moved quickly and worked in concert with other regional leaders to limit business activity and issue a stay-at-home order.

While, again, the logistics of these orders had to be worked out, those actions took pressure off of agents and businesses trying to individually implement a patchwork of restrictions that would impact transaction cooperation and our services to the public.

If one brokerage had closed while another stayed open, would agents move to a competitor? What about high-risk agents who were afraid to go to work, but felt the pressure of relentless competition? The state mandated “timeout” gave brokerages, agents and our clients some space to reassess the situation, take care of themselves and implement new plans.  

Redeploy your resources

On March 13, we had a receptionist who was slated for 16 hours per week who would now be paid to sit and work from home. We had a slate of technology tools underutilized by agents who still clung to pen and paper and hand-carrying deposit checks. We also had corporate-level marketing and design departments which were foreign to agents on the ground.

By March 16, we reassigned the receptionist to call and assess the individual needs of each agent on our roster, armed with five triage questions. That week, we also held all of our originally scheduled training classes by video conference and have continued to see more people attend those than any in-person session. 

Yes, it was messy, but we’re getting the hang of it. And since corporate leaders are using the ability to gather hundreds of people on video conference regularly, our agents at the local level now have access to high-quality resources in a personal way that never trickled down to them in the past.

Before, agents enjoyed the “family feel” of our local office, but now, I believe they feel the value of belonging to a large organization more than they ever did. 

Change is hard for people

Most people fight change. Reactions from agents ranged from fear of becoming sick to denial of the situation. Some were frustrated at having to learn new tools and practices that they were being asked to use. Some just decided to cocoon and wait for the whole thing to blow over. Others decided to jump into action by sewing masks or supporting the business of higher-risk agents.

We continually counseled agents one-on-one about their personal situations, helping them understand new rules and adapt their business. We also offered frequent video conferences and training opportunities to help agents feel the value of belonging to our company and to keep their heads in the game.

Patience with everyone’s emotions and reactions, repetition of the message, open and transparent communication, and many, many offers to assist in skill-building were four pillars we relied upon to get through those first few weeks. 

As we begin to swing back toward loosening restrictions, these leadership lessons will continue to matter, and since the effects of the coronavirus have differed dramatically between locations, local leadership will matter even more than before. 

If you’re a broker owner or manager, I urge you to communicate clearly — and often. Have patience with your people, and think critically about the style of business you’d like to have a year from now. Make the next best decision to lead your community in that direction.

Alison Wisnom is an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Annapolis, Maryland. She is also a veteran and enjoys helping military clients relocate to the D.C. area. Connect with her on Facebook or LinkedIn.

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