Guess What Leader…It’s Not About You!

its-not-about-youEarly on in my career I desired to be the “boss.” The one that called the shots. I wanted to be the most important person in the room. As I matured and advanced in my career I learned an important leadership lesson.

“It’s not about me!”

From my first leadership role where I led a team of 3 to my largest opportunity of leading a team of 150 I discovered a leadership truth. I quickly learned the more time I invested in helping others reach their goals and becoming the best they could be the more I benefited also. Our natural human instinct tells us to focus on protecting our own interest. We naturally look for opportunities that will benefit ourselves even at the expense of others. We become prideful and self-serving. When we become prideful and self-serving we are no longer leading; we are trying to control in order to keep our standing.

If you want to be a great leader you must first come to the realization that it’s not about you. You are evaluated as a leader by your ability to help others accomplish a task with high efficiency. In other words, your success depends on the success of your team. If you invest in training, supporting, and rewarding your team they will flourish. They will recognize the investment and trust you have placed in them. You will witness them working hard to accomplish the mission and goals you have set. And when they succeed guess who also succeeds…..Y-O-U.

This week think about the people on your team and how you can help them be more successful in their career. Is there a professional designation or training they could attend that will help them be more successful? Can they shadow someone in the organization that can help them obtain a new skill? Is there a special project they can lead that will show your trust in their ability while giving them valuable experience? As a leader focus on the development of your team’s individual careers. It will pay great dividends for your career.

Executive Interview: Rob Johnston with First Communities

rob_johnstonI sat down with Rob Johnston, Founder and President of First Communities, for a leadership discussion. What an awesome conversation with a great leader and pillar of the real estate industry. We discussed what the world’s largest can food drive he founded did for his company (“It gave us a heartbeat.”)…why his team loves working at First Communities (“People remain where their needs are met, and they are challenged, inspired, respected, and nurtured.”)…the number one skill he looks for in a senior role(“First, they will have to manage people well”), and other leadership topics.

Rob Johnston founded First Communities in 1978 by striking a deal with a single client. Thirty-four years later First Communities is the premier property management company in Atlanta and one of the top in the nation. In addition to leading the First Communities team Rob is also the General Chairman of the Tour Championship which is played at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Rob has a reputation for being a great leader, smart businessman, and having a big heart.

Can you tell me the story behind the food drive?

“In 1978 I looked at four key areas where we might have an opportunity to give back. Housing, Education, Health, Hunger. I choose hunger.” Rob tells me the story of the team at Chastain Apartments pulling a red wagon though the community for a week asking residents to donate cans. He is very candid about his disappointment of only collecting 250 cans. He calls a local church to ask if they have any family in need of food. An elderly couple shows up asking if this is the place giving away free food. He gives them a brown paper grocery bag filled with some can goods. The couple begins to cry and proceeds to tell him they have not eaten in several days. When Rob and his team witnessed the effect 15 cans of food could have on someone’s life they felt the call to do more. First Communities would grow their annual food drive from 250 cans to an astonishing 10,000 cans over the next ten years before turning the food drive over to the Atlanta Apartment Association. That food drive that started out with 1 community raising 250 cans is now the world’s largest can food drive. Rob say, “You can’t underestimate the power of an individual. Property educated and motivated they can accomplish anything.”

What did finding a way to give back do for your organization?

“It gave us a heartbeat. People are at their best when they are reaching for a higher calling. It held my company together and bonded us together as a team.”

What is the culture of First Communities and how do you contribute to that culture?

“We have a culture of team work. We are a family. We invest in our team members just as they invest in us. If that means they need a month off from work to deal with family issues we are there for them because they have dedicated themselves to the work of First Communities. I see myself as the “Head Cheerleader” for our culture.”

I understand the 60% of your team has been here 5 years or longer. Your senior executive team has a tenure averaging over 16 years. What do you attribute that to?

Rob talks about how a pay check is not enough to keep a great team. He explains that the culture of First Communities and how people are treated keeps them loyal. “People remain where their needs are met, and they are challenged, inspired, respected, and nurtured. We are always looking for ways to make First Communities a fun place to work.” Rob speaks about a company practice of sending every team members flowers on their birthday. “The bouquets are not as big as when we first started but it is a small token to let them know we acknowledge and recognize them as an important part of this organization”.

On your website under “Our Leadership”  you have a group picture of your executive team titled “Leadership Committee.”  Was that on purpose and what was the thought behind that?

Rob smiles and says “I’m glad you noticed that. That was on purpose. At First Communities decisions are made as a team.” Rob further explains that everyone on the team has to buy into what we are trying to do as an organization. He believes the best way for that to happen is to make them a part of the decision making process. “The best decisions always come as a result of team work.”

If you were filing an important senior leadership role what would be the number one leadership skill you would be searching for?

Rob talks about the unique culture of First Communities and how important it is to preserve. “First, they will have to manage people well. A new person may want to be too academic and not understand the team dynamic we have here at First Communities. I have to make sure they fit in with the existing team. I am very hands on with a new senior management person. I have made some mistakes and had to correct them. They must be accepted by the team they are leading.”

What is the one leadership skill you possess that you believe has helped you the most throughout your career?

Rob immediately answers this question with no doubt in his mind. “Empathy. I understand that my team members here at First Communities have personal lives and go through challenges. We all do. My ability to understand that and be flexible has created loyalty within my organization.” Rob talks about making sure to carve out time to listen to his team and his ability to empathize with their situation whether it is work or personal.

Is there a leadership skill that you feel is lacking in the apartment industry today?

Rob speaks at length about how important it is for a leader to bring along the bottom performers in the company. He measures leadership ability by how a leader handles the bottom 15 percent of their team. “It is not how fast you bring along the top 15% but how fast you bring along the slowest 15% of your team that defines your success. If leaders spent less time complaining, punishing, and firing, and more time encouraging, training, and nurturing they would see better results.” This part of our conversation was very interesting. Culture today would say just fire the bottom 15%. However, Rob sees success as investing time and effort to train them to produce the desired results. “I would rather have a “B” student that works their butt off than an “A” student who thinks he know everything.”

How are you developing leadership skills within your organization?

At this question Rob rises from his desk and proceeds to a credenza that is behind me where he retrieves two books. The first was The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller. The Smart Swarm is a book that studies how bees, ants, and birds work together as a team to accomplish task and what we as humans can learn from them. The second book is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit is a look into our habits and why we do them. The book also focuses on how we create new positive habits. Rob explains to me that about once a quarter he shares a book with his senior executives on team building and leadership. Once they have had a chance to read the book they sit together and discuss how they can improve. Rob tells his team, “The difference between success and failure is your ability to work with people. The more input you get from your team the more productive we will be.”

What does your mission statement mean to you?

Rob once again gets up from his desk and walks toward a credenza to my right. The credenza is filled with personal and business photos covering years of Rob’s life. In the center of all those photos is a silver 5×7 frame that he retrieves and hands to me. “I have had this for 33 years.” In this frame is the mission statement of First Communities.

  • To provide the best possible apartment home, with the best service, to the best qualified applicants at a fair market price
  • To provide this service to all in a professional and enthusiastic manner operating within owner objectives and policies
  • To provide our employees a nurturing and motivating environment that is profitable, honorable and rewarding

“It is really the basis of how we do business. We work hard to build relationships. We are not perfect. We make errors but we work hard to get it right. The relationships we build with our team members, customers, and clients allow them to see our heart is in the right place. Even when we make mistakes they give us a chance to get it right.”

You have core values of Loyalty, Leadership, Integrity, Commitment, Experience, and Strength. Which one is the most important one to you?

Rob takes a moment. “Kareem would you rather I cut off you leg or your arm?”
I said, “I would like to keep both.”
He says, “Exactly. We have to exhibit them all. I cannot rank one over the other. Our core values are about doing the right thing.”

What Does It Take To Have A Magnetic Culture?

Organizations with a magnetic culture attract the best talent and customers. So what is a magnetic culture? It is a culture where team members enjoy being a part of the team. They are more connected to the organization then the paycheck. The culture is so magnetic that it would literally take an offer they cannot refuse in order for them to even consider leaving. Customers are willing to pay more because they love the relationship they have built with the brand, the product, and the people.

MagneticHow can you create a magnetic culture? Well, before you can build a magnetic relationship with your customer there must be a magnetic relationship within the organization. Great organization are built from inside out, not outside in. Here are some common characteristics of organizations with a magnetic culture.

Share A Common Vision: Team members of a magnetic organization share a common vision. As humans we need a destination. We are conquerors. Just as President Kennedy put before our nation the challenge of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade during his 1961 speech, organizations must set a destination for their team. Magnetic organizations do a great job of putting a clear and precise vision before their team. They create excitement and pride toward accomplishing that vision as a team.

Invest In Each Team Member: Once the vision is set magnetic organizations turn their focus to assembling and training the best possible team to accomplish their goals. President Kennedy ask for 9 billion dollars over 5 years to ensure that their vision was realized. As the leader of this very lofty vision President Kennedy understood that he had to invest in the training and education of the NASA team. In addition he had to provide the resources necessary to accomplish the mission set before them. In order to accomplish the mission organizations must have highly trained and motivated team members. Investing in their continued education and providing them with opportunities to enhance their professional experience will set the organization up for success.

Solve Problems Together: Embrace problems that arise and solve them as a team. Find me an organization without problems and I will show you an organization that is not in business. If there were not any problems guess who they would not need anymore….Y-O-U. Magnetic organizations identify problems that are a threat to accomplishing the mission. Once the problems are identified, set them before the team and work together to solve them.

Celebrate Successes: Organizations with a magnetic culture take every opportunity to celebrate success. If you want success repeated then celebrate when it happens. Magnetic organizations have short-term and intermediate goals. These goals are specific and measurable. Accomplishing these goals will ensure the team is on the path to reaching the overall vision of the organization. As these goals are reached they take time to celebrate the team and individuals for their accomplishments and hard work.

Focus on creating a magnetic culture at your organization and watch performance excel. It all begins with creating a shared common vision through your mission statement.