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.”

Integrity: Doing What Is Right

IntegrityOver the Memorial Holiday my family traveled to Florida.  During our trip we stopped at a Chick-Fil-A in Tifton, Georgia for dinner.  This Chick-Fil-A, like most, was very busy.  As I waited in line I observed a teenage young lady making her rounds to customers at each table.  She would engage in small talk as she cleared used napkins and empty food containers.  It was obvious from her interactions with the families this was not her first visit to their table.  I continued to watch this young lady as she went about her work with a smile enjoying her time with each customer.  As one of the families was preparing to leave a father said thank you for her great service and placed some folded bills in her hand.  She looked down and immediately handed the money back.  “Sir thank you but I cannot accept this.  It was my pleasure to serve you today.” she said with a big smile.    The father stated, “No, I want you to have this. You did not have to treat us the way you did.”  The young lady repeated herself, “No Sir, it was my pleasure to serve you and I cannot accept this.”  I am sure that Chick-fil-a has a policy against accepting tips from customers.  Since there was not another employee around she could have easily taken the cash and said thank you.  However, her integrity would not allow her to do so.

As a leader there is not always a clear-cut answer to every question.  There will be decision points that will cause you great stress.  Every decision you make will testify to your level of integrity.  In the story above the young lady made an immediate correct decision.  There may be times that your immediate decision is wrong.  If you make a wrong decision, go back and correct it.  It can be very difficult, even embarrassing, to admit you made a bad decision, but those around you will gain the utmost respect when you admit you were wrong and make it right. 

Integrity is about doing what is right.  When you find yourself thinking through an important decision, contemplate how you want others to see your integrity.  As a leader what example do you want to set?  Ask yourself if you would be proud if your action was videotaped and played during a company meeting.  Consistently having integrity is no easy feat but it is a rewarding one!