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The New Age of Leadership

Daniel Milstein
May 25, 2012

As the mortgage lending industry continues to stabilize and regain its stature as a well-respected profession, leadership is an especially timely topic. During the last few years, we have witnessed a serious exodus of mortgage industry leaders, as their firms imploded or otherwise suffered, or key executives have switched careers. Many watchdog critics and industry insiders have stressed that a lack of capable leadership was a major contributing factor to the mortgage lending industry’s “meltdown.” While that claim may be an oversimplification, it does underscore the importance that all businesses—especially those being carefully monitored by government agencies and the public—should place on developing quality leaders. Our industry’s crisis certainly has made companies reevaluate the qualities of leaders and how we prepare them for the major challenges as well as their everyday responsibilities. Primary traits When evaluating the essential attributes for successful leaders, I consider “visionary” to be at the top of the list. Leaders must be able to look ahead and not only plan and execute long-term goals, but ideally, how they can help enhance their company’s prominent and influential position. This requires frequently stepping out of the day-to-day operational mode to look five and 10 years into the future to anticipate the industry’s likely direction and how the organization can make a difference at many levels. Leaders have to be forecasters and creative thinkers. Other key leadership characteristics include: ►Knowledge: Obviously, leaders must have a thorough understanding of all facets of the mortgage (or other industry), along with a familiarity of the general business environment. Being an expert is critical to instilling confidence among your staff. ►Adaptable: As we have seen, true leaders are able to adapt to the inevitable changes of their industry and the marketplace. Mortgage companies that have survived and thrived throughout the lending industry crisis have modified their operational policies and systems to address new regulations and other developments. We have all had to rethink our prior ways of doing business and make the transition to a redefined mortgage industry. It has become even more important for leaders to anticipate the primary changes so that they are usually in a proactive rather than reactive state. ►Work ethic: Most leaders—whether they are department heads or company chief executive officers—work hard to get to their position. It typically requires a special commitment to achieve a leadership role, which involves extra hours for training, juggling new responsibilities and charting a new course for their ongoing advancement. Most leaders do not follow the 9 to 5 schedule. I strongly believe in leading by example; it is essential that your staff sees that you are willing to work as hard as they do. I personally make it a point to arrive early, work through lunch and to stay in my office past “closing time.” ►Interpersonal relations: Many otherwise capable leaders lack one fundamental trait—the ability to develop good working relationships with other employees. You must be recognized as the one in charge, but also show that you are able to work well with others. Establishing an open door policy that encourages people throughout our company to call or visit my office whenever they have a question, suggestion or problem has helped further strengthen rapport with employees. ►Teamwork: Growing a company is a team sport. A leader is one of the teammates, albeit a principal player. Even if you believe you know the answers to most situations, you must work with others to arrive at a consensus. Being part of the team also means that sales managers, executives and other leaders should at least occasionally work side-by-side with other employees. For example, managers who haven’t closed a loan in years should spend time originating with their loan officers. ►Integrity: More than ever, leaders have to believe in and adhere to a strict code of ethical standards. Company employees must know that the people running the company are scrupulously honest in how they deal with customers, vendors and others. While age can be a factor in determining if someone is ready to be an effective leader, it is not a primary consideration. There are “older” business veterans who aren’t suited to be a supervisor or company executive and there are much younger people who are ready for a top position. I know that a few competitors questioned whether I was ready to open Gold Star Mortgage 12 years ago when I was 25. But I have concentrated on refining my own leadership skills, assembling an exceptional group of other managers, and working with them to create a highly successful company. I believe the doubters have become believers. Attracting leaders There is no one way to identify and attract leaders. Some people definitely have innate leadership qualities that are ready to be developed. These “born leaders” may need a little prodding for their best traits to flourish. As human resources directors and chief operating officers know, attracting the best leader candidates requires a combination of financial incentives and other benefits. For example, along with providing competitive compensation packages, we know that some mortgage professionals are interested in joining Gold Star because of our reputation as one of the “Top Places to Work.” We’ve been fortunate to have experienced minimum turnover. In addition to hiring experienced mortgage professionals from outside the company, we like to hire younger people who have ambitions to grow beyond their initial position. We put them through our extensive training program that involves working closely with mentors and other staff. Some thrive on the challenging six-month program, while others quickly indicate that they are not able to “make the grade.” We also watch for potential leaders by paying close attention to productivity reports, meeting presentations and other signs that someone possesses leadership qualities. We encourage people to take advantage of all appropriate training and educational opportunities so that they are comfortable and ready to assume a leadership role. Retention All companies invest a certain amount of money and time in developing their leaders, so they must do everything reasonable to retain them. Managers and top executives eventually become visible to others in their marketplace, including competitors who may court them to leave their current companies. We not only strive to offer the appropriate compensation structure and production incentive campaigns that include sales trips and other rewards, but also take other steps to show that we want leaders to stay. This includes providing them with a clear understanding of their potential advancement, a positive work environment and recognition of their contributions to our success. In addition, I meet frequently with top managers and others to make sure we aren’t missing any signs of dissatisfaction that might make them want to leave. Hiring, cultivating and rewarding leaders is not an exact science. Books and courses provide great insights on mastering the leadership “formula,” but individual companies are ultimately successful because they carefully match their current and future needs with the most qualified people at any given time. Then they continue to fine-tune their leadership program until it is even better. Attracting and satisfying potential leaders to your company isn’t easy, but it is one of the aspects of my job I most enjoy. Daniel Milstein is founder and CEO of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gold Star Mortgage Financial and the author of the award-winning The ABC of Sales, Lessons from a Superstar. He may be reached by phone at (734) 971-9900 or e-mail [email protected]
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