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Be The Boss You Always Wanted To Be
A trailblazer is a pioneer who is considered a first in their area of expertise. As leaders, they point the way, take the risks, and change the world. They have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles. I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Chrissy Brown, the chief operations officer at Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group.
Chrissy, tell us about your mortgage journey. How did you come into the industry?
Chrissy Brown: I graduated high school early, I felt like I had to get my life started. I made a very wild move at 18 years old and moved to Toronto Canada. I went to bible college and I realized that I wanted to go change the world. It was important to me to bring clean water to the villages, hold those babies, build orphanages and truly make a difference. I even went to Haiti in 1997 for a little bit, which was very, very difficult — no electricity, no water. I had to learn to live without.
I stayed there for a six-month period and then I returned to the United States. At that time, I had to make a big decision: was I going to stay in the U.S. or go back to the third world?
While I was trying to figure out my next steps, I needed a job, so I went to a temp agency and they placed me as a receptionist in a mortgage broker shop, a three-person shop. This was that pivotal moment that brought me into the mortgage industry.
The great thing about working at a small broker shop was that they taught me everything — how to process, send loans to lenders — I learned the entire process from start to finish. After six months I realized that I really enjoyed helping families.
It’s interesting that my father has been doing mortgages for 35 years. In fact, most of my neighborhood at that time were in mortgages. My neighbor across the street was Toby Harris, the owner of Movement Mortgage.
Once you started doing mortgages did you stop traveling overseas and volunteering?
CB: No. I still had a yearning to make a difference in the world, so I transitioned into at-risk youth care. I mentored about 13 young women from an outreach local neighborhood. I started to realize that I could still follow my passion and help bring families home in the United States.
I recognized my purpose and understand that we can all change the world. My journey has meant so many things to me over time. I remember one time taking kids from average U.S. neighborhoods over to Africa with me to help assist at some squatter camps and orphanages. It was really interesting to see that kind of experience, someone growing up under the poverty level into the squatter camps.
I remember my 30th birthday, I started questioning myself and my life. I almost felt guilty working in mortgages because I didn’t think I was making a big enough impact on the world. I was searching for more to tie in my passion. I used my vacation time to go to Africa a few times, but as time progressed I moved into leadership roles within the industry and that’s when it hit me! I am changing the world every single day by helping my team to bring families home.
As leaders we make an impact on others every single day. It is such an honor to serve and to mold others into their best selves by putting them into the right roles and providing them with the tools and training they need to be success. We all know that when we are happy at work it carries over to our personal lives and the ripple of impact continues through their families.
Chrissy, what did you do from a leader standpoint to be that guiding force for your team?
CB: My leadership style is transparency and honesty; I never try to pretend that I'm perfect or I have it all together. I make as many mistakes as the next person and I like to be vocal about those to my staff. I want them to be aware of my wins and my losses, because every step as a leader you have to give those around you permission to be themselves. Remember, they’re watching what you do. I’ve had leaders that never take a day off; this sends a message to your team that it’s not OK to take a day off and it causes a level of guilt and resentment.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
CB: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “Be the boss you always wanted.” Who is that person to you? What would that look like? I have learned so much about permissions. You need to give your folks permission to make mistakes.
But in order for you to say, “it's okay if you make an error,” you have to be transparent with them. I remember recently, I was working on something and was 99.9% sure I was accurate, but I told somebody to double-check me. I thought I was right, and the lady that double-checked me came back and personally off to the side said, “Hey, you were wrong. How are we going to do this? How are we going to tell everyone what the correct answer is without letting them know?” I said, “Oh that's wonderful. I was wrong? Tell everyone, I was wrong.” Because that validates me, I look for opportunities to give them permission to say it's OK.
Where do you see yourself and women in general in the industry over the next five years?
CB: I think the women part is really interesting and I want to share a story with you. I’ve been at Atlantic Bay for 10 years. Atlantic Bay has a very special culture. I believe that if you are good at what you do and you work hard, that's what you are and you're never judged based on your previous mistakes.
Atlantic Bay brings out the best in everyone because you don’t have to think about changing who you are to fit in. Be you and grow everyday so you can be your best self. We hold each other accountable to make sure that we are not making assumptions, and if we recognize that someone is making an assumption based on opinion versus fact we speak up and adjust because our culture and our team is a top priority for us.
I remember being at one of my first conferences years ago, I was now part of the executive team, and a woman turned to me and said, “Isn't it so great that we have a seat at the table?” I was dumbfounded, thinking what does that mean? She went on to say, “We’re women and we have a seat at the table as executives.”
At that moment it hit me! I am so fortunate, the fact that I'm a woman has never even crossed my mind. It was always based on my merit and always based on my abilities. As I start to network outside of my company, I now realize that there are some amazing women leaders out there. I was at the executive roundtable in Miami in April and I was the only woman at the table.
I think that there is a lot to be said about why women still only hold 20% of the C-suite positions. I think that it's so important that we learn how to open up different opportunities. By nature, we don't necessarily respond to situations the way that we should. A lot of that comes from going into situations with a high level of confidence. I think that as an industry, and really corporate America, we need more women. I love the quote by Warren Buffett that says, he's only so successful because he only made it competing with half the population, right? I love that. But I think that if you look at companies that have a very healthy and strong leadership you know that it is divided by different races and genders. Diversity, 50%.
Do you think it’s important for women mortgage professionals to network and self-promote?
CB: YES! Women tend to stand back when it feels uncomfortable, and we have a tough time taking credit or celebrating a win. It is just the nature of a woman to say, “well, it wasn’t just me, it was my team. It wasn’t this or that, you know, thank you.” I think there’s still a lot of confidence that needs bolstering; give yourself permission and then you can be confident without being cocky.
You don’t have to be this humble little thing all the time in effort to not appear arrogant. I think that there’s so many things we can learn but, I'm a single mother, I have a 5-year-old. Kindergarten's coming this year, but just the challenges of being a woman in business and very dedicated and passionate to what I do and then that balance of being a mother and kind of what the world says I should be like. Right? I dread Valentine’s Day, because I am being compared to the moms that send their kids with the cute little bags with little bows on them and mine are just plain. I have to learn not to feel guilty; maybe I’m not the room mother of the year and that's OK. My child is seeing something different; he's seeing hard work and dedication and I'm balanced for him.
Chrissy, thank you for sharing this with us. Let me ask you, how did you come to grips with that because, whether it's that situation or another, I think every working mom in the mortgage industry has that level of guilt for one reason or another. So, how do you balance that and how did you get yourself to that place? Because I have to believe you didn't always feel that way.
CB: I had to learn how to navigate through the guilt, navigate through saying to my 3-month-old, “I'm leaving to go to a Fannie Mae conference.” I try to remember that there are women that serve our country every single day. They are apart from their babies and their children for a very long time and their kids are all fine. The goal is to raise healthy individuals; it's not necessarily that you have to be that person and be perfect at everything. They need to feel loved. They need to know that in the moments where it matters and where they need you, that you're there. And then everything else, I think it's not a bad thing to instill hard work and ambition and some of those other things, but the guilt is real. The guilt, I still struggle with. I mean it's just … mom shaming is a thing.
Please share with us, your experience with mom shaming?
CB: Unfortunately, it's a real thing. Especially if you have a baby; gosh, they won't tell you everything you're doing wrong or right. So, I think it's just a matter of going back to that confidence, going back to that permission. I'm okay with the fact that this is because, if you look back, I think the generation before me and maybe the one right between that one and the one before, you know women started working. Right? Women were working, they're doing their thing and then they started coming to this place where they're like handling both ways. Therefore, any good mom would choose her family. Right?
I mean, what kind of monster doesn’t choose her family? And so that's where you start to see the women stop growing in their career; they stop. I think that the studies say that you get to … women usually get to bottom manager and they bail out because they’re still trying to carry both things, and it's just impossible.
So, what's your advice to our readers? How can they balance both?
CB: I think it's vital for you to choose a company that works with your home life. Think carefully when you are selecting a company, because you need to have some flexibility. I'm very blessed to work in an organization where our owners are very much about family. So, if my child is sick I know that I can work remotely and not have to scramble to find a daycare solution. I think just finding a work-life balance is no longer a thing for me; it is work-life integration. How do we integrate both pieces, because as I'm sure you're always on; there’s no day off. So, how do you balance that out, and it's really just taking that permission and the confidence to say, “this is important; this is not.” We live in this or that world. You’ve got to choose. And, it's being OK with saying to your household, “I can't be everything.” Inherently, I feel like I should be everything, but I cannot be everything. So, this is where we’re at as a household and this is what we’re going to do.
I think as women we are leaders of many parts of our lives, our families, our teams, our neighborhoods, and friends. This requires a lot of different integrations, especially your children are young so partnering with a company that is aligned with your personal life is very important. Do you agree?
CB: Yes, let me give you an example. I was in Miami for a roundtable, and I was supposed to be in Phoenix for our Advisory Council, and then the next week was Memphis. I ended up not going to Phoenix because of a family emergency, but I remember calling my boss when I was setting up in Memphis and said, “I would love to go. I think it'd be a great opportunity, but I’m taking my kid with me.” You have to learn to ask for what you need and integrate it in, you have to also work for an organization that understands that; we promote that. Years ago our industry didn’t accept or acknowledge work-life integration. Companies didn’t recognize how important family was and how many big events of their children’s lives did their teams miss? So, we encourage people, if there's a soccer game, if there's that ballet recital, whatever it is that is important to you, make time for that and we integrate later. Go home after dinner and then log back in and push it up. But you have to put family first, because at the end of the day, that is what matters.
Yes. I agree and I think that is an important thing and it's something that we don't speak about a lot of times. A lot of times, we speak about how we can change ourselves, but at the end of the day, it is a partnership of who we're working with in the companies that we're serving because it has to be aligned and, again, you’re at different stages of your life. So Chrissy, how do you integrate?
CB: I just have one thing that I have to say. One of the things I thought was just so impactful. One of our owners — I worked for two brothers — I kind of really learned leadership under his mentorship. He said, “If you want people to work for you for the rest of their lives, you have to allow them to let life happen.” Whether it is a birth, or a childhood crisis, or the topic of the family. So, you're not allowing for life and, unfortunately too often, I felt like my job did not allow for life. You had to pretend as though your life was fulfilled; you dealt with that after 5:30, but the truth of the matter is, it is not easy to go through a separation or divorce and have it all together and do everything perfectly, and so I really believe that we should allow people. So, when somebody's going through something at our company, we pull work off of them and we want them to take a moment whether it be a couple months or whatever it might be to process. Go through your process, because life happens and don’t pretend like it doesn't.
We all know that a happy employee will go above and beyond for you. I remember being a young processor back in the day and I had a massive family emergency and asked to leave early. I was terrified. I remember my boss said, “Well, you can leave early.” This was also the moment when the determination on whether my mother would live or die. I was told you can leave early, but you really need to work on separating personal from business. I think that was just kind of how corporate America was back then, right? It’s time for us to say “life happens,” you cannot separate personal business. We have to learn how to integrate it and work together to allow you to go through the ups and the downs of life and still be able to maintain a career. The last thing you want a good employee to do is worry about their job as they’re processing something very heavy in life.
What advice would you give to someone starting their mortgage career today?
CB: Never lose focus on the truth that everything you are doing daily is helping families obtain the American dream of homeownership. You are helping create memories and generational wealth. You will burn out if you lose sight of that. I would say the second thing is to learn every single thing you can about each position you are given. Understand that growing fast doesn’t necessarily equate to growing substantially. I wouldn’t trade the years where I copied packages all day long every day. I learned what each document was and why we needed it in the file. That ended up being invaluable. There is so much information out there that is public information. Take the initiative to learn, ask questions and read. Another fantastic skill set to have in this business is emotional intelligence. Spend time studying and reading books, listening to podcasts on emotional intelligence. Also, understanding how to react to stress and balance yourself.
What do you like to do for fun?
CB: As cliché as it sounds, I LOVE spending time with my family. In any capacity. I am also obsessed with Pilates. I have found that to be my grounding emotionally, professionally and physically.
What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
CB: I was painfully shy until I was about 23-24 years old. I am comfortable and confident in my own skin now and I hope that by sharing my insights I can inspire and encourage other women.
Christina Zotzmann Brown serves as the chief operations officer for Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group. ABMG is a regional IMB with brick-and-mortar in nine states along the East Coast. It closes more than $7 billion a year, focusing on a retail-only business model. Brown has 24 years of experience in many facets of our industry, including, but not limited to, originating, closing, processing, underwriting, and many post-closing functions. She oversees all of the loan manufacturing process for ABMG and has a passion for efficiency within said process. Within the last year she has completed her Certified Mortgage Banker (CMB) designation, as well as her Accredited Mortgage Professional & Certified Residential Underwriter designation. She is the mother of a 5-year-old boy and resides in Virginia Beach, Va.