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Opinion Editorials

Becoming a better broker – six lessons from J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler

Being a better leader often takes learning lessons from other industries and other leaders. This inspirational look at J. Crew’s CEO will leave you inspired to lead your own charge!

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Above: the interior of the men's J. Crew in Tribeca, New York.

The eternal pursuit of improvement

In my mind, what separates true leaders from the pack is the eternal pursuit of improvement. In an era where Twitter has made some appear to be leaders and conferences have propped up egos, it is the elite few who are focused on this pursuit of improvement that are true leaders. They may not be on a stage near you, they may not be profiled in the NY Times, but they are leaders in their companies.

I have long been a fan of J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler and have read endlessly about his career, not because he collects real estate like art but because his personality inspires actionable goals. While much of the world looks at Steve Jobs as the quintessential CEO, I look to Drexler. Both are of the school of thought that there is an eternal quest for improvement.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal wrote a lengthy piece on Drexel that has had me inspired for quite some time. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read it in full.

How to become a better broker, Lesson One:

Drexler was an executive at Gap prior to J. Crew and he cashed out. Big time. Drexler doesn’t have to work, he’s a millionaire, yet he obsesses over his work as if the day is never over. How many executives can say they never have to work a day in their life again, yet they suit up every morning? Few.

The lesson: Brokers, do you have to work every day, or is it an act of passion? There are brokers running small teams that became highly profitable years ago. Some made investments that even in today’s climate would allow them to retire. But they suit up every morning and fire up their business.

Lesson two

Drexler is a very fast paced person, he relies on his instincts and teaches his staff to do the same. He has a sophisticated intercom system so he can speak to any of his 695 employees at any given time and impulsively checks his phone and computer for messages. He is extremely connected and personally handles endless communication, he welcomes direct feedback and responds to customers himself.

The lesson: Many brokers prefer not to speak to anyone but their assistant or the client in front of them. It is a prestige thing in this industry to be so big you don’t have to do that. Take a page from Drexler and handle your own communication. Will it mean extra hours at work each day? Sure. Does it mean his staff, production team, designers, sales people and ultimately consumers appreciate the access and feel tended to since they didn’t have to deal with a gatekeeper? Of course. And his team and customers are fiercely loyal to him for it.

Lesson three

What impresses me the most about Drexler is his “drop ins.” He visits physical stores four to five times each week. He rearranges shelves, he asks staff what is going on, and most importantly, in his unassuming J. Crew style outfits, he walks up to customers and without announcing who he is, asks what they think of the product. He asks what they’re seeing on the street and what they plan on wearing next season. But what is most inspiring about Drexler’s visits is that he makes changes in real time as he gathers intel first hand, not translated by a marketing group.

The lesson: Brokers need to be more hands on. You don’t see yourselves as retailers, but you are. Visit your properties every day, get angry when they’re not presentable, when your sign is crooked or dirty, when the flyer box is empty. Don’t let the homeowner be the one to tell your assistant to tell you something is wrong- know before they do. Be a retailer and obsess over the details. It’s not just about your damn Twitter profile picture, it’s about the box in that person’s yard- is it up to your standards and are you personally insuring that it is?

Lesson four

Drexler not only touches every step of the product from conception to the store windows, he is willing to experiment. Last year, Drexler was getting considerable feedback that brides were buying simple dresses in multiple colors for bridesmaids and his lightbulb went off and they’ve since opened a stand alone bridal store in NYC. Drexler doesn’t believe in “can’t” and is willing to experiment so long as it avoids distractions.

The lesson: Be willing to experiment. In order to expand your business, is there a niche that is underserved that you know you could provide high quality services to? Is there a demographic that is growing and not being tended to? Are you able to switch up your focus based on live data, or as real estate tradition goes, does it take you a decade to shift gears?

Lesson five

Drexler still gets angry when he walks by a Gap. To this day. He was fired from his executive role and his best revenge, I believe, is that he has moved on and succeeded. Wildly. Drexler thrives at a smaller company and is extremely modest about his achievements. He doesn’t have time for the spotlight and takes his role at J. Crew very seriously.

The lesson: Brokers are getting distracted by shiny things and chasing after ghosts. Be okay with running a nimble company, it is no less prestigious, and don’t let the blue hairs convince you otherwise. Wherever your strengths lie, that’s where you belong and you should not covet what others have. If you don’t franchise, don’t get distracted just because there is buzz around someone else franchising, put your nose to the grind and shore up your existing services. Bigger is not always better and humility and success running a boutique may not go far at the Realtor luncheon, but it will wildly please consumers.

Lesson six

Drexler decided when he came to J. Crew that for a higher price point, consumers deserved to receive a higher quality product. His strategy revolves around “consumers aren’t stupid.” He chastises the CEO of Saks for lowering price points because they also lowered quality. Drexler believes that consumers see through that and has set out to provide higher quality products for that price point you’re used to at J. Crew.

The lesson: Many brokerages focus on growing team sizes and adding more agents most of all. Growth, growth, growth. It makes sense if you’re on the desk fee model, but if you’re on the quest for eternal improvement and your focus is service, you should think like Dexler- consumers aren’t stupid. If you offer them a rebate and sneakily reduce your services, they’ll sense the disservice. If you show them that you’ve added services to your offering yet kept your commission the same, they’ll appreciate that. And furthermore, when you add real benefits (I’m not talking the “we’re offering classes” or free koozies or “10% off at X store” gimmicks) for your agents yet keep their split the same, you’re tending to what is right and they’ll sense that.

The takeaway

Brokers, always push for better and forget what the blue hairs say about you at broker opens. If you stay focused and always seek ways to improve your business based on your gut instinct rather than what the social media guru told you on stage last month, you’ll win. Obsess over the details, act like a retailer, manage your own communication lines and always focus on the consumer. Do that and it won’t matter the accolades or industry perception because you’ll be so well off that like Drexler, you’ll suit up every morning because you want to, not because you have to.

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21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. elizabeth cooper-golden

    March 25, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    Lani, Bravo! My favorite line that you wrote is: “Bigger is not always better and humility and success running a boutique may not go far at the Realtor luncheon, but it will wildly please consumers.” Yes!

    I was very disgruntled with the company I worked with after relocating to Huntsville from Nashville…They didn’t get it then, and don’t get it now. Bigger is NOT always better and the consumers are catching on. I let 3 agents go my first year. All 3 were great people, just not great agents. No one could believe I would do that, including me quite frankly. My vision is mine and I don’t have to bend to those that don’t believe in the model that I am forming. Some local competitors have made “light” of my “where the consumer comes first, always” branding. Poke jabs all you want. My agents are producing, a sure sign that the consumer likes us. The consumer deserves better and they realize there is a choice.

    My company is still a baby and I’m learning daily. I’ve had a few bumps and bruises along the way and will always be searching for ways to improve and make it a wonderful experience not only for the consumer, but also for my agents. My intent is never to be the biggest, but to be the best. Ya know…that 20% that does 80% of the business!

    I’m excited because I am now expanding so I can grow my culture…more on that later 😉

    • Lani Rosales

      March 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

      Elizabeth, I’ve very much enjoyed watching your brokerage grown from afar and your consumer focus is evident in all that you do- keep up the great work! 🙂

  2. Jay great falls Virginia

    March 25, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Wonderful piece…

  3. Lisa Heindel

    March 27, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I’m not a broker, but certainly you could substitute the word agent and get the same great lessons you’ve laid out here, Lani. It took me my first 5 years in business in the halls of a very traditional, old school local brokerage to figure out that this is my business, my company and I’m the CEO of it. So, I moved to a more progressive broker, formed a team and have focused on consumer education and internet lead generation as a model.

    I truly wish that all of my colleagues were on the same page, worried about the consumer instead of the next awards banquet or Realtor night out.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 27, 2011 at 11:51 am

      Lisa, you’re right that the words can be interchanged. In most cases, it takes running “in the halls of a very traditional, old school local brokerage” (or running Gap in Drexler’s case) to realize what the ideal path is. You and Drexler are right- if you worry about your trophies and not the consumer, you’re in the majority and consumers know they’re getting the short end of the stick.

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Opinion Editorials

Strong leaders can use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) In the COVID-19 crisis, some leaders fumbled through it, while others quietly safeguarded their company’s future.

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strong leaders

Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how strong leaders can see their teams, their companies, and their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always but is amplified when a crisis occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve their teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything was disrupted and people are adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when leaders game plan, strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

7 sure-fire ways to carve out alone time when you’re working from home

(EDITORIAL) It can be easy to forget about self-care when you’re working from home, but it’s critical for your mental health, and your work quality.

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Woman in hijab sitting on couch, working from home on a laptop

We are all familiar with the syndrome, getting caught up in work, chores, taking care of others, and neglecting to take care of ourselves in the meantime. This has always been the case, but now, with more people working from home and a seemingly endless lineup of chores, thanks to the pandemic. There is simply so much to do.

The line is thinly drawn between personal and professional time already, with emails, cell phones, and devices relentlessly reaching out around the clock, pulling at us like zombie arms reaching up from the grave. Working from home makes this tendency to always be “on” worse, as living and working take place in such close proximity. We have to turn it off, though.

Our brains and bodies need downtime, me-time, and self-care. Carving out this time is one of the kindest and most important things you can do for yourself. If we can begin to honor ourselves like this, the outcome with not only our mental and physical health but also our productivity at work will be beneficial. When we make the time to do things we love, our mind’s gears slow down that constant grinding. Burnout behooves nobody.

Our work will also benefit. Healthier, happier, more well-rested, and well-treated minds and bodies can work wonders! Our immune systems also need this, and we need our immune systems to be at their peak performance this intense season.

I wanted to write this article because I have such a struggle with this in my own life. I need to print it out and put it in my workspace. Last week, I posted something on my social media pages that so many people shared. It is clear we all need these reminders, so I am paying it forward here. The graphic was a quote from Devyn W.

“If you are reading this, release your shoulders away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and drop your tongue from the roof of your mouth.”

There now, isn’t that remarkable? It is a great first step. Let go of the tension in your body, and check out these ways to make yourself some healing me-time while working from home.

  1. Set aside strict no-work times. This could be any time of day, but set the times and adhere to them strictly. This may look like taking a full hour for lunch, not checking email after a certain hour, or committing to spending that time outdoors, reading, exercising, or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Make this a daily routine, because we need these boundaries. Every. Single. Day.
  2. Remember not to apologize to anyone for taking this me-time. Mentally and physically you need this, and everyone will be better off if you do. It is nothing to apologize for! Building these work-free hours into your daily schedule will feel more normal as time goes on. This giving of time and space to your joy, health, and even basic human needs is what should be the norm, not the other way around.
  3. Give yourself a device-free hour or two every day, especially before bedtime. The pinging, dinging, and blinging keep us on edge. Restful sleep is one of the wonderful ways our bodies and brains heal and putting devices away before bedtime is one of the quick tips for getting better sleep.
  4. Of course, make time for the things you absolutely love. If this is a hot bath, getting a massage, reading books, working out, cooking or eating an extravagant meal, or talking and laughing with a loved one, you have to find a way to get this serotonin boost!
  5. Use the sunshine shortcut. It isn’t a cure-all, but sunlight and Vitamin D are mood boosters. At least when it’s not 107 degrees, like in a Texas summer. But as a general rule, taking in at least a good 10-15 minutes of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D provided by the sun is good for us.
  6. Spend time with animals! Walk your dog, shake that feathery thing at your cat, or snuggle either one. Whatever animals make you smile, spend time with them. If you don’t have pets of your own, you could volunteer to walk them at a local shelter or even watch a cute animal video online. They are shown to reduce stress. Best case scenario is in person if you are able, but thankfully the internet is bursting with adorable animal videos, as a backup.
  7. Give in to a bit of planning or daydreaming about a big future trip. Spending time looking at all the places you will go in the future and even plotting out an itinerary are usually excellent mood-boosters.

I hope we can all improve our lives while working from home by making time for regenerating, healing, and having fun! Gotta run—the sun is out, and my dog is begging for a walk.

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Opinion Editorials

The one easy job interview question that often trips up applicants

(EDITORIAL) The easiest interview questions can be the hardest to answer, don’t let this one trip you up – come prepared!

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Women sitting nervously representing waiting for a remote job interview.

A job interview is tough, and preparing for them can seem impossible. There are some questions you can expect: what is your experience in this position? How would you handle this situation? And so on.

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But what about this question: what makes you happy? Though it may seem straightforward, getting to the right answer is not such an easy path.

Work engagement

According to research, less and less employees feel like they are truly engaged at work. Some blame the work environment but truth be told, it is not a company’s responsibility to make you happy.

Without a passion for what you are doing, you will never enjoy the job.

It is the best case for everyone. More engaged workers are more productive in addition to feeling like they serve a purpose.

Do your due diligence

So before finding yourself in an interview where you have to take an awkward pause before answering this question, the best thing is to do some research. It all starts with the job search.

When looking for a job it is easy to get caught up in high profile company names and perks.

For instance, although “Social Media Coordinator” may not be your thing, the position is open at the cool advertising agency downtown. Or perhaps the company offers flexible hours and free lunch Fridays. The problem is that these perks aren’t worth it in the long run. Working for a cool company can be exciting at first, but it is not sustainable without passion for the position.

It’s important to pay attention to is the position you are applying for.

Is this work that you are passionate about? Take a look at the job responsibilities and functions. Besides figuring out if those are things that you can do, ask yourself if they are things that you want to do. Is this an opportunity that will match your strengths and give you purpose?

Let your passion protrude

With all things considered, when asked “what makes you happy” at the next interview, you will be able to answer honestly. Your passion will be apparent without having to put on an act.

Even if they don’t ask that question, there is no downside to knowing what makes you happy.

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