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The Industry’s Top Leaders to the Rescue

Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the February issue of MReport.

What makes a good leader great? In his book Superbosses, Sydney Finklestein shares the idea of how leaders, despite being from different industries and having different leadership styles, share some common approaches to build highly successful organizations. Finklestein says these leaders not only focus on identifying promising newcomers, inspiring their best work, and launching them into highly successful careers, they also expand their own networks and build stronger companies.

But a truly strong company can only be built by a leader who prepares for all and every eventuality—and those are many in the mortgage industry. From the cyclical nature of the market to the quick adoption of the latest technology, the executives that MReport spoke to had many examples to share on the ABCs of being a complete leader.

People’s Person

“The executive whose company falls apart upon his/her departure was never a complete leader. Finding ways to
nurture the company’s greatest asset—its people—is critical for long-term success,” said Kevin Brungardt, CEO RoundPoint Mortgage. “That means spending time identifying rising stars, finding opportunities for them to stretch and take on new responsibilities, and building a corporate atmosphere that attracts (and retains) quality employees.”

Honing great talent also means having the ability to listen and remain humble. Giving an example of a tough executive decision he had to make to ensure that the leadership team at Churchill embodied these values, Mike Hardwick, CEO, Churchill Mortgage, said that the company had employed a senior leader a few years back who, while being smart and great at his work, failed to “exhibit a consistent willingness to listen to others or work well within our collaborative team and leadership efforts.” Hardwick said that these traits got them to rethink their decision and move on to replacing that position with a person who displayed the “smart, hungry, humble” attributes.

According to Rob Rothrock, SVP, Marketing at Gateway Mortgage Group, it is crucial for a leader to have a clear understanding of what the employees need rather than what they want. “A good leader is able to develop other leaders within all levels of an organization by providing necessary training and industry insight, which is impossible to do without a clear understanding of employees’ needs,” he said.

To do that though, it is imperative for an executive to remain accessible, a trait that Greg Holmes, Managing Partner at Credit Plus emphasized on for any good leader. “I’ve found that many well-meaning executives can find themselves cut off from the day-to-day needs and struggles of employees,” he said. “Successful leaders must make every effort to be approachable and stay involved, to ensure that they understand the pain points of their workforce.”

The sentiment was echoed by DeAnn O’Donovan, President and CEO, AHP Servicing who said a good leader was someone who “seeks consensus, not hierarchy and creates a culture of active listening, transparency, and trust within the organization.”

It’s also important to let an employee know that “you care about their success,” said Andrea Tromberg, Owner, Tromberg Law Group.

“At AHP Servicing, we strive to create a ‘3L’s culture’ of learning, listening, and leadership for people to grow within their roles,” O’Donovan said. “We believe this defines not just good leaders today, but creates the leaders of tomorrow.”

In fact, all leaders rate creating a strong company culture high on their list of must-haves.

Vision vs. Consistency

“Every employee impacts an organization’s direction, but leadership has by far the largest and most direct effect on company culture,” wrote William Craig, Founder and President of WebFX in a recent article in Forbes. “Leadership cultivates the foundation of culture to empower employees to achieve the company mission and realize how vital each of their contributions is to furthering those goals.”

For Brungardt, building the company’s culture has always been a key focus area. “I believe that the C in CEO stands for culture and that it’s a foundational piece to any company’s success. At RoundPoint, people are absolutely our greatest asset. However, a culture that values people doesn’t just evolve on its own,” he said. “It takes a commitment of time, resources, and energy to build.”

But creating a strong culture is often a tightrope act of balancing between change and consistency. Ask Stanley Middleman, CEO Freedom Mortgage, who works hard to teach his team to “embrace change rather than get stymied by it. That’s particularly true in the mortgage industry where technology, products, and the market are continually evolving and it’s important that leaders evolve along with those changes.”

Holmes said that all great leaders have that “vision thing.” He describes it as their ability to seemingly see into the future, anticipate market changes or competitive challenges, and be able to translate that into action. “That’s particularly important in our industry where change is constant, and knowing what’s next can be the difference between thriving and merely surviving.”

However, Middleman points out that comfort with change must be complemented by consistency. “Consistency in paying attention to details, taking things step by step, building lasting relationships, and serving customer needs with integrity—these were the principles on which I founded Freedom Mortgage. They haven’t changed in 28 years and never will,” Middleman said.

A leader’s consistency is also reflected in their persistence towards “reaching goals, constantly seeking new prospects, and looking to create new connections,” said Adam Thorpe, CEO, Castle & Cooke Mortgage, LLC. The bottom line, Thorpe said, was building relationships, which is essential to a leader’s success.

As the mortgage industry enters the next phase of the housing cycle, Hardwick said that the key qualities for leaders moving forward would be founded on their ability to challenge how things have been done in the past, even if they were highly successful.

“With the increase in rates, tightening of the housing market and margin compression, the vision to establish a unique competitive edge, courage to make that change, and the discipline to not chase investments with low return, and especially avoiding irresponsible commissions, will be key for the coming years,” Hardwick said.

According to Ed Marcheselli, Managing Director at BAI, innovation is a key quality for leaders in the current market environment whether it is in terms of bringing out new products to the mortgage market, building specific products together, or really understanding their customer. These leaders, Marcheselli said, are not only using analytics and research provided to them but are also “mining their own customer data to make sure that they’re really micro-targeting the right solution to the right customer.”

But to achieve that kind of a competitive edge, leaders in the mortgage industry would need to set an example as they lead their organizations through changing market dynamics.

Leadership Brand

While competence, character, and charisma aren’t easily quantifiable qualities, leaders are brands unto themselves. An article titled “Like It or Not, Your Are Always Leading by Example,” in Harvard Business Review makes a case for how serious leaders build their leadership brand by understanding that “both by design and default, they’re always leading by example.”

In the article, Michael Schrage, author of the books Serious Play, Who do You Want Your Customers to Become?, and The Innovator’s Hypothesis, pointed out, “Some [leaders] want to ‘lead from the front’ while others prefer ‘leading from behind.’ But everyone senses their success— and failure—at leading by example is integral to their ‘leadership brand.’”

Leadership also translates into being a role model for employees, according to Rothrock. “Good leaders provide insight from personal experiences to employees and encourage them to be proactive in learning more about the industry and exploring personal development opportunities,” he said. “Investing in learning and development and creating a curriculum are necessary steps that leaders take to prepare their employees for success. A successful leader is evident when employees become highly self-motivated and skilled in their fields.”

Leading by example is something that Tromberg says is a key aspect of helping employees succeed. “Knowing the person’s issues or reason for the struggle is critical,” she said. “Do not judge too quickly, and be sure that the matter cannot be cured with training and attending.”

It also means staying involved according to Holmes. “The more we can be available to hear their concerns, the easier it is to find remedies to help them do their jobs better and that’s when a simple manager of people becomes someone who can inspire, a leader,” he said.

“It’s important for leaders to also have their ear to the ground and utilize the resources they have at hand to help them lead their teams and their company,” Marcheselli said. Giving an example of how BAI had worked with a company to help them overcome the challenges of an extremely high turnover rate, Marcheselli said, “They came to us with their analytics in place, giving us a clear idea of what employees valued the most. Specifically, they felt that a company that was providing them a career path opposed to just a job was a much more valuable company to be
associated with. So we worked with those leaders to come up with additional options to help their employees, such as continuing education, NMLS certificates, and customizing a curriculum for their employees. What really impressed me was that they were on top of what was going on inside the company. They were using analytics and marrying that with the information we provided to make a great decision. It has really given them a leg up on the competition.”

Building a leadership brand is also about having personal credibility according to Middleman. “It means establishing yourself as an honest and trustworthy person whose actions match your words. In life, in business, and certainly in our industry, it’s critical that your customers, your business partners, and your employees all have faith in you.”

For Hardwick, Churchill’s leadership brand is all about “putting people over profits.” He points out that this is not to the exclusion or detriment of the company’s profits, but rather in supporting the firm’s employees financially and rewarding a job well done.

“Likewise, it also means encouraging employees to adopt a responsible work-life balance and allowing them time for their personal health and other needs,” he said. “In turn, these employees will value the company they work for and treat our customers well. And, when our customers are happy, it creates a circle of profitability that rewards the company with consistent business.”

People are the focus area for Brungardt too, though he points out that a culture that values people doesn’t just evolve on its own. “It takes a commitment of time, resources, and energy to build. Therefore, we put a framework and process in place to develop the ‘All In, All Win’ culture,” he said. “This was a company-wide effort, and demanded the buy-in of everyone, starting with the C-suite executives, through the mid-level managers, and down to our newest employees just beginning the onboarding process. On the other side of this initiative, I can see that having this scalable culture embedded in the DNA of our company, is just as important as having enough facility space and the latest technology.”

For O’Donovan, it was working with some strong leaders who combined strategic focus with high emotional intelligence and a willingness to invest in the future leaders of the organization that helped develop her brand of leadership.

“I have carried that torch forward as I moved into the C-suite and as a result, we have a number of key professionals that I’ve worked with two, three, and even four times,” she said. “That brings a level of trust, transparency, and stability to our team at AHP Servicing. It has also paid dividends during this period of full employment. While others are in a war for talent, we’re holding exploratory meetings with professionals who want to work with our team as positions become available. This has quickly become a competitive advantage.”

Planning Ahead

Sometimes it is tough times also that bring out the leadership of an individual or company. Giving such an example, Middleman said that surviving the last housing crisis was a pretty big deal for him and Freedom Mortgage.

“We planned for both the headwinds and tailwinds of tumultuous change. While many big lenders were left critically
wounded, Freedom Mortgage grew through the downturn as we made the decision to turn inward and focus on diversifying our business portfolio through strategic acquisitions,” he said. “Our foresight had a big payoff as we were able to grow our business tremendously after the crisis. This year, Freedom Mortgage celebrated its millionth customer and solidified our position as one of the country’s top ten mortgage lenders.”

Having the vision to anticipate the future and make adjustments well in advance are truly a mark of a great leader, according to Brungardt. “In addition, a leader is the face of the company, so he/she needs to be a great internal and external ambassador of the brand. If you don’t believe, to your core, in the mission of your company, how can you demand employees to give their best? Or how can you expect customers to evangelize your brand to their friends and neighbors?”

Staying Grounded

Despite all the successes, it is equally important for leaders to look for that balance that won’t get them too high on success or low on failures, according to Holmes. “True leaders aren’t afraid of failure—they see it as an opportunity to improve, and that sense filters throughout the company,” Holmes said. “When employees are excited to try new ideas, and managers embrace the risk of failure inherent in new initiatives, that’s a company that will be found on the cutting edge.”

Additionally, Holmes said that humility was also a big part of successful leadership. “We all started somewhere, and many of us have gone through the same struggles that younger professionals go through every day. Keeping that in mind makes us better leaders; people who inspire instead of require.”

For Hardwick, recognizing that they need a solid team behind them in order to succeed is a hallmark of a good leader. “These individuals highly value others and recognize people as the company’s most important asset. Because of this, they continually look for ways to help their fellow employees grow and reward them well,” he said.

But at the end of the day, as Rothrock said, it is putting your talents to use while striving for wisdom that helps in nurturing relationships across all lines, passing of knowledge, and developing these leadership skills. “When training employees, a favorite saying from my grandfather comes to mind, ‘you’re smart, kid, but wisdom takes time.’ Wisdom is the combination of intelligence AND experience,” Rothrock said.

About Author: Radhika Ojha

Radhika Ojha is an independent writer and editor. A former Online Editor and currently a reporter for MReport, she is a graduate of the University of Pune, India, where she received her B.A. in Commerce with a concentration in Accounting and Marketing and an M.A. in Mass Communication. Upon completion of her master’s degree, Ojha worked at a national English daily publication in India (The Indian Express) where she was a staff writer in the cultural and arts features section. Ojha also worked as Principal Correspondent at HT Media Ltd and at Honeywell as an executive in corporate communications. She and her husband currently reside in Houston, Texas.
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