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A Word from the Wise

Editor's Note: This feature originally appeared in the May issue of MReport, out now.

It is said that experience is the greatest teacher, but the new generation of mortgage professionals coming into the industry lacks the luxury of being able to draw on experience in their day-to-day decisions. Getting advice from senior leaders can be a good starting point until their own lessons are learned. After all, these leaders were in the same place where many young professionals find themselves today—at the beginning of a career, unsure of what to do, and making mistakes that they will take as learning lessons as they grow.

Never stop learning and always be open to coaching is one of the universal lessons we heard from the industry veterans we spoke to. According to a study by Caldwell Partners, most CEOs are amenable to the idea of receiving coaching, with nearly 80 percent of surveyed board directors reporting that their CEOs were in favor of the idea. Here are a few lessons our experts learned and shared.

Remain Grounded

Too often, young professionals and leaders get caught up in the market cycles and change their core strategies to suit the short-term need. That might not be ideal advises Glenn Brunker, President of Mortgage at BOK Financial. “This business is volatile, cyclical, and high risk. The one constant is change,” he said. “Regardless of which part of the rollercoaster, you are on, ensure that you remain steadfast and true to your strategy, always stay within the white lines in risk tolerance and be purposeful in your effort. A commitment to your core strategy and strengthening your value proposition over time will deliver significant dividends.”

Remaining grounded also means knowing when to back off. “It’s easy to get so caught up in landing a new client or winning new business that you don’t see the forest for the trees. Being aggressive to the point of making concessions just for the ‘win’ is not only unwise, but it can cause serious damage regarding money lost,” says Greg Holmes, Managing Partner at Credit Plus Inc.

Cheryl Feltgen, EVP and Chief Risk Officer at Arch MI, says that respecting and appreciating others, not only highlights the humility of the person showing that respect but also leaves a lasting impression on those receiving it. “Show respect and appreciation for others,” she says, “A quote I love that is often attributed to Maya Angelou best describes this feeling: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’”

Know your Fundamentals

According to Adam Thorpe, President and COO of Castle & Cooke Mortgage, market conditions may change, but business fundamentals don’t. “Work every day to maximize revenue and manage expenses. Focus on where your business is today and where you want it to be in one, three and five years,” he advises.

“Seek out mortgage lenders or companies that have a great reputation for training and developing their people,” advises Richard Barrent, President of The Barrent Group. “Experience is the greatest teacher, but starting off with a solid foundation makes a huge difference. Work for people who you can learn from and who will help you grow as a mortgage professional.”

Focus on Customers

An important lesson is to mean what you say, especially when it comes to customers. Speaking at a session for students of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, Jamie Dimon, Chairman, and CEO of JPMorgan Chase had said: “A lot of managers say things like ‘the customer is the most important thing,’ but all too often those words don’t mean much. People say that, and they don’t mean it in any way, shape, or form. They do no actions that would support the statement. It should mean something specific, like do you read customer complaints? And then you do something about it as opposed to ‘we put the customer first.’”

Todd Jones, President at BBMC Mortgage, has a similar opinion. “Take the customer experience into account at all times and use technology to achieve the best experience,” he said. “Armed with an outstanding customer experience and an efficient process, your charisma will be the closing factor and your networking skills will provide additional value.” It also helps to cross-train and rotate your job when it comes to understanding the customer according to Brunker. “Obtain different viewpoints, attempt to re-dial your lens from the customer vantage point and be willing to appreciate change versus resisting it,” he says.

Adapt to Technology

Technology is, in fact, the factor that’s rapidly changing the industry today and Jones advices that it is important for young professionals to embrace and not fear technology. At the same time, Mike Hardwick, CEO, Churchill Mortgage says that it’s too easy to get consumed by technology if we allow it—especially when it comes to social media and emails. He said, “It’s critically important to truly identify on a daily basis what is important and focus most of our energy on that.”

Citing a study by Todd Duncan, Hardwick said that the study found 34 percent of loan originators used email at least 1-2 hours per day, around 44 percent were on email 4-5 hours per day and 9 percent are actually on email five or more hours per day.

Make Informed Decisions

In an interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group had said: “To be a great leader, and to be successful, one must be a good listener.” This holds true for all professionals including lenders. “An old mentor of mine taught me that nobody has all the answers, so don’t get too involved in finding the answers yourself. Be willing to engage and listen to others, and the answers will come to you,” Hardwick says. “I have been in this industry for well over three decades, and the one thing that has stood out to me is that many people in this industry are talented and smart, and if I spend enough time studying and listening then I will make better decisions.”

“‘A person’s judgment is no better than their information.’ That piece of wisdom came from my father, who had learned it from my Great Uncle Ellis Levitt,” Barrent says. “In other words, when making important decisions, be sure you independently validate your information and don’t make decisions in a bubble. Today, I seek to get all of the facts available and bounce ideas off others before making a final decision.”

Tap Opportunities

If you survey 20 people in the mortgage industry at any time, you’ll find some who will tell you it’s a good time to be in the business and some who’ll say it’s a bad time to be in the business. In actuality, all markets contain opportunity, so it’s not “good” or “bad” market timing that leads to success or failure,” advised Michael Dubeck, CEO, Planet Financial Group.

For Jones, it is executive intent that can help an employee succeed in pursuing an opportunity. “[Executive Intent] requires that you define success, set an expected timeline for completion, define any hardline resource restrictions, and then allow your employee a set amount of time to come back and brief you on the plan,” Jones explains. “As long as the plan is successful and doesn’t break restrictions, you have to discipline yourself to allow your people to execute in their way, even if it’s not how you would personally do it. After completion, you should then conduct an “after action review” that focuses on what the plan was, and what may or may not have gone according to plan.”

It’s also important to remain flexible and adaptable to tap into these opportunities according to Tom Millon, CEO of Capital Markets Cooperative. He says, “Be flexible and adaptable as markets and opportunities change and never give up as the line is not straight between here and great success.”

Commit to Patience

Very often, young professionals, in their bid to rise fast make rash decisions. According to Brunker, it is important to remain committed and always strengthen the foundation of a company before accelerating growth, he advises. “Ensure systems, operations, and support functions are upgraded all before implementing growth initiatives. New leaders tend to immediately want to go for the shiny star and implement growth initiatives first. I think this should be the latter.”

Holmes agrees: “Millennials are used to automation and the immediate gratification that comes with it. This generation and the one behind it must learn not to quit things just because they get pushback; they must develop a mentality of patience and understanding– and a realization that some things (especially those worth waiting for) don’t come quickly.”

“Setbacks can be a directional change for the better and a learning experience,” Barrent says. “When one door closes, you may be disappointed, but it also may be the best thing for you.”

For Thorpe, commitment is also about the hard work you put in at the beginning of your career. He advises, “Many people entering the workforce struggle to make the personal efforts necessary to succeed. Don’t be afraid to come in early, work late and show those around you that you care about your performance and career.” “Success isn’t handed out at the door in the mortgage industry, or any industry for that matter, success is earned through hard work, dedication, and focus.”

Giving an example of a setback she had early in her career, Feltgen says that commitment and patience are also about developing resilience when things don’t work out. “Early in my career, I worked for a company that filed for bankruptcy and went into liquidation. As I faced unemployment for the first time during the recession of the early 1990s, I learned that the person I am is not defined by the job I happen to hold at any point in time,” she says. “I also learned that I have more control over my own attitude than I might have thought. I developed a resilience that has served me well in the ups and downs that have occurred since those days.”

Balance your Emotions

It is important to balance emotions while making tough business decisions. And this comes only with experience. Recounting a lesson he learned through a setback, Jones says, “Often a setback is exactly the catalyst that brings forth a focused effort that solves the real problem.” Recently Jones had a branch that was marginally successful in a market where he was personally and emotionally invested in and had a leader who he liked a lot.

“The leader abruptly resigned and successfully solicited the four top bankers to leave with him. I immediately became more involved, retained the individuals I desired, let other model mismatches go, and was able to recruit an amazing team based on what was always an outstanding opportunity,” Jones shares. “I let my personal emotional investment in the market outweigh the appropriate hiring and retention decisions. This ultimately set the market back, was expensive, caused immense frustration, and resulted in good employees leaving the organization for the wrong reasons.”

Brunker also believes in the importance of being willing to make tough decisions. He says, “At times, leaders become emotionally connected to what they have built due to pride, relationship, or other factors. You must step away from the connections, look at the facts and the long-term outlook and be willing to make tough decisions if appropriate.” Using your head over your heart during a setback can also be valuable according to Barrent. “Setbacks can be a directional change for the better and a learning experience,” he says. “When one door closes, you may be disappointed, but it also may be the best thing for you.”

Find the Right People

Perhaps one of the most important lessons that most leaders advice on is surrounding yourself with the right people to help you grow. “What does lead to success over time is surrounding yourself with smart people and learning as much as you can from them,” Dubeck says. “Try to affiliate yourself with leaders who know how to put the right business components and people together to take advantage of market inflections. When you have the right mix of strategy, corporate support, and industry talent, you can succeed in any market.”

Millon agrees, “Surround yourself with a team of smart, loyal, hardworking professionals. Stick with them and build something great.”

The right people also includes having the right team, when you are in a leadership position, according to Thorpe, who believes that as a leader it is very important to value employees and build strong employee relations. “Employees who are appreciated and valued will trust their leaders. They will put their all into the job every day,” he says. “Recruiting and retaining top talent is much easier as like attracts like. This positive environment and culture manifests itself in many ways—high performance, loyalty, and employees that care.”

For Feltgen it’s not only colleagues but also family that defines a successful professional. “I’m fortunate to have encountered many people who encouraged my development and career over the years,” she says. “Teachers who taught me the importance of a good education and managers who taught me great leadership skills and gave me the courage to stretch myself and try new things. My father, who was legally blind but accomplished great things in his life, taught me to never give up and to find joy in life and my husband and partner, has been enormously supportive of me and my career.”

Finally, as Hardwick, quoting what author and speaker John Maxwell taught him, says that any great company or enterprise first originated as a “thought” that took much time and energy before becoming fully developed. “The ability to fully vet thoughts and really develop worthy thoughts into action plans that become a reality is a process, not an event,” says Hardwick. Critical thinking is highly valuable when one invests the time and energy to read, study, learn and seek the thinking and advice of others who can bring value to the process.”

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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