How do you take control of a company from A to Z? Leading a company or team requires you to make sudden shifts from marketing meetings, to HR, to discussing financial transactions, and everything in between. Cindy Fisher and Georgianna Oliver look at the full enterprise of running a company, department, or team and how with a strategic vision, top leaders are getting people involved when they may not understand the overall strategy.
The second group of guests in Day 2 of the Multifamily Women® Summit are Cindy Fisher and Georgianna Oliver. Carrie Antrim, the Chief Operating Officer of Multifamily Leadership and Co-Founder of Multifamily Women®, is carrying out an interview and leading a discussion between them.
Georgianna Oliver has been in the industry for over a decade, beginning in multifamily management and then moved on to start a few companies of her own. The most recent of them is Tour24, a new self-guided tour product for apartment complexes that so far is live in over 300 different properties.
“It’s a true startup, in the sense that it’s hard. It’s really hard. Our biggest challenge, which you guys will understand is buy-in from the site managers, the leasing teams, and access,” said Oliver. Right now, she’s trying to raise a few million dollars to be able to hire more people and advance the technology they’re using.
Cindy Fisher is the president of a multifamily developer, investor, and property manager called KETTLER.
“I didn’t plot my course, exactly, it just came upon me.”
She worked in property management for about 5 years, then spent almost 20 years in multifamily, focusing largely on financing. From there, wanting to do something different, she went to the Washington Post. She worked for a couple nonprofits as well. After a while, she linked up with a real estate investor named Bob Kettler, who took a liking to her.
“I am a change agent. I love change, I love being in the middle of disruption. I love being part of restructuring, reorganizing, and figuring out how to get organizations where they need to go.”
That’s what she was brought in to do.
She transformed the KETTLER organization, making it much more integrated and trying to figure out what drives the industry, so they’d know what to do moving forward. Bob Kettler decided he wanted her to run the company.
Making A Team of Leaders
“Before we get into managing teams and change and all that, I want to go a little inward,” said Antrim. “You both, I would imagine, on any given day, are going from finance meetings, to HR, to marketing. You’re doing all of the things there are to do. How do you switch hats quickly and still remain present for the people you’re interacting with every day?”
“One thing I want to say is, you have to step in and step out,” answers Oliver. She explains, some teams you check in with once a month; others, you check in with once a week; others, you talk to daily. Throughout that, you have to keep the big picture in mind and workflow anything that isn’t functioning.
“Never lose sight of those details that could cripple you.”
Oliver’s other piece of advice is to bring what she calls the E Factor.
“Bring that energy. Like what happened when we walked in the room here!” she says, referring to the hype-song Antrim played for the interviewees as they walked on stage, and the audience’s excitable reaction. “When there’s energy, you can get things done so much more easily. If you’re engaged, energized, enthusiastic, always bring that to every meeting you have and it will shock you what you’ll be able to accomplish.”
“I bring a little bit of the crazy, too,” joked Fisher. She admits that sometimes she’s impressed by how many meetings she or others manage to get done in a day. “But you know what it is? It’s trust. I built leadership around me of people I trust. People that I count on to know their job. I am not a micromanager – I’m the worst micromanager on the planet… I need people to be challenged and take leadership and feel empowered to do what they’re doing.”
Fisher says the most important thing to her is having a clear vision and strategy. Each person has to understand and own those, and has to have the resources and tools to achieve the goal. Oliver does her best to remove any barriers for those people.
“Finally, if we put good monitoring and measuring systems in place, I know where things are going,” said Fisher. “We can manage by exception. If you’re trying to manage the details every single day, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. You have to know enough to be dangerous, so I do agree 100% that getting down to understand what people are talking about builds that trust and respect.”
Fisher passes on a bit of advice from her father: Don’t ever think you’re the smartest person in the room. Instead, build smart people around you who you can trust, and let them have a place at the table.
“I love how you mentioned that you aren’t going to micromanage,” said Antrim. “You have to trust that they’re going to get it done. What are you looking for? Is it something you see in people, is it a character trait, is it a work ethic? How are you building those teams that are working toward your vision and strategy?”
Oliver says she looks for accountability.
“If you’re accountable, you’re thinking about all of the different things that are part of the equation.” Fisher gives a woman who has grown through the past year to be much more independent. “You have to look for people to pick up those rocks and look under them and see what’s going on and find the answers.”
Fisher points out it’s also important to be comfortable letting people find answers on their own. She prefers to use hiring techniques where prospective employees are thrown into certain situations and asked how they’d handle things, so you can see whether they’d be a good fit.
Fisher said she learned early on as a manager that she had to simply present a problem and ask her employee to figure out on their own how they would solve it. Embracing that strategy, she says, was a bit of a learning curve, but now she knows it helps people to build confidence.
“It’s a way for me to see what they can do. And then from there, you really start placing people in the right place. Because not everyone thinks like that. Some people are doers, some people are real task-owners. We need all levels of employees across our company and it’s good to recognize where people are. But when you find those people you know are going to start rising up and be those rising leaders for you, you have to challenge them. You have to make them think, you have to give them that empowerment and autonomy.”
Oliver says each month, the whole group does a virtual meeting.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my life is to focus on your strengths. And that’s what I said to the team, and the people you manage and even ourselves. Focus on what you’re good at, don’t focus on what you’re not. Because you will find success and you will be more successful doing the things you know you’re good at. Guess what, experts are good at ‘blank’ because they’ve built their whole lives building that knowledge and being the best at that. That’s what I said on the call.”
Fisher builds on that notion saying passion is so important. She adds, you must learn everything you can about the area you’re passionate about.
“You both are speaking straight to my soul, because I am very high-task by nature,” said Antrim. “It has been a complete mindset shift for me to be able to hold someone capable and then to let it go. ‘I feel like this person’s capable, pretty sure, I’m just going to let them figure it out, I’ll see what happens,’ and the magic is done when it does.”
“What the teams need is, they need to know there’s a vision, there’s a strategy, there’s plan ahead. That’s what teams of people rally around, is organizations that have a clear vision, a growth strategy, a plan that they can get connected to. So you have to have that balance,” said Fisher.
“You both have done amazing things in your careers,” said Antrim, “and sold companies and worked in different places. Has anyone tried to tell you ‘no,’ either of you? Because I feel sorry for that person.”
Fisher says she’s heard it all the time. She views those challenges as opportunities to grow and take risks. Recently, when she came into KETTLER after several different organizational changes, she brought up a lot of ideas and was met with vitriol. She heard no for several years, and finally came up with a full proposition that she could sell to the company. That was only possible in the end, she feels, because of her passion for the industry.
“Let’s keep pushing ourselves, let’s keep thinking about how we can do things differently,” said Fisher. “Let’s not get caught up in the 40-year story. It’s great, it’s wonderful, but we’re in a new era.”
Fisher says to remain tenacious if you truly believe in something.
Oliver says when someone tells her no, she simply doesn’t believe it. “I’m like, ‘Oh, you didn’t hear my question right,’ or, ‘So you’re saying there’s a shot!’”
“The road to success is paved with no’s. That’s what problem-solving is: it’s roadblocks. In sales, they say the first time you hear a ‘no’ is when you start selling,” Oliver says. If she hears no, she just tries to convince people otherwise, even if it takes time.
“What do you do when your team is telling you no?” asked Antrim. “You’re talking about being a change agent. Some people aren’t as excited about change as Cindy! But when you have to make changes and people have to go along with it?”
The way there are seven stages of grief, Fisher says there are similar stages when people undergo the shock of changes. Being clear about why the change is happening and staying true to the path of that change is important. Ownership is key, she says – both for the leader and for people feeling part of the change.
“As a leader you need to stay strong about what you’re trying to do, but it’s okay to let people challenge you,” said Fisher. “Don’t be afraid of people telling you, ‘I don’t like that,’ or getting angry or resenting that you’re trying to change what they’re doing every day. It’s okay for people to feel that way. But what we have to do as leaders is lead them through that change. Let’s not leave them out there floundering trying to figure out how to do it; let me lead you through the change.”
Celebrate small victories along the way, and after the change has happened, measure the success to demonstrate how the change has been crucial.
Since Fisher talked a good deal about how it’s okay if your employees challenge you, since that’s how everyone learns, Oliver asks the crowd, “How many people would feel comfortable saying no to your boss?”
About half of the attendees raised their hands hesitantly as the crowd erupted in laughter.
“Don’t be afraid to!” says Fisher encouragingly. “It’s poor leadership if people are afraid to hear – everybody’s voice matters. I don’t care what the job is in the organization, we all matter equally.”
In the end, Fisher concedes that not all organizations encourage employees to act in that way.
Oliver shares a story where an employee yelled at her, to the horror of another co-worker. Fisher told the aghast employee, “I can take it.” She says people have to have a way to communicate with you.
“You take the good with the bad, you always try to be polite, you always try to be nice. But he was unhappy about something,” said Fisher. “The point is, it was important to him and he wanted to tell me about it.”
Antrim asks her interviewees to think back to when they were 25 or so. “What would be a takeaway that you’ve learned? How have things changed?”
Oliver says she lives by certain one-liners and sayings.
“One of them that I would say to all of you at 25 is, ‘Life is long in business.’ Very long. You will come across and be around the same people over and over in your careers, and you’ll never get away from them, I’m sorry.”
She warns, if you have a bad interaction with someone, just be aware you are likely to run into them again in your business down the line. “You’ll get so many chances, but there will be those things you want to make sure you handle just right. But you’re going to make mistakes, because that’s the only way we learn.”
Fisher adds, “Be opportunistic.”
“Do not be afraid to make your own opportunities,” she continued. “I’m always looking at that challenge in front of me. ‘What is that thing I want to do? What is it I think I might be good at to go in and influence and add value to whatever organization I’m in?’”
She says that it takes fearlessness.
Keep in mind too, it is okay to make mistakes. Rather than getting discouraged, think about what you learned and what you could’ve done differently, brush it off, and move on.
Another bit of advice Fisher shares is, “Find those advocates and champions for you. I cannot emphasize that enough. Find people that are going to help you grow in your career and want to be an advocate for you.”
You’ll never stop growing and learning, she says.
Antrim opens the floor to questions from the audience, but first asks Fisher about her time with the Washington Post.
She helped manage the transition to focus more on the digital aspects of the paper, rather than just paper. She says the digital crowd was new and hip, while the print journalists were practically curmudgeonly; all, she says, were brilliant.
She says it required a culture change, but people were united because they had the common goal of quality journalism. She wanted to focus on how to come into an organization as a newbie and add value.
“Understanding where people are coming from and putting yourself in their shoes, I think is a really valuable lesson that I learned. I use that technique over and over again,” said Fisher.
Antrim asks Oliver how she’s able to reset rather than internalize after a failure.
“I have to feel like I accomplish something significant every day,” said Oliver. “One a day. That resonated with me. The other thing I want to say is, you make mistakes because you step outside your comfort zone. You step outside your comfort zone because you want to learn and grow.”
Oliver says she’s made mistakes in just the past year. She pushed herself outside her comfort zone while trying to fundraise. “There are things you just don’t know, but you don’t learn them unless you go outside your comfort zone. And the way you recover is, the next day, you push the ball forward in the other direction… Anything you’re trying to accomplish, as long as you do something each day towards that end, you will feel like you’re making progress. Because guess what? You are.”
Oliver says it’s all about grit, and it’s okay to pivot.
“If you have grit, you absolutely push forward no matter what. The most successful people have done that. We all have obstacles.”
Fisher says you should celebrate yourself every day. Don’t focus on your failures, focus on your successes, and give yourself credit for the things you’ve done. If today wasn’t that great, don’t worry; there’s always tomorrow.
Fisher also says anyone can reach out to her any time if they want some advice. Oliver adds that she gets energy and inspiration from the people around her, so she welcomes it as well.
Questions from the Audience
A woman from the audience brings up the “E Factor” mentioned earlier in the seminar. “How do you get to that point where you keep yourself rallied and energized and bring the E so that the people you lead to the same thing? And keep it authentic?”
Fisher says she gets energy from the people around her, so the more people she’s interacting with, the more energy she draws. Getting ideas flowing among the staff helps.
“We all can get overwhelmed, but when I find I get that way, the best thing I do is I find that group or that core or those other people I need to talk to – whether it’s peers – and I say, ‘let’s talk through this,’ and then I feel energized.”
Oliver says when she feels things getting to her, she checks herself before heading into a meeting. Be present and aware of yourself and your emotions. She acts silly or goes for walks to break up the anxiety and the mundane elements of the day. Traveling helps too, because she says it inspires her to do better. “You’ve just got to shake things up.”
Antrim moves on to other questions that viewers texted in.
“What are some recommendations you have for seeking out a mentor? How should we approach someone with the desire to be mentored?” the texter asked.
Fisher says her organization tries to build mentorship programs structurally. In other circumstances, people who have worked closely with her on a project will ask her if she’d be open to a mentorship relationship. Sometimes, a male manager will ask her for help mentoring a female employee. Sometimes it starts with something as simple as someone reaching out to her over an email.
“When it does happen, talk through what it is they really want to do,” said Fisher. “Just something real and authentic and genuine, so it doesn’t feel like, ‘Okay we had this one meeting and off you can go.’ I usually try to set up something where we’re working together on something where they can develop in an area they’re hoping to develop in.”
Oliver says it doesn’t always have to be extremely formal. She’s been drawing in nuggets from other people she’s worked with, like the advice that not everyone works well together, and you should change up teams based on who will interact successfully. She also thinks it’s a good idea to be around people who are not similar to you, because you can learn from them.
“You don’t know what you learn when you’re around them, so pursue that,” said Oliver. “Because when you’re around people that think differently or are more ambitious than you, you rise, and you don’t even know.”
The last question from the audience, Antrim says, is from a woman named Terry: “What’s the best advice you have for a woman trying to grow her company’s third-party management portfolio?”
Fisher says anything that talks about growth and strategy should mean you’re focusing on the type of market and type of client you’re trying to grow with. From there, connection and outreach is crucial toward sales.
“Have a good strategy. What differentiates you from other third-party management companies? Because at the end of the day, all of us can check certain boxes,” said Fisher. “It’s what you bring to that equation that’s really going to spark their attention.”
You should also make it about them. Find a way to figure out what exactly they’re looking for, and personalize your pitch to be specifically about how you can help that exact company. Listen to them first so you can truly understand their goals and how you can reach them.