Creating Corporate Culture: An Interview with Mo Anderson

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Mo Anderson served as president and CEO of Keller Williams Realty from January 1995-2005. Since 2005, Anderson has served as the vice chairman for the company. Her focus is on cultivating the unique culture of Keller Williams Realty.

Anderson founded KW Cares (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization) in 2002 to assist company associates and their families in need and raised millions for Hurricane Katrina relief. She has been named twice as Oklahoma’s Women in Business Advocate of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. In December 2006, Anderson was named one of America’s Top Twenty-five Influential Thought Leaders by REALTOR® magazine. In January 2007, the Women’s Council of REALTORS® featured her as one of Real Estate’s Most Influential People in an article published in Connections. And, in 2008, Anderson was inducted into the prestigious Hall of Leaders by the CRB Council.

Recently, Anderson spent some time talking with us about the high calling of real estate, business, and leadership.

How/when did you get into Real Estate?

I was a public school music teacher, and I loved teaching, but I didn’t make any money. My husband, Richard, came home from work one day and told me that he had enrolled me in a real estate class. I asked him, “Why a real estate class?” He said because we hadn’t bought a home and this would be a good way for us to learn and prepare to purchase a house. He saw how hard I had worked as a teacher and how little I was compensated. He believed I would succeed at a high level if I was compensated based on the work I could produce. So, he wanted to give me a chance to start a new, entrepreneurial business. Reluctantly, I took the class.

Later, we moved to Oklahoma City. Richard encouraged me to give real estate a try. In January of 1974, I started practicing as a real estate agent, nearly 2 years after taking the class.

It was difficult for a while. I didn’t have any transactions, and there was little training for real estate agents. So months went by with no business. Though I did have a few listings, it was a tough year. I often felt discouraged and frustrated.

Then on August 1, I got one listing which gave me a glimmer of hope. I began to pray. “God, I’m miserable. This isn’t working. I’m not making any money. I think I’m going to quit.” I asked God to give me 3 solid transactions by the end of August, and I told Him without those transactions, I would quit real estate and go to graduate school. Next day, I enrolled in the Master’s program at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Weeks passed with no additional sales or listings. Then, on August 27, my only listing finally sold. And, on August 28, I met a couple wanting to buy a house. They found one right away, which was my second transaction before the end of the month. Hope began to rise within, and I genuinely wanted to succeed. When August 31 arrived, I was mad at God. He had given me 2 transactions, but not a third yet. I was filled with frustration.

Then my office called and said that a couple wanted to look at a house. I showed them a few homes until they found one they liked. However, they told me that they couldn’t buy it from me, that they had to buy it from another realtor who had been working with them for the last few weeks. I went home discouraged. I had been so close to three deals. By 7:30 that evening, the couple called back to say that they had spoken to the other agent and she told them to “do the right thing,” purchase the home from me. God had blessed me with all three transactions by the end of August. My confidence was restored.

In the next 6 months, I had 35 transactions, so I started my own company.

What attracts you to Real Estate?

I grew up in poverty and lived in rentals until I bought my first home with my husband. As the daughter of a tenant farmer, I wanted my own home my whole life. I feel truly fortunate to have been born in the USA where anyone can rise above poverty through education and hard work. It’s a real thrill to be involved in a business that leads people to home ownership. In most parts of the world, people don’t have that privilege. It’s a special thing to own a home.

The second thing that attracts me is that real estate is a platform where I can be a positive influence for people. When I opened my first real estate business with my two partners, Jerry Brown and Ruth Honeycutt, we had 50-60 people that we could influence. Then, we sold the company to Merrill Lynch and worked for them, where we had several hundred to influence. Later, with Keller Williams, I had several thousand people I could influence. Now, I have 80,000 people I can influence. I consider myself a missionary in the business world.

What are some life lessons that you’ve learned in the business world?

First, real estate teaches you to have a work ethic. I believe a strong work ethic is lacking in this country. There are too many people wanting hand-outs because they believe they are entitled. In an entrepreneurial business, you have to perform to receive money. You have to learn to work hard. The public has no idea how difficult it is to be a realtor. There are many disappointments along the way, deals fall through, and you have no control over it. You need the commission to feed your family. It can be very difficult.

The second thing I learned was to dream. If you’re an entrepreneur, the sky’s the limit! There’s no limit to the income you can make. As a teacher, I would eventually reach a ceiling on the income I could earn.

The third lesson I learned was benevolence. Most realtors are very giving, loving, caring people. I established KW Cares, a 501(c)(3) charity, to assist our associates and their families with emergency needs. When Katrina hit, the company raised $5.3 million in 4 months. People are loving and caring. It is a blessing to give grants to others in need.

The fourth lesson I learned was to be thrifty. With commission as your income, you have to budget and be sure to set aside your own tax payments. There’s no salary, just a commission.

The fifth lesson I learned was responsibility and entitlement. Like I mentioned, I was poor growing up, and my father didn’t want to take money from the government. He believed in working through your problems. If you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t expect others to give you anything. You have to work for you have. If you need money, then you better hustle and take action to turn prospects into listings and sales.

The sixth lesson I learned was whatever God gives us, he can also take away from us. Markets shift and go through cycles. It’s much more difficult during the down times when you must rely on your skills and know what you’re doing. During the easy times, an agent can be an order taker. But during the hard times, you need to know your scripts and dialogues; you need to be committed to leading a generation and knowing how to navigate short sales and foreclosures. It becomes a skill-based market.

The seventh lesson I learned was teamwork. The Keller Williams business model is based on teamwork. It’s the relationship between agents/staff/owners; the synergy that you get from working with a team drives productivity.

The eighth lesson I learned was about business. I learned through trial and error—in the trenches—and used these experiences to grow and improve our business.

The final lesson I learned was that when you’re an entrepreneur, you get to be who you really are. You get to use the gifts that God gave you. You’re allowed to be successful. Some businesses tone down or corral your personality and make you adapt to their business model. As an entrepreneur, you’re the CEO and you can develop, grow and blossom.

Can you tell me about your corporate culture?

Corporate culture is a predetermined set of values stating the way we are going to treat each other and our clients. To build culture at Keller Williams, we began with an affirmation; our most important stated value is God and family are first then, business is second. Another critical Keller Williams affirmation is that the real estate agent’s business belongs to that agent. Agents have a large, local sphere of influence, which they invest countless time and energy to create. Therefore, the business belongs to the agent, not the brand.

At Keller Williams, we also have a stated belief system represented by an important acronym, WI4C2TS: W-win, win or no deal; I-integrity; C-customers come first; C-communication; C-commitment in all things; C-creativity; T-teamwork; T-trust and honesty; S-success—results through people.

This is how we determine we are going to live and treat people. It is important to have an organization’s values and beliefs in writing, on display, and as an active part of the corporate conversation. Most important is that leadership has to live it. It is worthless if leaders don’t live it.

How do you model the culture you are building?

Everyone must have a deep understanding of the mission, vision, values, and beliefs of the organization. Then, you must all live it and hold each other accountable.

I teach 34 key ways to build culture. Some of these things include: speak kindly to others, smile, answer questions, or if you’re having a bad day, stay home. If you can afford to, pay a struggling agent’s fees or pay for an education event.

I conduct a Cultural Summit every year. Each region selects two agents who live the Keller Williams culture at a high level daily. At the Summit, we celebrate this select group and pay tribute to our amazing business culture. There are thousands of people who come to this event to celebrate these agents. It is my goal to build an army of people steeped in our culture, who will take a stand, defend, and grow the Keller Williams culture.

To build culture, I also host an Inspirational Breakfast at our annual international convention. These events are duplicated all over North America in our Keller Williams regions. Our agents and leadership are learning to model behavior that builds culture locally.

I also teach our agents to tithe. I believe that to attract abundance, one must be generous with the blessings one receives. Through KW Cares, our agents are giving back to one another in times of emergency. And through an annual event called RED Day, our agents give back to their communities.

RED Day was created to celebrate my birthday and to Renew/Energize/Donate with the communities that are building our local real estate businesses. Our Keller Williams offices across North America close for one business day in May, while everyone goes out and works in their communities. Some offices have expanded this RED Day to weekly or monthly. It is a way for us to teach giving, caring, and sharing. It’s very powerful.

Ultimately, you want to teach people that no one cares how much money you made, how many deals you had, or how many awards you received. People care about how many lives you’ve touched.

What about the housing bubble?

Many leaders in Washington DC encouraged banks to lend money to people who couldn’t pay the money back. Now, we are left with many situations in which home owners aren’t making their house payments, and the property is not worth what they paid for it.

Politicians decided that homeownership is for everyone. U.S. banks gave in to our politicians’ pressures and took risks on individuals who really could not qualify for the funds loaned to them. As I saw this happening in the real estate business, I couldn’t believe what was happening! There were banks giving loans to people who didn’t have jobs!

A few years ago, I was in California teaching a real estate class where I drove by a new subdivision and saw a sign that said, “Average selling price $700,000, no down payment.” I recognized the huge red flag in that situation! And I warned the agents attending my class not to sell in that subdivision. It is interesting that the same subdivision now has many foreclosures. Our government leaders and many of our citizens seem to have forgotten common sense—you simply don’t spend more money than you take in!

How can Keller Williams be successful during bad times?

2009 and 2010 were two of the best years in the history of the company. We were able to create prosperity and success because we are able to turn on a dime. We can shift with the markets. We use seminars to teach people what to do when the market shifts, how to do business differently. This is what separates us from other franchises. Our people became really skilled in short sales and foreclosures. We teach our agents “to fish” so they can succeed in any real estate market through sound business practices, fiscal responsibility, and hard work.

What qualities do you look for when building a team?

The most important quality that we look for is someone who shares our common beliefs and values.

I am always interested in the Yale University students’ responses when they read the Keller Williams case study as part of their course material. They often ask, “Doesn’t the ‘God and family first’ business statement hurt you?” They don’t get it! When you embrace a stated value such as this, it serves as a magnet to attract people who are like-minded. When you have a group of like-minded people marching to a common goal, it’s far more powerful than trying to drag people along who don’t share your values or way of thinking. Keller Williams agents and leadership don’t have to be Christians, but they need to be like-minded in terms of the rules we live by and must believe in our stated values—God and family are first.

One example is that we believe no transaction is worth our reputation. Anyone who conducts his or her business according to that level of integrity would truly be a match for our company. Together, we become a powerhouse.

How do you manage to deal with God and faith with such a large company like Keller Williams?

We are a privately held company, and we respect each other. We respect the diverse faiths of all of our agents, and we pride ourselves on being able to talk about our faiths and learn from each other.

The power of the Holy Spirit will convert some and lead them to Christ. Many agnostics have gone back to church after experiencing our cultural events or spending enough time as part of our Keller Williams family. I often receive letters from agents and employees saying that the environment of our company has helped them rediscover their Christian faith.

It’s a matter of respect. There are no tensions if there is respect among all of the agents and employees.

Image by Telmo 32. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

Post by Mark Russell, author of The Missional Entrepreneur: Principles and Practices for Business as Mission.