Gurus June 10, 2011

Guru Glut

by James Stefanile, ABR, GRI, SRES, QSC,  REALTOR/Associate, Prudential NJ Properties

This is probably the most personal piece I have written.  I approach it with some hesitation with an eye to my company’s principals.  They’ve been very patient with my rantings and ravings both here and in person and I don’t wish to torment them further.  What I’m discussing this month, however, runs counter to what most real estate companies encourage their agents to do.

I was enrolled in a real estate coaching and motivation program in 2007.  I had a weekly telephone session with my “coach”, I attended the company’s seminars in places like Orlando, Florida, San Diego, California and Las Vegas, Nevada (and paid my way there).   I also paid $1,000 a month for the privilege of being associated with this well-known trainer and guru.  Did my business improve?  Quite the opposite and I’ll tell you why a little later.

This particular wise man (no names, as is my policy) is a gruff, preening, tough love individual who preaches “blind faith”.  Take his advice and techniques exactly as he says them without question.  Do it his way and you’ll succeed.  Don’t do it totally as he says and you’ll be a loser and a failure.

Hindsight is always 20/20.  Four years later even I can’t believe I bought into this magic bullet bullshit so I’m sure you can’t believe it either.  It is seductive, however, and he and his representatives are very good salespeople – persistent, scripted, persuasive.  I was recommended to the program from someone who’s opinion I valued (I still do, despite this lapse) and it seemed a good idea when I attended the recruiting seminar with people smiling, hugging and feeling great about themselves and their potential.  It was almost a year later, however, that I realized the effect this individual was having on me.

What is the motivational industry selling?  Our most fervently desired image of ourselves – motivated, effective, dedicated, successful.  Who wouldn’t want to buy into that?  Some gurus have long beards and dress in flowing robes, some in business suits but  they all say they have the secret to your success, personal and professional, and they’re all pedaling the same snake oil.

The fact is, there is no way to change behavior, especially failure prone behavior, without understanding its causes.  Insight begins with cognitive understanding and culminates with emotional comprehension.  Behavioral mainsprings are, in all of us, rooted in our upbringing, in the examples the important adults in our lives presented to us and in all the experiences we internalized.  Successful people had successful models to emulate.  People prone to failure had the opposite.  I’m not talking about behavior caused by neurological illness.  Let’s assume we’re discussing minds free from disease.  For those of us fortunate enough to be spared actual impairment, the only, responsible, way to understand the underlying cause of our behavior is in the hands of a trained and licensed therapist.  Not a “life coach”, not a clergy-person, not a psychic or angel coach, not a yogi and certainly not a motivational guru.  Looking under the rocks of your early life can be scary.  I suppose that’s why many people mock therapy and won’t consider it.  It takes considerable courage to face the ghosts of the past when you know there may be sadness to discover.  The kind of insight gained from the therapeutic process cannot be replicated by a rock star motivator in a shiny suit, strutting in front of a crowd and bellowing into a microphone.

My particular strutting sage also indulged in amateur psychology.  This is the most dangerous practice imaginable.  He is not qualified to explain motivation and its causes and, believe me, he’s a clinical case himself.  He’s obscenely rich and flaunts it.  He taunts, humiliates, challenges and is very clear that he doesn’t care whether you take his advice or not.  His money back guarantee is, in his own words: “I guarantee I’m taking your money and I guarantee I’m not giving it back!”  Looking back, I understand why I stayed with this moron as long as I did.  He mirrored an influential adult in my life whose effect on me I am only beginning to understand.  Being treated this way was familiar to me.  Fortunately, I began to gather enough insight to chafe at this treatment and left the cult.  I did so when it became apparent to me that this person was actually harming my state of mind.  It took a great deal of effort on my part to keep my professional focus in light of this experience and to keep my business growing.

In fairness, there are a great many devotees of this particular carney barker (and others like him) who are massively successful and attribute that success to his teachings.  My opinion is these successful people are motivated and disciplined in the first place and would prevail, inevitably, with or without this guru or others like him.  His techniques and methods were nothing special.  They were mostly common sense and nothing you couldn’t arrive at by yourself. This is what’s so insidious about these charlatans.  They appeal mostly to people who may have a life model that mitigates against success and will try anything to fix it.  I’ve already stated what those kind of folks need to do to unravel their pasts and they certainly aren’t going to find it in the hands of a rich, strutting gruffster who basks in the adoration of his disciples and will tolerate no dissent.  My particular tormentor was a miserable human being who resonated badly with me.  Many other motivators are, by contrast, pleasant people but are equally unqualified to change behavior and  association with them results in a monstrously expensive waste of time.

The real estate industry has more gurus, trainers and motivational mystics than any other industry I have ever seen.  Most brokerages encourage their agents to enroll in these programs, whether it be in person or online. The internet has provided these snake oil salesmen with an astounding new platform and is saving them a fortune in airfare alone.  Many real estate companies are generously paying for their agents to drink the Kool Aid.  I don’t regard brokers as complicit with this motivational nonsense.  They are merely mis-guided.  They don’t have time to mold every agent so they rely on an established industry to do the job.  The problem is that  industry merely re-packages the obvious in an entertaining way and sells it as brand new.  True, some of these motivators are former successful agents.  They build on that success and their presentation skills and – viola! – a new business is born.  A good percentage of them were never agents. They worked in the motivation industry.  The point is, you can substitute any profession into their spiel.  They will parcel the same obvious palaver – work hard!, be focused!, be driven!, be accountable! – as their unique keys to success no matter what the business at hand.

In real estate every guru has a trick to sell:  be on the phone for hours a day, send gifts to prospective clients, send notes, use creative direct mail methods, knock on doors, yell mantras and affirmations, throw parties, develop a Spartan sense of accountability, use email and on and on.  One even has a quasi-comic routine and does impressions to get the message across.  They ALL have books, CD’s, seminars, subscriptions and coaching sessions for you to buy. Many of these Harold Hills* are also latching onto social media in a big way.  They follow the trends and sell them as techniques.  I’m old enough to remember when personal computers were new and the gurus of that era were hawking them as the keys to success.  You name the technique and real estate has a guru with his hand out willing to take your money and teach you the ins and outs.  There’s even one real estate swami who wants you to rely on your own personal charisma to motivate your prospects.  That’s great if you have charisma.  If you don’t you’re screwed and I’ll bet he won’t give you your money back either.

I know what I need to do to succeed.  I also know, from day-to-day, whether I’m going to do it or not and if I goof off I know I won’t reap any benefit.  No one can motivate me but me.  I’m not talking about servicing the business I have.  No one works harder than I do for my clients.  I’m talking about the other half of my profession – finding and securing the business.  That’s what the motivation industry addresses.  Now, if you have become a newly licensed REALTOR and don’t know the first thing about sales jobs or what they entail I suppose it’s useful to have someone tell you to pick up the phone and start to solicit.  There – I’ve just trained a new generation of real estate agents and I didn’t charge them a dime.

I’m all for coming to work every day, putting in a productive day, sticking to a plan and holding myself accountable.  The thing that amazes me about these pundits is the verve with which they sell this obvious discipline to us – and not cheaply, I might add.  By contrast, I’ve had a broker and an in-house trainer who told me the truth, gave me  basic insight and didn’t charge me a dime.  I’ll name their names.  The broker was Judy Zinn who told me I would succeed in direct proportion to my own motivation.  She was recruiting me honestly – not trying to dazzle me as other brokers had by quoting fantastic sums of money I could make.  As my broker, Judy then put in an extraordinary amount of one-on-one time with me to train me in the nuts and bolts of the business and to encourage me along the way.  The trainer was Carol Skubik who ran a “boot camp” for new agents in our company and identified my strengths, made clear the nature of the job and encouraged me by convincing me I was cut out for this kind of work.  This is the kind of honest, personal, caring guidance anyone needs, no matter what the subject.

I have no problem with training, as long as it’s mechanical or how-to.  I am, in fact, highly trained in multiple areas.  I’ll enroll in a seminar that teaches you  how to use Facebook effectively, for example, or how to navigate the Section 8 housing laws and regulations.  I’ve spent 1,500 words so far railing against what I think is wrong with real estate motivational training.  So what am I advocating?  I suppose the best a broker or manager can do is to spend the time with individual agents to tailor the job experience to them and to encourage the agents to gain insight about themselves that will lead to successful behavior.  Maybe that’s what they’re trying to do now but are using the wrong tools.  I’m not saying your boss should tell you to enroll in therapy (even if that would be a good idea).  That’s a very personal decision and not in management’s purview.  Perhaps what I’m suggesting isn’t really feasible in the fast paced, income driven world we REALTORS inhabit and our brokers manage.  Brokers use the training and motivation industry they’ve seen grow up around real estate and don’t really have the time to examine its worth.  I don’t assume management is wrong on purpose.  My current manager, Steve Janett,  is a very caring individual who has supported me in ways you can’t imagine.  I do think that, however, some deeper thought be brought to bear to guide that most fragile of gifts – the will to succeed.

*For the theatrically challenged, Harol Hill is the title character in Frank Loesser’s musical “The Music Man.”  He’s a con man who travels from town to town selling musical instruments and uniforms and promising to establish a marching band which, of course, he never does – until he meets Marion the Librarian –  and then…never mind, I don’t want to spoil it for you.