Ending Management by Interruption – A Broker’s Story


It seemed like an excellent time-management tool when Neil heard about it from another brokerage owner at the ICSC conference.  Now he hated it. “Get one of those attendance clickers that gatekeepers use and click it every time one of your agents asks you a question.” said Bill. “Then use it to show them why they need to stop interrupting you all day, everyday.”

It was only 8:53 AM on Wednesday and he was already up to 7 clicks for the day. On Monday and Tuesday, he had averaged 73 interruptions a day, including one question about the toilet paper in the men’s room.  Now Jim was standing at his door, as he had hundreds of times before.  “Hey Neil, got a minute? I’ve got a little problem.” Click, number 8.

He felt his face flush as he tried to suppress his mounting frustration.  Jim was smart enough; he’d been an agent for almost three years. Too often Jim already knew how to solve his problems, now it was a reflex to break in on Neil and run his problems by him.  It was the same thing this time; a repeat of a common problem that any first year agent should have been able to solve.  Neil barely grunted out an answer, his frustration had flashed to the surface and signaled Jim to go away.

“Why does he always do that now?” fumed Jim.  “Is it too much to ask for a little transactional support from my Broker?”   He was barely making it financially and needed more; more encouragement, more guidance, and more leadership.

Why does he always do that?” thought Neil.   “Is it too much to ask from an agent to handle their own transactions without barging in here every five minutes? Damn” thought Neil, “I need to be more patient with Jim. I need him even though he’s not producing to his potential.  My other three agents look up to him and if they see Jim fail, I’ll probably lose them all”. Neil got up and closed his door, sat down, and started to think.

He reflected on the past week at ICSC where he’d run into many people he’d known for years.  Some had been sales managers and brokerage owners who had gone solo, citing “too many agent headaches” as their reasoning. “Maybe that’s the answer”, thought Neil, “go it alone”.  Neil had believed he could improve his life and do a great job running a brokerage firm, while being a broker. Now it seemed all he had done is increase his problems.

But, what about Jim and the others?” He’d recruited them with promises to teach them the business and to help them have great careers.  “How could I let them down?” he thought. Even his newest hire had invested more than a year already. It wouldn’t be fair.

Meanwhile, Jim too was lost in thought. “Three years of struggling, working to create a career, and now it seems like every time I need a few minutes of Neil’s time, he seems angry with me for asking.  What kind of thanks is that for three years of loyalty, doing his grunt work? I’m just trying to learn the business” seethed Jim. “If I can’t get what I need here, maybe I need to find a better brokerage.  But where? Aren’t they all pretty much the same? They all promise support, but it’s always O.J.T. – with plenty of on-the-job and no training.”

Neil thought about his first couple of years in the business, and how he’d been a lot like Jim, full of questions. The market had been pretty good then, and he’d been lucky to have Carl to guide him.  Not that Carl wasn’t extremely busy, he was. He was also, well, no other word described him, a coach. “Yes, Carl was my coach.  He always made time for me” thought Neil. Now I’m in the same situation that Carl was in, a busy brokerage owner who needs to produce to keep the business running, agents to manage, and a family that depends on me to stay healthy to provide for them.

“I would have stayed with Carl if the economy hadn’t ruptured. I was happier then.” he reflected. Carl had made enough to get out when the economic engine derailed and he retired. He practically gave Neil the business, but the truth was that Carl had just beaten the other agents to the door. One by one they all had quickly left, and Neil had been trying to rebuild ever since.

“What is it that Carl had, that I don’t?” he mused. “I’ve got to figure this out and make some changes or I will be seeing an empty office again soon.  What would Carl do? Surely he’d had the same dilemma?  But, I’m not Carl, I’m not the caring coach that Carl was. I’m a broker. I do deals! I want this to work; not just for me, but for my agents, to have a functioning business for my family without it killing me.”

He reached for the phone.  “Carl, this is Neil, I’ve got a problem.”  He did not miss the irony that now he sounds like Jim. After getting caught up a bit, Carl admitted that he had faced the same challenges.  “I finally understood that all the skills that made me a great broker were not the skills I needed to be a great manager, so I decided to get help, because nobody gets to great alone. “, said Carl. “Do you remember that we had pre-scheduled 20-minute coaching sessions weekly? My coach taught me that, and it worked wonders. You almost completely stopped interrupting my work all day because you only came to me with truly urgent and important problems, the rest could wait.”

After finishing with Carl, he picked up the phone and called Jim’s extension. “Hey, Jim, can we talk for about 20 minutes?”  “Sure’ I’ll be right in,” said Jim.  “Jim, what is that you need that you are not getting from me?” was the fundamental question Neil asked. In a word, the answer was leadership, and that was the turning point.

Week by week Neil sought to strengthen his leadership and coaching skills because like Carl, the skills that made him a great broker had not prepared him to lead agents on their quest for success.  He saw the wisdom in Carl’s comment that “nobody gets to great alone.”, and he started working with a coach too.

Most importantly he learned that one-size does not fit all. He stopped asking, “Why can’t they all be like me?” and started asking a better question: “What does this person need next for their successful development?”

That simple 20-minute conversation with Jim became the model of how Neil would work with the agents. He scheduled 20-minute, weekly conversations with each agent and published his calendar with office hours for agents to drop in.

During coaching sessions , his goal was to find ways to help them grow professionally.

He identified areas of weakness and guided their development by helping them set educational goals. Because they were new to the business, they did not know what they needed next for their development.

He looked for resources to help them learn and grow, some of which was industry education and training, and some that was from outside the industry, such as sales, negotiating and marketing skills development.  When he found an area of strength, he had the agent teach those skills to the other agents.  They all started to get better together, and they were excited about it. Neil discovered that the agents were hungry to learn, and that they had been starved for his leadership.

As they grew, secure in the knowledge that they always had their pre-arranged time for open and frank conversation with Neil, their need for management by interruption diminished. Now when they asked for help, it was for meaningful issues that truly required Neil’s leadership, leadership he was now happy to provide.  Neil thinks of himself as the caring coach for his agents, but to them he is a hero who helps them learn, grow and succeed.

Neil and his family are happier too. The business is growing and has the potential to become a legacy business because it does not have an over dependence on the brokerage owner’s production. Neil’s production increased as his leadership skills improved.

Neil took that attendance clicker to a nearby trophy shop and had it mounted on a polished walnut base.  It sits on his desk to remind him that if management by interruption ever rears its ugly head again, he will know that it’s time to get back to being a leader.