Less training, more personal development for real estate leaders

By May 23, 2023 July 6th, 2023 No Comments

Chris Hanley, one of Australia’s most experienced and respected real estate principals, has called on the industry to invest more in personal development for its leaders, rather than traditional leadership training. 

Speaking recently at RiSE Leadership Awakening, Chris told 120 leaders in the room that the industry needed greater self-awareness, emotional bravery and an ability to build personal responsibility and trusting relationships – all things that require internal reflection rather than the outward absorption of instructions and facts. 

Chris said $60 billion a year was spent worldwide in leadership development courses but there was a significant difference between being a boss and being a leader. 

“What happens at many leadership development courses is they give you a list of what to do without telling you the why and how,” Chris said. 

“If I gave the majority of real estate leaders the boss test, nine out of 10 in our industry would pass. In fact, they’d get good marks. But the issue around leadership isn’t what you do. The issue is why aren’t you doing it already?”

Chris said courses on personal development and counselling would be more valuable to most principals in real estate because the nature of our work and the relationships we need to build with our teams and our clients is deeply personal. 

“I believe in spending money for courses but if it was up to me, learning to live rather than learning to lead is what I would be spending my money on.”

As a leader with 40 years’ experience in real estate, Chris said he had an ‘aha!’ moment about the issue recently after meeting a former paramedic and helicopter pilot. He asked the man why helicopters crash and was told ‘pilot error’. 

“He said: ‘It’s always pilot error.’ And I’ve never thought of a better metaphor for leadership than being a helicopter pilot,” Chris said.

“If your shop, your business, your organization goes south, or if shit happens – and it will happen every day in any organisation whether there’s two of you or 2000 – it’s a liberating realisation. Because it makes you realise it’s always your thing, not anybody else’s responsibility. It’s something that you’ve missed or haven’t acted upon. You’re the boss. You’re the pilot.”

Plugging in to a sense of personal responsibility and building core skills and resilience was more important than learning the latest leadership tricks, Chris said. 

His other advice to become a better leader included:

Help people

“If you want to describe and work out what leadership is in a single sentence, then just ‘Help people’,” Chris said.  

“It doesn’t matter what you help them with. A lot of the time it’s going to have nothing whatsoever to do with the business. It can be anything – it can be financial, it can be emotional, it can be practical.

“That’s what leadership is. That’s what being a good human is.”

Being a good human however can take a toll, and Chris said it was important to understand your limits while never giving up the quest. 

“There are many leaders out there who are good humans treating their staff well. But their goodness is either being used or their goodness is being spurned and rejected,” he said.


“They put the energy and time into doing great things for people. But even when that happens, do not give up being good. The moment you give up being good, you lose.”

The empathy trap

While caring for your team is vital, the empathy trap is a simple but important distinction for leaders to understand, especially those who worry they feel too deeply. 

“The difference between empathy and compassion, is that empathy is putting yourself into someone’s shoes, while compassion is about having understanding, but not staying there,” Chris said.

“If you’re a carer or a giver-style of boss or leader, this is the biggest problem for your mental health and well-being. Because you stay in these places with the people and you try and help them and you stay there in the darkness with them.”

Good leaders needed a strategy to step out of the darkness, build their resilience and support their own mental wellbeing. 

“You got to have a strategy to get out of that space. Sometimes the strategy can involve doing something difficult – like seeing a counsellor or talking to somebody else. But the empathy trap is a very difficult one and you got to work out a way to get around it.”

Feeling afraid is okay

Bravery is not about an absence of fear and fear is always present as a leader, no matter how old you get, Chris said.

“The misconception that people in our profession have got is that if you’re around long enough, fear goes away. But it doesn’t go away,” he said. 

“If you’re sitting in a room and thinking, I’ll be good by 40, I’ll find a way out of the fear and I’ll be a good leader then – no, I’ve gone through that one. And 50 and 60. It’s still there. Leadership has got nothing whatsoever to do with not having any fear.”

One of the situations where more principals and leaders needed to be brave, was in managing difficult staff, especially top performers. 

“Being brave is getting rid of someone who makes you a lot of money because they do something bad to a trainee or a property manager or worse, they do something illegal or immoral. You put what’s right against the interests of your business.”

But not being brave in such a situation risked an even graver business challenge, he warned.

“The moment you let those people in, or don’t address it, they contaminate the rest of the business. And what does that tell everyone else in the business? It tells them that you are not a good leader. It tells them that your values are different and then you lose them as well.”

Deciding not to act in such an instance, was also not an option, Chris said.

“You’ve got to make decisions as a boss. To not decide as a boss is to decide,” he said. 

“Your staff hate it when you don’t decide. What they won’t forget is if you don’t decide. It irritates the crap out of them if you choose not to decide.” 

Lead through influence, not fear

Chris said he was once asked how much power should be wielded as a boss which led him to reflect on the difference between influence and fear. 

“I was asked ‘When should I use the power that I’ve got and when should I not use the power that I’ve got?’ and I thought that was a great question.  Now, when I was a young boss, I probably would have said, ‘Use it all the time!’ 

“But if you’re running around getting people to do things and they’re only doing them in your organisation because you’ve got ‘Boss’ written on your card, then you’ve got a challenge here because you’re trying to lead based on fear.”

Fear was ineffective long term as a motivator, and leaders should instead work to influence. 

“Influence is based on respect,” Chris said. “And it’s completely different to fear.”

He said there was a simple question all employees could ask to understand if they were working for the right boss. 

“You work out if you’re working for the right boss by one single yard stick and asking, ‘Do I want to be a better human being, a better person because I’m working for this person?’,” he said. 

“If the people who work for you say that, you know you’re a good leader. Equally, if you feel that you’re good because they don’t say that, there’s a real challenge!”

Eulogy values rather than resume values
Chris believed that it was important to understand the difference between your resume values and your eulogy values – and to ask yourself, what do you want to be remembered for? 

“I’ve been to a lot of funerals, and I’ve got to listen to the blessed eulogies of people, and they have been amazing,” Chris said. 

“If you’re trying to chart a way forward and you’re a young leader, write down your eulogy values on a piece of paper, or imagine yourself at your own funeral from above, watching people and seeing what they’re saying about you. 

“You don’t want people at your funeral saying he or she was great. They had 17 investment properties and raised $3.6 million in GCI in their last year. You want them talking about how you loved and the people whose lives you impacted.” 

He said a eulogy was more important than a resume because it reflected the quality of your relationships. 

Chris highlighted that for the past 80 years, Harvard had studied happiness – both happiness in life and happiness in business across many thousands of people across decades – and discovered a constant. 

“The single most important thing to your happiness in your life, in your business, is your relationships,” he said. 

After decades of industry experience, Chris said his relationships with his team was why he continued in the role and that he valued learning the stories of his team. 

“You’ve got to be kind to people and you got to care for them all the time. You don’t know what’s going on their lives and so it pays to be kind. It pays you back in happiness when you are kind.”

Build trust through repetition

“Leadership is about very simple things – it’s about giving and helping people get what they want, it is about trust and it is also about spending a lot of time listening to people rather than a lot of time talking to people,” Chris said. 

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of people in real estate who “spend their waking hours when they walk into the office talking and giving people instructions and telling people what to do”.

“If there’s no trust, your team won’t hear you,” Chris said. “And it’s not only about the trust, so they hear you. It’s also about how you deliver your message.”

To be an effective boss, leaders needed to follow the example of good parents. 

“Parents know that the only thing that works with kids is that wonderful thing called repetition, and one of the greatest criticisms of most leaders in all the different professions is that he or she was a bad or a poor communicator,” Chris said. 

“So when you talk about trust, they won’t hear you. They never hear you. You’ve got to use repetition all the time so that they just know what you’re talking about.”

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