Making the dream work: How teams fit into brokerages

by Meg White

While learning what makes a team successful is a key part of understanding this increasingly common work structure in real estate, that’s just half the story. We spoke to the people who manage teams at the three brokerages where the leaders in our main story work, to learn how teams fit into the larger picture.

Where teams live

Back when teams were a new phenomenon, some brands embraced them more quickly than others. Susan Swift, North Shore district manager for Coldwell Banker, noted that while her company now has its fair share of teams, other brands might be ahead of the game when it comes to these arrangements. “Keller Williams and RE/MAX really, in my view, opened the door for agents to think about and have the ability to create teams in the industry,” she said. “Those structures were a little easier for an agent to create a team within.”

Now it’s all about finding the right managing broker to help teams form and expand. Swift said she looks for managers who have a lot of patience, openness to collaboration, and training or experience helping people create business plans and job descriptions.

Of course, given the sparse data currently available on teams, it’s nearly impossible to quantify which brokerages have the highest proportions of teams. George Schultz, vice president of brokerage services and managing broker for @properties, said more than half of the volume at the Bucktown office he manages is done by team leaders or members. He said that while managers at the brokerage level work hard to support the growth of teams, it’s important the larger brokerage work constantly to connect with each member of a team individually. “Our culture is one that is solidly laid into the relationship that we have with our agents,” he said.

Again, while it’s difficult to quantify, Compass Chicago appears to be one of the more team-oriented brands in the area. Maria Malin, Compass Chicago’s director of learning and development, said of the approximately 700 agents they have in Chicagoland, some 250 are team leaders. Even if each of those leaders had only one team member, that would work out to five out of every seven Compass agents being on a team. “It’s been really cool to see larger teams come over together because they’ve brought already established strength to our company,” Malin said. “The team model works well here because, although Compass does attract high producing agents, we have a need to provide mentorship as well.”

Benefits and drawbacks to teams

There are many positive aspects of teams that accrue to brokerages. “A well-run team brings a lot of things. They bring systems, they bring organization and they usually give back a lot in the office,” Swift said. “The ability to expand their market share by having multiple people brings an increased market share to the company, too.”

Schultz agreed. “It can be a great recruiting tool,” he said. “The leaders of these groups are providing mentorship and support.”

But teams bring challenges too. The problems Schultz sees most often tend to come from communication breakdowns. “The team member has to say what they expect in joining the team,” he said, adding that team leaders need to be specific about how leads are distributed, the duties assistants will and won’t have to take on, training and support, and more. “That’s the challenge, when those expectations aren’t laid out clearly. That’s when you see a lot of turnover.”

Also, Swift noted that just because an agent is skilled at their job doesn’t mean they understand how to manage others. “In my experience, sometimes you have an agent who really does well. Now they want to expand, but they don’t quite know how to translate that to others,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a lot of time investment in supporting that agent.”

Swift said she prefers to let managing brokers handle the situation, but sometimes she or others higher up in the Coldwell Banker world will step in with a list of questions to help the agent unravel the motivations behind their desire to start a team, chief among them: Why do they want to start a team? “We have to do that questioning first,” Swift said. “Sometimes they may not need a team; they might just need some administrative support.”

Integrating into the larger brand

Schultz said @properties makes repeated and continual efforts to ensure team members feel like they’re part of the company as well as the team. “It’s a lonely business,” he said. “When the team leader gets busy, that sense of community can get lost.”

In an effort to head off some of these feelings of teams getting cut off from the larger brand, Compass will be launching its first-ever curriculum for team leaders later this month, with regular networking sessions and workshops focused on topics such as how to motivate without overmanaging, structuring roles to skill sets and playing off the strengths of team members. It’s a program Malin has developed from scratch with feedback and ideas from team leaders in Chicago, but she sees potential to take it national. “Our team leaders collaborate quite a bit,” she said. “We’re pretty psyched to see what takes place.”

When asked if it’s harder for Coldwell Banker to connect with teams than it is with a solo agent, Swift agreed that it is a struggle. “One of the challenges for a company or a particular manager is that connectivity,” she said, noting that just getting them to come into the office can be tough. “If the team is very tuned into technology … their communication within the team is remote.” To counter this, Coldwell Banker hosts events that draw agents and team members in on a regular basis, but Swift noted that small actions, such as quick text to congratulate a team member on a recent closed transaction, can go a long way as well.

When teams go bad

Still, even with early intervention and constant support, sometimes these loose partnerships need to be unwound. “Teams fail,” Swift said. “All the time.”

At that point, the role of management is to help team members leave — and sometimes entire teams disintegrate — in an organized and non-acrimonious way. “Not all agents are meant to be team leaders [and] not all agents are good fits to be part of a team,” Schultz said. He noted that @properties makes sure to facilitate conversations between team members and leaders to sort through issues before it gets to the breaking point. Another element to team management is the company’s policy to not allow cross-team poaching. “Loyalty is a big part of being a team too,” he said. “We don’t allow our teams to recruit from each other.”

While Coldwell Banker doesn’t have a specific policy on this like @properties does, Swift did note that there’s “no poaching” from one team to another. But if everyone’s in agreement about a certain changeup — Swift offered the recent case of a team member who moved to a new market area in Chicagoland and joined a different Coldwell Banker team as an example — management will work with all parties to get it done smoothly.

The situation is different at Compass. Malin said she’s seen it only once or twice in the 10 months since she’s been with Compass Chicago, but that team members at Compass do sometimes want to leave and join another team. “Naturally that’s going to happen on occasion. … A team member might feel like they would be a better fit on another team,” she said. In such cases, Compass will work with both parties to make the transition as smooth as possible. “It’s transparent; it’s focused on what’s best for that team member so they will continue to thrive.”

Regardless of the challenges, it doesn’t seem like the creation of new teams is going to ebb anytime soon. “I don’t think we’re reaching ‘peak team,’” Swift said, noting the recent development Midwest Real Estate Data has put into team reporting on the MLS. “I don’t think they’re going away. … It behooves all of us to support agents to grow in whatever way they want to grow.”

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