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Tami Bonnell of EXIT Realty Corp: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

A great boss empowers people. Being a boss is 10% input and the rest is encouragement, direction and whispering from the sidelines. When we were a young company going through a challenging time during the recession, Steve always seemed to share the right words at the right time. He and I had made a bet — which I lost — and he gave me the book, The Last Samurai, in which he wrote, “When you say you’re going to do something, it’s already done.” It was the smartest thing he could have done because his faith inspired me to keep my commitment.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tami Bonnell. Tami is an internationally renowned speaker and 30-plus-year veteran in the real estate industry. She is an information junkie and is passionate about investing in people. Tami is an active member of the National Women’s Council of REALTORS®, NAWRB’s Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council and was honored by STEMconnector® as one of its 100 Corporate Women Leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Instrumental in building 3 major brands, Tami joined EXIT Realty Corp. International in 1999 and was appointed CEO in 2012.

Thank you so much for joining us Tami! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I sold my first house when I was 13 years old. I had a job cleaning homes for a builder, and a REALTOR® made the mistake of causing a wall to be added between the dining room and the kitchen in one of the builder’s listings. As I was scraping the window and the parties were yelling, I was thinking, please make me invisible. After everyone stormed out, the builder slammed the door and put his fist through the wall. I jumped through the window and said, “I think you just hit a stud and broke your hand.” He told me to drive him to the hospital. I was obviously too young to drive but I drove him anyway and during the drive he told me how incompetent everyone was on the job. He later hired me and that’s how I started selling real estate.

I used to ride around with my Dad who was a builder and developer. I would plead with him to attend planning board meetings and watch how he operated. I used to love how he remembered people and what was going on in their lives. And every time we were in the car together, he would say, “Always watch for opportunities”. He probably said it to me 10,000 times in my life and it stuck with me.

I’ve always been curious about how things work. I’m a very systems-oriented person and strategic by nature. I found that I didn’t really like listing and selling real estate, so I entered the field of finance and the company I worked for started acquiring real estate companies. That piqued my interest. From there I went into franchise sales and negotiating and teaching mergers and acquisitions. That’s how I came across the opportunity with EXIT Realty. I started as a Regional Owner, then I became Vice President over the US the following year, President over the US the year after that, and in 2012, I became CEO.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Tami: EXIT Realty Corp. International is built on human potential. Our Founder and Chairman, Steve Morris, focuses on the best interest of our people. He created our unique business model, the EXIT Formula, which includes the opportunity to earn single-level residual income, so people are rewarded for the percentage of the company they help build. If you think about it, that’s a brilliant idea for any industry. What if everyone were rewarded for the percentage of their company they helped build so no one would be punching a clock, sitting on the sidelines and not participating? The EXIT Formula enables a culture where everybody has a vested interest in the success of the company.

My favorite thing Steve asks is, “Is it the right thing to do?” It touches me every time because it isn’t something you hear very often from businesspeople. And he even asked it during the worst recession since the depression. We’re a Canadian based company with a brilliant — probably the best — banking system in the world, but the majority of our people are in the United States, and during the recession, we were running out of money. Erika Gileo, our Chief Operating Officer, Steve Morris and I were talking on the phone about the significant challenges we faced, and all of us at the same time asked, “Who are we as a company?” Not, “Where do we need to cut staff? Whose paycheck do we have to cut? Where can we cut costs?”, but “Who are we as a company?” We are a company built on human potential and we needed to outsell and outthink our way out of this recession and in doing so, we didn’t lay off a single person at our corporate head office. I think that built the trust that you can see company-wide today. I could share stories from agents, brokers, regional owners, and almost everybody at corporate headquarters, but the trust stems from top down leadership; knowing who you are as a person, what your values are, who you are as a company and making sure that conviction spreads throughout the entire organization.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Tami: Long before my days at EXIT Realty, I was working for a gentleman named John Burchette and his company had a lot less money than I realized. I was in a position about two rungs higher on the ladder than my skillset warranted, so I had to learn my way into it. A couple of years into my employment there, my youngest brother was in a terrible accident. His car broke down on the highway in the passing lane. He had enough room to pull over and when he went to cross, a truck blocked his view of an oncoming RX7 and he was hit. He lost his leg and underwent 23 reconstructive surgeries and passed away as a result of complications suffered from the last surgery.

I lost my mother when she was young, and I became the matriarch of the family. I told John I was going to resign my leadership position or take leave of absence because I was needed at the hospital as my brother’s advocate. He had recently left the Marine Corps and was a single guy, so I felt responsible. John said, “Tami, you have always made me more money than I will ever make you because I’m a really good businessperson. You’re going to keep your title and your income. Take as long as you need, and when you have time, I’d appreciate it if you would do some homework for me (the library was close to the hospital).”

When I got to the hospital, a call came for me to the nurse’s station from one of the backers of John’s company asking how I was holding up. The backer was 90 years old and one of the coolest guys I’d ever had the privilege to meet. The hospital had been fighting with me to move my brother to a veteran’s hospital, and I told the backer that we were going to have to move him. The backer replied, “Your brother will not be moved and you will not be sleeping at the hospital any more. You will be going to a hotel that’s right around the corner and you don’t have to worry about a thing.” I didn’t understand. He replied, “Do me a favor. When you take a break to get some fresh air, look at the top of the building.” I went outside and looked up to see his name emblazoned on the side of the building. I never knew he was one of the benefactors of the hospital. I decided right then that was the caliber of person and kind of leader I wanted to be.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Tami: I was working for a very conservative company at the time selling franchises and negotiating mergers and acquisitions, and the opportunity arose for me to sponsor a speaker for the board of REALTORS® in a market we wanted to enter. On the weekend prior to the event, a hairdresser friend asked if I would model for a hair show. She told me they would cut my hair, maybe color it, nothing too unusual, so I agreed. This happened at the time when asymmetrical hairstyles were in fashion and much to my surprise and dismay, they completely shaved off on one side of my hair and left the other long. Not exactly conservative!

I had arranged for the well-known personality, Loretta LaRoche, to speak, and on the morning of the event she called to tell me she had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery and wouldn’t be able to attend. Disaster! I wasn’t a public speaker at the time, and I was a complete basket case. From time to time my Dad would swing by my house at 7am for a cup of coffee. That day he found me pacing the floor, freaking out over the speaker canceling. This was the first time they had ever allowed a company to come in and sponsor a speaker and it was an unbelievable foot in the door. My Dad listened, paused, and said, “I feel really bad about that, but I don’t know if you know it or not, I think your haircut’s crooked.”

I ended up being the speaker that night. I introduced my haircut and shared my story. I went on to talk about the top things the audience could do to increase their business and awareness in the marketplace. The evening was a success. In the weeks and months to come, more people called me for advice and I sold more franchises. Having the chance to speak that night confirmed in their mind that I knew what I was doing. The lesson is, always be prepared because sometimes mistakes open up new opportunities.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Tami: Get to know your people. Put yourself in their shoes and know them on a personal level. Find out their dreams and help them aim for the stars, not just professionally, but personally, too. Find out what really make them tick. Use the simple acronym, FORM, to guide you: F-family, O-occupation, R-recreation, and M-motivation. People leave leaders, they don’t usually leave companies. They really want to matter, so show them they do.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Tami: Leadership is influence. My job as a leader isn’t to turn the flashlight on me. My job is to highlight others, so I need to empower them. If I can catch them doing something good and I can add value to their life, they will feel safe and they will constantly want to grow.

People become what we tell them they can be. Often, they simply haven’t been exposed to an opportunity to learn that. A leader’s job is to be a positive influence, add value and, more than anything, empower people. Empower doesn’t mean enable. One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders make is they enable people by doing the work themselves instead of showing their people how to do it. Empowering people provides opportunities for them to really shine and discover their gifts.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Tami: Every day I practice The Miracle Morning™ routine based on Hal Elrod’s book of the same name: Silence, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Reading and Scribing (SAVERS). This routine sets me up for success regardless of what the day might hold.

Before a tough meeting or difficult conversation, if time allows, I ask myself effective questions and sleep on it so I’m not having that conversation in an emotional state.

Every day, before I leave the house or hotel room, I take 120 seconds to close my eyes and visualize how I want the day to unfold. For instance, if there is a stressful meeting on my schedule, I visualize the meeting’s successful conclusion and all parties in agreement. Before I walk into the meeting, I take a couple of deep breaths to slow my pulse. My day typically evolves the way I visualize it.

Several years ago, I walked into my office and my assistant looked up from her work and said, “Sorry about Rhode Island.” A little further in, someone else remarked, “Sorry about Rhode Island”, and then during a phone call with our corporate offices, someone there said, “Sorry about Rhode Island”. To all of them, I replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Rhode Island is closing,” to which they responded, “You’re good, but you’re not that good”. I had been negotiating a contract for the sale of the subfranchisor rights for EXIT Realty in Rhode Island and, while I was away, faxed to my office were nine pages of new conditions for the deal to close. Everyone in my office believed this to be in insurmountable hurdle, but I knew better. Because I had taken the time to get to know the potential buyer well, I also knew his two biggest concerns: one, if something happened to him, his wife would be taken care of, and two, he wanted to leave a legacy. All the other conditions had been added by his lawyer.

I invited the buyer to my office and before our meeting, I visualized our being able to successfully get to the heart of the matter. We met the next day and light-heartedly worked through the clauses one-by-one, dismissing most of them and modifying others to address his core concerns. We closed 10 days later. I believe this result was achieved because I remained calm and didn’t let my emotions interfere.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

Tami: I believe that strong leaders are those who humanize and personalize interactions with people as much as possible. I always try and give people a way out and not paint them into a corner. If they’ve done something wrong, I ask, “Honestly, how do you feel this is going? How do you feel about your performance? How do you feel about your effort?” Often they will open up about a distraction in their personal life or other concerns.

We conduct a DISC personality profile assessment on all of our headquarters personnel and those in regional and brokerage ownership. DISC is a common language we speak at EXIT which helps us understand how people are likely to react in various circumstances and deal with challenges. So, when I’m about to give feedback on major issue, I will refer to the person’s DISC profile so I can relate to them from their perspective. For example, an “S” personality type (steady and stable) wants to feel secure so I am careful not to give them the impression that their job is at risk if I’m simply helping to correct them.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Tami: People will stay where they feel valued and are growing. They truly want to matter and be part of something better. If they don’t feel that way, they will leave. A plugged-in leader who wants to support that growth might say, “I can see you reaching your goal but here are a few things you need to work on in order to get from here to there.”

A conversation I once had with our Founder and Chairman, Steve Morris, illustrates this point. At the time, I wasn’t doing a lot of public speaking, and the speaking I did was educational in nature. Steve told me that although he believed I was an expert in the field of franchise sales and building companies, when it came to public speaking I gave too much information and I sounded like a college professor. His comments came during a year I was doing incredibly well business-wise for us. I had sold 50% of our regional rights by population in the entire United States, and I was feeling good about what I had accomplished. So, when Steve told me I had to work on my public speaking, I felt frustrated and aggravated. I flew home, slept on it, and the next morning I asked myself, “If I’m not good at it, how do I get good at it?” I read books on how to deliver speeches, I watched films and talks by people whose presentation styles I admired and I tried to learn from the experience. And I practiced — a lot.

A year later, I was offered $10,000 to speak for an hour. I didn’t charge them because it was speaking on behalf of EXIT, but it was so rewarding to realize how far I had grown. I didn’t think it was possible for me to respect Steve more, but through this process, I did. He knew where he wanted the company to go, and he had a vision for where he wanted me to go, too. He knew that my underdeveloped public speaking skills would get in our way if I didn’t make a shift. It was a great exercise for me in both skill building and humility.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Tami: Our Corporate Head Quarters is in Canada and we have many people who work remotely across the United States. Sometimes they feel like they’re on an island by themselves, so it’s very important for us to stay in regular contact with them, not just when we’re confronted with a challenging situation.

First, there is nothing better than being live and in person, so if you can travel to deliver the feedback, do so. Failing that, use Zoom, Skype or another video conferencing platform where you can see each other. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important this is. Acknowledge that you understand how difficult it is to hear feedback from a distance. A comment like, “I wish we could be sitting together in person having this conversation, but I feel like it’s important enough to address it now,” can go a long way to start the meeting on the right foot.

Second, don’t paint them into a corner. Ask, “How do you feel this is going?” Help them to self-realize where they made the mistake, caused the concern or didn’t give the project their full effort.

Third, get to know people. Tell them, “I care enough about you and the success of our mission for us to have this conversation.” They will believe you if you’ve taken the time to get to know them and celebrated their successes along the way.

Fourth, it’s difficult to give effective feedback by email, but if you must, keep it short and sweet. Don’t use a lot of upper case text or exclamations marks which can imply negative emotion and may cause your message to be misinterpreted.

Most of the time they’ll admit they were rushing, overbooked or emotional. If they’ve lost their cool with someone, it’s important to address it right away. So, fifth, be sure to restate what is and isn’t acceptable and close the meeting with something like, “This isn’t the person I see in you. Let’s get back to that person.”

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Tami: If you must address the situation by email and not video conference, then keep it as simple as possible. I always start with something about the person that I appreciate. Even if the project didn’t go according to a plan, I recognize their effort. I remind them of the importance of the mission and what we’re trying to accomplish as a whole.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

Tami: Right away and in person is best. The only circumstances under which I deliver feedback later are when I have to give my response careful thought or if I have to calm down.

If the situation is volatile or emotional, rather than addressing it right away, I schedule an appointment for the next day because the other person is likely emotional too. The delay gives us a chance to sleep on it. I ask the other person to come to the table with some solutions, and often this helps them to grow. I start the meeting by saying, “We want to come to a solution today. We’re not going to get personal; we just want to find a solution.”

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

Tami: A great boss empowers people. Being a boss is 10% input and the rest is encouragement, direction and whispering from the sidelines.

When we were a young company going through a challenging time during the recession, Steve always seemed to share the right words at the right time. He and I had made a bet — which I lost — and he gave me the book, The Last Samurai, in which he wrote, “When you say you’re going to do something, it’s already done.” It was the smartest thing he could have done because his faith inspired me to keep my commitment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Tami: I would love for everyone to be exposed to a vision of who they could become. We’re all born under the same sky, but we’re not all born in the same country. We don’t all have the same opportunities.

I’ve spoken to more than a thousand Girls Scouts during the pandemic and I’ve asked all of them how many have met a female CEO. Not one single girl has raised her hand. That really struck a nerve with me. It’s not that everyone necessarily wants to become a CEO, but the key is to open their eyes to the fact that they could become a nurse, or a doctor, or a teacher. They need the exposure to it to be able to see it for themselves. I believe this would help us grow and be so much more connected around the world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Tami: Fear is a feeling, not a fact. Every time I’m afraid to do something — emotional, breaking new ground, speaking on a major stage — I remind myself that fear is a feeling, not a fact. I remind my kids and our people of this, too. I remind them how great they’re going to feel when they come through the fear to the other side.

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