Fuel Collaboration: Success is, and will always be, a team sport. Great companies are able to create teams that can collaborate seamlessly to achieve a common goal or end result. These teams are able to take direction or act autonomously to achieve success.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Lawson.
Laura Lawson is Chief People Officer for United Wholesale Mortgage. She is the company’s team builder and culture champion who focuses on maximizing the potential of team members. In her role, she works to develop an environment with team members as the sole focus and has an unwavering commitment to maintaining UWM’s prized workplace culture. Laura has been with the company since 2011 and served as SVP of Marketing before becoming UWM’s Chief People Officer in 2014.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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 am a true Michigander, born and raised in the metro Detroit area. I’ve always had a passion for making connections with people, Which led me to majoring in advertising at Michigan State University (Go Green!).
After graduating from college, I headed to L.A. where I became a producer for Fox Television Studios, a production subsidiary of 20th Century Fox. After a few years there, I made the transition to daytime television and produced for The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
My TV days were fun, fast and hectic — experiences that groomed me into a better communicator and effective storyteller. The ability to effectively communicate is one of the most important attributes that a leader can possess. I’ve also discovered you’re able to provide a better perspective and understanding for your team when you’re able to connect a story to decisions being made.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I had worked in Hollywood where I couldn’t afford a home and knew nothing about mortgages, so it’s kind of ironic to be working in this industry. I moved from Los Angeles back to Michigan after losing my mom and was looking to leave the entertainment industry to begin a new challenge. Once I moved home, I met our President and CEO Mat Ishbia and he was looking for someone that could bring a new perspective to his business. He brought me in as a marketing leader prior to transitioning into my current role.
The toughest challenge was learning the mortgage industry: all of the finance terminology and mortgage acronyms, grasping our product portfolio, learning about compliance and more.
But through persistent curiosity, relationship building and a lot of research I was able to get to where I am today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Years ago I was asked to attend a women’s conference in Utah as a speaker. I hadn’t researched the other speakers and only knew of their session titles from the agenda.
The woman who went before me had a 30-minute message on why women should never do more than they are asked to do; that women are taken advantage of in the workplace and how you should never exceed what you are specifically paid to do.
Well, my entire session was the exact opposite message and it was clear to the crowd when I began my session. Can we say “awkward?”
My entire career has been based on going beyond what is expected; how you should wear many hats and wear them well. When you see opportunity to challenge yourself, fill the void. All of these things allow you to grow and showcase your talents. It’s surprising to see where that takes you.
As I continued my presentation, I noticed the speaker before me got up and left and never returned. Double awkward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We truly put our people first and my position is an investment in that promise.
We are generous and supportive of our people, and we challenge them to learn and grow to achieve their dreams. I am an example of that, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories.
I was hired in to start our in-house marketing team, and today I focus on campus design, developing new perks and benefits, training and leadership development and so much more. When your passion is people, it is categorically limitless to what we can achieve.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Let me start by saying we are living in unique and challenging times, and as a result, it’s easy to feel burnout given the external forces that impact our lives on a daily basis. But here’s a rule of thumb: Your default to burnout should be an investment in self-care.
I would encourage my peers to find a moment to step away and recharge from the work they’re doing. And when you step away, find something that’ll bring you joy in that moment of exhaustion.
So, if it’s taking time to do yoga or meditation to recharge and refocus, find the time to do it. If it’s hitting the gym or going on a bike ride to blow off some steam, find the time to do it. Want to have a short dance session? Throw on your favorite song and Rock. Out.
We offer all of these activities for our team members at UWM. Situations occur in and outside of the office that can affect our mood. But our focus is on how we can get team members back to a place that will make them feel better than they were before so they can thrive and our company continues to excel.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I believe that no one is self-made in the truest sense. We’ve all learned from someone or had help to get to where we are today.
I’ve had so many great mentors in my life — too many to name. But I’m incredibly thankful for the guidance and support they were able to offer me along the way.
Our CEO, Mat Ishbia, has been a huge guiding force in my professional career. I thank him for always believing in me and remaining open to hearing my ideas whether it’s creating meeting spaces out of railroad shipping containers or creating an onsite escape room to foster greater team collaboration.
I’ve also drawn inspiration from Disney — yes, that Disney. From their training programs to the magical content they create that has out lasted time itself, I’ve always been drawn to their empire and their ability to impact people and culture.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
The type of people that you have within your organization determines if it’s good or great.
You’re only as good as the people you have around you. You’re only as great as the people you have around you. It works both ways.
A good company has people who understand the values and goals of their organization. People who are unafraid to challenge the “why” and have the right skill sets that can help the company thrive. As a result, the company is able to last for years.
Now, you may be thinking this sounds like a great company, not a good company. But the difference lies in the type of people you hire. Allow me to explain.
A great company has people who understand the goals of their organization and are completely aligned around them. A good company does not have all of their team members aligned on how to achieve said goals. A great company also keeps its values in place when times get rough, while a good company is more susceptible to fold or lose sight of their values when problems arise.
Great companies have people with the right skill sets, as well, they are placed in the right positions to properly support the goals of the organization. Good companies sometimes fail to put people into the appropriate roles that can drive their organization forward and maximize team members’ potential.
And when it comes to challenging the “why,” great companies have team members who are unafraid to challenge the “why” from top to bottom, therefore driving innovation and a perpetuation of smart ideas. On the other hand, good companies may shy away from conflict and have team members who sometimes lack the courage to confront their organization’s current way of doing business.
And while good companies last for years, great companies last for decades — standing the test of time and adjusting to our ever-changing society.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
Care for Your Team: It’s important for leaders to check in with team members to see how they’re doing and let them know they’re valued.
When I look at the growth of our company over the past 2 years — which includes working through a pandemic, going public and having our best year in company history — there’s no way we could’ve achieved this without our talented team members who pursue excellence relentlessly. That’s why we awarded all of our team members at the time with a raise, provided additional PTO for them to do the things they love, held an over-the-top holiday celebration featuring Oprah-esque giveaways (yes, we’ve given away cars), among other things.
But it’s more than just providing stellar amenities for team members.
People are driven to evolve and become the best versions of themselves. You need to provide your team members with opportunities for advancement and the ability to grow in their careers. It’s not just about titles either.
I love being Chief People Officer, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do. But one of the reasons I love working for UWM is because of the many opportunities I’m given to grow as a leader.
There’s no better way to show team members you care than by acknowledging how they are important to the business and investing in their growth.
Emphasize Training: To build off my previous point, team member training is an essential component in taking your company from good to great. We strive to create a hire-to-retire life cycle for our team members and we’re able to achieve this in part through training opportunities that tap into their latent potential and help them grow.
One of our company’s pillars focuses on “continuous improvement.” We invest in our people and technology to produce innovative solutions for our client base of independent mortgage brokers. It’s why we’ve been able to be successful for so long. The investment is so worth it.
Bottom Line: The more your team knows, the more your business grows.
Fuel Collaboration: Success is, and will always be, a team sport.
Great companies are able to create teams that can collaborate seamlessly to achieve a common goal or end result. These teams are able to take direction or act autonomously to achieve success.
These teams are able to challenge each other and adapt to new ideas. They execute with speed and precision, with a common goal.
One of the best ways a company can fuel collaboration is to embed it into their DNA. They must live and breathe it.
Good and great companies sometimes have their teams fall into silos, but the latter does it less frequently. You’re able to keep your teams focused on the big picture when collaboration is weaved into the fabric of your organization.
Our campus is built with collaboration in mind. We have countless gathering spaces for our teams to share ideas. At one point, we were running out of collaborative spaces so we brought in shipping containers to provide additional space for team members to partner with one another.
We’ve built an onsite escape room to improve teamwork skills. We have 800 leaders, but less than 30 offices so our leaders remain open and accessible and collaboration remains top of mind.
Make Culture A Part of Your DNA: In order to take your company from good to great you must have a strong company culture.
Culture is the foundation of your company’s identity. How team members feel at work impacts how they treat other team members and the clients they interact with. It also helps you attract the right talent and transform them into advocates.
At UWM, around 50 percent of our new hires come from team member referrals. This wouldn’t be the case if our team members didn’t believe in and demonstrate our culture.
We’ve been successful as a company because we’ve developed a culture that treats our team members like family, and we give them opportunities to grow professionally.
Spread Positivity: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining a positive mindset. When you are positive in spirit, it has a ripple effect on the people around you.
A positive mindset will help you view every challenge as an opportunity to grow. More importantly, it will keep you focused and motivated to become better than you are right now.
Our leaders and team members are loaded with positivity, enthusiasm and passion, which led us to grow from a team of 12 to more than 9,000 and become the #1 wholesale and purchase lender in America.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Your business has to be purpose-driven in order to be successful. At UWM, we are dream makers, who are united to make dreams come true for homeowners, mortgage brokers, our community, our team members and their families.
Home ownership is the American Dream and we take pride in making that dream a reality for thousands of Americans every day.
We are helping to strengthen the small business community by working exclusively with mortgage brokers, many of whom are small business owners, and providing them with the technology to compete against big banks and retail lenders. But more importantly, they’re helping to make homeownership affordable for millions of Americans.
We’re committed to doing right by the community and the impact you can make is limitless when you believe you are a part of the community. We’re always trying to find ways to give back, whether it’s providing financial support for local restaurants hit hard by the pandemic, food donations for vulnerable residents or extending areas of our 200-acre campus for the local community to use.
We’re also genuinely passionate about providing team members with opportunities to grow in their careers. We don’t dangle all of our cool amenities and benefits just to get people in the door. We want them to know they’re not just joining any place, but that this is a company where they can retire at.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
When you’re at a standstill, you must first take a moment to reflect to see where you might’ve lost your way.
During these times, it’s equally important to gravitate towards what makes you happy. It’s moments like this when you’re able to recharge, refocus and find inspiration to get back on your journey.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It starts with creating a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s your team that will get you out of turbulent times.
When the pandemic hit, we had to shift thousands of team members to remote work — something we’ve never done before. We also pride ourselves on being a family, and suddenly, that togetherness we value so much was gone in an instant. Many people were also worried about job security because we were unsure how our industry would be impacted.
But the culture we instilled carried us through the pandemic. Our leadership assured all of our team members that no one would be laid off because we’re a family. Our CEO said he would sleep on their couches before he allowed that to happen and he kept that promise. Not a single person was laid off.
This reassured for our team members that we do care about them. We don’t say these things just because it sounds good. We live it and breathe it daily. And when you care for your team, they’ll go above and beyond to put you in winning situations.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
At times, leaders get so engrossed in their day-to-day business that they sometimes forget to connect with their team members on a personal level. One of the worst things a leader can do is get so caught up in the numbers and goals that they forget about the people who made their success possible. Take the time to talk with your team members and get to know them personally.
What are their likes and dislikes? How many kids do they have? Where did they go to school? What TV shows are they streaming at the moment? Make your connections meaningful, not transactional.
At UWM, we encourage team members to have lunch with different people to build relationships across our organization. We’re a company that has daily huddles to build comradery and engagement and show people we’re not like anybody else. We host dance parties, cultural observances and intramural leagues for team members to have fun and foster connections.
We’re very intentional in creating personal connections with team members and it has paid off in a big way.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
It starts with hiring the right talent to join your team. You need people who have the appropriate skill sets and can adapt when needed. And a culture that encourages innovation will allow you to attract talent and grow your business and maintain customer loyalty.
We’re encouraging innovation at all corners of our Pontiac, Michigan, headquarters. We offer a Brilliant Ideas portal for all of our team members to submit innovative ideas that can enhance our culture and deliver strong business results. We host an annual contest called “Drive It Home” where team members work to identify, develop and implement technologies to make our loan process faster, easier and cheaper for brokers and borrowers. At the end of our annual rotational program called “BIG” [Business Innovation Group], program participants deliver a business plan on how we can grow an area of our business after cycling through all of our internal teams.
We also invest in our team members’ happiness. When your team is happy, they’ll work hard for you. They’ll develop innovative solutions to give you an edge over the competition. Our investments are rooted in genuine care and our team members have delivered innovative ideas as a result of this.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Simply put, provide a product or service that people want.
We’re a mortgage lender, and we like to say, “Nobody wants a mortgage, they want the house.” That said, our mission is to make it faster, easier and cheaper for people to close on a mortgage so they can get into the house of their dreams.
We’re closing loans in 15 days, while the industry average is around 47 days. We also work exclusively with mortgage brokers. A consumer can only get a loan through us by going to an independent mortgage broker. And when you’re able to help all parties in the homebuying process, including brokers, consumers and real estate agents, close on a home quickly, everyone’s happy.
Keep your customers happy with an offering they can’t find anywhere else.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
It starts with creating a personalized, client experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
Show clients you care and that you’ll move mountains to make them happy. We empower our team members to create personal connections with our clients. That involves recognizing life events like birthdays, home anniversaries or the arrival of a new baby with handwritten cards, video messages or phone calls. It’s these small gestures of kindness that can leave a lasting impact on clients.
We’re also a big believer that speed solves everything. We provide fast and efficient service for our clients at all times. We have a client request portal that gives our clients direct access to team members and resolves their requests within four business hours.
We have a “No Call Left Behind” policy that guarantees a client never gets a voicemail when they call us and are regularly greeted by one of our team members.
It’s all done in an effort to provide stellar client experience.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the most common mistakes I see CEOs and founders make involve the fear of failure. If you’re too afraid to put yourself out there or try new things, you’ve already lost.
I love the approach famed inventor and businessman Thomas Edison took in developing the lightbulb. He failed hundreds of times, but viewed every failure as an opportunity to get it right and eventually succeed. It’s this same approach that everyone should take when starting their own business.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare or come up with a solid game plan. It means that you have the courage to fearlessly pursue it.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
I would love to see a mass mobilization to care for everyone like they’re your family. Kindness has, and will always, go a long way.
As shared, I receive a lot of inspiration from Disney, and just as they do for their parks and destinations, I strive to make UWM a community of good. Whenever I take my annual family trip to Disney World, I know we’ll be treated kindly at every turn. There will be someone who greets us at every attraction. There will be someone who picks up litter even if it’s not their job. There will be a sea of smiling faces as far as the eye can see.
I want this for our world.
We have more similarities than differences and it costs nothing to be kind. Care for your neighbor just as you would yourself or somebody you love. Start doing this today and become the change.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I can be found on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laura-lawson-cpo/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!