“Get exposure to as many areas as you can” with Jason Hartman & Serene Smith

Women are other women’s worst critics. I was talking with someone the other day about the difference between watching my son grow up and watching my daughter. It’s different how boys treat boys and how girls treat girls. You’ll hear a third-grade boy say to another — “Hey, can you show me how you did […]

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Women are other women’s worst critics. I was talking with someone the other day about the difference between watching my son grow up and watching my daughter. It’s different how boys treat boys and how girls treat girls. You’ll hear a third-grade boy say to another — “Hey, can you show me how you did that?” But girls won’t ask for help. They don’t want to admit that the other girl did better than them.

Asa part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Serene Smith, Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff for RE/MAX, LLC.

Serene Smith joined RE/MAX in 2006 as the Senior Manager of Internal Audit. She was named Chief Operating Officer in May 2017 and Chief of Staff in January 2019. In her current role, she is responsible for aligning resources and maximizing results in the execution of multiple company initiatives. Leveraging her wide scope of operations experience, Serene provides high-level counsel to leaders of virtually every department at RE/MAX World Headquarters.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

Iactually started in the accounting field, working for Arthur Anderson right after I graduated from Iowa State University. At the time the firm was known as one of “the big five.” But about a year after I transferred with the company to Denver, Anderson ended up getting indicted and fell apart.

As luck would have it, my whole area was phased off to set up a new company that specialized in process improvement and risk management. That’s how I was introduced to RE/MAX — RE/MAX was a client of mine back in 2004.

I loved my time as a consultant for RE/MAX, so I came back full time in 2006 and started in the internal audit department. The rest is history.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away that you took out of that story?

I think there have been a lot of mini moments that have been exciting. When you’ve worked really hard to do a launch or bring a project to fruition, it’s a great moment when you can pull the team together and celebrate your accomplishments.

The RE/MAX IPO was certainly one of those. I worked extensively on taking our company public. That’s not an opportunity many people get to be a part of in their careers. It was a huge milestone, for sure.

Our book launch was another big moment. We acquired the technology company book in 2018. Rolling out the platform they built for RE/MAX was one of the first steps in our shift to becoming the real estate industry’s technology leader. It’s a very exciting time to be with RE/MAX.

When you put everything you’ve got into making sure something is successful, those are great wins. I can tell you that since I’ve been with RE/MAX, I’ve never been bored. I think that says a lot, we’re moving all the time, and we’re building great teams because of it.

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

This company is very resilient. The recession taught me that this company is able to ebb and flow regardless of the market situation and the economy. Dave and Gail Liniger, our co-founders, built an iron-clad business model that honestly has the ability to shift and protect the brand as a whole regardless of what we’re going through. The recession was a crazy time. It was scary, but it also shows that there’s an end to crises and things will go back up. That’s what Dave preached to us over and over again, and he was right.

RE/MAX also has a unique culture that provides women the freedom to make choices to be the kind of career women that they want to be. One of the reasons I came to RE/MAX is because I knew I wanted to start a family, and I knew this was the place where I could do that and still be the kind of mom I wanted to be. I am very thankful for the fact that I could continue to move up in the organization, and it’s very rare that my family has had to make sacrifices because of that.

I drop my kids off at school most days, if I need to go to a game, that’s fine. It’s on my terms and I make choices based on what my family needs. And that freedom and independence has been extended to the thousands of women across the U.S. and now the globe that are part of the RE/MAX network. There’s a lot of places where that isn’t the case.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

I would say, learn how to listen. That has gotten me further in my career than almost anything else. I listen and empathize with people, and that gives me the ability to look at a problem from all sides. Those traits by far have paid me the most dividends over the course of time.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the real estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

  1. Build and maintain a network: I was very scared when I moved out to Denver and Anderson fell apart. I was in a brand-new city, I didn’t know anyone, and now my company was falling apart. What I learned at that point is the importance of your network. And that the relationships that I had built to that point and the hard work I had put in we’re not for naught. Those people took care of me, and they made sure I found my footing. My department in my old company was phased off to set up a new company, one I’m proud to say is still operating today.
  2. Find a work culture that fits you: I worked for RE/MAX as a consultant for 4–5 months before I came here full time. I loved my time as a consultant, so when they came calling with a full-time opportunity, I took it. I think that’s one of the perks of being a consultant, you get to understand different environments and figure out where you want to work. If what you originally thought you wanted doesn’t work out…try something else!
  3. Get exposure to as many areas as you can: I originally came to RE/MAX to work on the internal audit team, but during the recession, we were rolled into accounting, so I made a shift into operational accounting. At that point, I took on budgeting and forecasting for the company, and that is where I started to get exposure to the rest of the organization — including the executive leadership team. It was my job to look holistically across the organization, and that’s what set me up to succeed in the role I have now. We have a lot of requests coming in from different areas of the company, but someone needs to filter through what we are going to be able to do, and what we are not. Because I’ve gained exposure to the entire company, I’m able to sit in a spot, understand what’s going on around us, and figure out the answer as a whole.
  4. Persevere! I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason, and that there’s always a silver lining if you choose to see it. In an entrepreneurial business like real estate, perseverance and a positive outlook are important. I’m am constantly in awe of how much courage it takes to go out on a limb and do your own thing. We have tons of amazing women leaders at RE/MAX, whether they’re here at HQ or outside in our network.
  5. Don’t underestimate yourself as a leader: There’s a lot of value to the people who envision themselves as a leader and go out and take the world by the horns. But there’s a lot of indirect leaders that people just gravitate toward, and a lot of those people don’t realize they’re leaders until they’re put into a position and asked to be one.

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 about that?

There are so many people that have helped me along the way in one way or another…I would hate to leave anyone out. However, I have a few people that have been tremendous influences on me as to how I’ve chosen to live my life. The first is my parents. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have the parents that I do. Growing up on a farm, hard work and perseverance are traits that you pretty much learn right out of the womb. No matter what is going on, the work has to get done — so you need to figure out a way to get what you need to be done, but still, be able to do the things you want to do. On a farm, there is no such thing as work-life balance. Your life is integrated into your business. I didn’t grow up with expectations of anything different — it was the only way of life that I knew.

The next two people that had a tremendous impact on me were two of my aunts, Lynette and Lynnea Sjoquist (yes, they are twins!). Lynette and Lynnea taught me that there were no boundaries to what I could achieve just because I was a girl. They both had found tremendous success through sports (in fact, they are both members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as members of the American RedHeads). They made choices based on what they wanted — not what they should do. Growing up in a Scandinavian family, in a small town…that was a big lesson for me. I didn’t have to take the same path as everyone else.

The real estate industry, like the veterinarian, nursing and public relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

First of all, that isn’t the case at RE/MAX. We are very proud of the fact that we have two women in our c-suite (50%!), and 35% of our Vice Presidents are women. Outside of our headquarters, over 54% of brokerages and offices are run and operated by women. RE/MAX has a ton of women leading their offices.

As to the cause of the imbalance, for the most part, I do believe that women make choices as to whether the lifestyle of a leadership position meshes with what they are able to balance personally. The demands of a leadership position — including long hours and travel schedules — can often times clash with other priorities (i.e., family) — this is no different for a man or a woman. Personally, I have very strict boundaries about time away from my family, and I’m fortunate that RE/MAX lets me do that. I don’t think most companies would, so I wouldn’t sign up for a leadership position at a company that wouldn’t let me do that. Period, end of story.

Over the course of her career, a woman is going to face different choices, and she’ll ultimately pick her profession based on how she wants to prioritize her life. That will be different for every woman, but real estate can be a great fit because of the flexibility it gives you in your day-to-day.

What can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

It’s not just about gender balance — it’s about diversity in all of its forms. I think companies need to evaluate whether their culture fits the lifestyle demands of their employees.

Companies everywhere have literally changed their make up in order to attract millennials and create a culture that will appeal to the next generation of workers. If a company wants to attract women or any other diverse group, they should approach it the same way.

There was recently an article in the Harvard Business Review about how the demands of some positions are driving women to pick a different career path than men. If the only leadership positions available at your company require a 60–70 hour work week, you’re putting up a guardrail because many women will have different priorities and choose a company that offers more balance.

I think everybody needs to earn their job on their skillset and persona — you should never get a position just because you are a woman. But if companies build a culture around the unique demands on women, you’re removing blockers to their growth in the company.

And of course, being proactive by offering leadership and mentoring programs to women and minority employees in your company can also be beneficial.

Can you share what most excites you about the Real Estate industry?

It’s exciting that the industry is focusing on the consumer experience. In order to continue building business, real estate needs to meet the consumer where they are. I also think that the industry is starting to realize that technology is not the end all, be all solution. Relationships are more important than ever, and the majority of consumers would not be comfortable attempting a real estate transaction solo. They want to have an agent guide them through it. Despite new tech players in the real estate industry, the role of a real estate agent is more important than ever.

Can you share some concerns you have for the industry? If you had the ability to implement reform, what would you suggest?

We need more education for the general consumer about the important role real estate can play in their personal finances.

Especially as we look at younger entrants in the homebuying cycle. To someone in their 20s, it might be intriguing to say ‘I can buy and sell my home by pushing a button.’ They don’t understand the long-term impact of these decisions to their overall wealth creation. As you get older and have more assets in your portfolio, those decisions really hit you.

A good example is my 401(k). When I was right out of college, I didn’t contribute as much as I could have, and as a result, I walked away from thousands and thousands of dollars. It’s the same process with buying or selling a home or choosing to rent — that decision can have a long-term impact on a person’s finances.

That’s where iBuyers concern me. We have a great commercial about it. The consumer is not educated enough about what they’re walking away from when their home is mispriced. They need to make that decision with the help of a professional.

The other thing is the quality of agents in the field. RE/MAX generally has the most productive and recommended agents. Having someone who is experienced and can guide you through the transaction is important. It’s the largest and most stressful transaction of your life.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our CEO, Adam Contos, is currently focused on building community, and I love it. I love how we’re building a movement in our network that’s built on kindness and greatness. This message encourages supporting women tremendously.

Women are other women’s worst critics. I was talking with someone the other day about the difference between watching my son grow up and watching my daughter. It’s different how boys treat boys and how girls treat girls. You’ll hear a third-grade boy say to another — “Hey, can you show me how you did that?” But girls won’t ask for help. They don’t want to admit that the other girl did better than them.

For so long, women have tried to claw their way to gain a position at the table, but that doesn’t have to mean stepping on other women. We need to recognize others’ successes and applaud them, that’s part of building community. I’ve experienced it first-hand — women have had a tendency to downplay the things I was achieving.

I think there’s a way to be humble and proud at the same time. Our opportunity is to raise our young women to be confident and proud of their achievements, while also helping others.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn here.

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