Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Dottie Herman

I spoke to Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, about her journey and her best advice

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Photo Credit: Dale May
Photo Credit: Dale May

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. How did you become the most successful self-made woman in real estate?

Dottie: I worked for Merrill Lynch opening real estate companies across the country in the ‘80s. They eventually sold their real estate group to Prudential, who shortly thereafter decided to franchise the 500 offices. I was working there for a short time when someone approached me with the idea of buying it. I didn’t have any money, but I wrote them a letter saying that I had venture capital, and I got Prudential to finance the 32 offices that were in Long Island and Queens. They financed it 100%. I put no money down and had no personal guarantees.

Around 2000, I started to see the emergence of public companies coming into the real estate business. Up until then, it was mainly small developers, but when I saw these national companies coming in, I saw a bigger opportunity. I realized needed $1 million to get to the next level and was introduced to Howard Lorber. He came in with the money and became my partner. I decided I wanted to expand into Manhattan, so we started looking for a company there and that’s how we became Douglas Elliman. I went back to Prudential to ask for more money, and they gave us another $75 million right before 9/11 – and the rest is history. I wouldn’t have gotten here without asking, and what I hope people learn from my story is that when you ask, the worst thing that could happen is someone says no.

Adam: What are key lessons in leadership you have learned along the way?

Dottie: As your company grows, you have to maintain a personal touch. No matter how big we are, I know everyone’s name and try to get to know them. Invest in your people. We built out a tremendous training program to help bring our people to the next level in their career. Make sure everyone in your company has a purpose and feels important. When people feel like they count, feel that they are needed and feel like they are just not a number, they perform way better. And don’t sit in an ivory tower. Sometimes those at the top really lose track of what happens at the level that actually makes money.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? 

Dottie: Hard work, passion and honesty. Integrity, consistency, having a vision and being able to communicate it clearly and effectively to others. The ability to build a strong culture and the ability to inspire others to perform at the top of their games.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Dottie: Find mentors. Recognize and learn from your mistakes. And don’t take criticism personally, but rather use feedback as an opportunity to grow.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Dottie: When you are building a team, hire people who you think will be better than you and make sure they share your vision and your passion. Communicate your vision clearly and always stay positive and consistent.

Adam: What leaders do you admire most?

Dottie: Jack Welsh. I have read all of his books and live by his 8 rules of leadership. He says great leaders follow their instincts, whether or not they are popular.  They make sure their vision is well articulated and that team members live and breathe the same vision.  He also thinks a leaders upgrade their teams, take every opportunity to evaluate and coach others, build confidence and exude optimism and positive energy. Richard Branson has also been inspirational to me – not only did he redefine the airline industry but he is a brilliant innovator and incredibly philanthropic. I love that he says he expects to make mistakes and learn from them. He encourages people to find businesses that they love, exercise their creative instincts and to cherish and love their families.

Adam: What have you learned from your success as a female leader in a male dominated landscape?

Dottie: At my level, it is definitely male dominated.  I have noticed a lot of subtle differences. Especially when it comes to the little things, women are more naturally inclined to include and recognize people. Even to the this day, I send everyone in the company a birthday card, wish a happy anniversary, and acknowledge events in their lives like the birth of a child or a marriage. I am not sure if my male contemporaries are as sensitive in that way. Sometimes I had to battle for my voice to be heard, but I managed and went as far as one could go in regard to the glass ceiling. In the early days, there weren’t as many women, but that wasn’t a problem, as I made sure to surround myself with really good mentors, male and female.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Dottie: I love working out, cycling and eating healthfully and the discipline, commitment and sense of well-being that it brings to my life. I really enjoy traveling and love hosting great dinners surrounded by good friends and family.
Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Dottie: I want to encourage others to follow their dreams, be consistent in pursuit of them and help others around you people do the same. The key to success is hard work, passion and loving what you do.  I have been very fortunate to do something I love. You must have a real sense of excitement for what you do – I feel very lucky to have found that, and urge other people to do the same thing.

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