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Tips From The Top: One On One With Bess Freedman

I spoke to Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, about her journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Bess: I’m not sure if this is what many would consider surprising, but I love love love Dave Chappelle. I love stand-up comedy and the greats like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and  Eddie Murphy. In fact, I used to watch the Carol Burnett show with my Mom when I was little. Humor is my savior. Netflix just put The Chappelle Show on its lineup and I have been watching it nonstop. Tears come down my face because I am laughing so hard – there is no better feeling than that. Chappelle is a national treasure. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks, or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Bess: I lost my Dad in a car crash when I was 23 and it totally wrecked my world. He was the person I talked to every single morning as he always called to tell me to have a good day and check in. If I did not  pick up the phone, he would leave a message on my answering machine singing until the tape ended. That experience shaped how I saw the world. Life is so precious and nothing is guaranteed. I saw over and over that time is our most valuable resource which is why I despise when people say they ‘just are killing time.’ That to me is the ultimate sin.

The loss I experienced at a relatively young age instilled in me a tremendous sense of drive and purpose to make each day count, and stay connected with the people who really matter. I incorporate that into my work and my personal life. 

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Bess: An effective leader is someone who knows they cannot accomplish anything all on their own. They surround themselves with the best possible team, they collaborate, and they are always striving to improve. The only way to level-up your leadership is to stay curious and establish trust with those around you, and to seek guidance from fellow leaders past and present. I’ve found that micromanaging is one of the fastest paths to corporate burnout and causes morale to plummet.  Any leader who thinks they know the best way all the time is fooling themselves. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Bess: Be yourself and stay authentic. The higher a person climbs, the more pressure there is to change. Make sure you stick to what you believe is right. 

Learn to listen. You may not always have the right answers, but you must always open yourself up to new lessons, possibilities, and paths to solutions.

Don’t be afraid to fail. It means you are trying, and you can always learn from mistakes. Above all, failure creates room for growth.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Bess: I think there needs to be a careful balance of experience, talent, and potential in order to create the best possible team. The real estate industry, like most industries, is constantly evolving at a fast pace. You need to have people with institutional knowledge who you can lean on, but also people who bring fresh perspectives, and those who genuinely want to grow with the company. Of course, building the right team is a process and does not happen quickly, but once it clicks, the results will speak for themselves. A team with diversity of thought, backgrounds, and experiences is key to staying relevant.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Bess: Do not take yourself too seriously. As a leader, it’s easy to fall into a destructive pattern of being hard on yourself. But at some point you really must learn to let go, and move forward. Sometimes, this is easier said than done – and it is a constant area of practice for me.  As the great Robert Frost once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” There will always be critics and naysayers; you have to rise above the noise.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward? 

Bess: It’s crucial to adopt some form of social responsibility. There is nothing more important in life than helping others, and I believe that the pandemic has reinforced this theme more than ever. Helping someone else can be as simple as giving someone a seat on the subway, helping someone who falls, or even just saying good morning. The same principles can be applied on a corporate level too. Companies can establish charitable arms, support causes, and give back to the community through volunteering time, funds, or even just making a statement on social media. You transform the energy in the universe when you care to connect and to be kind. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Bess: I love Mahjong, Poker and I am a podcast junkie! I get tons of inspiration from so many. I think being a good leader is understanding what tangible and intangible qualities you need to operate at your best, and I certainly hear a lot of inspiring ideas from other great leaders. Music is another escape for me – and I am a big fan of all different genres. There is something wonderful about putting on my playlist after a long day and just unwinding. Lately, I’m really enjoying the songs from Hamilton, but I also love hip-hop and songs from the 70’s. Really, anything that lifts my spirits, I will listen to!

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