A Call to Conversation to the Real Estate Industry

If you love movies, or video games, you are a fan of symphonic music. A symphony orchestra is a real-world example of teamwork, collaboration, discipline, learning, role clarity, execution and true leadership in action. As a conductor, who doesn’t make any sound, it is imperative to know how to communicate and lead to ensure the performance matches expectations.

Bill Bradley once said: “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” I started conducting at 14 years old and as a conductor, my most important skill is listening. The only way to mold and shape the end-result, what the audience will experience, is to listen, then make adjustments. When we unlock people’s potential, everyone wins!

For some time now, I’ve had this internal dialogue about how real estate agents are defined as independent contractors, and how that definition impacts the way we, the real estate industry shows up, and lead real estate agents.

As an executive and leader for the past 17 years with a real estate firm celebrating it’s 90th anniversary (John L. Scott Real Estate was established in 1931, by Mr. John L. Scott), I’ve committed my vocation to inspire, educating, and leading real estate agents. The following open letter is intended to start a conversation; one that I believe is important to all of us.

From the time I started in real estate, there has been an us vs. them mentality. I do not mean a competitive view of other agents, or other firms, but within the industry as a whole. Depending on your vantage point, the agent is the “us” and the brokerage, or firm, is the “them.” Or, if you’re an executive at said firm, it is us, the brokerage, vs. them the agents. While this might not be a conscious action, we’ve cultivated many stories in our heads, particularly around the idea of “independent contractor” and the ways we manage real estate operations.

The word “manage” might be part of the dilemma. I do not subscribe to the idea of managing people. We manage systems, we lead people.

I’ve observed this uncomfortable dance that we find ourselves in: Firm, Leadership, Office Managers, Staff, Agents, and Teams.

I’ve been a top producing agent, assistant manager in multiple large offices of 300+, in the Seattle/Bellevue Washington area, an area resource manager, a corporate manager, a director, and now a Vice President. The struggle is real. I’ve been in these conversations since the beginning. I chose to leave sales and join corporate leadership because at my core, I am a teacher, a coach, a mentor, and a conductor.

I’ve been studying leadership my whole life. Not only am I a real estate executive, I’m a classically trained musician with two performance master’s degrees from Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Montréal (the equivalent of Julliard in the United States).

Take for example volunteers. Since my early teen years, I’ve worked with volunteers from symphonic orchestras to choir, ensembles, bands, soloists, and others. My life has been spent in the creation of community and the pursuit of excellence through music. Over the many years I’ve been leading, it has become clear that to inspire volunteers – those committed individuals – one must know the people whom you are leading. You must know what makes them tick, what aspirations they have, and why they chose to give of their time to the mission set before them.

As the music Director of John Cameron Entertainment, when we open up choir registration for our shows, my heart explodes with joy at the sheer number of singers that want to be part of the group. It is not unusual to have 190+ registered. By showtime, we have 150 singers strong to perform. In the volunteer world, community choirs in the 21st Century, are world-class numbers.

Emmanuel Fonte

You may wonder what’s up with the attrition? Why did 42 people drop out? Over time, those singers are exposed to the expectations set before them. Memorizing thousands of notes and hundreds of lyrics, hours upon hours of their time rehearsing on their own, and together, each week. This is a major commitment to a mission. In other words, people self-select because the expectations are too much for them. Couldn’t the same be true for independent contractors as it is for volunteers? For the purpose of this open letter, I believe independent contractors, as referred to in the real estate space, have many of the same attributes as those volunteers.

I am wondering how we can move from the abdication of leadership with phrases such as “we can’t force independent contractors to do anything they don’t want to do,” to cultivating committed sales agents with phrases like, “our agents are collaborative, open and devoted to a way of being.” While it is technically true that they are independent contractors, it is more likely the agent hasn’t been offered a strong enough “why,” for their devotion to manifest itself. What if, we as leaders, worked at asking better questions and painting a better picture of why. What if we were so on fire about the tools, technology, and tactics, that they – the agent/independent contractor – couldn’t help but be ignited by our spark? (The incomparable Simon Sinek has much to say on this topic that you may find worth exploring.)

As we elevate our standards and challenge individuals to meet them, we realize that we may not be the firm for everyone. In my experience, and I wager to bet yours, no group or company can be all things to all people. We must focus on our culture, our contribution, and our class.

If we believe in something so much, and we can communicate how it makes their lives better, they too will believe. Many years ago, Microsoft introduced “Evangelists” to be in the field, introducing clients to the technology that changed their lives (in most cases) for the better. Those Evangelists illustrated compelling “whys” to the end-user. Have you heard about the mouse?

I do not subscribe to the “agents won’t do it, you can’t ask them to partake in A, B, or C.” If you’ve been in the gig for some time, this is an old story. For some, myself included, it is a myth. While some myths are based on facts, most are not. I believe that successful, driven, winning individuals want to be challenged; they want to be coached to success.

What I am suggesting is, we as leaders in this industry (though the principles can be applied to almost any organization), must take responsibility of leadership and change our language, our behaviors, and most importantly, our mindset.

Those whom we lead are watching us. Do we elevate standards and make the tough decisions for those who choose the path of least resistance, or do we default to the standard answer about independent contractors?

Having stated the dilemma that I believe we face in real estate, including PropTech, what can we do to inspire, challenge, or motivate an independent contractor?

Part of the challenge as I see it, is that we have to figure out a way to not paint all agents with one broad brush stroke. My friends at Inside Real Estate have created real estate agent personas to help understand how each individual agent works, learns, and does business. They have ingrained the platinum rule into their products. (You should consider checking them out.)

We are all familiar with the “Golden Rule”, which is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  When you think about it, that “rule” is truly about you. How YOU want to be treated. In contrast, the Platinum Rule is: “Treat others the way they would like to be treated”. It’s about THEM! Might I suggest that how we lead is more about them, than it is about us. Furthermore, that utilizing the platinum in your leadership is a shift in mindset. I first heard the platinum rule while listening to Jane Elliott educate children about racism and it had a profound impact on my mindset.

As leaders, we must lead with curiosity. It is way too easy to show up and have a version in our minds, such as, “I’ve seen this movie before”, rather than being present with each individual agent and their aspirations, their concerns, their challenges, and their victories.

I believe we should not abdicate our responsibility as leaders. Winners want to be coached. If the end-result is to help them grow their business, then we owe them that leadership and coaching. Yes, this is hard work. It requires deep care, which includes active listening and commitment, and living by the platinum rule.

As leaders we are committed to the success of the agent, or at least we should be, and we are less attached to our ego, our systems, our tools, or tech. Commitment is about the other, their well-being and success. Attachment is about us, our reputation or corporate brand. As we stay focused on the individual and committed to their business, we hone in on what works for them. Often, those committed team members are the most passionate advocates to grow their business, which in turn will grow our company or firm.

I believe we all know what it takes to be successful, at least on a philosophical level. Being physically healthy requires a couple of activities; eat well and move your body on a regular basis. Simple, yet not easy. The same is true for a sales organization. Learning new skills is imperative to growing and building any business. Allowing yourself to fail at something new is the only way to get to out of a rut, grow, and move to the next level—it’s simple but not easy.

Leaders are responsible for painting the picture. Complaining about the independent contractor for not doing what is in their best interest is NOT leadership. Taking responsibility as leaders, and changing our language, our behaviors and most importantly, our mindset–requires commitment to the platinum rule. Creativity in our approach. Clarity & focus in how we engage. Compelling stories behind the why. Credibility in the systems that are put into place to ensure that the energy and time spent is worth it for everyone involved. Most importantly, through the lens of the individual.

Imagine a world where agents enthusiastically enroll themselves in tools and tech that make their lives better because we took the time and invested the energy to give THEM what THEY need when THEY need it. I believe in that possibility!

My hope is that I’ve ignited in you the possibility that we should, can, and need to start a conversation that will lead to possibilities, that will elevate our approach, and cause real change to take place with our agents, in our offices, our firms, and our industry!

I want to know what you think.

~ Emmanuel


  1. You are so right Emmanuel! There are way too many managers out there and not enough leaders in our industry. I will continue to strive to live by the “Platinum Rule” 😉

    This is beautifully written my friend.

  2. So very well written, Emmanuel. This is the mindset and approach that will continue to bring relevance and value between team members and team leaders, agents and brokerages, and ultimately, agents and consumers.
    Thank you for sharing this!

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