Dave Veale interviews Ralph Stephen, President, Royal Lepage Atlantic as part of the Leadership Unleashed series of interviews with leaders.
Watch the interview…recorded on Dave’s flip-cam:
‘Leadership is not a quality. It’s a state of mind.’
This sentence jumped out at me when I looked at Royal LePage Atlantic’s website.
The real estate firm is a market leader with 230 agents and 10 offices in Atlantic Canada. Spend a short time with Ralph Stephen, president of the company, and you quickly learn he strives to role model this “state of mind” on a daily basis.
In our interview, Stephen candidly describes the recent challenges in the real estate market and, as a leader, making tough decisions to overcome these challenges.
Q: Ralph kicked off our interview by describing the importance of being a “servant leader.”
A: A lot of the leaders that I would have known when I started 20 years ago would have approached the world from a very different perspective. They would have been more, let’s say top down, militaristic. “Here’s what we need to do and here’s how you’re going to do it.”
There is a disconnect between that leadership style and what people are looking for today.
I think people are looking for those folks that are interested in helping them get to where they need to go and that is how I would define my leadership style. I would be more of a “servant leader.”
I get up every morning wondering what is it that I can do to add value to my organization. “How can I serve my organization?” rather than “How can the organization serve me?”
I think that servant leadership might mean different things to different people. What that means to me is that there is a little more reciprocity in my relationships so they are a lot more whole. That is the way I would describe it.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: My leadership team effectively runs my business on a daily basis. They don’t check in with me on an hour-by-hour basis wondering what they should or shouldn’t be doing.
If you have the right people in those positions, you have trust and that becomes the foundation of your relationship. So my role then becomes more of an adviser: What is it that I can do to add value to that manager in that particular branch, or the president of that particular company?
Q: You’re kind of bumping up on what I would describe as a holistic view of the person. Is it all business or do you find there is a nice blend of business and personal? If someone has an issue, are you open as a leader to understanding what might be slowing them down and might relate to something in their personal life?
A: From what I have discovered over the years, every individual either wants a personal investment or a professional investment. It is incumbent upon leaders to understand what people are looking for.
I might be talking with a particular individual who wants to further themselves professionally and they want to know how I can help them do that.
Alternatively, I might be talking to somebody that has everything they need professionally, but they might need a sounding board for somebody to talk with about some things they might be going through.
As leaders it isn’t really about us; it’s about what that person requires at that particular time.
Q: And that’s where trust comes in, in a big way. So what are the challenges with that? What are you finding really challenging about this approach to leadership?
A: The biggest challenge would be the time and effort that it all takes “¦ I can tell you one thing for sure, once you have a relationship that’s based on trust, you can accomplish absolutely everything.
Q: The last year has been difficult across the board. There have been challenges for your industry, the real estate industry. What is the toughest decision or decisions you have had to make in the last year?
A: We went through some tremendous years of growth over the last ten years and the reality is, like any other business, we hadn’t expected that growth to stop.
We had set a proper foundation in place. We were moving forward and the trajectory is going (up). All of a sudden, the revenue tap shuts for three or four months. Then you realize, we better take a look at our business.
It has been a gift – because had we not been given the opportunity under the circumstances that we faced – it would be a couple of years before we reorganized our business model.
When you talked about the toughest thing, it always goes back to the people side of the business.
Because of my strong core value of stewardship, the very thing that inspires me to move forward every day is not only for myself to do well, but also for those around me to do well.
I never really thought I would be in the position where I would be asking people to either retire early or having to lay folks off.
My grandfather on my mom’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side both ran businesses that employed generations of people and never laid anybody off. That was how I viewed myself as a corporate citizen, as somebody that would continue to provide employment to people as long as they wanted to be employed.
The reality of that is quite different and I was faced with having to make some decisions, which I found to be very tough.
I had to make some tough decisions for a few folks for the good of the many, and that allowed me to continue to move forward without really violating one of my very strong core values.
Q: Who for you has been a big inspiration, in terms of defining who you are and how you lead?
A: My uncle Mike. He rose quite quickly through the insurance industry and went on to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company – Aetna, Inc. (NYSE: AET). I guess that’s really who shaped my leadership or helped shape my philosophy on leadership – the need to look after people as you are looking after yourself.
Published Thursday May 6, 2010 in the Telegraph Journal
Photo: Paul Darrow, for the Telegraph Journal