EPMEPM: Leadership

5 lessons in leadership: Michelle Williams

There is much more to leadership than just your name on the door. Sometimes you need to take a step back to see a way forward. Michelle Williams looks back on her career and her journey as a leader.

My leadership journey started around 17 years ago when I was given the responsibility to lead a team of six in an agency managing over 700 residential properties.

I was only 26 at the time and most of the employees had years on me, both in experience and age. To be completely honest, while I had a strong work ethic and a fierce desire to succeed, I was naive to think I was ready for such a huge responsibility.

In the early days, I thought I was pretty impressive. I made some significant changes immediately, starting with new systems, KPIs, growth strategies, weekly meetings, marketing and business plans, the works!

It was on paper and I was in control; I was ready to turn the ship around!

What I didn’t understand at the time was that I couldn’t do it all on my own. I needed the team to help me make it happen. But all they could see was me running around like a lunatic making changes they didn’t like much or failed to understand.

Some would adopt them while others would just continue doing things ‘the old way’. I was so frustrated with the rejections and what I thought were simply bad attitudes.

Lesson one:  People don’t respond well to change unless they can see how it will benefit them

I went on like this for about a year, forcing changes, putting policies in place (even when they upset people) and moving forward.

That was until one day my boss suggested to me that I was not ‘leading’ my team; I was ‘managing’ them and they didn’t like me much.

While he admitted I was doing a great job at managing the changes, the tasks and processes, it was time I understood the difference.

My instant response was, “Isn’t it the same thing?” Most of you will already know the answer to that, but remember I was 26 and it was a very different world in property management in 2001.

When the penny dropped that I was not as awesome as I once thought, I made the commitment to study the subject of leadership.

I started reading every bestseller I could find, attended regular conferences and would constantly ask mentors for advice. I was like a dog with a bone, determined to tackle this new challenge.

Slowly I discovered that I was doing it all wrong – everything I thought about managing a team was so far away from leading. That’s when it started to feel too hard. It was overwhelming to come to this realisation; I had so much to learn and implement. Where would I even start?

Looking back, it started slowly, and it took a long time to truly engage my team. Even when I knew better, old habits were hard to break. There were also many roadblocks in terms of the business structure that prevented me from achieving the vision of creating the most reputable property management business in the state.

Lesson two: You need the right environment to lead change

After 12 years of trying to make it work and learning so much along the way, I realised that the environment I was in was not the right space for me to achieve my vision.

I kept hitting a brick wall with failed discussions around cleaning up the quality of the properties under management, recruiting more staff and introducing new training opportunities (any training at all would have been a good start).

This was too great a challenge in the end and I understood why. Sales were the focus of the business, ultimately, and every property was an opportunity to sell.

So I created a plan for the ‘ideal business model’. It would be an independent property management company, focused purely on the management of quality investment properties, with strict criteria around the business we would take on.

This would ensure we could maintain consistency with the delivery of our service, breaking the 80/20 rule by removing the 20 per cent of clients who refuse to maintain their investments.

In 2009 the dream became a very scary reality. The doors opened to @home Property Management Solutions with zero clients and no income generation. This is where the real journey of leadership would begin; the buck now stopped with me.

Lesson three: Micromanagement is just bad management

Once again, in my head, I had it all figured out. I would create the best possible people and build foolproof systems to ensure we maintained consistency in the delivery of our service. I would make sure my team understood and shared the vision.

I made a mistake that many new business owners make when first starting out: I micromanaged absolutely everything.

By definition, “micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees… It’s a way for management to ensure that tasks are performed in a very precise manner – in other words, management’s way.”

I am still guilty of this at times. While I think, to a certain degree, monitoring is absolutely necessary in order to educate and develop your people, it’s the way we approach the educating that determines the outcome.

Lesson four: Not everyone is coachable and some are just not ready

One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that not everyone will share the same values and ethics, and some people simply don’t want to be led. They are not ready to learn and develop, or they see no need to.

I realised that some people are just not ready. It took me around six years in the industry before I was truly ready to be led. Before that, my highest priority was what I had planned for the weekend and the rest of the week was recovering from what I did on the weekend!

I had to hold back and understand that some people need a little time to mature; as long as they were developing slowly, I needed to refrain from forcing my knowledge on them too early. There is time and learning needs to be a joint venture.

This lesson is still a work in progress for me because I don’t give up on people easily. I realise that, as a business owner, you need to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em; however, giving up is not a natural strength of mine and it has been a problem in the past. One bad egg can ruin the nest.

I believe that everyone has a good heart at the core and my job is to influence, encourage, support, and try and create a collaborative environment.

Lesson five: Develop leaders from within

The most recent leadership discovery for me has been the power of developing leaders from within. When you learn to let go a little and trust your team enough to be completely transparent with the business, the vision and the benefits to them when the business thrives, it is the most rewarding journey of all.

I get so much satisfaction seeing my team succeed as individuals. When you build a tribe of loyal followers and an environment everyone can thrive in, there are multiple side effects.

These include staff retention, improved engagement with clients and customers, increased job satisfaction and, finally, the increase in profit that benefits everyone within the organisation.

The most significant learning of all is that the journey never ends. There are more than five lessons. We will all make mistakes on the journey; we will have regrets and sometimes fall so hard we feel like we can’t get up again.

But, if you change the way you respond to failure, everything that happens (the good, the bad and the ugly) will make you more resilient and, ultimately, a better leader.

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