CHRIS HANLEY IS THE DIRECTOR of First National Byron Bay, recent Order of Australia recipient and Byron Shire’s Citizen of the Year. To the real estate industry, though, he is a humble and generous leader and mentor to the mentors. Sarah Bell caught up with Chris in his hometown of Byron Bay to reflect on his life as leader of a real estate business, as a leader of the not-for-profit Byron Bay Writers Festival and a leader of leaders.
Chris, tell us about your recent awards – an Order of Australia Medal for contribution to Literature and Indigenous Education, and Byron Shire’s Citizen of The Year. What has that been like?
Chris Hanley: It’s very humbling, getting awards. Strange as this is going to sound, it’s also unsettling, because you get awards for things that you’ve done in the past so it makes you look backwards, which is interesting.
The awards weren’t necessarily for real estate. They were for the activities you have done in your community in parallel to real estate. I read that you said the awards were the outcome of ‘living in a community that had nourished your soul’ which got me thinking about purpose.
One of the great issues in our industry is that we believed for decades that you categorise people: A class, B class, C class, people ready to sell in two weeks or ready to sell now. I think that’s all crap, and I will always believe it’s crap. I think you should treat everyone the same, whether they’re a landlord, a tenant, a borrower, a seller, a creative person who lives in the community, a poor person, an old person.
(As for) nourishing my soul… what it in effect means is that someone like me probably would have left real estate quite a long time ago unless I had something that did nourish my soul, that was different from listing and selling houses which I’ve done now for more than 30 years.
Chris, it is clear to everyone who knows you that your passion is people. That’s very clear in how you lead your team here, but also in the work you do in the community where you live and the community that is real estate.
I love people, but I like being able to make and create things. You learn more running an organisation where there’s no remuneration than you do running one when there is, because the engine of a not-for-profit organisation is people who aren’t paid. You become a really good leader when you can lead people who you’re not giving any money to, who have no incentive except their good graces.
For most people, there are a lot of other issues that motivate them and you learn that in not-for-profit. So for me, being able to live the values that I’ve learned in one area and practise them in another has been really good. I’ve enjoyed that.
Tell me about your early work life and how it has influenced your thoughts about ‘work’.
I went to work when I was 11 years of age; I used to get up at quarter past four in the morning, and I’d stand on a railway station and sell papers. I did it unprotected from the weather, in the middle of winter, and I used to sleep with my clothes underneath me in the bed because it was cold. I wouldn’t take any of that back.
When I was eight years of age, I was taken to a doctor and told I was going to go blind. That one was an interesting thing to be told. I was told not to get an education because it would strain my eyes, and I was told – it still makes me laugh – to go learn basket-weaving and things like that, because when I was blind I’d be able to make an income.
Whatever that stuff has been or whatever turbulence has come along, it’s like, okay, it is what it is and we’ll go and find some way to compensate or work it out. I went down to one eye and that one’s not so good, but I can still read and get around, so it’s all good.
You say struggle is normal, not abnormal.
Yes, it’s normal! When you’re a young boss and there’s a train wreck [at the office] – somebody leaves, or you have the market change radically and you’ve got no money in the bank – the difference between a young boss and an old boss is just the old boss has seen it before. He or she knows this is not the end of the world and that you can keep going.
I think the second thing about struggle is you learn that when all else fails you keep putting one foot in front of the other. There is no other answer.
How do you reconcile the modern Insta-perfect culture with that concept – that struggle is normal?
I struggle with that, because the older you get the less you know. When I run into people in their 20s and 30s today who are convinced that they’re super-agents or that they’ve got all the answers, that certainty worries me. Struggle makes you realise that you know less [than you thought] and the older you get, the more you don’t know; which is why the greatest of gifts is curiosity.
Certainty is the enemy of creativity and the enemy of leadership, because you can’t be certain. I’ve been running around in the world and I’m scared by people who are certain. I like people who are flawed, who are fearful and anxious. I like people who make mistakes.
Has real estate become ‘instant’, do you think?
My view is that when a market turns, as it ultimately will, or slows, or comes back from a normal market, those surface agents – those agents who to me are a lot more like actors than they are problem-solvers – they’re going to struggle because they’re not experts. They don’t really know their market well, they don’t understand people that well, and when they’ve really got to work hard… I know agents all think they work hard now, but they don’t.
So what would you tell young people in real estate about how to become an agent of substance over a ‘surface’ or transactional agent?
A lot of people have a knowing, as an agent, that there’s another way, or a better way, or a different way. They run around, they read, they watch and they go to conferences; what they’re trying to do is get clarity about what it is they need to do to change from maybe being a surface agent, or to change from going from that type of agent to this.
What I’ve learned recently is that you get the clarity after you act. So that’s an old bloke trying to tell young people out there who understand they’re in real estate and they know what they’re supposed to be doing, but it doesn’t feel right. That’s because they work in the wrong model.
Most importantly, you’ve got to develop your own learning program. Some people have mentors, some people work with someone in their office as a lead agent and a junior, some people go round the country and visit great agents. Some people go to conferences, some people listen to the audio to do their dues, but you’ve got to have a learning program.
I guess the other thing that’s become so important, obviously, is to keep fit. Mentally fit and physically fit. It’s a really big part of keeping your body and your head together, keep it all in perspective and have some fun while you’re doing it.
What would be the central tenant of your approach? What is your one thing?
Nothing encapsulates not only my ethos, but the ethos for most successful organisations I’ve ever seen, as much as ‘Good Works’ and it does: good does work.
It doesn’t mean good works 30 seconds after you do it, and it doesn’t mean that good then becomes a strategy, like authenticity, or telling the truth, or being trustworthy – all of this stuff that comes out at conferences and I want to yell. I want to stand up and say to people, ‘That’s not a strategy or a plan. You do these things naturally. You do these things because you’re a good human being.’
But in terms of how good works, if you build your own business in real estate and you practise [doing] good, and good is within your community and within your staff, the bottom line is that a model of ‘good people’ kicks in. Your business will work and you’ll put down deep roots, really deep roots in your community, like a big, solid tree. And although stuff will happen, your organisation will still prosper. That’s why I love that expression about good works.