As a global franchise business, a real challenge for Harcourts International is to communicate effectively with our frontline teams with what we are working on and most importantly how this will support them in their success as real estate professionals, says Todd Cassie, CIO of the NZ-based real estate firm.
He says the challenge is amplified by the multiple layers between the international franchisor, our regional corporate support teams, the business owners in those regions and their teams which include sales, management and administration.
“Or put simply, how do we as a technology team based in Christchurch connect with an administrator in a sales office based in Reno Nevada or Port Elizabeth in South Africa?”
“We have discovered that there is no single answer to this conundrum other than continual innovation and making use of technology to bridge the divide,” says Cassie, who is two years into the role as global CIO.
“Our strategy has been to take a diverse approach and accept that not all team members will engage with us in the same way.”
This approach has led them to deliver a range of innovations, all using cloud and other disruptive technologies.
One of them is the global implementation of Facebook Workplace across their network of over 900 offices. “This allows us to target our communications and have team members be far more selective in what they want to engage in,” says Cassie.
“We no longer have to push all information to all people and risk losing the message in the noise.”
Importantly, they have gained a “fantastic set of analytics” to better understand how well their messaging is being received.
“If we launch a campaign or communication, we can quickly understand how well it has been received and pivot our methods if we are failing to hit the mark.”
He says Harcourts International now holds global live town hall meetings making use of an integration between Zoom and Workplace. These meetings are interactive and allow our people to pose any question to us on any subject in real-time, says Cassie.
The events are made available on Workplace as a recording immediately afterwards. This ensures team members can watch these at a time that better suits them, and of course they can still provide feedback and ask questions.
“Not being able to attend live does not mean that they cannot be part of the conversation.”
He says the technology roadmap is now built into and published within their core products at Harcourts.
This means that at any time from within our systems, our people can review our roadmap and see progress in real-time, he says.
They can also provide real-time feedback to us by up or down voting planned initiatives. Cassie says they took this further and integrated it to Workplace, so they can engage with the technology teams and contribute to their work.
“We are literally giving that administrator in Reno, Nevada access to our developers.”
Cassie says the technology team is cognisant that a high percentage of the staff across the globe will not easily rush to digital mediums to get information.
Thus, he says, they have maintained traditional communications channels, while “gently” moving people to updated information through links and calls to action that drive them to the information that they need.
Cassie also underscores the need to respond fast to the changes in the market.
“As an industry there is constant talk of disruption and it seems that every day a new product pops up promising to change real estate forever” he says.
Two years on, “We have now moved from a technology business which was seen as a black box, to a team that is delivering value and focussed on our people 100 per cent”
“Our products and new features are applauded and welcomed rather than being treated with suspicion. That’s a tangible change that provides the foundations of transformation through technology.”
He says their innovation focus was more than any specific technology.
It is about trying new ways of doing things, measuring their success and learning from failure, he says.
“The value delivered has been a shift in how as a team, technology is now able to deliver more innovation and support our business owners in achieving their goals.
He adds, “When you are recognised as an enabler, the door to enable the business is wide open.
“We now have the support and trust of our people and this means that we can focus our time and efforts on the delivery of outcomes and are supported with future initiatives and innovations.”
There was some introspection needed before they were able to move to this stage.
“Culturally our first change was to have our team look internally to truly understand why we were not seen as a trusted advisor,” says Cassie.
“Once we understood this, we were able to change the way that we operate. We needed to get our modus operandi right first before we could convince the business that we had changed.”
“Ultimately it came down to a decision that we wanted to be a core part of the business and communicate effectively across our whole network. We wanted to know that we were delivering valuehellip;because doesn’t everyone?”
Cassie says communication skills is critical to the success of any leader.
“It’s all about the three Cs – communicate, communicate, communicate,” he states.
“It’s about truly understanding the business, the challenges, the people and then identifying how we can enable them to do amplify what they already do well and turn weaknesses into strengths.”
“I continually relearn this lesson every year.”
Technology and empathy
He says, an incident from years back, when he was CIO at Christchurch Airport, stands out for him.
When the Christchurch earthquake struck, he says there was a real need for them to get back into operations quickly.
After confirming that his team and their families were all okay, his initial goal was to get them checking all systems and dealing with outages of essential systems. This required entry to damaged buildings and basements while aftershocks were continuing.
“My attitude was very much, ‘we need to get this done, people are relying on us’,” he recalls.
The problem was he did not really take into account the different ways in which people were dealing with this significant event.
“I assumed that everyone was in the same headspace as me,” which was, “it’s an earthquake, it happens, lets get on with the job at hand.”
He completely failed to consider the impact the event was having on their lives, mental state or ability to focus on work when they had their own problems to tackle.
“My focus was all solution-based,” he says.
He was fortunate to have in his team a young lady who had the courage he tell him some of the challenges the team members were facing.
“What really surprised me was that the people I expected would be the most resilient turned out to be the ones that were struggling the most,” he says.
“The biggest lesson for me was how quickly I had managed to go from a trusted leader to being seen as lacking empathy or consideration for my people.
“At that point I made immediate changes to how we were operating and made sure that I had genuine authentic conversations with my team. I believe I managed to restore the trust from my team but it took significantly longer to restore than it took to lose.”
“It’s a lesson that I have taken forward with me since then,” says Cassie, “making sure that I genuinely consider and understand what is happening with my teams, not assuming that everything is okay. And I encourage my direct reports to do the same with their people.”