Funny how you can work under someone’s leadership in a pretty lean corporate headquarters group and never really know much about that person.

Yesterday some colleagues and I drove to Scottsdale, AZ to hear Keller Williams Realty International’s Chief Operating Officer, Mary Tennant, share some of her experiences, and her insights into leadership. The audience was about 40 KW leaders from across Arizona and Nevada.

The purpose of the session revealed itself–through Mary’s storytelling, and through her answers to some tough questions about real, specific leadership challenges.

To me, Mary had always been a smiling “tough cookie” of a who enjoyed fun in the workplace, but played it straight in her communication. Mary liked to lead staff meetings, all right. I witnessed my fair share of her financial reports to the KWRI staff..and celebrations she encouraged..Halloween parties and Holiday Gift parties for staff members’ and their kids. She championed Red Day, a company-wide annual day of volunteering in our communities. And she championed new education initiatives.

But, yesterday, I had the energizing experience of learning so much more about Mary. It was as much how she did it as what she said. She shared highlights of her life story..about tough times, and better ones that followed. She shared barriers thrown in her path, and ones she helped create–and how she navigated around, or leaped over them.

She was very open about the role that luck has played in her life and career progress..about the joy of helping others..and about being overwhelmed by generosity others have shown her.

The stories flowed easily. And people in the room with her related–big-time. It was the purpose of this rare day. The room was filled mainly with Team Leaders (heads of real estate offices, if you’re not a KW-er) and OP’s (Operating Principals/Owners of KW franchises.) These folks’ roles drive our company, both the people and the money. These are the risk-takers and the recruiters and problem-solvers in our business.

It turns out Mary was a Team Leader for many years, in several locations, in Keller Williams’ formative times. Her boss, even then, was Gary Keller. He was her OP at the time, the person whose investments made her teams and offices possible. He was a demanding partner, she said, but always a partner,

Sometimes people create companies based in values, like sharing. This is one of those companies.

“We developed a bond,” she told us, “one that survived all differences of opinion.” “This is the bond you want with your business partners,” she continued. “Give it your all, always, Give it a very fair test, but if you don’t bond..if you find you really cannot stand together, then find someone else to be in business with.”

The room fell quiet.  This is just a sample of the friendly directness we experienced..all day long. Tough questions were asked and answered.

“What if I find my KW neighbor competing with me for top agents,” someone asked. The answer, “Don’t let me catch you competing; we cooperate in Keller Williams–at every level.” Mary cited examples to prove her point. Heads in the room nodded in agreement.

This small woman, this Mary person, became almost bigger than life through the day. Yet, her insights were always couched in plain talk, and salted with jokes and smile lines.

This is a person whose family lost it all, who went from a sort of mountain country tour guide to a file clerk, and who then found a job working for a financially failing assisted living center. Incredibly, she made it profitable and sought after.

How? One way was by taking her elderly residents to visible “upbeat” events in slightly battered bus with the center’s name all over it. “I loved our residents,” she said. ” I learned lots of others loved seeing and meeting them too–out and about, and having fun”.

Empty rooms filled up. Profits and value returned to the business. The doctors who owned the center eventually decided to cash in on the success Mary helped create. They surprised her by making her a partner just before the successful sale. “I never expected it,” she said. “They funded my chance to help lift our family up from hard get my kids to college.”

Mary moved to Austin and helped her kids pay for education at Univ. of Texas. She also got a real estate license, turned her fierce determination into sales, and finally met Gary Keller.

“I could always sense and feel what was right about a workplace, ” she said. When another major company’s agent invited her to join a top brand’s office, Mary said “no”.and told the woman what she did’t like about that office. But, fortune smiled again.

“When I declined, that agent said they knew someone else who thought my way–about what a real estate company should be about and how it should feel to work there. That’s how I met Gary Keller,” she recalled.

We’re glad she did, and that they battled together to raise up several KW Market Centers in Texas that became the financial core of KW’s early growth. “I discovered early that if I could make money for my investor, Gary, I would be creating wealth for my agents and for me in the process–and that’s exactly how it is for you!”

She smiled that smile. I left smiling too. I’m in the right place, in business with the right people. And, I know a lot more about my COO.

Thanks, Mary.


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