ONE Thing: Gary Builds a Business Part 2

Nov 14, 2013 | The ONE Thing | 0 comments

Focused on thinking big, Gary Keller found that the key to building a successful business in real estate is people. He also found that the key to helping Keller Williams people own big businesses is education. Armed with this information, he set out to create a new benchmark in real estate. Read the second half of Gary’s story of Keller Williams to see how the Focusing Question continues to drive the largest real estate company in North America’s success.


Our priorities were clear. Our first job was to think big. With that in hand, we then had to recruit people to our firm. And once we had them, we needed to teach them how to lead generate. Just three things in the right order of priority. Amid the chaos of launching a business, we devoted the lion’s share of energy and effort there. And we never cheated. In fact these answers served as a check. If we didn’t think big, we couldn’t recruit in numbers. And if we didn’t recruit, we had no one to teach.

We ran with these answers and in less than three years we went from ground zero to the 10th largest real estate company in our city. And then the bottom fell out of the market. Suddenly, we either had to reinvent ourselves or face going out of business.

We reinvented ourselves.

I asked myself this question:  What’s the ONE Thing we can do to help our associates generate the most amount of money such that by doing it everything else we might do will either be easier or unnecessary? We took a hard look inside and outside our industry and found our answer in the creative structure used by the Trammel Crow Company. Recognized by Forbes in 1971 as the largest landlord in the United States and by The Wall Street Journal in 1986 as the nation’s biggest developer, this company’s compensation plan showed us a bigger way to think. Literally taking a chapter from the Trammel Crow book “Master Builder” we did ONE Thing – we added a profit sharing program to our compensation plan.

One year later we were the largest residential real estate company in our city.
But we weren’t done, for this ONE Thing led to a domino effect by prompting a series of additional questions. The first one I asked was: What’s the ONE Thing we can do to validate our profit share plan such that by doing it everything else we might do will either be easier or unnecessary? The answer was open our books and let our associates see the financials. So, that’s what we did.

Even today, this answer is still considered a radical concept, but it does what it’s supposed to. It validates our program and holds us all financially accountable. To-date, we can say with complete confidence that we’ve shared more than $350 million in profits and, last year alone, we profit shared at a pace of more than $100,000 a day.
This answer led to another question: Now that the financials are an open book, what’s the ONE Thing we can do to encourage our associates to influence our financials once they read them such that by doing it everything else we might do will either be easier or unnecessary?

The answer was to form leadership councils at the city, state, regional, national and international levels and empower them with decision making rights. First, they shared in the profits, then they could see the financials that led to the profits and now they could influence the profits. It put everyone—owners and associates—on the same side of the table. At the time we did this we were only operating in a few locations, but this structure became the backbone of the company. The leadership councils became an open forum where all individuals can send their ideas and issues on how to keep the company relevant to their careers.

Once these councils began to operate, we faced our biggest challenge yet – how to help them wrestle with big issues and pull for each other while pulling for themselves. As we examined this, we realized this wasn’t just an opportunity to improve the dialogue in our councils, but an opportunity for the entire company. So, we asked the question:  What’s the ONE Thing we can do to help everyone in our company work together to achieve more individually and collectively such that by doing it everything else we might do will either be easier or unnecessary?

We hit the research again and discovered the answer was developing the right culture.  Not one we inherited. Not one we evolved to. A culture we purposely designed to help us continue to work as harmoniously as possible in a highly fragmented, individualistic industry. We put a team of our best people on it and the result was a cultural formula that became the basis for how we treat each other and work together.

This domino was a big one. I had never thought about culture before, but the previous dominoes led us right to it. That is the power of the Focusing Question. It has the ability to take you where you need to go even when you don’t know you need to go there.

As the company grew and grew we faced one other significant challenge – the communication and service delivery platform that would drive our business. The question we asked ourselves was: What’s the ONE Thing we can do to communicate and deliver our value proposition such that by doing it everything else we might do will either be easier or unnecessary? In this era there is only one answer, adopt technology. As obvious an answer as this is, until we framed it through the Focusing Question, we knew it was important, but didn’t realize just how critical it is and how much attention we must give it.

If you go back and follow this train of Focusing Questions we’ve asked ourselves over our 30 year history, you’ll see several things. First, you’ll notice that our answers haven’t changed and each one, aided by a big vision, became a business cornerstone. Second, you’ll understand why our shorthand explanation of our company is to say we are “an education based, technology driven” business—almost every answer is either fulfilled or driven through education or technology. It is no more complicated than that.

Over our history we’ve asked the Focusing Question repeatedly in search of big answers to our challenges. There are literally too many examples to share. But this shortened version gives you an idea of how using it shaped some of our biggest decisions and drove the growth of our business.

And so what was the result of all of this?  Keller Williams has had an average annual growth rate of 25% since the 1980s, and an unbroken 30-year string of continuous profit growth.

The Focusing Question just might be the hardest working tool a businessperson has to build their business.

–          Gary Keller

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