Stepping Up: Making the transition from independent broker to business owner
“My dad came to me and said, ‘You’re of age. Fend for yourself! Make your own money and pay your bills.’ So Millburn started a small business mowing lawns and pulling weeds in 1990 with two of his best friends.
Millburn, CEO of Millburn & Company, mentions mowing lawns when he talks about lessons learned because an incident still sticks out. A customer called Millburn to complain the job wasn’t done right; his friend mowed the lawn but didn’t trim the edges or remove grass clippings. Millburn, who calls himself somewhat of a perfectionist, immediately called the friend.
“I was that guy that was like, “We need to do this right. Go trim it! Go blow the trimmings back into the grass! It needs to be perfect!”
The friend was apologetic but was unavailable. So Millburn went to the customer’s house to fix the problem. He wanted to deliver a perfect product.
“The customer called back again and said, “I’ll use you guys again but it has to be you.’”
Define your leadership style
A large reason why Millburn’s privately held real estate investment firm succeeds is because he’s always understood the need to deliver a product right the first time. “Details matter,” he says. “If I make one mistake, it reflects on my entire company. I’ve always been this way. Don’t go do something and not do it right. My business isn’t the biggest but I want it to be the best.”
Millburn founded his company six years ago, after having worked as a multi-family property broker. As a broker, Millburn was essentially a solo act. But as a CEO, he needed to learn to manage people—quickly. The company grew to more than 160 employees within a few short years.
Millburn says he was hungry for help. He read leadership books and sought out mentors like Rand Kerr, a hospital administrator and friend. “There are people out there you meet who are quietly amazing, and Rand is one of those people who has a wealth of knowledge. His wisdom is solid,” he says.
Millburn wrote down Kerr’s advice, filling pages about how to manage people effectively. “I was ready to apply it immediately. I was a sponge. He told me [good leadership] is setting up your business so it could succeed without you there.”
They discussed caring for your people. Trusting them. Helping them improve instead of simply criticizing. And then Millburn added his own success formula: Create a strong vision. Show respect to those you manage. Be honest. Be accurate. Be direct. Aim for excellence. If you ask someone to do something, you better be willing to do it yourself. Develop your people.
“The way you do that is developing deep, deep loyalty and trust and competence with your people. If you’re not there, they will step up,” says Millburn. “… I don’t want to get sappy but I love my guys, I love my team. It’s not like every day is peaches and cream but I think they know I care about them. There’s a genuine loyalty.”
Work with different personalities
“When I was a broker, I would maybe work with someone for a few months and then they were out of my life if they were difficult,” Millburn says with a laugh. But these days, he says owning a business means learning to work well with people and respect them despite personality differences.
He still catches himself thinking they all share the same vision, but managing people reminds him that some visions are different. So listening is crucial. “They have a perspective that I don’t. If I don’t use it, we go forward without the full ammunition that we could have,” he says.
Millburn says he used to hesitate to address issues because he considers himself a kind person and didn’t want to come across as a difficult manager.
“If someone didn’t do their job right, I tried to ignore it and maybe it wouldn’t come up again,” he says. “It kept festering and building inefficiencies. So after having some failures with this, I re-assessed and said I need help with managing these people better. I need to learn how to trust people and have those hard conversations.”
Learn to step back
Millburn says he missed out on business growth opportunities in the beginning because he was too focused on micromanaging. Now he explains to his employees why it’s important to do things a certain way while also giving them confidence to do it on their own. Millburn says to resist the urge to just do things yourself in order to make sure they’re done right. “You don’t get ahead that way, they don’t get ahead.”
Managing details is easy for him. But one of the hardest lessons learned after going from a broker sales position to managing more than 160 people was this: Show your people that you trust them by delegating.
For example, one early delegation was email. When Millburn was a broker, he received about 90 emails a day. “I would complain, almost as if it was a badge of honor, saying, ‘And these aren’t spam emails! They’re real!’”
Then he started his business, and his inbox quickly racked up to 300 emails a day. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “You can’t respond to all those emails.”
He quickly learned he needed to delegate and trust that his employees could help with the workload—in all areas of the business.