RE/MAX’s CEO believes great leadership starts with fighting ‘a fear of the unknown’

Adam Contos has been with real estate franchisor RE/MAX for nearly two decades, and has been its CEO since early 2018. Over his time with the publicly held company, which employs over 140,000 agents across 110 countries, he’s come to realize confidence is the most important attribute a CEO can have.

Even the most thoughtful, prepared leaders don’t accomplish anything unless they convey confidence—in their plans, in their company, in themselves—to their teams and employees, he said. “The reason someone follows a leader is because they’re confident in their organization’s direction,” he told Fortune on Thursday. “Leaders who just manage aren’t leading, because leading isn’t a position; it’s an action.”

Managers say what’s going to happen, while leaders instill clarity and avail themselves to questions and feedback. “You don’t want people wondering about anything,” he said. “Leaders avoid fear of the unknown by being present, and giving people a vision for the future. I’m not as interested in people hearing me as I am in conveying that they’re being heard.”

As it pertains to leading a company, Contos is uninterested in “the grind” or “hustle culture” endemic to some organizations and leaders. “You have to be a good person first,” he said. “Work ethic comes from designing our lives around being the best we can for one another.” Done correctly, the results of grinding and hustling follow in short order.

Defining success

Over the past year-and-a-half RE/MAX, financially, lucked out with what Contos called a “high-velocity market.” 

“People wanted to find new places to live,” he said. “Millennials are the largest home-buying cohort in history, and they entered the mainstream housing market alongside people who become work-from-home employees, or homeschooling parents.” 

In its most recent earnings call, in August, RE/MAX posted a $77.2 million second-quarter revenue, an all-time quarterly high. And, in a year of extreme labor shortage, it hired over 8,000 agents. But its financial successes don’t detract from the emotional toll its employees have faced since the pandemic began, which Contos keeps top of mind. 

“It’s this unknown situation that affects both health and safety and financial wellbeing,” he said. “The largest challenge I faced was looking in the eyes of our employees and seeing fear, doubt and overwhelm.”

It’s not just the pandemic; leading with empathy is good business. EY’s 2021 Empathy in Business survey found 89% of workers say empathy is conducive to better leadership, 85% say an empathetic workplace boosts productivity, and 87% say it bolsters trust among their colleagues. This is doubly true for the younger workplace entrants; in this year’s State of Workplace Empathy survey from benefits administration firm Businessolver, 9 in 10 Gen Z respondents said they’d be more likely to stay with an empathic employer.

As with most, the pandemic upended RE/MAX’s operations, which traditionally relied on in-person tours and packed open houses. But, Contos said, it gave it the push to innovate “probably a good 10 years’ worth of change in 3 months.”

In the early weeks of the pandemic, as Contos and his team gathered on Zoom to review financials and cash flow, they decided to prioritize avoiding layoffs. Few real estate companies were able to do the same; Compass laid off 15% of its staff in March 2020, and Zillow last week laid off 25%. “Losing the ability to provide for your family is a horrible thing,” he said.

In his capacity as global CEO, Contos believes it’s incumbent upon him to be transparent, ensuring none of the company’s employees feel in the dark. “We know one thing for sure: action is the antidote to fear,” he said. “That’s where leaders either succeeded or fell this year. Were they present to create that trust and forward-looking momentum?”

Balancing employee satisfaction with profits is a false dichotomy, Contos believes. Ensuring RE/MAX employees felt supported and heard throughout the pandemic was a throughline to consistent shareholder value. “That’s where a lot of leaders struggle,” he said. “‘How do we make sales?’ they ask, instead of, ‘How do we create happy, fulfilled people to make sales?”

Research from McKinsey & Co backs this up. They found in September that, among nearly 6,000 employee respondents, the top three reasons for quitting a job were not feeling valued by their organizations (54%), not feeling valued by their managers (52%), and not feeling a sense of belonging at work (51%).

As employees, most people perform at 25% capacity, because they’re either struggling with what they’re doing, or they’re distracted, Contos believes. “Our job as leaders is, with enthusiasm, to help them find that other 75%.”

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