As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Jackson.
With 25 years of experience in commercial real estate, Chris Jackson serves as President of Stream Realty Partners. Chris oversees the company’s business units and is responsible for the growth and expansion of Stream’s businesses nationally.
Stream is one of the fastest-growing commercial real estate firms in the country with 13 offices nationwide and 950 employees, over 250 million square feet of commercial buildings under leasing and/or management and $3.3 billion in transaction volume annually.
Chris began his real estate career in 1997 with Trammell Crow Company and joined Stream in 2003 to start its industrial service business. Since then, he has held multiple leadership roles, most recently as regional managing partner, overseeing all functions of the firm’s Dallas, Fort Worth and Greater Los Angeles offices.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Houston, and I’m the third of six kids. Yep, you read that right… six! Our home was very busy and full of action. I put myself through college at Texas Tech, where I met my now wife, Heather. I credit her with really straightening me out.
After graduating, I’d love to tell you that I had a grand plan and was super strategic, but that wasn’t the case. Heather moved to Dallas a year before I graduated, and I was smart enough to follow her. I was fortunate to land an opportunity with the Trammell Crow Company in the late 1990s. Truly a dream job in CRE at the time. It was a really hot real estate market at the time, so I was given far greater responsibility than I was ready for. It forced me to step up, learn quickly and gave me the confidence to dream big.
Learning during a hot CRE market was best for me because while my superiors were busy with more noteworthy projects, I was able to immediately take the lead on a lot of small projects, but again, it was transaction experience and baptism by fire in a way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t really funny, but it was a mistake I’d like for other young professionals to learn about impulsivity. Early in my career, I was having great success at Trammell Crow Company. Five years into that job, I was being recruited by a couple of firms. I guess I liked the attention and convinced myself it was a good idea to leave. Well, it wasn’t. I left a great company with great people for a lateral move. It just wasn’t the right time.
Keeping that in mind, I try to be a mentor to the young professionals at Stream and across the industry. Most are ambitious and competitive, but impatient; they get into that three- to five-year range and get the itch to move. There is no shortcut to your goals. It takes time, talent, and hard work. To earn the top jobs, companies want to see loyalty and grit, which means not always getting what you want on your timetable. If you move often, you are resetting that clock and those relationships.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s my mom. No question! She’s an eternal optimist and sees the best in people and circumstances. She’s also where I get some of my candor. She is a kind, caring and compassionate person, but she can be very honest and candid.
She and my dad worked hard to raise six kids. Our running family joke is that when she receives a gift, be prepared because she immediately takes it and gives it to somebody else. Someone who needs it more than she does. Funny story — there was a homeless man that lived on the route to our local bank, and naturally being the nurturer she is, she became acquainted with the guy and would check in on him from time-to-time. She would give him food and other small necessities. A few years went by of this and when I was about 10 years old, I’m in the car with my Dad and I look over and see this homeless man wearing my Dad’s favorite Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt. I’ll never forget my Dad’s surprise, “That’s my shirt. That’s my shirt!” Needless to say, it was not my mom’s favorite shirt and who better to give it to than someone who needed it?
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I don’t think Stream would wholly qualify as a “purpose-driven business.” Entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and talent-driven, yes, that’s us. While our business’ purpose was always centered around real estate, we focused on relationships as we navigated our company’s growth. We simply found the best people and empowered them to act on opportunity and take responsibility.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There is really not one leader who can successfully lead a multi-dimensional organization through a crisis, especially one like COVID. It touched every geography, every business line and changed the way we work.
In challenging situations, you learn a lot about your culture and leadership team very quickly. Stream is a relatively flat organization — even for our size. We have no bureaucracy, no red tape. It turns out that’s a pretty big advantage when it comes to crisis management.
During COVID, we addressed the challenges it presented by establishing open lines of communication with an expanded leadership team. We went from having monthly leadership calls to two or three calls per day. Communication was the key throughout.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, giving up is never an option. Honestly, I think this crisis brought out the best in our team. It was an opportunity to show our people and our clients what we’d been telling them for all these years — that we’ll be there in the good times and bad. And that we will be honest about the situation. We did what it took, which included cutting partner salaries in order to NOT lay anyone off. That was a priority for all of us.
I absolutely love what I do. I love our people. I love what we’re building and love what Stream stands for.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To hope for the best but plan for the worst. To force honesty into the conversation. To be bold and move with a since of urgency.
You must stop and assess the situation thoroughly. It is very likely that things will get worse before they get better, and things will change in ways that you can’t anticipate. Focus on what you can control.
Expenses can be cut, but relationships are forever. That is how you earn respect.
In commercial real estate for example, this past year forced tenants to figure out and/or implement cost-cutting options. Landlords received a barrage of rent relief requests and we worked with them to carefully analyze which tenants were being opportunistic and which needed a solid plan to stay afloat.
Ultimately, as an industry, to get through any crisis, we must effectively operate and work together as one big team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Be present and available. Whether you are the leader of a team or the leader of the company, you must be visibly present and engaged during difficult times.
An example that I often reference is when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017. We have a 150-person team in Houston who lease and manage almost 50 million square feet. I knew I needed to be there.
It also helps that I have an F-250 pickup truck so I knew I could help our team get through high water and save precious items from flooded homes. I packed the bed of my truck full of water and some much-needed supplies. A few colleagues joined me, and we ended up spending the afternoon helping whoever needed it, rescuing a lot of animals (mostly cats) as well, which added some smiles to an otherwise terrible situation. What was truly inspiring to witness was that some of our employees who completely lost their homes were out there helping their colleagues and sleeping in the buildings they manage to prevent things from becoming worse than they already were. Looking back, while it was tragic in so many ways, I will always be inspired by the behavior demonstrated by so many of our employees… truly selfless!
I also love that our leadership team at Stream is united on employee engagement and giving back to the community. A few years ago, we started an internal support fund to help employees who are struggling financially due to a tragic situation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicate early and honestly. These are smart people — acknowledge there’s a problem and that you’re aware of it. If you have a plan, communicate it. If not, let them know what you are doing to make a plan.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Managing through a crisis, especially early in a crisis, is about the here and now. You focus on the next day and week versus the next quarter and year. Future plans go out the window. Be fully present.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is to put your people and clients first! They are your lifeblood, future and who will get you through any crisis. You can’t forget that.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Fear is a strong emotion. You can’t let it impair your judgement.
- Be proactive versus reactive. Be as prepared as possible for any kind of crisis scenario.
- Be transparent and relay the facts and next steps as soon as possible to your team and stakeholders.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It’s been interesting to see how things are unfolding as the economy opens back up. Some of our cities and businesses are recovering more quickly than others. Take two of our service lines, industrial and data centers, for example — they’re the best they’ve ever been. We are proactively investing in our talent and resources to grow these business lines.
That said, the office market is a little behind, but recovering. It’s important that we provide the necessary resources to equip our brokers, property managers (on-site at office buildings) and our clients (the owners of those office buildings) to meet the demands of their jobs and changing needs of the tenants. Despite the slowdown, it’s a great time to focus on growing our office business both leasing and tenant representation. Many brokers are experiencing significant cuts in resources and staffing when they need them the most. It is hard to take care of your people and shareholders in a bad market. They have very conflicting objectives. It is times like this that I’m grateful to be a private company. We can focus 100 percent on our people and clients… no shareholders, no outside investors.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be honest about the situation.
This means being candid with your people, your clients, and your leadership team about what the circumstances are, how they may impact the company and how they may impact your business.
As with any crisis, things can change very quickly and often for the worst, especially from the initial event. So, it’s imperative to make sure everyone is working toward a solution and communicating frequently with one another.
With COVID, there was no perfect rulebook on how to operate. Recommendations were changing daily, and it required us to be nimble and flexible so we could pivot as needed. In these situations, proactive and consistent communication is critical.
2. Support a strong and empowered team.
I firmly believe that not one leader can get you through a crisis. Successfully navigating a crisis takes teamwork. That is the silver lining to a crisis — you witness the emergence of true leaders. As I mentioned earlier with a crisis like COVID, which touched every geography, every family and all our various business lines, a strong and empowered team is essential to operate successfully. We have a lot of trust amongst our leadership in our various businesses and local markets.
During the pandemic, each office knew that they had the authority to make decisions on the fly, to communicate with their people and with their clients to make sure everybody was safe. For example, a client that we work with in several different markets was trying to decide what procedures to implement at their various properties. Liz Sheff, our COO, had already pulled together an intensive document with recommendations for property management clients that were trying to figure out how to operate their office buildings during an unprecedented event. Our property managers knew that they could leverage this document and use their best judgment, given the circumstances, to go ahead and proactively reach out to their clients and make the necessary decisions that were right for each unique situation in each unique market. That approach created little-to-no downtime. It wasn’t as though they were waiting for our COO or heads of property management to send them a formal and official communication, “Here’s what you’re allowed to say to your clients…” Instead, they provided a framework and allowed the local team to apply whatever aspects were applicable.
Our clients were grateful for that, and it ended up becoming an opportunity that showcased the talent of our team. People needed to know what was going on and how we were leading in response. We were also honest and authentic, letting them know we were doing our best and to expect things to change quickly. We let them know they would hear from us every day and that we’d be continuously planning as we moved forward through the crisis.
3. Be decisive.
Being decisive in a crisis means you’re moving quickly and making the best decisions that you can at that point in time with the information you have. COVID was particularly challenging because the CDC and government recommendations were constantly changing based on new research and data. In particular — and to be candid — do you expect people to be in the office when it wasn’t clearly known how the virus was spreading and at what rate?
It was time for us to be decisive, and at Stream, we always put our people first. We were early to move to a completely remote environment.
This decision brought on a whole new set of circumstances and challenges. There were a lot of unknowns with operating fully remote. We didn’t know if our infrastructure and systems could support a work from home environment. We didn’t know exactly how our accounting groups would work or how various software systems would interact. Remote working is especially difficult for a real estate company because a lot of our staff must be onsite at their properties and working in-person on building systems. Also, some tenants in the buildings we leased and managed were operating differently than what was recommended by the CDC and were not necessarily sending all their people home.
While there was a lot of unknown, a decisive leader that puts their people first will always be successful. We moved forward with who could work remotely and devised a plan for critical staff to operate safely onsite in our buildings. Being smart and decisive immediately made us a leader within our industry because we moved much faster than many of our peers.
4. Communicate candidly and efficiently with staff and clients.
This principle goes back to being honest about the situation, but it’s important as things evolve that you continue to have an open line of communication with your people and your clients. We set up a rhythm of communicating with our employees about what was going on within the company and how we were responding to information as the pandemic developed.
Within the first few days of COVID, I got on a call with our top leadership team, including Stream Co-Founders Mike McVean and Lee Belland and COO Liz Sheff. There were a lot of fears, concerns, and anxieties across the company. We were running some scary models in terms of how our business and balance sheet might be impacted.
We had no idea how our team might respond. So again, with the mindset of taking care of our people, Mike said, “Look, here’s the deal. We’ve been very fortunate over the last 10 years to build a great company and make a lot of money. And we’ve got a lot of really good people. So put out of your mind the idea that we’re going to lay anybody off or put anybody on the street right now. Our people need us now more than ever. And they also need to be focused on their families.”
It was then that we all agreed there would be no layoffs.
We communicated that message to our people to remove that fear from everything else that was going on in their world. We then took that incremental step to make sure we had cash and resources that would get us through whatever was going to happen. Every partner in the company agreed to freeze 100 percent of their salaries and compensation.
I also think transparency is the backbone of a successful company. I joined Stream almost 20 years ago as one of the first 30 employees to help launch our industrial business.
I’ve always been candid in the way I do business, especially as I moved into leadership roles throughout my career. I lead by example so that it’s a “you do as I do” mentality, which has been adopted into our culture and incorporated into how other leaders operate. Authenticity is always paramount, crisis or not. It is how we have built our unique culture.
Fear can be such a detriment — and everybody was scared during COVID. By being an honest and open leader all these years, I worked to gain the trust of employees which I think helped eliminate some of that fear, at least as it related to Stream and our future. You must embody your own values every single day so that when it comes time to make that tough leadership call, your team accepts it and moves on to be part of the solution.
5. Be opportunistic with investments in talent and resources.
During the first 60 days of COVID, we had no idea how we would be personally affected and how our business might be impacted. We were running some pretty draconian models and recognized we needed to quickly make changes to cut expenses. We were careful to cut the “fat” and not the “muscle.” We were also proactive creating liquidity. We have no company debt and great banking relationships, so we put a line of credit and other measures in place just in case we needed them. Fortunately, we did not, but we didn’t wait to find out.
When we moved past the 60-day mark, we began to better understand how the market was reacting and how it was going to impact our business. We knew that our brokerage business was going to be hit. But thankfully, we have a diverse business portfolio. We’re not just a brokerage platform. We have great property and facilities management teams as well as an investment management and development platform. After a few months went by, we recognized the capital markets were thawing out and focused on industrial and data centers. As a result, we were able to sell a couple of industrial projects we had developed, which was a huge lift to our balance sheet and put us back on the offense.
We were watching a lot of our peer firms lay people off and cut resources. This created some really incredible opportunities for Stream to invest in great talent across all business lines.
We also significantly invested in marketing, our IT platform, new markets and talent acquisition. We opened a Nashville office and are currently evaluating several other markets. As challenging as it has been, the pandemic presented one of the best opportunities for Stream to demonstrate what a privately owned company that leads with common sense and compassion can do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Leadership is influence based on trust that you have earned” — Urban Meyer, head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s one of his top 10 Leadership Principles he developed while coaching at Ohio State University and can be found in his book, “Above the Line.” Urban is one of the winningest coaches in college football and his principles also include a strong emphasis on a supportive culture. I agree wholeheartedly that if you build the right culture, results will come.
Another I like is simply, “Be Nice.”
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