Show appreciation. People don’t automatically know that they are appreciated, and they need to hear it regularly. The best workplaces make this an intentional part of their culture and build it into weekly meetings and daily life for their team. At RedKey, we have weekly meetings where we start with “Tell me something good” (an old song by Chaka Khan). This is a time we share any good news, personally or professionally. We end each meeting with “bucket filling” a time to acknowledge someone on the team for going the extra mile. Gratitude is a muscle — — it’s like doing spiritual sit-ups — — and we try to do them regularly and make it a part of our company’s DNA.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Butler.
Jill Butler is the founder of RedKey Realty Leaders St. Louis — an independent real estate agency built on a foundation of love, service, and fun. In addition to growing 300% in their first year, RedKey has consistently — and significantly — outperformed the market in both sales amounts and volume, growing into one of the largest independent real estate agencies in St. Louis. Jill was named 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year by the state of Missouri and St. Louis Chapters of the Women’s Council of Realtors. She has held an Officer position for the Women’s Council of Realtors and serves on the St. Louis Association of Realtors Board of Directors. Jill is regularly sought after for her opinions on fluctuating real estate markets and trends, as well as building and maintaining sustainable corporate cultures.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always loved business, teaching, and sharing ideas. It took me a while to find my way into a career in real estate, but each job I had previously (ESL teacher, Radio producer, events) had a common element of bringing people together and working towards a common goal. I have always loved working with people and in this business, I get to coach and develop real estate agents and create communities of agents who want to serve their clients at a high level. We help clients find their dream homes and create their own sense of community. I seriously have the best job in the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When you start something new, you don’t have to have the entire journey mapped out — — sometimes you have a vision, and just take the next right action. When we started, I knew I didn’t want to start this in my basement, and I knew the area of town I wanted to have our office, but I didn’t have the office space at that time. We ended up opening in a hotel room and I would pay the rent for a week at a time! We would meet clients in the hotel restaurant and discuss representing them in the sale of their home, never letting on that we were currently officing out of the hotel. It worked out. We later took space in the building next door and nine years and three offices later — — it is going well. From that experience, I learned that you shouldn’t be afraid if you can’t see the entire journey. If you have a strong vision and work hard to achieve it, the rest will follow.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our company, RedKey Realty Leaders, just opened a new office space, bucking the trend of so many companies that are downsizing their physical offices. It was a leap for us, but we wanted to create a place where we could all connect as a company that feels like a combination coffee house and community center. Post-Covid, I hope it feels like a “third space” (the space that is not home or work). It’s a building with lots of spaces for people to use…and we plan to use it for training, parties, meetings, collaborations, art openings, etc. It has a sense of community and a sense of place that we think is so needed at this moment in time.
Another big focus now is diversity and inclusion initiatives. I think a strong organization and a strong community is inclusive. We tend to see things from our own perspective, which is limited. When we are in a more diverse group, each person brings their own perspective and experiences, and it helps us see around corners that we couldn’t see. I believe it raises our collective intelligence and creativity — — which is a competitive advantage. I feel privileged to work in real estate which has such an impact on community and fair housing. It’s a great time to reimagine what our cities could be going forward.
Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
It’s all about people. Companies are made up of people. We often get so focused on numbers and quotas and forget to recognize and prioritize the people. I believe most people want to be great at something and if there is guidance and appreciation for their work, they want to do it well. We pay people for showing up and doing a job, but they would gladly give feedback and give of their hearts and minds, too. People want to feel connected to something greater than themselves. That can be a connection to a group, to a cause, or to a purpose. The leader’s job is to help the team recognize that their work is important and has meaning. We all aspire to do good work.
It’s up to the managers and bosses to recognize the value of “human resources” that show up each day. The more we connect with them, through official business meetings and enriching training sessions but also, and possibly more importantly, through simply having fun and creating memories together, the more we create a sense of community and belonging. Everyone wants to know that they matter. The old adage “what you appreciate, appreciates” is really true of good management.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
I am a big Shawn Achor fan and he has a great book and TED talk, The Happiness Advantage. I often share the stats with my agents — — that happy people are 31% more productive and raise their sales by 37% (vs. people whose brains are in negative or neutral states). When you are in a positive state, all the learning centers in your brain light up and you are better able to problem solve. Happiness can be a competitive advantage.
Achor says that “the single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce,” and encourages companies to pay serious attention to the role happiness plays in their corporate culture, productivity, and profitability. I think that is the key to so many aspects of running a successful business, that’s why we often say at RedKey that we are in the serious business of fun. A smile is so simple and meaningful but also often overlooked.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1. Show appreciation. People don’t automatically know that they are appreciated, and they need to hear it regularly. The best workplaces make this an intentional part of their culture and build it into weekly meetings and daily life for their team. At RedKey, we have weekly meetings where we start with “Tell me something good” (an old song by Chaka Khan). This is a time we share any good news, personally or professionally. We end each meeting with “bucket filling” a time to acknowledge someone on the team for going the extra mile. Gratitude is a muscle — — it’s like doing spiritual sit-ups — — and we try to do them regularly and make it a part of our company’s DNA.
2. Learn about your team members’ personal goals — When you recognize the whole person that shows up to work each day, it can be a powerful way to show how much your team members are valued as individuals. We work with our agents to create their annual business plans each year and we also help them with their “life list.” This is their bucket list of things they want to do or experience in their life. We have a mural in each office where agents write one of their personal goals and then we take a picture of them when they achieve it. The wall is both a visual motivator for everyone and a personal recognition of each individual…showing what we value and how much we can achieve. Another aspect of this for managers is just to LISTEN more and strive for transparency (which feels like vulnerability). The team has so many ideas and it’s important to create a place where others can be seen and can contribute from their unique perspectives.
3. Reinforce your culture and reward your values — Celebrating the people and efforts that build your company culture is one of the most fun and rewarding things we get to do as managers. In my office, each year we recognize agents for their sales production, but the most important award is the Culture Award. It is given to an agent that demonstrates our core values and is an awesome example of what makes RedKey so special. I know our agents and leadership team alike have come to appreciate this award as the highest honor, which shows the importance of our core values to everyone in the organization. We call our approach “high standards and high support.” We work to remind and reconnect the team to our purpose as a company everyday (i.e. “Why do we exist?” “Who do we serve?” “Why do we show up each day?”)
4. Create space for meaningful connections — As offices shrink following the pandemic, managers must be concerned about maintaining relationships and company culture. Our solution has been to increase our office space and create a new kind of office that is planned around making human connections in a safe way. Even now, we are able to have monthly birthday lunches where we eat together and celebrate, and we include everyone in the conversation through an intentional space and intentional format. Even if there are 10–15 people around the table, we hold only one conversation. We have cards with questions written on them, and we take turns around the table answering them. It could be, “What are you most proud of yourself for in this past year?” or “What keeps you up at night?”, etc. The goal is to listen to each other, to connect and to create and deepen our relationships. It’s not just about going out to eat, it’s about connecting.
5. Have so much fun! — We are really good at this one. I love having people in our company that can’t wait to get to work each day. One of the reasons we stay connected is because we have so much fun together. RedKey is filled with parties, community service days, and random acts of kindness as a group. We’ve had impromptu dance parties at 3 p.m., a massage day in the office, regular happy hours and my favorite, silly awards. My advice for managers is if you have a hard time with coming up with fun ideas for your office, find someone on the team who defaults to having fun and charge them with bringing it. You don’t have to come up with ideas, but you must give fun priority.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
The number one determination of a happy and fulfilled life is the quality of a person’s relationships. We spend the majority of our day at work, and it should promote connection and relationships. If COVID-19 taught anything, it was the value of our connections to others. The lines of professional and personal became blurred as we met on Zoom, walked through a global pandemic together, met each other’s pets online during meetings and juggled working from home and often with kids at home. I welcomed that personal side and vulnerability. What a great thing if we can bring that with us going forward — -the realization that we are humans doing jobs and we need to bring that humanness into the office with us. Maybe the pets too!
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
In a word, my entire management philosophy is to Inspire. I view my role as connecting people to purpose and to each other. I’m always seeking out the abilities and talents in others so that I can help them grow and develop. If you think of your favorite coach or teacher in school, it wasn’t the easy grader or the nicest one. It was the one who had high standards and believed and expected you could work hard and achieve good things. Even if they were “tougher,” you didn’t doubt their care and commitment. I hope I do that — — I hope I can help others see what they can achieve and then offer them support along the journey. We all want to grow and develop in life. And how great that I get to do this every day.
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 about that?
Dave Bueker hired me in my first sales management role for a large real estate office. I was successful and happy as an agent, and I didn’t think I would be a good “manager.” He helped me see possibilities and saw some hidden things in me and cast a vision. It turned out I absolutely loved the job. I loved working with and developing people. It was as if he saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself. He was a great boss — — had high goals for me to reach and he supported me by letting me experiment with how to get there. One day I turned the training room into a make-shift yoga studio and held a class called “Yoga for the stressed-out realtor” — — and Dave happened to walk into it — — but never said a word! He helped me set a big vision and then gave me plenty of space and support to get there.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope we are bringing “love, service and fun” to our clients, to each other and to our community. We just try to “suit up, show up, and get in the game” — — bring our best each day. We also make space in our work life to help create the world we want to live in. A great example of this is our current diversity initiative. We have a formal effort underway to identify and push forward things we can do to bring more diverse voices to the table in our office and to help create greater equity in our community, especially in regard to fair housing and development. We have a voice there and we are trying to use it for good. I am surrounded by great, caring and giving people and I am inspired by them daily.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Honey badger don’t care!” It’s probably not what was expected from a business quote, but this has become our mantra. Everything I needed to know about achieving business goals, I learned from the honey badger. The honey badger is the most fearless animal on earth. Although small in size, the honey badger will attack lions, cobras, etc. and nothing stops him. He may get stung by a bee, or poisoned by a cobra, but he keeps going. This is one of our core values: we are the honey badger — — we are relentlessly focused on solutions. Problems will inevitably arise in business and life, but we can choose to be solution oriented, or problem focused. There are always a few possible solutions. Don’t give up. Keep looking for the viable solution.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My motto is “we came here to have fun.” For me, that means joy. So, I try to think of that in the morning when I’m thinking about the upcoming day, and I also think about that in a “big-picture-life-way.” We have all incarnated in human form, at this time, for a reason — — and part of our purpose is to experience joy, and have fun. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you’ve missed the whole point. We try to truly enjoy and relish every moment we have and use our work to bring fulfillment and joy to this one life we get to live.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!
Thank you for the opportunity! It was great speaking with you!
Quotes I’m thinking about:
“We have to be practical. If there is something that we can do about a situation then we will do it. But we have to bear in mind that our mission is not to save the world. The world is big, and we are small and frail human beings.
Our mission is to discover genuine happiness and then, when we have discovered it, allow it to overflow and share itself, in an entirely natural fashion, with the rest of the world.” — Francis Lucille
“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. “ — Brenda Ueland
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!