Take the leap, even if I don’t feel qualified. Some people are more likely to apply for a position or a promotion that they may not feel quite qualified for and, as a result, more often reap the rewards. I’ve learned along the way the benefits of putting your name in the hat for new opportunities and having the confidence to take the risk. Even if you don’t end up being selected, there is a benefit to going through the process.
As a part of our series about cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally French Tyler.
Sally French Tyler is a seasoned veteran of the real estate and title insurance industry. She currently serves as executive vice president of First American Title Insurance Company and as president of the company’s National Commercial Services Division. In her role, Tyler is responsible for planning, strategy and innovation, and in recent years has focused her efforts on revolutionizing commercial real estate transactions by driving digital transformation of the commercial title business. She also oversees recruitment and development, and her people-first approach has been instrumental in inspiring and developing emerging leaders from around the organization.
Tyler has served on the boards of many commercial real estate industry organizations and has been frequently recognized by trade publications as one of the top female leaders in the industry.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Right out of college, I started working in commercial real estate for a developer. Soon after, we hit a downturn — common in a cyclical industry like real estate — and I was approached by someone in the industry about a sales position for a national title insurer, a company that helps facilitate real estate transactions. I was a little less familiar with the space but saw it as an opportunity to challenge myself and take on a new role. The role turned out to be a perfect fit for my skill set and professional goals, and I never looked back. I particularly liked that in commercial title insurance, I had access to all facets of commercial real estate rather than a single aspect, like development or leasing. Commercial title insurance is the glue of every real estate transaction, and in this business, we have exposure to the beginning, middle and end of every deal. Because these deals are often very complicated, there are immense opportunities to gain significant knowledge about how these deals work.
I’m still learning something new about our business every day, and that intellectual stimulation has kept me in the industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
At the start of my career at First American, I was a brash young salesperson and very client focused — almost to a fault. One of my clients complained to me that something had gone wrong operationally and without asking follow-up questions, I criticized a colleague for the mistake. When I learned all the facts, I came to realize that the client had been mistaken and I had missed an opportunity with an internal co-worker to back them up and to give them the support they deserved when they most needed it.
This experience taught me that in business there are always two sides to every story and navigating and protecting both internal and external relationships is equally important.
Can you tell us about the cutting-edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
The commercial real estate industry has been slow to embrace digital transformation. Property transactions are often time-consuming and complicated, with much communication still done over email or on paper.
A number of years ago, my team and I set out to find a way to modernize the customer experience and bring it to the 21st century. We realized that, if we were spending hours digging through emails, our clients are likely doing the same thing. We were losing both time and money.
Built on both employee and customer feedback, we developed ClarityFirst™, a first-of-its-kind digital platform that connects all participants in real time and streamlines the commercial real estate transaction process, making it more transparent, efficient and secure. With the help of innovative technology, our customers know exactly where they are in the process at any given point in the deal and are able to complete transactions faster and more accurately.
How do you think this might change the world?
We are helping to change our slice of the world. Commercial real estate is a large contributor to the economy, and we feel excited about advancing technological innovation that helps make people’s lives easier. Real estate buyers, sellers, lawyers, lenders, and all stakeholders can certainly appreciate the time and money we help them save. It’s crucial to staying competitive in the commercial real estate market.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There is always hesitation around adopting innovations, even those that are destined to become fixtures in everyday life. It’s human nature.
Technology should be built to be intuitive, user friendly, and of course, secure. Our team has been laser focused on protection of user information through multi-factor authentication, encryption technologies, and state-of-the-art wire verifications, among other things.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
There wasn’t one moment that led to the creation of ClarityFirst, but rather, a domino effect. It was a combination of listening to both our employees’ and customers’ frustrations and observing the inefficiencies in the commercial title closing process.
Our approach to development was unique in a way that we involved our top customers in the process, which gave us an understanding of the critical need for this technology and their pain points. It allowed us to recognize the value proposition we wanted to bring to our customer experience, and ClarityFirst was built by and with clients in a joint effort with First American employees.
As we continue to enhance the platform, we are regularly sourcing feedback from our customers and employees to make enhancements and bring new features to the market.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Many seasoned commercial title professionals have customized their approach to business and much of the process has been manual for decades. Convincing them to step outside their comfort and familiarity with the traditional process in order to try new technology is our greatest challenge to adoption.
However, our customers that have jumped aboard are excited by the platform and by the positive implications it has had on their business. We believe that once people adopt the technology and engage with it frequently, they’ll quickly come to appreciate its benefits. The platform also becomes increasingly helpful as our customers embed themselves in each feature of the platform, be it the document sharing, wire transfers, or exchange of information between participants.
It boils down to the fact that email communication is a way of the past — the ClarityFirst platform allows customers to track each document at each moment over the life of a transaction, allowing them to close more deals in less time.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We believe that ClarityFirst has the power to revolutionize the commercial title insurance industry, but we didn’t want to rush to market. Instead, we started the roll out in a very intentional, regional way, allowing our own employees became comfortable with its capabilities.
When we reached a critical mass of users, we began to implement our larger go-to-market strategy. Our latest announcement of the multisite portfolio element — a feature that allows users to manage multiple properties across different regions — is a major breakthrough and was the impetus for a robust communications and marketing campaign.
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?
I think most people have someone in their career path that believed in their abilities before they did themselves. When I was hired in a national sales role, I was asked by a colleague and mentor to take on a leadership position — the role that I still hold today — that I felt I was not yet prepared for. I’m not unique in taking a leap before I felt I was ready, but his faith in my abilities has contributed to my own professional competence and success.
I also feel incredibly lucky to be married to a partner who has a great belief in me. It’s very important to have a support system and have people around you who see your abilities, so you can see them in yourself, too.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
About 10 years ago, in partnership with our human resources department and the full support of our CEO, I started a program at First American called Women in Leadership. I was the first female executive vice president in the company at the time, and from the overwhelmingly positive response to that, it became abundantly clear to me that we needed to become more purposeful in creating a path for others to follow.
From senior executives to mid-level employees, our Women in Leadership program provides leadership development and a network of mentors. Since its inception, nearly 100 women have graduated the program, and more than 40 percent of its alumnae have received promotions.
I’m especially proud to help inspire other women in the company. Our work through the program to date has helped First American earn recognition as a top place to work, and I believe a lot of that is due to the equity we are building in our workplace. My hope is that one day, we as a society won’t need these programs.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Trust my gut instinct more. I didn’t always trust myself in the beginning of my career. I soon realized that it isn’t always easy to be out in front and leadership can be daunting. When introducing new strategies or new innovative technologies, like our ClarityFirst platform, which is unique to the industry, you have to take the time to build a coalition around the idea; create a strong foundation; sell the vision with a focus on communicating the “why” around the concept. Once you have that support, the team will help you carry the ball and celebrate with you as you cross the finish line because it’s their victory, too.
- Take the leap, even if I don’t feel qualified. Some people are more likely to apply for a position or a promotion that they may not feel quite qualified for and, as a result, more often reap the rewards. I’ve learned along the way the benefits of putting your name in the hat for new opportunities and having the confidence to take the risk. Even if you don’t end up being selected, there is a benefit to going through the process.
- Formal education vs. life education. I had the incredible fortune to go to college and probably have a better understanding now of what a gift it was. Obviously, so many others are not afforded that same opportunity. But I can say that I have worked alongside many talented and skilled individuals throughout my career who don’t happen to possess that “piece of paper” indicating a formal degree, but for whom I have deep respect and admiration. At my first job out of college, I worked for a real estate developer and was often surrounded by people with undergrad and graduate degrees, but I found our secretary, who had a high school education, to be the smartest person there. Life degrees are important and of equal value. Promote people based on contribution, not on resumes.
- Your brand is your equity. You build your personal and professional brand over the length of your career. Your brand is what people say about you when you aren’t in the room, and it can build equity over time if it is a positive one. Protect it like your own personal credit. I’ve learned the value of understanding why brand matters, both in my own career and in watching others.
- You don’t have to know everything. I often tell young leaders that they have to let go to grow when I see them making mistakes similar to the ones that I made earlier in my career. Part of the reason I couldn’t let go was because I thought I had to know everything about every aspect of our business in order to be responsible for it. It’s not possible. The reality is that you have to surround yourself with great people and trust your team and their respective areas of expertise to make good decisions.
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.
What we have done at First American with the Women in Leadership program is being replicated for broader diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. We’re at another inflection point for diversity at all levels and based on our success of elevating women in the workplace, we are going to emulate that same type of programming for more diversity initiatives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The shortest distance between two people is a smile.”
Both personally and professionally, success is intrinsically tied to connectivity and approachability. If you can succeed in those ways, you can overcome many challenges: you can solve problems, have difficult conversations and connect with people.
I have found that if people find you to be approachable and genuine, they feel your warmth. It doesn’t take much to smile and be genuine — and for me, that’s the easy part.
If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch of your solution/technology to a VC, what would you say?
We are transitioning commercial real estate transactions from the paper world to the digital world. We’re looking to make email a thing of the past by creating a streamlined closing process with greater efficiency, transparency and security for our employees and customers. If we can ensure they are happy and successful, we can create greater returns for both.