Join QuantumDigital’s CMO Eric Cosway as he interviews Sue Yannaccone, president and CEO of ERA Real Estate. Growing up, Sue lived in six different states before she even turned 12. This experience gave her an invaluable lesson in embracing change. Since joining ERA Real Estate, Sue has helped move the organization forward by increasing broker satisfaction with the ERA brand, fostering an internal culture of transparency, collaboration, execution and ensuring accountability. Throughout her career, Sue has developed a keen appreciation for the importance of teamwork and achieving balance, both in her professional and family life.
Eric: Sue, welcome to the podcast.
Sue: Thank you, Eric. So happy to be here with you.
Eric: You started your career in commercial real estate. What inspired you to make the shift into residential?
Sue: I did start in commercial real estate, right out of college—got my license and went to work, and I enjoyed it—but I realized I wasn’t really passionate about it. I didn’t want to just have a “job” and go to work every day. I think that you need to really have a love of what you do, especially in an industry as hard as sales and real estate sales—be it residential or brokerage—you’d better have that fire to get up every morning. I still love the industry and real estate, but I really found my passion when I switched over to the residential franchising side.
Eric: I think it’s almost been a year since you moved from being chief operating officer into the role of president/CEO. Has it been what you expected?
Sue: I’m not sure anything is ever “as you expected,” right? It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s different when you wake up in the morning and realize that every decision you need to make… you know, importantly, I don’t ever really try to make them all on my own, though. I think the big difference is, you make them with you team, but you have to know that, at the end, it resides with you. You have accountability for a lot of people, and a lot of things. I think that’s been the biggest difference—that different perspective with which you view your job, and your world, and the lens through which you’re doing things. For me, I literally had a moment driving into work one day, shortly after I took over the job and said, “You know what? Just go to work. You’ve been working every day for a really long time, and just keep doing what you’re doing, and it’ll be okay.” And that’s worked out for me so far.
Eric: I wanted to ask you about the challenges and opportunities you face as one of the few female CEOs in our industry, which is predominantly male leadership. What’s your perspective on those opportunities?
Sue: I think the opportunities are there for everyone. We are, unfortunately, an industry with very few female senior executives. And, ironically, we’re in an industry built upon the hard work of many, many women out there as sales agents. That, to me, is sort of a strange twist, if you will, in our business. I think the opportunities are there. You have to be strong enough to choose to go after them. And that’s whether you’re male or female, or whatever that may be. Women tend to face unique challenges—sometimes in perception, or willingness to speak with a strong voice, or have strong opinions, and aggressively go after what we want. Fortunately, I was raised to do just that, and not view things through limitations, but through opportunities.
Eric: As you look back at your professional career, which spans 20-plus years, what do you think best helped you prepare for this key leadership role with ERA?
Sue: The thing that most prepared me for this, and for any leadership role, is the growth that you get from working with others. And those experiences which helped me realize, and really grow through my career… realizing that you needed to leverage the people around you, to have the strength and support of a good team, and the confidence in building strong people around you and letting them do what they want to do, and what they do best, and realizing that you can’t do it all yourself. Success isn’t something you reach on your own.
Eric: You’ve mentioned a strong team a couple of times, and the importance of having that group around you. What are some of the qualities you look for when you’re putting that team together?
Sue: I look for self-starters. I look for individuals who have that passion, that internal desire to succeed. And success looks different to different people. I wouldn’t presume to define that for somebody, but I think it’s understanding that they have a desire to do a good job, to get up every day and come to work, and understand what we’re doing. People that want to get to know our customer, understand the work that they do every day. People that are honest, that are ethical, that have a strong moral compass, and are willing to take risks, willing to get up when they fall because everybody fails at some point, and how people deal with that, is a key factor for me when I look at people. How they deal with the missteps is almost as important as how they deal with their successes. Maybe moreso, actually.
Eric: As you look back at your career, and this journey you’ve been on, was there actually an “a-ha” moment when you realized that this was a level of leadership that you were inspired to go for?
Sue: I think for me it was less of an “a-ha” moment about the level or the title, if you will. It was more the moment where I—or a series maybe of little moments—where I started realizing that I really enjoy helping others, and I really enjoy building something. I’m a very competitive person, so part of it stems from that—that I really always want to do well—but, it’s more important for me to build people up, and to give people those tools, and that inspiration to do great things. We have a fun hashtag with ERA that’s #DreamBigERA, and for me it’s all about inspiring people, whether they work for me, whether it’s an agent in the company, or a broker… somebody aspiring to start their own business. I realized that I really enjoyed helping people reach for those dreams, and achieve them. So, whether it be in a leadership role with a fancy title, or any other position I’ve had, that’s the way I approach it. That for me is what I realized was going to be the key to my success, if you will.
Eric: Reading on your background, you’ve mentioned that brokers today are challenged with the really fast-moving pace of technology, and keeping their brands relevant, as well as meeting the expectation of both agents and clients. If we look at your role as CEO, what are some of the things you’ve done to help ERA find that unique space in this truly competitive market we’re in?
Sue: It is a very competitive market, and it is constantly changing and evolving. You’re exactly right, you have to remain relevant. We focus here on ensuring that we’re expanding our understanding of the consumer of today—how we can reach that consumer, how they want to do business today—and beginning to help shift the mindsets of agents and brokers to understand that different consumer today. So, we spend a lot of time looking at ways to do that, whether it be through our technology platform with Zap, whether it be through our recruiting efforts, or other things that we’re doing. So, it’s really important that we do that, that we understand not just the technology because it helps us today, but it really is that leaping-off point for where we’re going to be doing business… in 12 months from now, it will be totally different. I’m taking a look at what we’ve had before, maybe some key differentiators that the brand has, and really understanding how we hone in on those and focus on that. Like you said, those key unique aspects of our brand. We have a whole unique culture in our organization. It’s extremely collaborative, like nothing I’ve really ever seen before, so we need to be able to protect that and differentiate ourselves on that. We have products that we offer, that we’ve been offering for a really long time, that kind of is this “everything old is new again” idea. We’ve been offering something we call “Seller Security Plan” within the brand for decades, which is sort of a guaranteed buyback of your home if we’re unable to sell it for you. That seems very relevant in today’s market, yet we’ve been doing it for decades. So, how do we make sure people are aware of that? Because it’s answering a consumer need now that maybe it wasn’t a couple of years ago. So, that’s really what our focus is on.
Eric: Something caught my attention about your blackboard quotes, that you really make your brand actionable. Can you tell us more about that? That seems like a sticky way for you to communicate the brand message across your network.
Sue: It was a fun idea we had one day. I loved the look of all those chalkboard quotes that everybody uses out there. So, we were starting to do some messaging and some promotion around some of our events, sort of “who I am.” It was a way for the network to kind of get to know me a little bit, and how I interact. I like to be as approachable, open-door and transparent as I can be. So, I just started jotting down thoughts—the way I look at things—and sharing them out in little snippets under the hashtag #DreamBigERA, and #ChalkboardQuotes. We were posting them out on Instagram, and Facebook, and tweeting them out. I actually have a big one framed in my office right now that says, “Embrace the power of ‘what if?’” That’s the way I approach life, and I encourage others to do so. It’s been really fun and it’s really neat. I’ve gone into broker’s offices now, because I travel all over the place meeting with people, and they have my quotes in their office, or they have their own versions of it. It’s really neat to see an entire network come together under this thought and this concept. It’s been a really unique way for them to get insight into my personality. I can’t be in every office, every day. I try and get out there as much as possible, but this allows everybody to feel a little bit more connected.
Eric: It sounds like it’s had a great impact. People look for inspiration, and they’re looking for those connected points. One thing I understand about you is, not only are you authentic, but you’re able to connect with people very easily. And that’s probably as a result of your background, when you talk about moving a lot and being in different cities. You really talk about it with a lot of life and energy around… that made you a really good connector.
Sue: I did move around a lot. It’s probably is what originally instilled my ending up in residential real estate. If we trace it all the way back to the fact that I lived in 5 states and 11 homes, or something, by the end of 5th grade. I was always forced into new situations. I think it’s instilled in me this love of change. The fact that I truly believe you can’t be afraid of change. You have to embrace it, because great opportunities come with that. It created in me this desire to meet new people. I have a love of meeting new people, getting to know people and engaging with them, and understanding what’s made them who they are. Because we all have a story, and mine started because I moved around all over the place. I think it’s great, and I encourage others to embrace the opportunity of change. I learned that at a very young age. I know not everybody did, but I try to help the team see what can come of the opportunity that brings.
Eric: You’ve been the recipient of a number of awards recently. From your perspective, what makes someone stand out as an award winner in the real estate market?
Sue: Not to sound redundant, or overly use the word, but I think somebody who’s passionate about what they do. I don’t believe you can be truly successful if you don’t really love what you do. It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of hard work. Anybody who has won awards in their chosen field—be it our agents who reach the pinnacle of their career, myself who’s received a couple of awards, or anyone else—they have a love for what they do. They don’t look at it as a job. They look at it as something that’s part of who they are. So, it starts there. It continues through dedicated, consistent hard work. Getting up from those failures and trying again. Not letting setbacks define you. And it helps to be a little competitive. So, I think that desire to not reach the finish line, but truly run past it, is really paramount in having a successful career in whatever you’re doing.
Eric: If we drill down into dedication and those setbacks, what do you think are the two greatest lessons you’ve learned over the years that you believe contributed to your success?
Sue: I would say the biggest lessons I’ve learned from setbacks… the first is when you don’t achieve something you want, or when you’ve worked really hard for something and you don’t get it, taking that moment to be very honest with yourself as to why. It’s very easy to outwardly blame, and I think it’s really important that we look in the mirror, we understand, and we try and learn from that. There have been times in my life where I’ve wanted a job, or I wanted a different position, and I didn’t get it. If I had allowed that to derail me on this path, I would never be where I am today. I think that’s crucially important. And I think it’s equally important to understand that you can’t do everything yourself. Early on in my career, I was a very aggressively myopic individual. I had to do everything myself. I felt very much that I had to prove that I could do everything myself. And in the end, you don’t. You can’t. You just can’t execute everything effectively if you do it all yourself or try to. That’s limiting, and people also don’t really want to work with you. You become sort of this challenging person to engage with. So, being able to step away from my own drive and helping others, was a crucial turning point for me. I vividly remember conversations with people, saying “You’ve got to let other people in. You’ve got to help. You’ve got to step back. It’s not all you.” And, it’s been pivotal for me.
Eric: Given that perspective, obviously your personal life is very important to you. With work/life balance becoming increasingly challenging in our uber-connected world, what are some of the non-negotiables that help you keep that balance?
Sue: It is very challenging, and finding those non-negotiables tend to get harder ad harder to be quite honest. It’s a constant tradeoff when you have a family, or you have anything that pulls you outside of work, or another commitment, or something that is important to you outside of your job. For me, I have some non-negotiables when it comes to time with my daughter. She’s 6 and she’s just about to start first grade, and… “We’re going on a vacation tomorrow.” And I have some non-negotiables on that trip. I try and find that balance. When I’m with her, or with my husband, or whatever that is, being 100% with them. I have 2 phones, so that I can on occasion put work aside, and really just be all in on her. I have dinnertime with the family, when I’m in town. I try and have the phones… we have no phones at our dinner table. It is just family time. We talk anything but work. So, it’s really finding those moments. I think it’s about the quality of them, because sometimes the quantity isn’t what we would choose.
Eric: Coming to a conclusion here, I wanted to ask you about ERA and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. ERA has been involved with it for 35 years. How has that role at a corporate level affected you in both your personal and professional giving back?
Sue: We do have a very long-standing partnership with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. We were so proud of our organization because we ran a summer camp challenge where we challenged brokers to raise money to send a kid to camp. It was 1,000 children over 3 years, and we were so proud that we reached that goal from a commitment of pledged dollars in 2 years. I got a handwritten note the other day from one of the spokeschildren for MDA. You just have to take a moment and realize that we’re very fortunate in many ways, and giving back is core to who ERA is. Giving back in your community, giving back—whether it be through the MDA, which is again our corporate sponsorship, and very important to us to give these children the opportunities that we may take for granted. I send my kid to camp all summer long, and every child should have that opportunity. We also give an award out at ERA every year, called the “Circle of Light,” that is given to the company within our network that has committed themselves and shown a dedication to giving back to their community. That may be MDA, it oftentimes is, but it’s also so much more. We had a company win with their campaign of “365 Day of Giving.” To me, I raised my daughter that way. We adopt a family at the holidays to make sure that kids have Christmas. I think it’s so important because it keeps you grounded, and it keeps you really focused on what matters, which again isn’t the title or the job, it’s really helping others and ensuring that you appreciate what you have, and help where you can.
Eric: I think it also aligns with your DNA of a life of service. What would be one piece of advice you’d have for our listeners out there who want to continue their path to an executive leadership role?
Sue: Don’t stop! Don’t give up! It’s hard work. You have to understand the give and the take. But, it’s achievable. Anything’s achievable. Write it down. One of my quotes is “Give voice to your dreams.” Don’t be afraid of speaking what you want and putting it out there. And then just go for it. Find those hands that are going to help lift you up along the way, those individuals that are going to support you. And those that aren’t… just move on. But don’t stop.
Eric: Sue, I want to thank you for your time. I know you’re busy, and it’s been a really great pleasure speaking to you today. I’m going to wish you good luck taking ERA to the next level, and it was a real pleasure having this interview.
Sue: Thank you so much, I really enjoyed it.