Lessons from Counterinsurgency #3: Petraeus on Unity

Unity of Effort
Unity of Effort

(Part 1, Part 2)

Petraeus on Unity

Another major lesson from counterinsurgency is the importance of coordination and synchronization:

It is also essential that we achieve unity of effort, that we coordinate and synchronize the actions of all ISAF and Afghan forces — and those of our Pakistani partners across the border — and that we do the same with the actions of our embassy and international partners, our Afghan counterparts, local governmental leaders, and international and non-governmental organizations. Working to a common purpose is essential in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations.

For the military, counterinsurgency brings all instruments of power to bear on the conflict, from the guns and bombers to diplomats to financial incentives, civil engineers, teachers and nonprofits, and everything else that could help the mission.

The obvious implication for real estate — and one that Big Brokerage already does very well — is to offer the full range of services either under the same roof or by strategic relationships.

For example, as a consumer, I may go see some properties with a real estate agent, then walk down the hall to a mortgage broker and apply, then have the agent find me the home inspector, the real estate attorney, title insurer, and escrow services.  Without my having to go research each of those and shop around.  So it’s convenient for the consumer.

There are, however, two further implications of the unity of effort doctrine for real estate that go beyond this easy, surface lesson of “full service”.

Unity of Effort

The first nonobvious implication of the unity of effort doctrine is: end the segregation between marketing and operations.

Currently, as real estate is practiced at most Big Brokerages, there is a wide gulf between the so-called “marketing” department and the “operations” department.

Marketing is responsible for some or all of the following:

  • Driving leads to the agents
  • Maintaining and operating a website
  • Signage
  • Advertising
  • Branding
  • PR & Communications
  • Design

Operations is responsible for some or all of the following:

  • Information Technology
  • Desktop support (including mobile, telecomm)
  • Actual transactions
  • Sales management
  • Agent training
  • Transaction management
  • Finance

But consider it from the consumer’s viewpoint.  I go to an awesome website, find the houses I want to look at, contact an agent, who shows up 30 minutes late, disheveled, is rude, pushy, and knows nothing about the neighborhood.  What is my view of the brand, my perception of the Brokerage?

Conversely, I find an agent who is superb, really professional, knowledgeable, and all that good stuff, so I refer my sister to this agent.  Sister goes to check out the company website and finds an awful mess.  Further, she says, “Eww, is that the company with the awful sleazy-looking billboard ads?  No thanks, bro.”

You can have the best marketing campaign in history, but if your agents deliver shoddy service and bad advice, all that marketing won’t mean a damn thing.  Conversely, if your agents are top-notch world-class professionals, but your marketing cannot convey that effectively to the consumers, then as far as the public is concerned, you’re just another undifferentiated McBroker offering commoditized services.

Spokesperson, Brand Evangelist
Spokesperson, Brand Evangelist

The very first thing Big Brokerages have to do then, is to look at the workforce not as independent contractors whom you rake for money, but as spokespersons for the company and executors of the Brand Promise.  (Okay, actually, this is the second thing — the first thing is to come up with a Brand Promise you all can get behind.)

This will inevitably mean training, retraining, and eliminating those that do not fit the new way of doing things.  Just like a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib ruined the reputation and image of the entire U.S. military, a few bad agents can and will ruin the reputation and image of your Brand — and every other agent associated with your Brand.  In a counterinsurgency, where perception is critical, you cannot afford the risk.

Every single person in the company, from the CEO to the receptionist to the most junior agent, has to sing from the same hymnal as it comes to the Brand Promise.  And this has to be done while you continue to push authority and decisionmaking to the lowest level possible.  And it has to be done while encouraging openness, authenticity, and communication.

No, it isn’t easy; yes, it has to be done.

Keep in mind Gen. Petraeus’ advice here: working to a common purpose.  Individual mavericks who can’t or won’t work to your common purpose have to be let go, no matter how much production they’ve got going.  And once they’re outside the brand compound, as it were, they have to be crushed as competitors.

Consumer Touchpoints

Second, every single consumer touchpoint, from the agents themselves to the forms you are asking people to fill out to how someone answers the phone, as well as the standard repertoire of print, broadcast, web, and beyond — everything has to be considered in light of the Brand Promise.  If your Brand stands for “Service with a Smile” then you’d better make sure your receptionist answers the phone with a smile on his face.  The Listing Agreement had better look friendly, as if it were smiling.

Unity of effort means just that: every effort, every consumer touchpoint, is unified.

It’s shockingly dismaying when otherwise wonderful Realtors, for example, have horrible websites that fairly scream “Hi, I’m a scam artist!”.  And they know it — but don’t know how to solve it.

A service that a Big Brokerage/Big Brand can and must provide is to help such agents be consistent with the Brand Promise across the board.  In fact, this service needs to be more of a mandatory requirement.

Extending the Brand Promise

One of those consumer touchpoints is the network of partnerships that a Big Brokerage will bring to bear to solving the consumer’s needs.  As mentioned above, becoming the point of contact for real estate services is a real benefit that full service brokerages perform.

The corollary, under a unity of effort doctrine, is that you must enforce your brand promise to your partners as well.

Again, if your Brand Promise is “Service with a Smile”, then you need to ensure that your partners — title companies, lawyers, mortgage brokers, appraisers, and so on — all get on board with your brand promise and act accordingly.  In part, this will be because you will be funneling business to them.  But in larger part, it will be because they too subscribe to your brand promise and believe the same things you do about customer service with a smile.

Business development, then, is not simply concerned with revenue generation, but also with spreading the message of your particular company and evangelizing the Brand Promise.

Distribution of Authority

Something that Gen. Petraeus did not address directly is how command authority in the U.S. military has been pushed downwards.  Part of the reason is that such distribution of authority has been an ongoing change within the military for the past decade.

Real Leadership
Real Leadership

There are fascinating lessons here for the Big Brokerage leaders to consider.  For example, here’s a great overview (PDF) of how the Marines have embraced small unit leadership, some of the challenges, and how they’re overcoming them:

To balance the requirement for integration with the need to operate small forces, the Marines have placed significant emphasis on developing and issuing mission type orders that articulate not only the parent unit’s intent, but the parent unit’s higher headquarters’ intent too. This provides the small units the information they need to exploit opportunities that arise in their small sector while generally knowing who is in the area and what they are attempting to accomplish. It provides for unity of effort and creates a synergistic effect.

The emphasis on small units and their ability to understand not only their assigned mission, but also how that mission fits into a larger context, places an enormous amount of responsibility on the small unit leader, the non-commissioned officer. This responsibility falls upon the shoulders of individuals with relatively little experience compared to that of the leaders of larger units….  To compensate for the disparate experience, small unit leaders undergo very rigorous training to develop their warfighting, leadership, and decision-making abilities. (Emphasis added)

There is a real temptation for a Big Brokerage to take the lessons of Communications, Local, and Unity of Effort to impose a top-down, heavy-handed approach.  This is a real mistake and will lead not to unity of effort, but to resistance and rebellion.

What Big Brokerages have to understand is that just as the decisions of the individual and the small unit in the military have profound strategic implications in our conflicts, each individual agent and small team have profound impact on the overall marketing and operations of the brand.

It is never the VP of Marketing who has to oversee how a listing presentation should be handled to ensure maximum effectiveness.  The CEO of the national brand hardly ever goes to recruit new agents.  And yet, in too many organizations today, the initiative and entrepreneurship at the lower tiers are stifled by well-meaning, but hamfisted attempts by Headquarters to control the message, control the brand, and control the conversation.

A true unity of effort operation (by necessity) frees up the lower tiers of leadership to make decisions and act quickly to deal with issues as they arise.  Perhaps the local office manager really does know how best to compete against local independents, and that may involve doing things that aren’t standard operating procedures.  Perhaps a particular agent really does know how best to promote a client’s property for maximum benefit.

The goal is to have the lowest tier possible make the decision: this ensures that the decision is closest to the situation on the ground (in the consumer’s mind).  The Marines call this the “strategic corporal”.  Real estate might call it the “brand agent”.

Making the Brand Agent Possible

In order to make this possible, it is imperative that every level of the organization understands “not only the parent unit’s intent, but the parent unit’s higher headquarters intent too”.

Going back to our example, if the Big Brand’s corporate Brand Promise is “Service with a Smile”, then every branch office manager must be briefed on what that means, what it doesn’t mean, and applying that Brand Promise to tactical initiatives.

By the Power of Greyskull!
By the Power of Greyskull!

The branch office manager, then, must brief team leaders on the Brand Promise, what that office will undertake to expand on and support the Brand Promise in the local marketplace with the specific knowledge of the local market.  They have the freedom and the authority to conduct business as they see fit, as long as that conduct is in-line with the strategic Brand Promise.

And the team leaders, in turn, must brief the members of their team on what they will do distinguish themselves from other people in the office, while remaining faithful to the Brand Promise, and the local brand office’s tactical plans.  Of course, the individual agent then is invested with — and educated on — all the layers of brand strategy from the corporate HQ down to that individual person’s approach.

Finally, the feedback loop must be established where information doesn’t just flow downward from Corporate, but upwards as well.  A Brand Promise that the SVP of Marketing thinks is perfect might end up not working at all on the ground — that info needs to flow back up as quickly as possible.

The level of empowerment is unprecedented.

This is, in my view, the only way to make a Unity of Effort work in real estate: freedom, control, and authority — while working towards the common purpose.

The traditional “top-down” approach to brand management will not work in a distributed, networked environment where local knowledge and speed of response are critical.  Keep in mind that the competition is not the other Big Brands, but a widely distributed and networked “agent swarm” insurgency.  Making local realtors or local office managers go “upstream” for approval on a marketing effort, or pricing, or anything makes them less responsive to local consumers and therefore less likely to succeed.


The difficulty of leading and managing an organization committed to a distributed decision-making model, with indoctrination and education up and down the brand layers is extraordinary.  Leaders will need to learn new skills, and more responsibility will need to be pushed down to the lowest level possible.  Trust is essential.

And like the U.S. Marines, I believe that Big Brands must start and end with an emphasis on character.  It is not enough in the new counterinsurgency world to be the most productive agent, or the top money-making office, if those things come at the expense of ethics, of character, of professionalism.  The ruination of the Brand is far too easy, and can come from the actions of a single agent — just like the actions of a single soldier can have disastrous consequences for our war effort.

The next generation of leaders in this industry have extraordinary challenges.  They must reform their entire organization from the top-down and bottom-up, while re-envisioning what it means to be a professional realtor affiliated with a brand.  They must have strategic vision, must articulate and enforce the Brand Promise, and do it with a light touch by educating, indoctrinating, and evangelizing the Brand Promise to every layer of the organization.  They must have courage of conviction, facility with technology, and incisive judgment as to local issues.

I believe that these leaders exist in real estate.  I believe that many of the younger generation cutting their teeth on social media, on network-empowered real estate, and coping with a rough market will emerge as these kinds of leaders for the future of the counterinsurgency.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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