Engineering Success for Your Agents

March 1, 2014

Andrea L. Dixon, PhD, Karen E. Flaherty, PhD, Son K. Lam, PhD, Nick Lee, PhD, and Jay P. Mulki, PhD

A leader is the leader because he has the title, right? Conventional research takes this top-down view of leadership where the “job title is key.” However, as people often look to more than one individual for leadership at work, the concept of distributed leadership gains momentum (Mehra, Smith, Dixon, and Robertson 2006). The purpose of this article to explain how emerging academic research about leadership applies to the real estate agency context (Flaherty, Lam, Lee, Mulki, and Dixon 2012). Distributed leadership as a concept is important for a real estate agency, because the formal leader (perhaps the “one named on the door”) may impact the organization’s agents less than he believes – unless he attends to the network of connections underlying the organization.

Organizations operate with flatter leadership structures today (i.e., there are fewer levels of formal leaders in today’s organizations). As a result, informal social networks in such organizations become more important. People occupying formal leadership roles and holding leader/manager titles are no longer guaranteed to be the key influencer of the organization’s thinking and doing. Distributive leadership is important to formal leaders of real estate operations because agent learning, motivation, and even market perspectives result from the connections occurring between people (Burt 1992).

Our research team is exploring how social networks can be orchestrated by formal leaders (see Flaherty, Lam, Lee, Mulki, and Dixon 2012). Based on our research, we propose that the real estate agency leader’s role should be viewed as that of a network engineer. What this means is the formal leader (or the one with the title) must focus more on the relationships between people and less on the people themselves. The end goal is less about shaping individual agents and more about orchestrating the desired pattern of relationships among and between the full set of agents in the agency.

Social Networks Are Naturally Occurring Relationship Patterns

Photo representation of a network of people

Relationship connections between agents may involve information sharing, mentoring, shared open houses, shared community activities, or friendships, to name a few. An analytical approach used by scholars called social network analysis considers the presence and the absence of connections between agents as relevant. What this type of analysis suggests is that the agency leader should know the existing connections that need to be supported, and where missing connections might be introduced. Building and supporting positive connections makes intuitive sense. We also believe there are situations, perhaps rare, when the agency leader needs to consider how she might disrupt a connection between two agents that promises to be unproductive or harmful to an individual agent and/or collective agency results. Before we talk about disrupting unproductive connections, let’s take a look at productive connections.

Productive Connections – Are Strong Connections Always Better?

No, social network research shows that strong and weak connections are both important and productive for different reasons. Strong network connections involve frequent interaction, substantial historical interaction, intimacy, reciprocity, and openness in exchanges. Conversely, weak connections represent distant, casual relationships that may be nonreciprocal (Granovetter 1973). To be fair, no one has enough time to maintain strong connections with every single work colleague. While strong connections enable more complex information and knowledge to be exchanged, weak connections allow for the exchange of novel information because weak connections typically include broader sets of relations (Granovetter 1973). So, strong and weak connections are both productive for the agency network.

In addition to the strong vs. weak distinction, a connection between two agents may be a one-way or a two-way connection. When there are more two-way connections in a real estate agency, the agency is more cohesive, which yields better outcomes (Mehra et al. 2006). Relationship patterns represented by more two-way connections (reciprocal and close connections) yield higher levels of cooperation (Gulati 1998) and increased resource transfer (Moran 2005), which fuels an agency culture where individual agents focus on collective (agency-level) results in addition to their own performance or results.

When You Manage Connections, You are Managing Resources

Resources flow across social network connections (Balkundi and Harrison 2006). Resources that flow through the connections can be work-related (e.g., information that helps an agent conduct his business) and/or psycho-social (expressive or emotional content that can support an agent in his role). Such resources are important to help agents decide what to do (work smart) and give agents the motivation to persist in the work (work hard).

Four types of resources are likely to pass through the connections in the social network of a real estate agency: (1) cognitive, (2) affective or emotional, (3) behavioral, and (4) other resources (e.g., shared technology or financial resources). Agents who are similar to each other (vis-a-vis others in the agency) tend to share information and resources, leaving other agents who are less similar on the outside of the sharing. Consequently, agents in the same agency, reporting to the same agency leader, can have access to very different resource networks. Agent success, or lack thereof, may simply be due to her inability to access resources through the agency’s social network.

Engineer the Networks Needed for Success

Leaders can play a critical role in their agents’ performance, and make a difference in building the right network connections. This network-building mindset is particularly important for real estate agency leaders since many agents work remotely out of their homes, personal offices, and cars. In the real estate context, the agency leader shapes the agents’ performance by controlling access to resources, information, and support. To assume the role of the network engineer, the agency leader must assess the situation, each agent’s characteristics, and the blend of connections that each agent might need. Effective agency leaders develop connections within and outside the agency, orchestrating connections to help agents meet their goals. One simple approach to understanding what connections or resources might be needed is to ask the agent.

When an agency leader constructs the right set of relationships providing the right resources for an agent, the agent’s individual goals can be accomplished in harmony with the agency’s goals. Such agents can become absorbed with their work and operate at top capacity. Research shows that creativity and effectiveness result when people are totally focused on their work – in essence, they are “in a flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). As a result, such intrinsically-motivated agents will demonstrate an inner clarity and self-confidence. If some of your agents are not operating at top capacity, you might ask yourself (or them) if their networks are engineered for success.

To develop a high-performing, creative environment, the agency leader needs to focus on developing the right relationship networks for each agent in the agency. As the agency leader develops a reputation and pattern for making productive connections between people, the leader becomes known as an idea source, which enhances his status in the agency or network. The leader’s ability to access weak connections between members of different groups, as well as strong connections within groups, makes it easier for the leader to introduce creative strategies for goal achievement (Granovetter 1973). Multi-level connections offer faster access to information, support, and resources that leaders can make available to their agents (Mehra et al. 2006).

Disconnect Unproductive Network Connections

Some agents operate as what we call flow disruptors in that they create confusion, uncertainty, or distraction within a network or agency. As a result, productivity may be negatively impacted. Leaders in an agency are well served to identify and disrupt the connections associated with such agents. The payoff can be compliance with appropriate agency/sales practices in the short run. In the long run, a leader who manages or disrupts connections that spur negative results will improve the way in which she is viewed within the organization (Kelman 2006). Being viewed positively within the organization is important, as such perceptions assist leaders in successfully selling their ideas and leveraging resources (Ashford, Rothbard, Piderit, and Durron 1998).

Disrupting connections may even be easier than it might appear. Recently, researchers discovered that a significant influence can be exerted via small behaviors. When judging negative characteristics, individuals need only five-seconds of behavior to accurately judge business partners, while positive characteristics need a slightly longer time for comparable accuracy (Carney, Colvin, and Hall 2007). This research suggests that disrupting negative connections may be easier than creating a positive connection. Perhaps making a single negative comment about an agent’s role is enough to reduce the connections that others (in hearing such a comment) might have with him.

Network Connections are a Place for Leadership

Stock graphic representation of a relational network

Leaders use social exchange to motivate agents toward better performance. Leaders develop connections with agency clients to gather fresh perspective which helps them help their agents (Sparrowe and Liden 2005). When the leader is positively recognized for her abilities to provide fresh perspective, her image and reputation is enhanced, which increases her status in the eyes of her agents (Venkataramani et al. 2010). This perceived status enables the leader to motivate others to perform well, while discouraging behaviors that counter the agency’s interests. Our work highlights how a social network approach enhances perspective for the real estate agency leader. While the traditional view of leadership was driven by a top-down, leader-centered paradigm, today’s agency leader faces a social-work context marked by rich social network connections and higher-levels of collaboration. The real estate agency leader can make a marked difference on agency outcomes by creating, enhancing, and changing connections between her agents.

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Recommended Reading

Flaherty, K., S. Lam, N. Lee, J. Mulki, and A. Dixon (2012), “Social Network Theory and the Sales Manager Role: Engineering the Right Relationship Flows,” Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, (Winter), 29-40.

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About the Authors

Andrea L. Dixon, PhD
Frank M. And Floy Smith Holloway Professorship in Marketing, Baylor University

Dr. Andrea Dixon (PhD - Indiana University) has an industrial background in research, planning, and advertising, her research interests embrace behavioral issues related to sales, service, and client satisfaction. Andrea has published in the Journal of Marketing, Harvard Business Review, Organizational Science, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Leadership Quarterly, the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, the Journal of Satisfaction, Dissatisfaction and Complaining Behavior, and several other journals. In 2002, Dixon's research published in the Journal of Marketing was selected as the award-winning research in the sales area. Prior to joining Baylor, Dixon was the Executive Director of the MS-Marketing Program and the Ronald J. Dornoff Teaching Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. She has co-authored the book, Strategic Sales Leadership: BREAKthrough Thinking for BREAKthrough Results, and multiple industry-wide research texts. Dixon serves on three editorial review boards and co-chaired the American Marketing Association's 2007 Winter Educator Conference. While serving as a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati (U.C.) and Indiana University-Bloomington (I.U.), Dr. Dixon taught an array of graduate and undergraduate courses. One of U.C.'s MBA EXCEL Teaching Award winners, Dixon was selected for a national teaching award by Irwin Publishing, as a distinguished professor by Indiana University MBA students, and for a university-wide award by her academic colleagues at I.U. In 2008, she was named the Academy of Marketing Science's Marketing Teacher Award winner. Prior to teaching at U.C., Andrea worked closely with GAMA International as the Senior Director of Product Development and Marketing.

Karen E. Flaherty, PhD
Associate Professor of Marketing, Oklahoma State University

Dr. Karen Flaherty (PhD, University of Massachusetts at Amherst) is Associate Professor of Marketing in the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University. Her research agenda focuses primarily on the management of boundary spanners. She studies two key boundary-spanning groups-frontline sales professionals and middle managers. In particular, her research focuses on topics including the motivation, leadership, and control of these boundary spanners. Her work has been published in journals such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Retailing, the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, Industrial Marketing Management, and the Journal of Business Research. She is the author of several book chapters, including a chapter on Strategic Leadership in Sales in the Oxford Handbook of Sales Management and Sales Strategy (edited by Cravens, Le Meunier-Fitzhugh, and Piercy). She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management and the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice. She received the Richard W. Poole Research Excellence Award from the Spears School of Business in 2008 and 2009. Karen is an active member of the American Marketing Association. She has served as sales and sales management track chair for the Summer Educator’s Conference, and also as Chair of the AMA Selling and Sales Management Special Interest Group. Karen has taught courses at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels at OSU. Currently, she teaches Marketing Strategy (PhD program), Principles of Marketing (undergraduate), and Sales Management (distance course). She was nominated for the Greiner Teaching Award in 2011 and 2005, and was named a faculty member of distinction by the Spears School Business Student Council in 2012.

Son K. Lam, PhD
Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Georgia

Dr. Son K. Lam (PhD, University of Houston) is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Terry College of Business, University of Georgia. Son’s current research is focused on (1) sales management and customer relationships using social network, multilevel and dyadic analyses, and (2) identity-motivated relationships in internal marketing, sales management, services marketing, and customer-brand relationships. Son’s work has appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Marketing, Strategic Management Journal, the Journal of Retailing, among others. In 2013, Son Lam was invited to attend the Marketing Science Institute Young Scholars Program, which recognizes the most productive young scholars in marketing. Son was ranked No. 8 in research productivity in premier AMA journals (the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Marketing Research) in the 2009–2013 worldwide research productivity report.

Nick Lee, PhD
Professor of Sales and Management Science
Loughborough University School of Business and Economics

Dr. Nick Lee (BCA, BCA(hons.), PhD) is the Professor of Sales and Management Science at Loughborough University School of Business and Economics, and the Honorary Chair of Marketing and Organizational Research at Aston Business School. His research interests include sales management, social psychology, research methodology, and ethics. Prof. Lee is the Editor in Chief of the European Journal of Marketing, the Section Editor for Sales Research Methods for the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, and he serves on the review panel or editorial board of several other journals. In 2009 he was featured in The Times as “one of the 15 scientists whose work will shape the future.” His research has won multiple awards, including the 2010 Joseph Lister Award for Social Science from the British Science Association, the 2005 Emerald Outstanding Special Issue Award, and the 2002 EMAC award for best doctoral work. He is a regular speaker at international conferences on sales and methodological issues. Prof. Lee’s work has appeared in journals such as Organization Science, the Journal of Management, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Business Research, the Journal of Business Ethics, the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, the Journal of Interactive Marketing, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, BMC Neurology, the American Journal of Bioethics, and the International Journal of Psychophysiology. His work has featured in popular outlets such as The Times, the Financial Times, and he has appeared on BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 5Live, and BBC Breakfast television. His first book, Doing Business Research, was published by Sage in 2008.

Jay Mulki, PhD
Associate Professor of Marketing, Northeastern University

Dr. Jay Mulki (PhD, U. of South Florida) brings academic research and business practice to his classroom teaching after holding several senior positions in Fortune 500 companies before leaving business to pursue academic interests. Professor Mulki has received awards and recognition for teaching and research. In 2008, Mulki received the Renfro Fellowship award which recognizes consistent achievement in research and teaching. He has also been recognized for his research and work in the development and implementation of service programs to increase customer satisfaction, promoting new electro technologies, and the implementation of one of the largest energy efficiency programs in the country. Professor Mulki’s primary research interests are in the areas of personal selling and sales management and services marketing. His research has been published in Journal of Business Research, MIT Sloan Management Review, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, International Journal of Service Industry Management, Journal of Marketing Theory & Practice, and Journal of Business Ethics. He was a board member of Sales and Marketing Executives (SMEI) of Tampa Bay and Honolulu. He served on the Customer Service Council of EPRI (Palo Alto, CA) and was a member of Edison Electric Institute’s (Washington DC) Residential and Light Commercial Planning Group.