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10 Questions for People I Admire

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Brian Buffini Asks Phil Soper

Phil Soper is the President and CEO of Royal LePage, Canada’s largest and oldest real estate company. Phil joined Royal LePage in 2002 and directed its restructuring into a publicly traded enterprise in 2003. Known for his approachability and being a “man of the people,” Phil has been named the most influential leader in Canadian real estate by Swanepoel Trends Report and one of the 25 most important leaders of the past 25 years by Real Estate Marketing magazine.

Royal LePage has been helping Canadians from coast to coast buy and sell homes for more than a century. With a mission that centers on its motto, “Helping you is what we do,” Royal LePage focuses on excellent service at all levels of the company, from daily interactions with clients to brokerages working with one another. The company is active in the communities it serves through its branded charity, The Shelter Foundation, which is focused on assisting women’s shelters and violence prevention and education programs in Canada.

1. What does leadership look like to you?

Running a big company requires alignment. You need to ensure your vision for the firm is clearly communicated to senior leads and to the people on the frontlines. If you have the same goals and objectives and believe in where you’re going, great things happen.

I’m a late baby boomer and my early business career with the IBM Company was in the last vestiges of command/control style. Collaboration fits my style better. I remember one of my first bosses telling me it’s important you’re not friends with employees, probably because you might have to fire them. I’ve found that friendship and respect go hand in hand. I’ve had some of the greatest friendships with people I’ve worked with.

2. What are some of your core leadership principles?

One of the most important attributes of a strong leader is the ability to move on but not forget. If you’ve made a mistake, don’t dwell on the bad – keep moving forward. There’s nothing like focusing on negativity to throw cold water on the aspirations of an organization.

Effective leaders share the glory but take responsibility when things don’t work out. One of the sure ways to have a team desert you, either emotionally or physically, is to start looking for scapegoats.

3. What excites you about the real estate business?

Our industry is incredibly dynamic. It’s filled with extremely optimistic people that run their own businesses. They get up every day knowing they’re starting with a clean slate and the possibilities are endless, but so are the risks. I’ve never worked in an industry with so much internally generated energy and positivity.

4. What are the philosophies that drive you and your business?

Management is a noble profession. Peter Drucker once said, “Management is doing things right and leadership is doing the right things.” I think you need both sides of the equation. Companies are infamous for having people do things and never looking at it. People don’t respect what you don’t inspect.

5. What are some of the keys behind Royal LePage’s growth?

The brokerage has been around a long time. It has many traditions and these traditions are important. But I find that the traditional real estate companies can get caught in the past and be afraid to break something that’s working. What we do well is shake things up in the industry and internally.

It’s so critical that, particularly when you have a century-old company like we do, you be willing to disrupt yourself. It can be frightening because it means breaking something that works, but that’s critical, because if you don’t disrupt yourself, you can be sure a competitor will show up and do it to you.

6. Why is it important to innovate and embrace change?

Personally, I think one of the reasons change comes naturally to me is because of my career progression. When I got out of university, I took a job in India. I lived and worked in the banking sector in Mumbai for a year and then I got into IT and went through one of the biggest re-engineerings in the industry with the Internet.

So coming into the real estate industry 15 years ago, I was used to changing and questioning how we do things and why we do things. I think it helps when you have confidence that if you put smart people around the table, you truly believe you can fix things. It may seem frightening, but if everyone is in and everyone believes it’ll work, it does.

7. How have you gone about building your team?

I see team building in two ways… First, acquisition. You need to go into the market and find people who bring different perspectives and worldviews. But it’s important they’re a cultural fit; that’s invaluable to the organization.

Then there’s organic growth, where you take people with potential and grow them. I’m a proponent of rotating responsibilities, of giving people exposure to different parts of the business. For example, taking someone who’s a little more sales oriented and having them work in a financial or business controls area – because management and business aren’t unidimensional. You have to really experience how a business works so you can understand that the accountants, IT people, and human resources people are as important as the salespeople and executives who are getting all the glory.

8. How do you manage Royal LePage’s huge growth while creating and maintaining its great culture?

A contemporary business needs to have acquisition as a strategy. You need to get the pieces you need to grow. One of things I like to do is to work with new people who have operated independently and show them the beauty of our culture. If we’re passionate about our business and where it’s going, that’s transferrable to new people. And if it isn’t, you need to find out before pulling the trigger.

The people in our industry and my company work so hard. One of the ways I engage with them and am able to be seen as one of them is to join them in fun. We have a President’s Cup golf tournament. We have the Royal LePage Motorcycle Club that fundraises for charities. We have a photography club and a music club. The idea being, when you build activities around shared interests, it brings people together. When you participate, they feel closer to you and you feel closer to them. I hear about things that need to be addressed in the company when things are less formal.

9. The concept of giving is at the core of Buffini & Company – and it sounds like something you’re passionate about, too. Share a little about your work with The Shelter Foundation.

The Royal LePage Shelter Foundation has become an invaluable business tool for me. It’s a way for us to give back to the communities in which we live and work and people feel wonderful about that. It also allows me to bring people together who sometimes have individualistic tendencies. This creates a sense of collaboration around a common cause and that transcends beyond the charity itself.

10. What is your vision for the future for the company and for the real estate industry?

I’m very optimistic for the future, not just of my company but us as a people. The youth are better educated than any generation previously. Some people see new technologies as disruptive, but I see them as empowering. Whether it be artificial intelligence or some manifestation of virtual reality, I see endless possibility to help us do our jobs with more excitement and less drudgery.

This is a wonderful industry and I’m so excited that we’re at the center of this quest that I believe families will continue to pursue, which is the joy of homeownership.


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