Strong culture drives Howard Hanna Real Estate Services Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

When Howard “Hoddy” Hanna III and his team decided to set a new vision for the $250 million real estate firm in 2005, they didn’t sequester themselves in a conference room to create it.

Instead, Hanna, chairman and CEO, was completely hands-off in the process. Two committees composed of a 120-person sampling of the company’s 4,900 employees were charged with forming a new vision and mission statement to reflect the firm’s new outlook following the acquisition of Smythe Cramer Co. the year before.

The committees successfully navigated the vision-setting process, and as a result, the company ended up with an employee-driven set of goals that everyone could immediately buy in to.

For Hanna, it was just another example of the benefits of having a collaborative culture.

“You have to have a sense of people believing that they are part of something and that your input is worthwhile as well as your productivity is worthwhile,” he says.

When you do that, you create a driver for success in your business.

“It’s a direct link,” Hanna says. “Nothing beats hard work, nothing beats knowledge, but you have to have a culture you are working from. If you’re not part of that culture, it comes across in any organization you are with. You’re not going to get 5,000 people all with the same culture and philosophy, but if you get the great majority that are following that culture and that philosophy, you make yourself a lot stronger, (with) a lot better people and a lot better organization overall.”

Here’s how Hanna connects with employees to keep his company growing.

Communicate with employees

It might be a simple gesture, but Hanna sends birthday cards to each employee on his or her birthday, not just with a signature but also with an individual note. If he remembers something he and the employee talked about, he will reference that in the card.

While he isn’t mentioning anything about the company’s vision or using the card to write something about the culture, the action itself speaks louder than words.

“We do build the belief that we are a family business,” he says. “It differentiates our style of management, our style of ownership, our style of leadership from others in the industry.

“It’s a niche that we pride ourselves in. You can say you are a family business, but I think you have to walk the talk a little bit and do some things that take more time and more energy to show that you are concerned about (the employees), [that] they are very important and they are part of the family.”

While birthday cards are effective in communicating a message, nothing beats one-on-one face time. That means you have to get out of your office and meet directly with employees.

With almost 5,000 employees, that is virtually impossible for Hanna to do, so you have to take advantage of every opportunity.

Every Monday, he travels to one of the Pennsylvania offices for a sales meeting, and every Tuesday he travels to Ohio for a sales meeting.

“You have to come up with ways that you communicate your message, communicate your goals, communicate your business philosophy, your business plan, and clearly you can do that by being very, very visible throughout your organization,” he says.

“I know different business leaders that have multiple locations around the country and around the world. One of the things they do is every time they go to a business operation, whether it’s 100 miles away or 1,000 miles away, they spend time either at a lunch or at a dinner with a different handpicked, cross section of their employees. They may not be people they work with every day or even work with once a year, but they try to spread that knowledge (on) a one-on-one basis.”

Getting out of the office and visiting employees can go a long way, especially when it comes to them being open with you.

“There are some people who run businesses and they never go on the shop floor,” he says “They never go to where the product is being made or where the sale’s happening. They sit in an ivory tower. They’re great at reading statements and great at organization structure and governance, and that doesn’t mean that they are bad, but I think those leaders that are very visible and open, people are more inclined to send an e-mail to or call on the phone.”

When Hanna is walking around, he keeps conversations on a business level, unless he knows someone personally.

“I’m not sure there is an icebreaker,” he says. “I like to talk about what they are working on, what they are doing and trying to get a little conversation in a business manner.

“I don’t come in and talk about, unless I know the person really well, I’m not going to talk about their kids or something.”

Hanna also treats employees with the same respect, no matter their position.

“You have to believe in your people,” he says. “Whether the person is the newest receptionist or the star salesperson, you’ve got to believe that they do matter to the success of your company.”

You also have to take that approach to your position. While you may be at the top of the company, you still need to stay grounded. You will get better ideas from employees and get more feedback that is honest if you stay humble.

“There are some people that have a better way of embracing people to open up and to have conversations, and the people feel that they can say something without retribution,” he says. “If the person is the leader and the perception of the people who work there is that, ‘He’s the boss or she’s the boss,’ I don’t think they are a leader.”

Taking the time to interact with employees can go a long way in helping your company succeed.

“Never forget the people that make your operation work and make the success of your business are the people that are there, whether it’s two people or 1,000,” he says. “So, find as many ways to keep communications with them on a regular basis.”

Be consistent

When Hanna’s firm was small, it was a lot easier to communicate and monitor if managers and employees understood messages. But as your organization gets bigger, you have to craft a consistent message so the meaning isn’t lost.

“There was a time I knew about every transaction that was going on here,” he says. “You do give up certain things along the way. You have to keep preaching the culture.”

As you grow, you have to build an organization that has a message and culture you believe in, and then communicate that down the line.

“You have to, No. 1, believe your management team has the total same philosophy and sense that you have to carry that message on and to relay that message and get that into everybody within the organization,” he says. “There was a time that I knew that it worked everywhere and everybody was rowing the same direction. That gets tougher to do — to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction and has the same exact philosophy.”

You have to keep preaching the message and be consistent with your messages on how you do business.

“If you change the message too often, then I think people lose confidence in leadership and they lose confidence in the direction y

ou are going,” he says.

To stay on track with your message, find someone to monitor you. In Hanna’s case, his father and founder, Howard W. Hanna Jr. serves in that role. He will send Hanna or his sisters — Helen Hanna Casey, president, and Annie Hanna Cestra, executive vice president and chief operating officer — an e-mail every day, usually reminding them of something they are doing incorrectly.

“He gives critical information to us that is important,” he says. “It’s not negative because it’s usually right.”

You should look for someone with a stake in the success of your company and someone who can give you advice without getting their head chopped off. Also look for someone in a different age range and that is a different style of person than you.

“It would be almost impossible to have a peer friend, just to say, my attorney, who I pay a lot of my legal fees to — I’m going to tell him to keep me in check. That can be hard because they have a different type of relationship all of a sudden,” he says.

You can use your board of directors to serve in this role or use an outside consultant to help keep you in check.

“Consulting firms tend to be very good because they sort of come from a background of saying, ‘We’re going to tell you exactly what we think because that is what you hired us to do,’” he says. “Now, if the first time they tell you something and you take offense to it, well, they’re not going to last, and you’re not going to last.”

Having someone keep an eye on your leadership style and methods can also keep you from becoming ego-driven.

“People at the top of any organization can get very self-centered on their decision-making and then, when the decision isn’t working, be afraid to change that decision because they’d admit they made a mistake,” he says. “Then, they try to fix that mistake, which can’t be fixed, instead of turning back. If you don’t have anybody else to force you to change, you can get into a bad habit of letting your ego get involved in your decisions. Of course, usually when that happens, ultimately, if you do enough of that, you lose your leadership ability over those people who are supposed to be following you and listening to you because they have lost confidence.”

How to reach: Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, (800) 656-7356 or