Distinctive culture challenges call for specialized approaches in title agencies

By Real Estate News

Title agencies face unique challenges when it comes to developing a strong company culture. Title companies still rely heavily on their traditional need for institutional knowledge but also find themselves in an era when many more aspects of title work call for technological skills of the younger generations.

This bifurcation of skills over the past few decades has caught title managers with a foot in two different camps culturally, and struggling to correctly staff and manage the distinct aspects of their businesses with employees who have wildly different expectations.

With transaction levels at their lowest point since 2010, and staffing levels at a low ebb, it may not seem like the right time to think about company culture. However, the market will be creeping back over the next year as interest rates come down, and pent-up demand will once again send managers into the streets looking for qualified candidates to fill empty positions.

And let’s identify the elephant in the room: experienced title professionals are difficult to find. Additionally, the most knowledgeable among them are nearing retirement age. The American Land Title Association has predicted that 20% of title employees will retire in the next decade, potentially creating an institutional knowledge gap in the industry.

Recruiting, educating and retaining a strong and cohesive staff is going to be critical as we move into the next real estate market surge. Now is the time to think about what kind of culture you want to establish to attract the kind of talent you will need to grow your agency back to full strength.

Culture as a unifying truth

Creating a culture that unifies the disparate approaches of multiple generations begins with strong inter-company and inter-departmental communication.

Companies create culture out of the core values of the company as well as its vision and mission. The best way to do that is to get to the truth of why you are in business in the first place by mining the wisdom and insight of your entire staff.

The first step in creating a strong culture is to create buy-in, which can only happen when employees have input into the process. Handing down directives about what the culture is going to be is useless if employees are not invested in how a particular culture is going to help fulfill the mission and vision of the company.

In establishing a particular culture, the communication process is even more imperative in a company that relies heavily on multiple generations to manage very distinctive parts of the process.

At the end of the day, you want your culture to be the unifying truth that inspires employees of every age and skill level to want to come to work every day and to do their best and most creative work for a shared goal.

How culture intersects with hiring, retention and management

Sometimes when talking about company culture managers roll their eyes and may think — or say — “Blah, blah, blah!” But educating your managers on how company culture can increase your success with recruiting, retention and management may make them sit up and take notice.

Let’s look at how integrating your culture into these three fundamental aspects of your business can help you sustain your current book of business and grow your business into the future.

Recruiting: Telling a great story

Every title agency is in the business of providing title, escrow and closing services. If that is all you have to tell a potential recruit — in addition to showing them a spreadsheet of how you want to grow the company as their eyes glaze over — you may lose their interest right out of the gate.

Having an established and strong culture in place gives you an opportunity to inspire a recruit with all of the underlying reasons for your existence and the core values that drive your success.

In addition, as an owner or a manager of a title company, having an established culture helps you evaluate a candidate based on who is going to be the best fit within your culture.

For instance, if you are a title agency that values innovation and the person you interview keeps telling you how they did it such and such a way at their former agency, show them the door; that is not going to fit in with your innovative culture.

If on the other hand, the candidate rises to the challenge and starts sharing innovations in the field they find inspiring or changes they have made in previous jobs that improved processes, that may be just the candidate you are looking for.

Retention: Taking a holistic approach

Losing an employee is a costly business. There are the direct costs of recruiting and onboarding a new employee, with all that entails for your HR department, IT department and managers who must spend time training their replacement.

There are the indirect costs related to loss of productivity. Depending on the type of position you are trying to fill, it could take 2-4 months to hire a replacement and bring them up to speed.

You can plug a machine in and expect it to do exactly what the manufacturer intended, but you cannot plug in a human being and expect them to spit out a certain amount of work each day without creating the kind of supportive and holistic environment that provides the impetus for that employee’s success.

For retention purposes, corporate culture could not be more important, as an intentional culture seeks to address the employee’s experience in a multitude of ways.

A robust retention program should be taken into consideration when developing a corporate culture and should be infused with the following considerations:

Compensation and benefits

Compensation is not just about what you offer a person coming in the door, but what opportunities they are given to earn bonuses for exemplary service or adjustments for improving their skill level through continuing education, and of course the absolutely necessary annual review with appropriate raises. If your corporate culture seeks to honor the effort of your employees, this is where the rubber meets the road.

Benefits are where you often have the opportunity to address the employee from a holistic standpoint. Benefits that include healthcare, mental health resources, paid time off, 401K programs, family leave and disability benefits are primary and send the message that you care about the health of the employee as well as their families.

In terms of benefits, how and where we work has become a subject of huge relevance in the post-Covid era. Here is where — as a company owner — you may encounter the biggest generational challenge, with older workers accustomed to working 9-5 in an office finding themselves in conflict with a younger generation that insists they can do the work at home.

This is a reality that must be negotiated in a way that honors work-life balance and family obligations, while being realistic about the demands of the work itself. Some work can be readily completed at home while other positions may be managed through a hybrid approach between work and office. And clearly, some work requires staff to be onsite full-time. The objective in addressing this aspect of your company culture is to collaborate with your staff to come to an agreement on an optimum approach for your company.

Professional growth

Additional benefits such as assistance with college loans, college scholarships, paid professional training and continuing education allowances signal the importance of education to the company as a whole and your commitment to investing in their future.

Flex time and work-from-home options also emphasize your commitment to work life balance and the value and respect you have for your employees as adults who need to have the autonomy to make decisions based on their family situations.

Training and ongoing review

Even the most competent of employees may struggle in a new position. Having in-depth training programs and mentors can ensure a successful launch for a new hire.

This is not a one-and-done effort, however.

An effective training and mentoring program should have legs, meaning it should be an ongoing effort throughout the employee’s tenure with the company. The American Land Title Association’s Best Practices requires annual training for certain aspects of the business, so coupling the required training with specialized training department by department and employee by employee is an effective way to ensure this important aspect of retention is not neglected.

Management style

There is no aspect of business that is more tenuous when it comes to culture than management style. While one manager’s style may be perfectly in tune with the company culture, i.e., a laissez-faire manager in a company that values creativity and innovation, another manager may be autocratic, a style which tends to squelch creative ideas.

The old adage is that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. In one Gallup Poll, 50% of those interviewed said they had left a job to get away from a bad manager at some point in their career.

As you are developing a company culture, thinking about management style is critical to who you hire to manage departments and what that department most needs to succeed.

For instance, both the democratic and participative leadership styles seek input from employees, but whereas the first leaves the decision-making up to the employees, the latter wants to make the final decision. The work of a title agency is fast-moving and complex and there may be a need for both styles, depending on the nature of the work of each department.

If you have a younger staff that is undergoing training in the title insurance business, you may favor a coach leader who will mentor and inspire the newbies. A pacesetter manager may be perfect for getting the team organized to get a lot of work accomplished in busy times. For your sales team, a transactional leadership style may get the job done.

Empowerment is also critical. Employees who feel they are trusted and given both the authority and the tools necessary to solve problems are more likely to feel challenged…and satisfied. Everyone needs to feel they play a role. The best cultures ensure that.

In addition to management style, it’s vital that managers are invested in the company culture and champion the tenets of that culture among their staff.

Final note

Employees want to feel safe, respected and trusted in their jobs. Creating and nurturing a corporate culture that meets those expectations will go a long way towards recruiting and retaining good employees as you prepare your agency for the next surge in the real estate market.

Scott Kriss, Esq. is president/CEO of Kriss Law/Atlantic Closing & Escrow.