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A word with Natalie Lemas Hernandez, CEO of Commercial Northwest Property Management

Natalie Lemas Hernandez in her office at Commercial Northwest Property Management. Photo courtesy of Commercial Northwest Property Management.

For Natalie Lemas Hernandez, success has been all about mindset — fostering an attitude focused on collaboration, openness and individual strengths.

The 31-year-old CEO of Commercial Northwest Property Management said she saw the value of her business double in less than 24 months thanks to this approach, and she is on a mission to spread the word.

Besides leading the team at Commercial Northwest — which manages over 1,300 units at 98% occupancy— Lemas Hernandez is also founder and CEO of the TIPPS Leadership Program. TIPPS, a 501c3 organization, offers a four-day “fully immersive self-empowerment and transformation retreat.”

Lemas Hernandez recently sat down with the IBR to discuss leadership skills, multi-generational office culture and strategies for women in business.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

There is a stereotype of the Baby Boomer generation that they are more top-down leaders compared to millennials. And then there is the generation after millennials, Gen Z, who are also entering the workforce. What are your feelings about those characterizations? 

Yes, my niece is 19 and she works for us part-time as our nanny, and she is way different than even me — so low key and casual. But I think the whole world is getting more casual. Even Goldman Sachs, I just read an article that they are relaxing their dress code for investment bankers because people did not want to work for them because of their dress code. I think the companies that are going to succeed in the next 10, 15, 20 years are culture driven and mission driven because millennials want to be part of something bigger than themselves. When you say that to a business owner who is 40 or 50, they can say, ‘What are you talking about? You come here to get a paycheck. That passion is for your hobbies.’ It’s a challenge for business owners to be mission driven.

There is also a stereotype that younger workers place more value on being heard and giving their input.

I think everyone wants that, but older people just haven’t had it. When they do have that, people say, ‘Wow, I would never leave working here.’ That is not a generational thing. I think maybe millennials demand it more.

I had a conversation with my older sister on this topic recently. She is in Generation X, and she is a clinical psychologist at a VA hospital. She manages an internship program, and she said she has noticed the more recent groups of interns talk back more — that’s how she puts it. She said there can be a feeling like, ‘Wait, you are an intern and you are telling us how to run the department?’ There can be that tension. Have you seen that?

I think I was that intern. This is our family’s company, my mother founded it in 1998. My dad joined the company a few years later. We started out as a real estate brokerage only. Then my mom went around and interviewed a bunch of management companies for her clients and said, ‘Now that I’ve sold you this building, let me go and find people to manage it for you.’ She interviewed people and didn’t feel right about sending her clients to those people because they weren’t investor focused. They wanted to do the least amount of work. My mom told my dad he needed to come on and spearhead this department. They were totally different departments. My mom ran the brokerage and real estate side and my dad was in property management. He retired in 2008 and then I joined the company in 2012. When I came in, we were managing a bunch of houses — also apartment buildings but a lot of single-family homes.

I came in and my mom and I had that open communication. I didn’t do it in front of people because I didn’t want to be offensive, but behind closed doors, I would be that intern. I would say, ‘Why are we doing it this way? Why are we doing so many single-family homes when they take up the bulk of our time and effort and don’t pay much.’ I told her, ‘No one likes working here.’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s a job.’ I was like, ‘No, people want to feel a part of something.’ Thank god my mom was open, but there was a lot of tension. We actually hired a business coach to help facilitate this conversation. The coach really facilitated the next generation of our company.

What happened from those meetings and my feedback and questioning, we realized that 80% of our revenue was coming from 20% of our clients. So we packaged up 80% of our clients and sold that portion of our company off to another company. Then we doubled down at what we best at. We changed the entire structure of our company and made it more collaborative and departmental based. We had to sell that to our clients — the whole shift in culture. Some of them were hesitant. They are Baby Boomers or older. It was challenging to negotiate that, but we doubled the value of our business in 24 months. We had to explain the vision and direction we are going. We are able to attract better people and we have better retention. The properties are performing better.

In February, we absorbed around 444 units, which was the biggest increase in our business ever. In one month, to absorb that much without complete chaos, it was a huge win and it was because of that collaborative structure we have.

It was lucky your mom was receptive to your ideas rather than just saying you are young and what do you know.

Even now, people come into our organization and say, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ I always say, ‘Tell me more.’ You get in the weeds of our own life and business. You shouldn’t have a scarcity mindset and say, ‘I have to have all of the answers.’ I want people who are smarter than me and question and are curious and want to make things better.

Every single person in our company in a leadership position has ownership over their area. I let them lead it. If mistakes happen, I coach them through it. It is more of a coaching environment than top-down. I don’t want to make people dependent on me because then I can’t take vacations. And I think that is fear based. Millennials, I know it sounds cliche, but they want to lead with love. They want to be included and involved. That can be a major asset if it is not a fear-based culture. You do have to coach on the right timing. Sometimes it’s not the right timing.

Yes, there is also an art to offering your opinion. You want to be skillful and not come off like you are criticizing or telling people what to do. There has to be skill on the part of the older person hearing the opinion and the younger person giving the opinion.

Bring something of value. I waited a long time and studied and was like a coach watching game film. I was watching what was happening. Then I finally said, ‘This is what I’ve seen. What about this?’ I think sometimes people are so eager and want to come in guns blazing without being a student of the business. So yes, 100%. It takes two to tango.

What tips do you have to managers for managing people older than yourself and younger than yourself?

My first job out of college, I was a manager at Macys in an executive development program. I was 22 years old. I remember I was going to manage housewares and men’s shoes and men’s clothing. I knew nothing about these things. What I did know was leadership and how to get people on board for a common mission. That has been my skill since I was a kid. If I went in fear-based and said, ‘Oh gosh, they are not going to follow my lead’ or ‘I need to prove myself or see how wonderful I am’ then that’s not going to work.

Most of the people in my departments were in their 60s. I will never forget this, I walk into housewares on my first day and I am 5 foot 1 and this lady who is about 60 pats my face and said, ‘You’re so sweet. I’m so happy you’re going to be our boss.’ It was so condescending. I literally took a step back and took a deep breath. I chose not to be offended. She was coming from a place of fear and didn’t want me to step on her toes. She does know way more than me about blenders, but I know more about leadership. I started to get to know her and told her right off the bat that she knows way more than me about housewares. But I said, ‘You are going to see that I know a lot about building a team. I know you have been in last place in the district of 12 stores and my mission is to make us first place. Do you want to be on a winning team?’ She said yes. Everyone wants to be on a winning team. I said we are going to partner together and you are going to teach me about housewares and I am going to teach you how to lead people. Within four months, we were no. 1. That to me was a test of leading across generations. It starts with admitting what you don’t know. People are so afraid of admitting what they don’t know. To me, the greatest thing you can do is tell people what you don’t know.

It also has to do with the culture you create. In some cultures, telling people what you suck at — you might lose your job for that in some cultures. But those cultures aren’t going to survive. They are going to have retention problems. Millennials are so mobile. They are not going to stay. Ultimately, retention issues cause a big decrease in productivity.

You have been a woman in leadership for years now. Talk about your experience.

In commercial real estate, there are very few women. I was the youngest in this community when I started. I would go into appointments with men who were 70 years old with white hair and they would see me and be like, ‘Are you the assistant? Is the real lady going to show up?’ It goes back to the same thing — knowing your strengths and weaknesses and practicing. Role play — before every appointment or phone call, I would go in my head and think what are they going to ask me, what are they not going to ask me that I should bring up and what would I like the conclusion of the meeting to be. I would practice it out loud. Whether you are a woman or a man, that is a huge benefit.

My mom started selling commercial real estate in San Francisco at age 26, and she was one of two women in an office of 500 men. As long as you can help multiply people’s money, that’s what matters. But studies do show that women get less feedback. Men naturally mentor each other. Women, I think that is something we have started to do as of late, but that wasn’t something in the past. It had been there was only one token woman succeeding in every category. Women would pit women against each other. Men, it was a natural collaboration. Men are used to that coaching and feedback. It doesn’t send them into a spin or crying in the bathroom. They are like, ‘Ok, noted.’ We haven’t received that.

My mom provided that constant coaching. That’s why I am where I am. I thought it was part of normal life. I coach a lot of women one on one who aren’t receiving that from anyone.

As women rise, I think there is fear on the side like, as women rise, where does that leave us as men?  This rise in women, it’s like men don’t know where they belong. I think it opens up new opportunities about what it means to be a man. It doesn’t have to be this one category. Everybody can have any option they choose. Men don’t have to just be breadwinners.

You are also very open about the need to talk about depression among business leaders.

Nobody talks about depression in owning a business, but it’s real because the pressure is high. You feel all of this responsibility. Sometimes a blessing can become a burden if we put our focus in the wrong place. It started out awesome and grew and what was light in the beginning became heavy. That is happening a lot. Locally, a very successful real estate agent took his own life recently. What is happening? To me, it’s success without fulfillment. We beat ourselves up too much and don’t celebrate the wins we have. It needs to be talked about. I have felt this personally, which is why I am so passionate about it. I know I’m not the only one.

What needs to stay the same is you — your own empowerment and self-love. The answer is going within. I meditate every day. Know that this too shall pass and there is always another day. Don’t every let it get so heavy that you can’t find a way out.

The IBR covered some of these topics at a Breakfast Series forum on multi-generational office culture from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on April 4 at The Grove Hotel in downtown Boise. Six professionals from a variety of industries discussed their experiences building strong, effective teams with employees of different ages and backgrounds. To read the report from the discussion, click here.

Lemas Hernandez will be leading a Mindset Mastery workshop at 6 p.m. on April 17 at JUMP’s Inspire Studio. For more information, go to www.natalielemas.com.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.