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As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the real estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Gehringer.

Liz Gehringer is chief operating officer at Coldwell Banker. She oversees the brand’s growth, field service, operations, talent attraction, international and commercial teams. Having been a part of Realogy leadership since 2006, her combination of operational, franchise and legal experience, as well as her proven ability to build a world-class program from the ground up, uniquely position her to drive strategic growth within Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the real estate industry?

What brought me to the real estate industry where I am today was saying, “Yes.” Saying yes to new opportunities, saying yes to growth, and saying yes to stepping out of my comfort zone.

When I was working as a litigator, I focused on multiple clients at once, who were facing pressing issues. It was quite a dramatic evolution from my days as a sales and marketing rep for Ford Motor Company, where I was helping their franchisees grow their business. A law firm colleague told me that my fairmindedness and ease with people made me a great candidate to work as an in-house attorney, and she invited me to consider an opportunity that would become my next position. I said yes to the opportunity and returned to a single-client focus.

I joined the Realogy leadership team in 2006 as its Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer, having again said “yes” to a CEO who asked me to help him shape the new company’s culture as foundationally forged in ethical conduct — to be reflected in how we would treat each other and our customers. I also served as general counsel for the Realogy Franchise Group from 2007 to 2012, putting our commitments into practice. We won awards for our ethics program during those years, and I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish as a management team. I was thoroughly enjoying my work, but I was also getting comfortable doing it. I had worked closely across the business for years, and business partners approached me about making a change. It was a leap to leave law behind for operations, but I am absolutely at home running operations for Coldwell Banker, where I am once again fixing and building at a rapid pace. I had to overcome a lot of comfort and think in new ways to say “yes” to my current position, but I went ahead and said it and have not looked back. “Yes” is a common theme in my life.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Coldwell Banker stand out is that it’s truly a network of people who are trustworthy, smart, and overall good businesspeople that care for each other. We’re constantly sharing ideas and I’m proud to be part of the brand.

I don’t have a particular story in mind, but the brand tells a story in itself. Coldwell Banker’s recent rebrand led with the message, “Leave Your Mark,” which resonates throughout the company because it represents everyone’s story. Coldwell Banker allows you to create your story to make your mark, whether you’re an expert trainer or selling the most luxury homes or focused on a community project like “Homes for Dogs,” or a young Realtor® hitting huge numbers. Everyone at Coldwell Banker tells their own story, and that’s special. Some other brands might only be focused on one thing, but Coldwell Banker encourages people to be multifaceted and to use our tools and brand to hatch their own point of pride against the backdrop of our powerful brand.

You are a “Real Estate Insider” — if you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the real estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

Make other people comfortable — go ahead and put yourself out there to make people feel welcome and at ease. You will be a gift to others in that process. And feel confident in your own abilities — with this, you can do anything!

Always be open to new opportunities — there is so much room for career growth in real estate, whether you are an agent expanding to new markets and specialties or a manager of a real estate brokerage aspiring to ownership.

Understand the importance of connection — from its ability to generate leads for you or for your feeling of self-worth when you give back to your community, as so many in this business do.

We are building communities — we have a huge responsibility in that we are shaping people’s future happiness and their communities when we connect people to neighborhoods and homes. We should be thoughtful and considerate and bring every option to the table to help build the best and most robust, diverse and vibrant communities as we go about our work.

Always have empathy — real estate is as personal as it gets and all we interact with can be going through so many unknown issues. It’s not just about the transaction, it’s a vital transaction that is full of stress for people, so we always aim to be kind.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the real estate industry?

The first thing that excites me is the idea of home. Not the transaction of real estate, but the fact that we’re finding places for people to live and deeply influencing their lives. We help people find their home where neighbors become friends and local events form the feeling of community. So many of these transactions happen every day, but they mean so much more than just buying a home. We are part of an industry that is building communities.

The second thing that excites me is that home trends reflect broader trends. The interest in and evolution of technology in homes is evident. And more people are considering the environment and therefore want sustainable homes which means houses are being designed with more environmentally friendly elements. As generational changes are felt, they are reflected in home-buying trends. There are so many aspects from which housing is an interesting teacher.

The third thing that excites me is the design aspect. I’m a massive interior and exterior design buff. I’m very interested in how people represent themselves through design and how design makes me feel. I’m constantly redecorating. I also love to travel and a big reason for that is because I’m always in new environments examining designs.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

One of my biggest concerns is diversity in the real estate industry. Brokers and agents are serious decision makers, it’s important that this community is diverse to bring in all different experiences and perspectives. We have to avoid bias and make more people aware of their biases so we can help consumers be treated fairly throughout the home-buying process.

Another concern is that people are vulnerable in the home buying process. There are many cybersecurity risks to be mindful of every day, and particularly when doing such a large transaction. Because people do few or infrequent real estate transactions, they are not always familiar enough to be careful. A trained agent from a trustworthy brand like Coldwell Banker is a great step, and consumers themselves should be appropriately careful and follow the advice of their agent.

Lastly, I’m always concerned about the physical safety of agents. They do so many of their meetings one-on-one. We do have products that allow agents to know a bit about a customer before a meeting with them, but I do worry about agents being harmed and think it’s important for people to be well-trained and situationally aware in this business.

Tell us about Coldwell Banker’s CB Women initiative. How do you think that will help people?

Coldwell Banker’s CB Women initiative is very meaningful to me. It empowers women to share their perspectives and knowledge and become leaders. We are bringing the women of CB together and harnessing their joint power to attract and retain talent, examine business growth opportunities, and have satisfying career progression in real estate.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re continually working to support growth in our affiliates’ businesses. We are working to help them articulate the value of Coldwell Banker and their own company value proposition to recruit agents using a disciplined and data-driven approach, to identify potential mergers / acquisitions, and be positioned to take advantage of them.

Coldwell Banker is currently enjoying a burst of fresh energy as we roll our company-owned business and our affiliate business under one Coldwell Banker brand. This shift will have major benefits to the affiliates as we share the tools and services available to the company-owned business and the tech and data offerings of our parent company, Realogy, to all of Coldwell Banker.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The real estate industry, like the veterinarian, nursing and public relations fields, is a female-dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in real estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

I think company leaders in general tend to be people who have business operations experience, and many women don’t get the opportunity to get their foot in the door of operations. Instead, they’re in shared services roles right off the bat. Many women in companies work in legal, human resources, finance and strategy. Fixing the imbalance requires more women being considered for operations roles. When they get there, they need to be paid and promoted equally to feel and be empowered to tackle the roles. The same holds true for boardrooms — more women in business operations roles will yield more women who qualify for boardroom positions.

What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

We need to allow women to lead, which might not be in the same way that men do. Everyone has different approaches — we can’t only expect one style. Diversity is so important and contributes heavily to good decision making. It’s important for people to think about who sits at their own table of advisors and to ask themselves, “Who is giving me advice?” It should include women. Everyone should examine their own unconscious biases.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In corporations, there are usually more men than women. In my past roles as a lawyer and when I worked in the auto industry, I was used to being the only woman in the room. It could be isolating in some ways because you’re a minority, but perhaps more so because you don’t have a natural set of female peers who feel a lot like you to consult and check in with. Though you want diversity in your mentors and colleagues, you also want some people with whom you easily relate and from whom you might readily take advice or model yourself at the outset. Women are not often surrounded by many female counterparts in business, particularly as they progress, and it’s important to have a diverse support system in your workplace as you find your voice and leadership style.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

It’s important for other real estate leaders to remember that it all starts with the brand. It’s the brand that makes people think to use your company and your agents. For someone who doesn’t have an agent, who wants to feel safe in this daunting transaction, brand trust is important. Coldwell Banker stands for trust and integrity. So, from a brand perspective, my advice would be to put a lot of investment and care into your brand because it’s truly the solid foundation of the company.

Also, no matter what role you choose to pursue, you have to be committed because it takes a lot of hard work across all days of the week and a customer-focused mindset to be successful in this industry, which is moving non-stop (pardon the pun).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped me along the way. For me, it was the people who took a chance on me and got me to step out of my comfort zone and trusted me to try new things — especially my current role. Help is so important whether you are the one giving it or receiving it. Once you do receive it, it’s key to look at how you can turn and help others, too.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Something amusing that I look back on and laugh, is my first experience of rejection from a job. I was working at Ford for months, quite successfully in my mind, when I received a rejection letter from their HR department! It was quite comical. I kept right on working but realized how differently things could have gone had I been rejected by that HR representative before clearly a different one had moved me forward. A second set of eyes wouldn’t have pursued me. It lit a little flame in me!

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m particularly passionate about mental health. I would love to be involved in a movement surrounding the interplay of housing and mental health. People with mental health issues can fall into vicious cycles of homelessness, depression and addiction, in any order. Too often we as society walk away from people who are struggling. More needs to be done to prevent and contend with these issues and I’d like to see the housing industry be part of the solution. I have witnessed how easily one’s life can downward spiral from mental health issues. This is very close to my heart. How wonderful would it be for our industry to help address this issue? There is good work to be done!!