3 Agile Ops Lessons from Barbara Corcoran

3 Agile Ops Lessons from Barbara Corcoran

Barbara Corcoran built her company and her career using the right people, resources and processes — all of which are key principles of agile operations.

If you’ve ever watched the popular ABC show, Shark Tank, you’ve definitely seen Barbara Corcoran in action. On Shark Tank, Corcoran is a shrewd investor who has put more than $5 million into various companies.

But, Corcoran wasn’t always an investor. She actually started her career as a waitress in the 1970s. She eventually founded a real estate firm, The Corcoran Group, which she sold in 2001 for $66 million.

After selling her company, she became a speaker, a columnist, a guest on various real estate TV shows, and a consultant before landing on Shark Tank as a featured “Shark.”

Whether she knows it or not, Barbara Corcoran built her company and career on the basis of agile ops (that’s also why she’s the keynote speaker at our Agile Ops Summit this fall).

If you’re not familiar with agile ops, it’s built on the goal of making companies’ back offices more organized and hyper-productive. Agile operations requires the right people, resources, and processes.

Let’s look at how Barbara Corcoran uses agile ops in her businesses.

The right people

One of the most important pieces of agile ops is hiring and developing the right people. Wrong hires can seriously slow your company down and hold you back from achieving company goals.

Corcoran is a big believer in having the right people, which is why she always hires carefully and fires quickly.

Hiring carefully

Barbara compares hiring employees to putting crayons in a box:

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By that, she means that you need diversity within your company. Different backgrounds and perspectives will help you build a strong company, but you also need to make sure you’re hiring for cultural fit.

In a Q&A with Ondeck, Barbara sheds a little light on her interviewing process to make sure she’s hiring the right people. She says she likes to ask a few questions to the interviewees that don’t have anything to do with work. She likes to focus on family, friends, and interests.

According to Barbara, she does this because, “When you talk shop, people’s guards are up, but when you talk family you’ll usually see the real person.”

When she’s hiring, Barbara focuses on finding two types of employees: expanders and containers.

Expanders are growth-focused employees. They’re the ones who want to grow the business in any way they can. You most often find these people in sales and marketing roles, but finance and operations also needs these types of employees.

Containers are people who are extremely organized. They help the company organize its growth. Containers are typically people who are great in operations and finance, but sales and marketing also needs containers.

Firing quickly

Firing employees is always difficult, but it’s unfortunately something that every company has to do. Sometimes, that seemingly perfect hire just doesn't work out. Barbara takes a slash and burn approach to hiring. Each year, she fires the lowest 25% performing employees.

In a blog post titled, Shoot the Dogs Early, Corcoran explains that doing this sets expectations for the rest of her team. If you don’t perform well, you’ll be gone.

It also, somewhat surprisingly, helps keep morale high. Team members know that there isn’t any dead weight on their team. No one has to resent a lazy employee who isn’t pulling his or her weight. If an employee isn’t putting in the hard work that everyone else is, he or she won’t be at the company much longer.

The right resources

Having the right resources doesn’t mean that you have the best resources. It means working with what you’ve got to maximize your efficiency.

Barbara Corcoran is very good at maximizing her resources to find success.

On the NPR podcast, How I Built This, Barbara talks about two things that made her and her company a success: leaning into her strengths and taking advantage of the opportunities she was given.

Corcoran wasn’t a great student. She didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but she used the resources she had available to build a billion dollar company. She credits her charisma as one part of this. It allowed her to be a great saleswoman, which is a very important trait for someone starting a real estate business.

The other part was a small loan given to her by a boyfriend at the time. She started the Corcoran Group on a $1,000 loan. She didn’t have access to venture capital or any additional funds. She had $1,000, which made her scrappy.

With such limited resources, she couldn’t build out a huge team immediately. According to Business Insider, her approach was to focus on generating a little bit of income, hiring a salesperson and repeating the process. She only took enough money out of the business for living expenses, the rest went right back into hiring.

Barbara focused on hiring salespeople first because as a real estate business, salespeople are essentially your product. Sure, the properties you’re selling matter, but the salespeople on your team make or break the sale.

That approach allowed Barbara to use the resources she had, and work toward the right resources that really made her business grow.

The right processes

Processes are one of the most important parts of agile ops. This can come in a few different forms. Processes can mean the way your team works or the way you individually work.

When it comes to individual processes, Corcoran has one great tip for dealing with work emails:

“Don’t fall for the reactive trap.”

By that, she means that you can’t let email control you. Schedule time each day to sort through and respond to emails. If anything requires a lengthy follow up, Corcoran recommends adding it to a to do list and handling it later.

The idea behind her email process is that it prevents her from jumping back and forth between too many tasks at one time.

As far as team processes go, Corcoran has advice there too: you shouldn’t take processes that work for other companies and force them to work for yours.

“It’s your game; make up your own rules.”

All companies have different strengths and circumstances. If you copy the processes that worked at your last company, they might not work at your current company.

Instead, collaborate with your team to find processes that make sense and will actually work.

Lean and mean is agile ops

Barbara Corcoran sums up her style of running a company as, “lean and mean.” When you think of something that’s lean and mean, you’re probably also thinking of something that’s agile.

The pillars of Barbara Corcoran’s lean and mean style fit perfectly into agile ops.

Want to learn more about Barbara’s approach to agile ops? Join us for our first ever Agile Ops Summit in Boston on November 6th!

About the Author: Rebecca Morrison
As VP of Finance and Operations, Rebecca Morrison oversees financial reporting and analysis, forecasting, and budget management for Lola.com. Previously, she was VP of Global Finance and Operations at Midaxo, and has held various roles in Finance and Operations at HubSpot and EMC.