Our guest today is a COO Alliance member and Title Alliance’s Chief Strategy Officer, Lindsay Smith.
Lindsay’s emphasis is on overall growth, communication, and strategic development from both a corporate and joint venture perspective. As one of the culture drivers in the organization, Lindsay is integral in creating recruitment and retention strategies providing an environment that recognizes the team members as both employees and as humans with families outside of the office.
On the growth side, Lindsay works closely with partners during the sales cycle to assure cultural alignment and the proper expectations are set and executed upon. Since 2016, Title Alliance’s Western Division has increased by over 700% in profits due to Lindsay’s leadership.
She is an inspirational leader that inspires and focuses on goal setting, personal growth opportunities and has a strong attention to detail with standards of excellence present in all events, meetings, and client gatherings.
Lindsay is the mother to three children, an Alumnae Member of the Gamma Phi Beta Sorority, a member of the COO Alliance, a Founding Member of the GoBundance Women’s Tribe and an XChange Certified Facilitator.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- What Lindsay was looking for in terms of leadership growth
- How Lindsay and her CEO adapted their communication styles for each other
- The process Lindsay went through to reset their core values
- How to identify and change an employee from the wrong role to the right role
- How Title Alliance evolved as the company scaled
Connect with Lindsay Smith: LinkedIn
Title Alliance – https://titlealliance.com
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In this episode, we have a COO Alliance member and Title Alliance‘s Chief Strategy Officer, Lindsay Smith. Lindsay’s emphasis is on overall growth, communication, and strategic development from both a corporate and joint venture perspective. As one of the culture drivers in the organization, Lindsay has an integral role in creating recruitment and retention strategies providing an environment that recognizes the team members as both employees and humans with families outside of the office.
On the growth side, Lindsay works closely with partners during the sales cycle to assure cultural alignment with the proper expectations being set and executed. Since 2016, Title Alliance’s Western Division has increased by over 700% in profits due to Lindsay’s leadership. She is an inspirational leader that inspires and focuses on goal setting and personal growth opportunities and has strong attention to detail with standards of excellence present in all events, meetings, and client gatherings. Lindsay is a mother to three children and an alumnae member of the Gamma Phi Beta Sorority. She’s also a founding member of the GoBundance Women’s Tribe and an XChange Certified Facilitator. Lindsay, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me, Cameron. I’m excited.
You’re one of the members of the COO Alliance whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well because you’ve been to an in-person event. I got to coach you and Jim, your CEO, over the course of about a year as well. What was it that got you to open up in terms of coaching and development? Also, in terms of wanting to join the COO Alliance. I’m going to go back into some of your career stuff. What was it that you were looking for in terms of your growth?
I’ve always believed that the best way to serve those in your community, whether it’s your family or organization, is through constant learning. Since I was a small child, learning has always been something that’s important to me. I believe it’s always important to never be the smartest person in the room. I look for different facets of my life to be able to engage, whether it’s a physical trainer, a business coach, or perhaps a communication mentor. I like to work with different people that are going to give me different perspectives and skillsets and that I can then employ in what I do on a regular basis.
I agree with all that too, especially the never being the smartest person in the room. What was it though that allowed you to open up, do you think, as being vulnerable in your coaching calls? When you’re showing up on a coaching call with your CEO present as well, how were you able to do that?
We had a solid relationship before we moved into a coaching relationship with you, Cameron. Our CEO and I have worked together for several years in all different capacities. Over time, we’ve generated a real bond and the ability to be vulnerable and have trust both inside of coaching calls and outside of coaching calls. We put the work into the relationship before we moved into that environment. It allowed that environment to feel natural rather than one that might feel forced or one where there’s judgment.
How have you grown, do you think, in that period?
There’s been a tremendous amount of growth that happened over the course of time. When I first came to the company, I was a project manager so I did a lot of watching and listening. I was involved to a small extent with my CEO. As I moved forward in my career and had opportunities to elevate, our relationship became closer.
I would say though that it wasn’t until 2015 when he was appointed CEO or was going to be appointed CEO at the end of that year. We began exploring Western expansion in Arizona that we forged this relationship. That came from getting beaten up along the way. It was not easy to take an East Coast-based company and grow towards the West. To do so, we would spend a week at a time on the road every single month.
When you have that much time on and off the clock together, you’re able to have meaningful conversations, dive deep into what makes the other person move, and figure out what the hot buttons are, where I’d like to stay away from. When I see him acting a certain way or moving down a certain path, I’ve learned how to pivot to figure out how to keep things moving forward from a momentum standpoint. It was the opportunity to expand, grow a new territory, and have time together while we did that.
What do you think you had to grow? How did you and Jim have to adapt your communication styles to deal with differing opinions and even potential conflict along the way?
A lot of it is about listening so it was important to listen and then understand why that was the statement that either he made or I made. We learned over time that if we took a moment to pause, hear what the other had to say, process, try to understand their perspective, and then come at it from whatever our perspective was, rather than arguing or saying, “You are wrong. I’m right,” it was like, “I hear what you’re saying. Have you considered this perspective?” When both of us learned to adapt, it allowed us to take conversations to the next level and ultimately position the company better for success.
How about regionally? Do you think that your style has had to adapt in different regions? I’ve talked to people who have done lots of work globally with companies that have global offices. Is there much of a difference when you’re doing different regions within the US do you think or are people fairly similar?
People are fairly similar. What’s different for us regionally is our East Coast division has been around since 1948. We have many team members who were here under former leadership. Our West Coast division was built under our leadership in 2015 forward. While the people are people, regardless of where they are in the country, the culture in which they were brought into Title Alliance has evolved over time. That makes us have to address things slightly differently because we’ve got to teach the East Coast to change and adapt to the new culture rather than sticking on and hanging on to the culture that existed from 1948 until 2015.
What about the people that are in that old legacy culture that can’t adapt or make the change? First, how do you try to get them to adapt? What are you trying to do to get them aligned? What happens if you can’t get them to?
The most important thing is to focus on the core values. We did a reset of our values in 2021 to help with this. What we realized is although the culture changed, we had kept our core values the same. Trying to have a new culture with old core values was creating mixed signals and wasn’t allowing us to move forward.
When we reset our core values, we made sure they were in alignment with the culture that we were building and we start harping them throughout meetings. We’ll talk about them. We’ll highlight and recognize people who are exhibiting them. We’re trying to coach and uplift our leaders so that our leaders can be the eyes and ears on the ground to help identify cultural champions and then highlight and showcase them within whatever geographical jurisdiction we’re speaking of.
What was the process that you went through in resetting core values?
It was probably a six-week process that we went through to reset our core values. It started with our executive leadership team. We sat offsite and thought about where we wanted to be as a company. We looked at our vivid vision. We read it and said, “If we’re going to be this company, what are the things that are going to matter?”
Everybody spit fire and we had probably 30 or 40 different potential core values up on a wall. We knew we didn’t want to go more than five so we whittled down from there. Over the course of six weeks, we’d keep coming back to these core values. We’d look at them and say, “Here’s where we are. Do we still feel right or do we have to make any changes?” The end product was the genesis of lots of conversations and we pushed out to the teams in the field.
Where did you net out? What are your final core values?
Embrace positivity, get it done, do what’s right, have an attitude of gratitude, and make people happy.
One of the things I love about you and what you talk about is you don’t just pontificate about what should happen but you live it. You talked about a number of things about culture, resetting the core values. You communicate and mention them all the time. You celebrate them a lot. I asked you what your core values are and you rattled them off five. They’re clear and easy to understand. They don’t need any explanation.
I’ve asked so many executives over the years what their core values are and they stumble over them. I asked one what their core values were and she said, “Let me look them up.” I’m like, “How can they possibly be core values if you need to look them up?” Do you work with the whole company on this as well? Do you push all of the members of your team to know the core values and be able to rattle them off like we used to with the Greek alphabet?
We do the Greek alphabet on those days. I don’t know that I could do that now. When we first identified our core values, we pushed them out to our team in a series of emails. The first one shared what all of our core values were and why we felt the need to reset them to move us toward our vision. We went into each core value in depth. We talked about the behavior that we expected people to portray when they were living out that core value.
We also have a site where our team members are able to nominate people for acting in core values. We talk about them in our meetings. It was important for us to have a visual as well so what we did was sent a canvas print to every one of our offices with a cool graphic showing our core values. When we have our teams together for meetings, we had one in Phoenix in October 2021.
We put our core values and wrapped the polls around the pool in our core values. We covered the tile floor so they couldn’t go anywhere without seeing or feeling a core value. We deliver to all of our new hires a welcome box and one of the items in there is a slate coaster that has our core values on it so they can keep that right on their individual desk.
I love the slate coaster with the core values on it. That’s so powerful and simple. I’m going to do that. I like that. Sorry, I’m scribbling that one down as an idea. I’m going to lift that one from you. We’re going to get those done for COO Alliance members and also for my team because that’s solid. It’s such an easy thing to have right in front of people. It works. It’s usable and functional. It’s funny that so many companies poo-poo the whole core values thing like, “We’ve got core values,” but they don’t live or enforce them. What was it that made you as a company latch onto the power of it and decide to do it versus just talk about it?
We set a vivid vision. When we set our vision, we know exactly what we want our company to look and feel like. What we knew was that our old values were not going to push us forward. They were nondescript. They didn’t have emotion behind them and they didn’t carry the culture that we were trying to build as an organization.
For us, it was important to embrace the core values and use them to be the change. I talked about how we have a division that’s been around since 1948 and a division since 2015. We had to figure out how to bridge the two together and start making there be 1 company rather than what felt like 2 separate companies. We thought the best way to do that was to have unified values so that whether you were in Alaska or Florida, you had the same expectation and understanding as to who Title Alliance was and what we stood for.
Do you think you are unified?
I’d be lying if I said everything was perfect but I do think that we’re closer. It’s interesting. I had a call with one of our leaders in Indiana and she was talking about a difficult conversation she had to share with a team member. She said, “I didn’t know what to do or how to start.” I said, “Let’s have a review of your core values. Let’s look at you and Title Alliance’s core values and see how you feel you stack up on each one of them.” Some people are listening because that wasn’t something she was directed to do. That’s how she chose to frame the conversation.
I like that you guys are recognizing that it’s also a work in progress and a forever march. It’s not like it’s a one-and-done. It’s something that’s constantly being reinforced. You also mentioned culture a few times and culture being critical and a focus for you. I’m curious about what the culture is that you’re trying to design and why the focus on culture is so important to the company, Title Alliance.
Culture is critical because you spend more time in your office than you do outside of the office. As leaders, we have the ability to create an environment in a culture that people want to be in, feel fulfilled, and feel that they’re thriving in or not to do. For us, it was important to focus on creating an environment where people were positive and grateful and had all these uplifting things around them.
What we believe will happen is they’ll feel more fulfilled, the work product will be better and we’ll be able to continue to grow and expand. For us, culture is the feeling, the way our employees feel, and the way when we bring in our partners to our relationships, they can see that we’re living and we make sure that they’re in alignment. If they’re going to come in and be negative Nellies, we’re not going to be a good fit for them, and vice versa.
In part of what you’ve been doing in transitioning this legacy company, the newer business, and moving the two together, you’ve got a company that started in 1948. I imagine you had a number of team members there that over the years had to be replaced. How is it that you go about replacing people that have been there for so long but they’re not the right fit for the future? How do you do it well?
It certainly isn’t easy to do. I believe people are people and they’re human. They have a life outside of the office. It’s looking at the whole picture. What we’ve been working through is trying to identify core components of an individual’s job, not a job description but the core competencies that they have to be able to be proficient in. That ebbs and flows over the years. What a closer needed to do in 1980 is different than what a closer needed to do in 2022. There’s a higher technology component than there used to be.
We’ll have conversations with people to talk about, “What used to work isn’t going to work. We can either train you or grow your skills to move you into this role. If at some point in time, we’re not able to get you there, then we have to determine if there is another role in the organization that does suit your skills.” If not, we’ll help transition them out of the organization to find something that’s more aligned with where they’re going to thrive. The last thing we want to do is put anybody in a position where they are not going to be able to thrive because of a lack of skillsets.
Jim Collins in Good to Great talks about getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everybody in the right seats. You rarely hear people talk about another role they’d be a better fit in. Can you give me an example of a time when you had someone specifically that was in the wrong seat and you found a better role for them and they’ve excelled and how that went?
We had a person in one of our Pennsylvania offices who was a settlement agent. They were sitting at the table. Their people skills were a little bit less than stellar but what they’re technically competent at is the backend, working through the compliance on the files, identifying where funds need to go, following up on inheritance taxes, and things along those lines. We removed them from working on the table and put them in a position where they’re still using their skills, which is the deep title and escrow knowledge but they’re not having to interface with the clients, which is where they were lacking.
We often talk about if someone’s not doing well to train them or coach them but often if we put them into the right seat, there’s no training or coaching that’s necessary. They thrive in that new role that we get them into. I had someone years ago that was working in our call center and wasn’t doing great in the call center. He was okay and I said, “Where would you love to be in the company?”
He said, “I’d love to work in finance.” I’m like, “You’re in the call center. Why finance?” He goes, “I’m an Accounting major. I’m only working in the call center to pay for my school.” We told him there was a payroll clerk open. He jumped all over it and sure enough, he took off in his career in accounting. It was amazing.
Many times, people need opportunity and permission. They feel like, “I’m in this role and if I’m not doing this job, then I’m a bad person or a bad fit. I have to keep trying harder so that I can succeed.” Our job as leaders is to help them understand, “You’re not a bad person and not a bad worker. You just don’t have the right skills necessary to perform this job.”
The business you released yourself from, what areas of the business have you said, “I’m not going to be any good at this. I may as well delegate it or not do it?”
I’m great with the big picture and vision. Also, people and culture. What I’m not great at is compliance, dotting all the I’s, and crossing all the Ts. I have people that I’ve delegated that work to or divisions that handle those functions. They give me a roll-up to say, “Here are the 5 things or 3 things that you need to know that happened.” That certainly is one piece.
The other piece is from an operational standpoint. I’m not going to get into the weeds and do the work. I’m going to help set the vision and help people understand what it is that needs to be accomplished. I’m going to share with them my perspective and view on whatever’s happening. I’ve got a team of leaders that dives in deep to figure out, “What’s broken that’s causing the vision to not come to fruition?” They’ll then come back up to me with that.
How do you not get sucked down into the weeds? How do you not get pulled into doing the work, solving the problem, fixing it, or putting the system in place? How do you stay above that?
I have a sign in front of my desk that says, “Raising and empowering leader.” It’s important to give permission and authority to the team members. They know that they have the permission and authority to give it to the level below them and so forth so that the decisions can be made at the lowest level possible. It’s not easy because sometimes I want to say, “I know the answer but I don’t know why this is taking so long. Let’s just do A, B, C, and D.” I’ve learned that patience certainly is a virtue. It’s also a gift. It’s something that you have to work hard at. Sometimes it means going a little bit slower to ultimately give yourself the leverage and set those boundaries you need so that I don’t have to be the one in the lead.
It’s so hard because there are so many different business areas that we can get sucked into as well. How do you balance and organize your time? What specifically do you do to be the most productive?
I’m on the road between 50% and 60% of the time. I know that for the most part, when I’m on the road, I’m not available to deal with the fires and problems that are existing in the offices. I’m visiting our clients and team members and working through opportunities for us to grow and scale. When I am in the office, I’m purposeful in terms of how I spend my day and who I’m having conversations with.
I have meetings with my direct reports on a regular basis where I’m checking in with them to find out what it is that they need and what’s stopping them from being able to be successful to help them remove those roadblocks. I’ll look at my calendar and say, “What can I do that’s going to be the most impactful to either the business, the culture, or the growth?” I’ll start whittling tasks down from that perspective.
Do you like being on the road that much or is it something you’re trying to work on to change that? How does that fit?
I love being on the road. As much as I’m on the road, it allows me to connect with our partners and employees and work through the cultural aspects of the organization. Sitting in an office is fine but I see the immediate corporate team. We’re in 13 different states, 5 different time zones, and 280 employees. If I spend time with the 30 people that are in my office right here, that’s all well and good. They’d have a great culture but what about the other 250 employees? For me and our business, it’s important that I am on the road.
It sounds like you’ve done a good job at saying no to taking on more work or getting sucked back into the day-to-day and keeping focused on what matters. How have you learned how to say no or not now to the CEO?
It’s all a work in progress. Only in recent times that I’ve been able to say no to the work because I’m building the right organizational structure. That was a big missing hole in our organization. We had what worked then but not necessarily what worked now so we had to reinvent that leadership framework and the different divisions to make sure that the right people were in the right seat and had the right responsibilities. That has been what allowed me to start saying no to things because my team knows that they need to protect me and insulate me.
With my CEO, it’s a little bit more challenging to say no to him or no, right now but normally, we’re able to have a conversation again because of the relationship that we’ve built from a trust perspective where I can say, “I’d love to do that but it is unrealistic that it’s going to happen right now.” We usually laugh back and forth and he’ll say, “It can’t happen now. Can it happen in ten minutes?” Sometimes he’ll get a look for me and that look means, “It can’t happen in ten minutes and Lindsay will let me know when it will get done.”
What’s the size of Title Alliance? You’re in 5 time zones and 13 states. We get some perspective but how many employees do you have in the organization ballpark?
We have 280 employees.
It’s a real business. With 280 employees, there are lots of moving parts and complexity. How many employees were in the company when you joined it?
When I joined the company, there were probably about 90 employees.
It’s three times bigger than it was when you joined. What’s changed in the organization? How have you had to adapt and change as the company has scaled?
The biggest thing is from a geographical standpoint. We were in Pennsylvania. That was primarily where we were. Since I joined the organization, we’ve expanded to Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington, Nevada, and Alaska. Me being on the road, I understand their different time zones and they have different expectations. There are different cultural nuances in terms of how title and escrow were done on the West Coast versus the East Coast that I had to help our teams to understand.
We had a lot of learning curves ourselves. The wire department needed to be mindful that even though the Fed closes at a certain time, there are still after-hour things that need to be done for our West Coast division to make sure that things are set and ready to populate first thing in the morning. We had to identify from our support staff and split shifts where people weren’t working traditional 9:00 to 5:00 hours. We also had to teach different terminology. In the West, it’s an escrow and title. They’re both separate. In the East, everything is all in one and they call it title services. It was just working through teaching people that there could be different names for things but at the end of the day, they’re the same thing.
You went through not an acquisition. Did you sell off part of the company? What happened in 2022?
In 2022, we brought on Tempo Title as the strategic business partner and then in October 2021, Tempo Title was acquired by Acrisure. We are part of the Acrisure Real Estate Division.
What did that mean for the company? What changed?
Honest to goodness, we’ve got more resources available to us but nothing’s changed. We’re still branded as Title Alliance. We still are able to set up the companies that we set up, structure them, and have our culture. One of the things that was important is Jim was evaluating whether this is going to be a good fit or not. We had to still be able to be us. If somebody wanted to acquire us to make us be them, then it wasn’t going to be a good fit. It wasn’t going to align with our vision and culture or be best for our team.
We understand the scope of the business. You’ve also talked a couple of times about employees having a life outside of the office. I rarely again hear that. I’ve talked about that none of this matters. We’re all going to die. This is just what we do to make money. We’re all struggling with something. What does the whole there’s life outside of the office mean? How do you help employees to get it and connect on that? How does that change your company?
One of the things that became apparent in COVID is that people like to work from home. It’s something that the real estate settlement services industry isn’t 100% there yet because everything still requires wet signatures to be done in the office but during that time, I stepped back and said, “What’s important to people is their family.” I developed a program where four times per year, we’re going to send gift boxes out to all of our team members.
What’s important in those boxes is that those boxes are meant to create an experience for their family. They’re all personalized with their names or initials for themselves or their entire family members, depending on what it is. In the summer of 2021, we sent out boxes with a luau in a box. Everybody had an embroidered towel with their initials in it so I’d have 1 for our employees, 1 for their spouses, and 1 for each one of their children.
We set bottles of vodka so that they could make their own daiquiri. There were flower leis, recipes, and everything that they needed. Also, skewers to use on the barbecue. We try and create experiences and remind them that, “You’re going to be at work a lot but when you’re home, we want you to create an experience something with your family that you can enjoy and be present in the moment.” Experience is my favorite word by far in English and probably every other language. It’s important that I figure out how do I create out-of-the-box experiences that are easy for our teams to execute so that they can savor that time that they’re at home.
I’m so lacking in that area. I’m so left-brain and focused at times that I miss the opportunity to create some of those experiences and that fun. I’d love to be able to bring some more of that into the COO Alliance, especially at our in-person events but for sure in some of the online events. Where do you think the roles of the CEO and COO are different? What are the differences between those two?
I have a unique position in my organization where our roles are different but there’s a lot of overlap and redundancy in the things that we do. We surround ourselves with the right people to focus on some of the detail. My job, I believe, as the CSO, in this case, is to focus on listening, figuring out where there are gaps, and then having conversations with my CEO to say, “We’re working towards this vision but I heard that there’s a gap here. Let’s think about who or what can fix that gap to move things closer to where we’re trying to get them as an organization.” That’s where I would say probably the biggest difference. He’s high-level. I’m high-level a little bit below him but I’m listening on the ground to identify gaps and opportunities.
What stresses you out or frustrates you in the day-to-day?
I’m certainly frustrated when people disappoint. I pour so much into our team members and partners. When you pour and pour and somebody lets you down or disappoints, it’s something that I get frustrated with and struggle with because I don’t know that people understand the level to which we do care as an organization.
The other thing that makes me crazy is when things happen too slowly. I want them to happen quickly and be able to move us forward. I oftentimes see what the answer needs to be and I’ve taught myself through coaching over the last several years that that’s okay that I see it and it’s okay if it goes slower. If it’s going to give our team members an opportunity to grow their skillsets and be able to implement something, I need to be patient. Instead of getting there tomorrow, maybe it’ll be the day after tomorrow.
Have you got a couple of areas that you work with employees or leaders on? Have you got a couple of skill areas that are your pet projects or the ones that you care about more than others?
With our employees, it’s focusing on the core values and making certain that they understand that they’re not just words on paper but there are words that meant to live by. That’s number one that I work with all of our team members on. The second is trying to teach them what a business looks like. Many of the people in the settlement services industry are great technicians but they don’t understand the business side of things. It’s important that I’m teaching them to understand that decision A was made because of the impact it has on the business. “It’s not because I don’t care about you as a human but because the business doesn’t work if we don’t do this particular item.”
Let’s go back to the time during COVID. Your business has been built around these relationships and experiences, spending time in the offices and traveling with the different offices. What did you do as a company during COVID to adapt to that? Did you power on and travel anyway?
It was tough. From March 2020 until November 2020, we maintained all relationships via Zoom. What I learned is that relationships that were strong had a lot of credit in the bank and had these deep experiences that we had created over the course of our relationship were easy to maintain but those that were shaky or we hadn’t poured into as much was not able to be as strong during COVID. Zoom didn’t allow us to continue to build that relationship. I learned it’s challenging to launch a brand-new business in a brand-new state during COVID. That was certainly a fun lesson. I tried to do two of them. Needless to say, they’re both up and running but it was a long road to get there.
How do you know when you’ve launched something and it’s time to shut it down, whether it’s a business, a project, or a new hire that’s the wrong person? How do you decide when it’s wrong?
You have to have a set of mutual expectations, whether it’s with a business partner or a team member. I expect X to happen by Y. Maybe it doesn’t happen by Y but you’re making steps and moving forward but if you’re continually missing the mark and not moving forward and closing the gap, then that’s when it’s time to say, “Is this right for you and me? Does it work for us together?”
Maybe there’s an opportunity to reset, whether it’s the way you communicate with somebody or the business projections that you’ve put together but it’s setting those expectations and then checking back in with those expectations to make sure that you’re meeting them or exceeding them or at least making progress towards them.
Let’s go back to the 22-year-old Lindsay Smith. You’re starting your career and you want to get some advice. What advice would you give the 22-year-old that maybe you know it’s to be true now but you wish you’d known back then?
It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks about you. If you believe it and you believe you can do it, then you can work towards it.
Lindsay Smith, the Chief Strategy Officer for Title Alliance and member of the COO Alliance, thank you so much for sharing with us on the show. I appreciate the insights.
Thanks so much for having me, Cameron. I appreciate it. I look forward to seeing you soon.
That was great.