A conversation with a leader

Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 1:00am


Inside Info
NAME: Shirley A. Zeitlin
COMPANY, TITLE: Chief Executive, Shirley Zeitlin & Co. Realtors

Hometown: Nashville

Date of Birth: Dec. 11, 1934

Education: West End High School

First Job: I worked in my father's downtown clothing store as a salesperson while I was a teenager, but my actual first full-time job was when my husband was in the U.S. Navy. I worked as a bookkeeper in the naval supply depot at the Navy's base in Bainbridge, Md.

Dream Job, after this one: I'm in my dream job.

Last Charitable Act: Working with the Jewish Federation to raise money for the Jewish Community Center's Holocaust Memorial. I asked that my birthday and holiday gifts instead go towards that fund.

Questions:

1. How do you prepare to make a tough decision?

I don't agonize over decisions. My first inclination is to get as much information as possible and input from people that will be affected. I listen with an open mind and ultimately go with what I feel is the right decision and then move on.

2. Business is loaded with risk. How do you balance risk with potential reward?

I try to be practical and realistic about risks. If you don't do anything, there's no risk. But if you want to take a business to the next level, then there will be an element of risk. You have to do things that maximize the potential rewards.

3. Who do you turn to for advice? Why?

My husband is a wonderful mentor with the ability to get to the heart of a matter. If I have a major decision, I certainly want his opinion.

4. How do you instill your organization's values into everyday operations?

I'm a big believer in having a consistent corporate culture. The best way to do that is what I've done over the years: be very careful that the associates you hire have those values when they come. I don't necessarily think you can instill your values in people if they have different values.

5. What's the last thing you do before leaving?

My receptionist has pounded it into me to make sure my phone is forwarded, so that if people want to leave a voicemail they don't have a long wait.

6. How do you know when to ask for help on a problem or task?

I need all the help I can get all the time. I'm always turning to the staff to help me with my computer or get this e-mail sent.

7. How do you balance work and family?

My family is my top priority, but I spend more of my time at work. I believe that everyone needs time for themselves, so I make sure to schedule in time for my grandchildren or things that I like to do.

8. Do you really put them on your schedule?

I used to play tennis and I did schedule that in. And very rarely did I let anything interfere with my tennis game.

9. Describe an ethical dilemma you've faced and how you resolved it?

I don't know of a specific dilemma, but ethics is the No. 1 thing I think is important in business and in life. I don't think you separate your religious beliefs from the way you conduct your business. One of the first things I talk to new associates about is how important ethics is in business. I have a little rule: If I have a question about whether something is right or not, I'm going to err on the side of not doing it. I'd rather go the extra mile feeling confident I'm doing the right thing instead of questioning myself. It's easy to practice good ethics when things are going your way, but I've seen people in stressful financial situations start bending. The true test is maintaining that standard no matter what the situation.

10. If you could change one decision you've made in business, which one and why?

I hired Price Lechleiter as sales manager for the Green Hills office in the first month of last year, and it made me realize I wish I had done it sooner.

11. What's been your best effort to inspire those around you?

I think it's hard to motivate people, so my job is to create an environment where people become self-motivated by setting standards and expectations. Then you hope you have people on board who can meet those.

12. Where did you learn your most useful business lesson? What was it?

On the job. I don't think there's one key or big 'Aha,' moment that opens up the world to you, I think you build on what you know. Be open to new ideas and adaptable to change.

13. What best measures success in business?

Success is measured by the people you serve, and I think you do that by going beyond their expectations.

14. How do you unwind?

I love to read and I play backgammon on the computer.

15. In your opinion, what's your biggest waste of time?

Being on hold and listening to a long voicemail message menu.

16. What was your hardest decision?

Opening a second office when I did it. I had never thought or had a goal of having more than one office, but it was one of my best decisions.

17. How do you keep employees happy?

By keeping good quality people in our organization, because people enjoy working with people they like and respect.

18. Who was your greatest influence in grade school?

My parents were my biggest influence.

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