Craig Robbins, chief knowledge officer of Colliers International, the world’s fourth largest commercial real estate services firm, has spent his entire career looking for ways to elevate his colleagues. And while Colliers prides itself on being an innovative, entrepreneurial enterprise, he recalls that back in 2000, when he was the firm’s COO, Colliers did not have enough systems in place to achieve those development goals.
“I kept hearing from managers about the need for training, but we weren’t doing it,” he said. Colliers was set up to attract senior-level executives, not to recruit and retain new talent.
It was then that Robbins developed a “Train the Trainer” course, which taught senior-level executives how to train other people. The course received positive feedback, but the senior executives still didn’t have enough confidence to conduct a regular training program on their own.
Then two global events forced Colliers to innovate. One was a side effect of Sept. 11, 2001 — a significant reduction in business travel. “We wanted to conduct training courses all over the world, but we couldn’t afford to do that,” Robbins said.
Then, in 2003, as the firm was developing the delivery platform for Colliers University, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic hit China and further restricted travel. The need arose to develop an alternative delivery system using virtual classrooms.
“That’s when we went from train the trainer to a coaching mindset,” Robbins said, noting that the shift gave birth to Colliers University. Colliers found that the psychological impact of changing the word “training” to “coaching” was tremendous unto itself. Its senior people started attending courses. After a time, Colliers even stopped calling it coaching, rebranding the program as a top producer course titled “From Success to Significance.”
Katherine Steen, director of Colliers University, was instrumental in helping pioneer the online course delivery for the firm’s Web site, while the classes sprung from the minds of other Colliers professionals. According to Robbins, the true value was assembling the classes into the company formula. “It was like I saw an engine, a wagon, a steering wheel and a place to go, and the rest made sense,” he said. “Creating a company culture where people can use the new coaching is as important if not more important than just doing the classes. That is what we got right.”
The courses are held in each Colliers office worldwide and cover areas such as interviewing techniques, financial underwriting and analysis, the business case for green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation prep courses. Although all of the classes have practical business application, the underlying theme is human behavior.
“They are almost all about self-discovery, regardless of age, gender or experience,” Robbins said. “The courses have helped me and the many participants become better, more successful professionals who have taken Colliers International to a new level.”
Put Me In, Coach
The first and most essential tenet of Colliers University is that it is not a “training” program.
“We don’t do training, we do coaching,” Robbins said. “Training is a lecture, where you’re told what to do. Coaching is where you ask people how they’re doing and then figure out together what to do next.”
The underlying focus is on human behavior. According to empirical data and anecdotal reports, this approach has been successful.
A recent analysis by the firm shows that salespeople who took five or more Colliers University core courses increased their revenue by an average of 54 percent per year, more than double the average annual increase for salespeople who took no core courses.
“We could see early on that it was going to be a success,” Robbins said.
More than 1,750 Colliers employees worldwide have participated in the program so far, including salespeople, staff and senior managers. Colliers University consists of seven core classes, which fall under three primary class types: product knowledge, business skills and behavioral coaching.
Colliers University’s second vital tenet is that all human beings have something to offer based on who they are at their core. Accordingly, a key step is to identify that quality.
In line with ideas emanating from psychoanalytical thought leaders such as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, Colliers University has identified four core personality styles that operate inside business. Consultant John Cundiff, founder and president of Market Advantage Technologies Inc., has named these styles. They include: control, influence, power and authority.
Controls are the visionary types who tend to become developers and CEOs. “They live for their big, new idea,” Robbins said.
Influencers like to motivate other people. “They create energy,” he said. “They like to get people excited.”
Powers are full-on workers, skillful at assembling effective teams, generals leading an army. Robbins said, “They come in early, they stay late. They want to get stuff done.”
Authorities live within an historical perspective. “This group loves data; they love information,” Robbins says. “They are conservative. They become CFOs and accountants. They like to know the rules and hold the standards.”
Colliers University coaches help each participant identify and embrace their core personality style and then build an individual business strategy around it. Robbins acknowledges initial skepticism among some participants, noting that it is common to find professionals subjugating their strengths to the will of their employers because they think they need to behave in a certain way to make money.
“But we say to our people, ‘We need you to be you,’” he said. “So whichever of the four influences they are, we help them build their business around that.”
Once the participants discover just how much Colliers is investing in their personal development, those who embrace the course tend to have an a-ha moment, according to David Bowden, Colliers president of the Canada, CMN Group, who helped Robbins design the course. Core personality-type awareness not only helps participants focus on their own strengths, it also helps them identify core personality traits of other people and then interact accordingly, rather than inadvertently conflict with them.
From a corporate standpoint, Colliers University looks to enhance each employee’s personal brand to maximum effect — ultimately enhancing the firm. “This was a fundamental shift from how we used to operate,” Robbins said.
“I never thought about branding myself and what my identity awareness is to the market,” said David Pinsel, director of investments for Southern California. Pinsel acknowledges his tendency to take on more projects than he can handle. “Knowing that, I prioritize more and realize that I need to delegate — things I didn’t do before.”
Scott Harper, senior vice president, was the first Colliers employee to graduate from the course in 2004. As someone who wants to do things independently, he learned the importance of working with other people of different styles. “There are things I don’t like to do that I realized other people enjoy,” he said. “Bringing them onto my team allows both of us to focus on the areas we like and are best at.”