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Three Key Leadership Lessons from the Real Estate C-Suite, for Any Industry

If you follow my Off the Rak series, you know I just had a great conversation with Trammell Crow’s retired CEO Matt Khourie.* Khourie and I both worked for Trammell Crow during our careers and shared some common colleagues, but we never worked in the same market at the same time. So it was fun to catch up, compare notes, and rehash some memories about the great leaders we worked with and the culture we enjoyed.

We covered a lot of interesting leadership territory — so much, in fact, that I’m going to give you an up-close exploration of our meaty chat in a three-part series: 1) key leadership lessons, 2) career-shifting moments, and 3) professional advice for rising leaders.

When I asked Khourie what got him interested in commercial real estate, it wasn’t the idea of high finance and negotiating big deals. His answer was ice cream. When Khourie was an undergrad at UC Davis, he and a friend decided to start a summer business selling cold confections at The Cannery, which was in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. With warmer temperatures than what Ben and Jerry experienced in Burlington, Vermont, this student adventure lasted longer than 80 percent of most restauranteurs—not to mention their college careers. Seven years later, they called it good and moved on to greener pastures.

Those early years of interacting with customers and managing a shopping center partnership as a tenant piqued Khourie’s interest in commercial real estate, so he went back to business school with that vision in mind. Soon after his program completed, Khourie landed at Trammell Crow, excited about the prospect of working with people again and focusing on projects that had tangible outcomes. Khourie said, “I liked the idea that I would be able to drive by a construction project twenty or thirty years later and say, ‘You know what? I had a role in building that.’”

Lesson #1: No role is beneath a leader

The first leadership lesson that Khourie encountered was a nod to his days of hustling ice cream and performing every role. He and his counterparts with newly minted MBAs naively thought their credentials would prevent them from having to do some of the harder tasks, like cold-calling on prospective clients. “I initially thought, ‘Why are they making us do this? I just paid all this money to get a degree,’” said Khourie. He soon realized there’s no role at the company that’s beneath a leader.

Khourie recalls sitting in the founder and CEO’s office in Dallas and talking about who would be ideal to lease a space under consideration. In that moment, Trammell actually cold-called the person they were interested in talking to, and Khourie thought, “This is important. This is a leadership trait: you’re not above any role that the company has to offer.”

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Lesson #2: Don’t give anyone greasy meals

When Khourie was five years into his position, he remembers that Houston was the first market to hit a financial wall as the recession took its toll in the ’80s. Khourie was assigned a lot of meetings with lenders, and the CEO at the time, Don Williams, prepared Khourie and his colleagues for these difficult discussions by saying, “Don’t give anyone greasy meals,” meaning tell the absolute truth. Knowing Williams, I’m sure he meant that half-truths or slick stories never sit right with anyone after the fact. Khourie honored Williams’s request and was brutally honest in his meetings, which earned the lenders’ trust and formed lasting relationships in spite of difficult times.

Lesson #3: Act together; achieve together

A Trammell Crow philosophy that Khourie felt strongly about upholding was the idea that business is a team sport. He says that company performance is not about individual accolades. The people who typically rose in the organization were those who believed in the collective. As Khourie highlights in the sequel that follows this post, a team spirit shouldn’t be confused with overlooking people as individuals. Instead, esprit de corps is about allowing everyone to share in realizing the vision because everyone contributes. Khourie recalls that the people who wanted to “spike the ball in the end zone by themselves” never lasted long.

Join me for part two of this three-part series about my Off the Rak conversation with Matt Khourie when I’ll talk about a leadership trait that helped him succeed year after year. In part three, I’ll also share a pivotal dark moment he experienced that changed the way he led people from that day forward.  

*For the last two years of his tenure, Khourie served in a newly created position – Chief Investment Officer (CIO) of Real Estate Investments — before full retirement from the company in December 2022.

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