You don’t have to be ruthless to win. By using the Selfless Service Model, Jonathan Keyser skyrocketed his success. Jonathan is the Founder and thought leader behind Keyser Co., the largest tenant rep commercial real estate firm in Arizona and one of the most rapidly growing in the country. Today on The Successful Pitch, he talks with John Livesay about his journey – how he learned to be selfless, lost his way, and realized that the key to success is to help others. He also talks about the difference between being the kind of person that’s always hunting for the next deal versus developing relationships and growing them to get referrals and growth. Service is a choice and not something people are forced into, so don’t miss this episode to discover how you, too, can take a stand for culture over profits and still achieve extraordinary success.
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You Don’t Have To Be Ruthless To Win With Jonathan Keyser
Our guest is Jonathan Keyser, who’s the Founder and thought leader behind Keyser, which is the largest occupier services commercial real estate brokerage firm in Arizona. Through sheer determination and focus on selfless service, Jonathan is disrupting the commercial real estate industry. He’s a bestselling author, a media contributor and a strong supporter of the Conscious Capitalism movement. Jonathan is here to share his journey, mission and selfless service approach to business and his book, You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win. His book isn’t about him, it’s about you. Jonathan will share how you can activate selflessness in your life and see how and why this counterintuitive strategy can create extraordinary long-term success in your own business. Jonathan, welcome.
Thanks for having me.
I love this mindset of selflessness and You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win. Can you take us back to your own story of origin? Jonathan, were you a young lad, was it high school, was it college, when did you start to notice that being successful is about helping others?
My story is unusual compared to most people in business. I was a Christian missionary kid overseas in Papua New Guinea. For those who don’t know where that is, that’s right by Australia. I grew up being taught by my parents to love and serve, help, give and do good for others. When we got back from overseas, I had this realization, “We’re poor.” I didn’t like being poor. I decided that I was going to be rich. I got into commercial real estate because I wanted to be rich and a buddy of mine said, “You could make a lot of money doing this, and this is a personality fit for what your personality is like.”
I got into commercial real estate to make a bunch of money and I realized quickly this is a ruthless industry. Everybody is scratching, clawing and fighting their way to the top. I thought, “Love and serve, that’s what my parents taught me. They’re poor, I don’t want to be poor.” Ruthless, that’s what I see around me. These guys have fancy cars, huge homes, beautiful families, and exotic vacations. I became ruthless because I wanted that stuff but I was miserable and I was misaligned with my core values. I felt trapped, I felt I wanted the stuff but I felt I had to be ruthless to be successful.Stand for culture over profit. Click To Tweet
A number of years ago, a speaker at a conference gets up and starts talking about service and I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, “This guy is a successful guy. What the heck is he talking about?” He’s talking about how he’s created a successful enterprise by helping others succeed and I thought, “Huh.” I went up to him afterward and first I had to see if he was the real deal. I said, “Is that a shtick that you say, or is that real? Is that something that you practice?” He said, “No, I do.” I said, “How does it work?” He goes, “Think of it like you’re hunting. You grab your gun off the wall, you go out, you shoot a piece of whatever, you bring it back, skin it, eat it, and you’ve got to go do that all over again. What I’m describing is more like farming.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Imagine that you’re out serving and helping as many people as you can all day, and each one of those acts of service is planting a seed.” He likened it to a citrus tree, which in my backyard here in Arizona where I’m based, citrus trees grow everywhere here.
I have a huge one in my backyard that’s a lemon tree but when it was little I thought it was half dead, I didn’t even think it was ever going to yield fruit. It took me a lot of nurturing, watering and pruning and all of that activity led to a tree that I can’t give the fruit away, and that’s where he likened it to. He said, “Over time, as you help all these people and you nurture these relationships, they yield fruit and you don’t have to go out and sell all over again.” I said, “That’s amazing. How do I do that?” That started this process where I decided I was going to reinvent myself. I came back to Arizona through my old cut-throat business plan away that was sales-oriented and helping everybody that I could, asking people one question, “How can I help you?” People are like, “What do you mean how can you help me?” I’m like, “What do you need?” I was helping people get jobs. I was helping people’s kids get connected.
I was doing anything they needed. I was helping people find doctors. I became a free community concierge and everybody in my industry thought I had bumped my head. They thought I’d gone off the deep end, here I was national rookie of the year for Grubb and Ellis and all of a sudden I’m doing what appears to be nonprofit work for free. When I went up to that speaker and asked him, “If this is true, if this works, how come no one else is doing it if this is such a strategy for success?” He said, “Because it takes too long.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “It will take you about five years.” I thought, “Okay.” That’s what I experienced too when I was back here building it, this is the long game. I was helping, serving, giving, nothing was coming back and through that process, people were questioning my sanity.
After five years, all those acts of service that I have been putting out there started to come back. I went from laughingstock at the company to top producer and then it started to take off. In an epiphany moment in 2012. As I sat there frustrated with my inability to scale a culture of service within a traditional commercial state firm environment, I realized that I had the opportunity to start, this needed a life of its own. If I could create a company and teach other people in commercial real estate brokerage how they could succeed by helping others succeed. If I could show that’s possible, I could change the industry. I could change the world and show other people that were in ruthless industries as well, “You can do this too.”
I came back from that trip where I had an epiphany and started my own firm. We’re the largest firm of our kind in Arizona and one of the fastest-growing in the country per Inc. 5000. I’m speaking all over the country. My book hit number one and it’s a wild experience because I know what it was like when I started it, and I know how many people were skeptical and thought I was crazy. The world has shifted and more and more people are starting to realize that, “Maybe this service stuff works.” My bottom-line message to the world is, you truly don’t have to be ruthless to win and in fact, I would argue that the most sustainable way to create long-term success is by helping as many people as possible. That’s what we’re about at Keyser and that’s why we’re growing quickly.
There might be some people out there saying, “I love the concept, Jonathan, but I don’t have five years. Can I still not be ruthless and be successful in the near short-term?” How do you answer that?
For me, it was a process where I had to convert myself from ruthless to selfless, and that was not an overnight or an easy process. One, you can’t rush growing a flower. It was a certain amount of relationship development that takes time. For those who are looking to make a quick buck, this is not the strategy. You can switch podcasts. This is for those who want to create long-term success. That’s the first point. The second point is knowing what I know now. Part of what I did in the book was take all the lessons that I’ve learned over the last number of years and pack it into this book so that you could create an extraordinary culture of selfless service for yourself. One simple way to look at it, for those who want a quick takeaway, without changing your entire business plan, without changing your entire strategy or your approach, bring a mindset into every interaction you have, then this mindset is one of, “How can I help this person?”
What I always try to do is every interaction I have, I’d be present. I listen to my own head, I don’t think about what I have to do afterward and what I have to do before. I’m right there in the moment and I try to focus on that person from a mindset of, “How can I ask the right questions? How can I listen deeply? How can I ensure that I’m identifying ways that I can help that person?” I don’t consider an interaction a success until I’ve identified three ways that I can help them. By helping them, I don’t mean how can I help them do a real estate transaction? I mean, how I can help them in ways that have nothing to do with how I make money? If you do that, what you’ll find is that the relationships you create, the speed, the trust, like Stephen Covey talks about, is much more rapid than going through a traditional sales route.
I believe that selfless service is selfish. I believe that self-interest to help other people because over the long-term, you’re going to create extraordinary success. It’s not an instant gratification game. The other problem is, a lot of people will think, “I gave somebody something and I helped them and there’s nothing coming back.” It’s like, “That’s not the point.” The point is you can’t outgive the universe. If you’re expecting something in return, you’re not doing it from a selfless service place. It’s almost creepy, it’s like this barter, but they don’t even know its barter. You’re ending to give them something of value, expecting something in return but pretending you’re not, but upset if you do. It’s crazy but everybody does it.
It reminds me of an artist who has to express whether they sing, paint, or write and if you don’t do it, you start to get depressed and I feel like that about speaking. We’re professional speakers. We speak because we love it but there’s a part of us that needs to get that out into the world. It’s part of our purpose and our mission. That’s what I feel listening to you. What resonates with you is, “I need to give and it’s part of my DNA.” I’m not attached to it coming back in any particular form and when we let go of that scorecard, what I’m hearing you say is, “Then we’re free to be our best selves.”
You’re a storytelling specialist. If you think back on all the relationships that are deep in your life from childhood and think about the people that you love the most and that you’d do anything for. It’s not the people that sold you a bill of goods. It’s not the people that took advantage of you in a weak moment. It’s the people that went above and beyond to help you. What if your entire strategy was, “How can I help all the people that if they appreciated it, could bring business to me in my firm?” How do you selflessly serve? We only have limited time. I’m not saying go and serve everyone because you can’t. Truthfully, I talk about this all the time in my keynotes, service has to be a choice. Not a choice, it’s an obligation. As soon as it’s an obligation, it turns into something that’s no longer service.
You can feel it if somebody hates their job and they don’t want to be an actor, they’re taking your order at a restaurant and they’re rolling their eyes and you can’t do that. Speaking of part one of your journey to selflessness, you have this great chapter called more than a pizza delivery guy, and I would love you to share that story.Service has to be a choice. Click To Tweet
When I was coming up, being poor, I was taking every opportunity that I could to try to figure out how I could make money. Before I even had the big, “I should go do something big with my life.” I was working at a burger joint. I was the cashier that wasn’t making much money and then someone, who became my buddy, drove the car through the window and he said, “Why are you working here?” I said, “I’m trying to make some money.” He goes, “You should come work over here at Domino’s Pizza.” I said, “Why is that?” He goes, “I make way more money than you. Look at my car.” I looked at his car and I’m like, “That’s a nice car. Can you get me an interview?” He said, “Yes.”
I went and I got an interview and I walked in and looked around. At the time, it was like me going to the commercial real estate brokerage firms where there are all these people that were successful and I said, “I want to be like that.” Here, it was the same thing and I was like, “How much money do you make? You make how much? You make $2,000 a month, are you serious? I could spend $2,000 a month.” I became the best delivery driver there and I figured out how to work the system. I figured out how to get the most runs and make the most money. As part of it, I realized that there could be more. I remember one day, I was sitting on my bed and my dad came in the room and he said, “Jonathan, you should do something big with your life.” I said, “What do you mean? I’m at Domino’s Pizza. I’m making $2,000 a month. I’ve made it.” He said, “You could be something great.” I said, “Like what?” He said, “You’re good at arguing, you could be an attorney.”
That whole idea that I could be an attorney, and I could wear a suit every day and be one of those guys that I saw on the TV, blew my mind. That was when the shift happened where I decided, “If my dad sees that in me, then maybe that is possible but if I’m going to be an attorney. I’m going to go to the best school.” I went to UCLA because I wanted to go to the best school I could get into. Once I was there, I had a professor talk me out of being an attorney, he told me, “I don’t think you’ll like it, Jonathan. You’d be bored. You should do something more entrepreneurial.” That’s how I stumbled into commercial real estate.
I love that journey from pizza boy to entrepreneur success, it’s fascinating. What I’m hearing through my storytelling lens is every good story has some mentors or Yoda in Star Wars, if you will. You had your father and a professor that took an interest in your story and shifted that narrative a little bit from, “There’s more to life than this.” You’re in your story sometimes, especially if you’re young, you can’t even imagine another life. Ironically, I met the CMO of Domino’s Pizza at a Coca-Cola event that I was speaking at, and I said, “Dennis, what’s your biggest marketing challenge?” He said, “Getting tech people to come work here.” Because his team has developed that tracking app. It’s no longer enough to get the pizza fast, people want to know, “Bob puts your pizza in the oven and it will be out in six minutes, and then Sue is going to drive it and checking the order before it goes in the box.”
That’s become a huge interactive way for people to get involved with the brand emotionally. He said, “We have to recruit tech people. We’re a pizza company that uses tech and that’s not doing it.” They used the rebirth storytelling genre and say to people who are in tech, “We’re an eCommerce company that happens to sell pizza. We’re using artificial intelligence to predict if you order the same pizza every Friday at 7:00. Odds are, the minute you click on the app or pick up the phone, we can put that order in, the pizza and maybe shave a minute of your delivery time off.” It’s come a long way from when you were delivering pizza. I thought you’d like that little update. Storytelling, technology and data are all coming together.
You can see it in my industry as well. If you look at what we’re doing, the whole idea of bringing selflessness into an industry that’s not known for it, it’s revolutionary. There’s nothing like my book out there in the commercial real estate space. When we went number one in the commercial real estate category, I was blown away because people are interested in learning how they can do this for themselves. That’s why I wrote the book because I want people to say, “If this crazy guy can do it in commercial real estate and he can succeed and win in an industry as cutthroat, predatorial, and as ruthless as commercial real estate brokerage, you could do it anywhere.”
We have people that for the first time they have a broker that they can trust, someone that cares about them. You look at commercial real estate brokerage, it’s one of the most conflicted industries in the world. You have these big firms that say they represent both sides of transactions, it’s crazy. Here we come bringing this conflict free, deep level of service orientation, we talk about stories. I remember a client of ours, Marissa, who had a fast-growing technology company. I remember going into her and having a conversation. We explained all the things that we did and then throughout the process as we walked her through all the different steps and found her a flexible and great new office space for her people, and she said, “Jonathan, I’ve worked with a lot of brokers and I’ve never experienced that level of service. I swear you guys worked 3 to 4 times harder than anybody I ever saw and/or experienced.” I said, “That’s the point.”
The point is that when you go above and beyond for people, it creates extraordinary success. Why do I say that? Because not only is Marissa a client for life, but Marissa is out telling all of her friends, “Those Keyser guys, they are the best commercial real estate brokers firm. You have to talk to them.” That creates this pipeline of referrals. Where most people at traditional firms laugh at us and say, “Those guys do so much unnecessary work.” We’re used to the sales funnel, put as much in, push it through as fast as possible, get the deal done, but they miss the relational part of that. They miss the value creation opportunity, which is where we love to play.Are you a hunter or farmer? Click To Tweet
That goes back to what you said which is, “Do you want to be a hunter, or do you want to be a farmer?” It encapsulates everything that you said. The other thing I admire about you, Jonathan, is your ability to break through the clutter with clever phrases. The book itself, You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win, our brains go, “What? That’s the opposite of everything I’ve ever heard.” You have this chapter here called Through Green-colored Glasses, if that doesn’t intrigue people to want it, “I know rose color, what is a green-colored glass?” As you’re continuing to read this, look for little moments that Jonathan has peppered into his conversations and his stories to pull you in so you can start to think, “What can I say or do in my business book marketing day-to-day conversations that’s going to make me stand out?” Now that I’ve set that up, we have to learn what do you mean by looking through green-colored glasses?
The biggest example to follow up on the point you made, the biggest example of where I do that is this idea of the moniker selfless service. I don’t like the term servant leadership because it carries all these religious and obligatory undertones, and especially with all the scandals in the churches and all of that stuff, I felt it needed a fresh statement. It’s not tied to religion. It’s not tied to anything, it’s selflessness. It’s living selflessness in business. I was frustrated and I was trying to figure out how I was going to grow and build this practice of selflessness within commercial real estate, within an industry known for the opposite. I heard about a coach that was a super coach, Steve Hardison, and I got up the courage to go meet with him and I sat down in his office and one of the first things he said to me was, “If you work with me, I’m going to introduce yourself to yourself for the first time.” All of me went like, “That is the greatest line ever. That is such BS.” The truth is, that’s what he did. He’s my coach and one of the most extraordinary people in the world. It shows how skeptical I was for everything.
The next thing he said was, “You see these glasses?” He held up an imaginary pair of glasses, he said, “When you put those glasses on,” and imagine you’re driving in your car listening to me right now. Imagine grabbing an imaginary pair of glasses, putting them on your eyes and he said, “What do you see?” I said, “I see green.” He said, “Exactly. Everything that you see is through the lens of your personal filter and your filter, let’s say for the argument of this point is green. What I’m going to do is I’m going to help you take off the green glasses and see things as they are so that you could make the substantive changes in your life that you need to make to get what you want out of life.” That is exactly to me, this whole point of selflessness, I was selfless underneath because it was pounded into me.
All of us, our nature longs to be in service to other people, it brings us joy, it brings us contentment, it does give us everything in life we want, but we compartmentalize it somehow. We have this idea that we’re supposed to love, serve, give and help, but we do that in our personal lives where it matters, with our kids and our families and our church groups. Then we get into business and we have this idea that we’re supposed to put on a tough suit and fight for number one. All I’m saying to the world is, “What if that same skillset that’s deep in your DNA, that matters and that works where it matters the most could work in business?” There’s a big gap between conceptually getting that, and knowing how to do it.
Many people kept coming to us, they’d walked through our office here at Keyser in Scottsdale, our global HQ. They’d say, “You can feel this selfless culture here. How have you done this?” We created the Keyser Institute and I wrote the book to train, empower, and certify that next generation of selfless leader and teach people the practical how-tos of how to put selflessness into practice in a way that’s not going to make you go broke or make you be taken advantage of or trampled, but make you win. In our business, we’re winning more than we’re losing, and people are like, “How in the world are those crazy Keyser people, that all they talk about is love and service, they don’t do any traditional sales, how did they win and beat us in that presentation?” That’s what I’m trying to do for people, show people the path where they could do this for themselves.The most sustainable way to create long-term success is by helping as many people as possible. Click To Tweet
One of the key reasons I wanted to have you on the podcast is this chapter you wrote about, Be Disruptive and Embrace Change. My whole TEDx Talk, Be The Lifeguard of Your Own Life, is about that topic. It’s rare to find somebody like you that’s embracing selflessness, not having to be ruthless and embracing change, I go, “Who? I’ve got to know you.” Tell us, how do you create a culture in your own company? When you’re hired to give keynote talks on this, how do you help other companies that know they have to embrace change but are afraid of it?
We’ve come up with a three-step process which we teach in the book and we call it, reinvention from the inside out. What does that mean? Like Gandhi said, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.” Reinvention starts with yourself. You’ve got to start with yourself. For everybody that’s reading that tries to gain this, let me warn you, part of why it took me long is because I was trying to gain it. It wasn’t authentic. You have to create yourself into a selfless leader. You might ask, “How do I do that?” That’s why I wrote the book, that’s why we have the Keyser Institute. At a fundamental level, you have to change yourself.
The next step, the layer number two is creating a company culture around it. How do you create a company culture around it? We write about it in the book, but there are a lot of things you can do. One of which is, look to attract and retain the right people and remove the wrong people. Then create a culture based upon principles that all support that culture you want to make and keep that culture alive. We talk about and train how to do that. The third level is the community. As my good friend, John Mackey, over at Conscious Capitalism that cofounded Whole Foods likes to say, “You have all these external stakeholders that most people don’t think about.” It was great to see all those CEOs stand up at the business round table and say, “That’s more than shareholder value.” Not that shareholder value doesn’t matter, it’s massively important. You have to make money to have an impact, but there’s more than that. How do you treat your vendors? How do you treat your partners?
If you’re a company that’s known for being selfless, and it starts from the inside out, because a fish rots from the head. If you’re a leader that’s not selfless, not willing to reinvent yourself but wants to go tell everybody you have a selfless culture, it will fail. If you truly want to create success through service, it’s all here in the book, You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win. Those that need additional help, we have tons of free resources on RuthlessBook.com and we have the Keyser Institute to train, empower and certify that next generation of selfless leader.
Jonathan, I can’t thank you enough for giving us those three breakdowns. What’s fascinating to me when you’re talking about point number two, attract and retain top talent. If companies are focused on, “Let me get the best talent and not worry about onboarding them properly or let alone keeping them happy,” then they have to start hunting again. Your whole culture is service and make people feel important and it works for your clients and it works with your top talent. You have explained and tantalized enough to make sure that we want to buy You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win. If people want to engage you for your own expertise either as a keynote speaker or to come in as a consultant and help other companies create this new culture that’s been successful in your industry and translates across any industry, then they know how to reach you.
RuthlessBook.com, you can find out anything on speaking and on the book. Keyser.com, that’s our company website and we’d be happy to engage. We have a ton of free resources. We have tons of ways that we can help. I’d be happy to do a free strategy call for anyone who wants to talk about their culture and how we could potentially help. Anybody that’s interested in having a true real estate partner that looks out for their best interests, we’d love to help as well.
One final comment, John, on that last point you made. The hardest part is having talented people that are culturally misaligned and making excuses for why you keep them on board. That is what I see most leaders making mistakes are doing. Frankly, I made those mistakes when I started the company because we had people that talked the big game and once they got in, they weren’t what they said they were and they were living the antithesis of what we preach, but they represented real revenue. When that happens, that’s when you know, that’s where the rubber meets the road, are you a selfless leader? Are you willing to stand for culture over profits? If you do that in the long-term, even though there might be some short-term heads, that you’ll have long-term success. Every time I removed a misaligned person, the whole organization breathes a huge sigh of relief.
Jonathan, thanks again for being such a great guest and sharing your wisdom.
Thanks for having me, John. I appreciate all you do in the world.
- You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win
- Conscious Capitalism
- Be The Lifeguard of Your Own Life – TEDx Talk
- Keyser Institute
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