Stormy Waters, Steady Ship:
Leadership in Times of Crisis

By John Salustri

All times of challenge—no matter their nature—come with two basic leadership truths. First, they demand all hands on deck. Whether the crisis is regional, such as hurricanes or wildfires, or global, such as a pandemic, everyone on the team has to row together.

And therein lies the second truth about leadership. You can’t row together without a qualified team. Leadership in times of calm or chaos is as much about those being led as the ability of the leader to inspire.

"People on high-performing property management teams have landed there for a reason," says Randal Froebelius, BOMA Fellow, P.Eng, president and general manager of Equity ICI Real Estate Services, Inc. in Toronto. "They have the talents and the ability to accomplish what needs to get done in a crisis. With experience comes a certain level of instinct, knowing how to respond. I believe that members of our team that have worked with us for a certain amount of time understand what client expectations are, what our philosophies are on customer service, problem solving and leaving the client feeling like we’ve delivered on our value proposition."

"Having a team that has passion for what they’re doing, who shares the same focus that you do and understands your goals and vision is essential," agrees JLL’s Chicago-based general manager, Maggie Amaya, FMA, RPA. But, inspiring that passion takes a certain kind of leader. "Leaders should project honesty and confidence. Those are two of the things any leader needs in times of crisis."

Inspiration leads to engagement—critical always, but particularly in times of crisis, says Froebelius, who has served as chair of both BOMA/Toronto and BOMA Canada and currently serves as vice chair of BOMA International. While COVID remains top-of-mind for all property professionals, you can just add it to the list of today’s challenges that are part and parcel of commercial real estate.


Not all crises are headline-grabbers. There are also the quiet, personal fires property managers need to douse in the daily line of duty. Extreme times may call for extreme measures, but, in our everyday lives, it’s a steady hand on the tiller that matters most.

"In my career, some of the most challenging events, when I’ve had to test my leadership, technical and business skills, have been when I was involved in a portfolio or building sale," says Randal Froebelius of Equity ICI Real Estate Services, Inc. "There’s a great deal at stake, financially, for the seller and purchaser, and uncertainty for tenants, staff and contractors. It demands the dedication and perseverance of the full team to get the job done, often when the team may not know what their personal future holds after closing. The stakes are high."

It’s a common, but challenging process for many property professionals, he notes, made more so when it involves the possible dissolution of staff. "A team of 80 people might be let go or expected to move to a new company," Froebelius continues. "They’re facing a huge change in their lives, even while you’re expecting the most out of them. You have to motivate and reassure those people while working to get the transaction completed. And, often, you’re working with an incoming management company that might not have expressed an interest in onboarding members of the outgoing team."

That, he says, is where you need to leverage the strength and professionalism of the individuals on the team and guide them toward the accomplishment of that goal of successful closing. Experienced team members know the risks and rise to the challenge, nevertheless. "You need to see beyond the hurdles immediately in front of you, know you have to inspire your people, even in such an uncertain time, and stay the course to your goal."


For Froebelius, a defining career moment came when he became chair of BOMA Canada, an affiliate of BOMA International with 11 local associations of its own across the country.

"Part of my challenge in the role of chair was to continue to build the trust of the local associations," he recalls, "and ask their help in building a stronger, more cohesive bond between the local associations and BOMA Canada." Froebelius spent the better part of his term making a conscious effort to visit each of the local associations and build those relationships. By the end of that year, he continues, members across Canada were engaged in the creation of a strategic plan. "I’ve always felt it was a huge success." And, it was so, he says, because the local leaders saw the vision, and because he was unafraid to ask for help and "show some vulnerability."

Wait. What? Vulnerability in leadership? Absolutely, says Froebelius: "You have to be open to other points of view. Otherwise, you’ll never get buy-in from the people you’re trying to rally"

Boyd Zoccola, BOMA Fellow, agrees. "You have to be aware of what your weaknesses are and call in additional strengths," says the executive vice president of Hokanson Companies Inc. in Indianapolis. "That’s the time to surround yourself with people with different strengths than yours and then rely on them." And, he should know: Zoccola served as chair of BOMA International in 2011-2012.

What Froebelius calls vulnerability, Sandrena Robinson, BOMA Fellow, LEED Green Associate, calls empathy. "Empathy will guide a leader’s communication style during the worst of situations," says the general manager in the Denver office of LBA Realty. "People always respond better when they feel someone understands what they might be going through." And, when everyone is going through something together, it can be easier to relate.


Of course, the socially distanced gorilla in the room is the ongoing—and often shifting—challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. "Wrong decisions can impact your team’s confidence in you," says Zoccola, and, amidst the ever-changing guidance from local, state and national regulators, all property managers face that risk. Avoiding it is trickier for smaller shops simply because "there are fewer people to serve as your sounding board."

While sifting through "information from all levels of government, the very best we can tell our team is that we value their safety above all else and that we continue to evaluate the situation," he continues. "We want our people to know that we’re constantly looking at what goes on around us and trying to make the best decisions for our team. As a regional firm, we take advantage of others’ white papers and research to help influence our decisions," including the guidance documents being released by BOMA International throughout the pandemic.

Clear communication throughout is key. "The changing protocols are not an indication of how we lead our teams," Zoccola adds. Even though two return-to-work dates had to be altered due to those changing protocols, "our staff knew we had their safety in mind, because we were communicating with them constantly."


There are different types of leaders ... In the same way, leadership in times of calm is a little different than when we’re in crisis.
-Boyd Zoccola, BOMA Fellow


Every crisis comes with its own set of rules, says JLL’s Amaya. But, the leadership traits that drive the team through successful management of this or any other crisis don’t vary by much. "COVID is different than a hurricane or fire," she says. "But, the skills to deal with the chaos are pretty much the same. You have to be decisive and take control of the chaos. You have to exercise caution and stay positive at the same time."

Zoccola has a different approach. "There are different types of leaders," he implies. "Just like the leader of a small business probably isn’t the right leader for a Fortune 50 company, the leader of a Fortune 50 company isn’t necessarily the right leader for a small company. In the same way, leadership in times of calm is a little different than when we’re in crisis."

That, he reiterates, is when managers need to surround themselves with talent and put ego aside. "You need to be willing to surround yourself with people who are as talented or more talented than you are. You see it all the time, where people who try to hold others down or hire B players because they don’t want to hire someone smarter than them. Throughout, you need to be clear and concise and close to the message until you see it’s not working. Then you change the course."

"It’s been said that you are only as good as your weakest link," Robinson adds. "If that’s the case, then a well-grounded leader and team will willingly lend the greatest support to the team member who might need it most."

There’s the implication there of the aforementioned need to row together, a culture of understanding that exists within the property management community, especially among team members who have logged any time at all in the profession. "An effective leader’s style should be predictable, respected and embraced by stakeholders," says Robinson. "People need to be comfortable with their leader—even if that includes knowing their weaknesses."

With experience comes understanding and, to use Robinson’s words, greater empathy. To that extent, the relationships built in times of calm will pay dividends when chaos erupts. After all, "we all have our badges of courage, our battle scars," Froebelius concludes.


How do you describe an effective leader? We asked the individuals interviewed for this article that question and uncovered some common traits of strong leadership.

For JLL’s Maggie Amaya, the traits of a true leader are short and to the point: "Awareness, decisiveness, empathy, accountability, confidence."

Others we spoke with expanded on her theme: "Number one is vision and what it takes to achieve our goals," says Randal Froebelius of Equity ICI Real Estate Services, Inc. "Frankly, it’s having the smarts, the experience and the inherent talent to guide that team toward the accomplishment of those goals."

He adds to that tenacity, perseverance and "the ability to inspire and encourage people and the ability to see which people will be able to tackle certain aspects of a problem or challenge. Leadership is the ability to leverage the strengths of individuals."

"An effective leader needs fortitude," says LBA Realty’s Sandrena Robinson, "and the courage and willingness to take risks. In my opinion, an effective leader is confident and demonstrates determination; they aren’t afraid to make a unilateral decision to keep people moving in the right direction and then can stand by that decision. A true leader also needs impartiality to manage with a high degree of objectivity and avoid unconscious bias. They have to embrace diversity and inclusion."

Robinson also puts gratitude on the list. She states that a good leader "naturally demonstrates humility and openly acknowledges appreciation."

Finally, transparency is key, she asserts, building "long-term, trusted relationships without hidden agendas."

For Boyd Zoccola of Hokanson Companies, Inc., a leader worthy of the title "can’t be afraid of failure. You’re going to make decisions that won’t work, because you’ll make decisions often without 100 percent of the facts." The COVID-19 pandemic serves well as an example of that, he adds. "But, if you wait, you’ll never make a timely decision. The best leaders surround themselves with information, knowing that the best decision is often a timely one."

About the Author:

John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of  Prior to launching, Salustri was editor of  Real Estate Forum.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine.