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Barbara Corcoran Learns Her Heart’s True Desires
In her hilarious and lighthearted book, Shark Tales: How I Turned $1,000 Into a
Billion Dollar Business, Barbara Corcoran demonstrates the importance of knowing what
you really want out of life (Corcoran & Littlefield, 2011). As her title suggests, Barbara
founded her real estate company, The Corcoran Group, with only $1,000 and some big
dreams. Shortly after founding the company, Barbara took out a piece of paper and wrote
down some big goals for herself and the company. In 1978, she had only 14 sales agents
working for her, who earned a total of $250,000 in commissions. She set a goal of
doubling the number of agents and the commissions every year. So she put down 28 sales
people for 1979, 56 for 1980, and so on, all the way up to 1,792 salespeople in 1985 with
total commissions of $32,000,000. Barbara was amazed when she saw the fantastic sums
projected for 1985, and of course many people, when they see such amazing sums, would
dismiss the calculations as fantasy But as Barbara put it, she went to work the next day
hustling hard for her $32 million.
Real estate agents are paid largely by commission, which is about as close as you
can get to a pure form of contingent reward for performance. However, Barbara didn’t
rely solely on the commissions to motivate her workers. She threw theme parties and held
numerous social events to build a committed workforce. Good sales agents could always
move to another firm, but not every firm had Barbara’s positive attitude and fun-filled
atmosphere. In the early years of the firm, when money was tight, Barbara and her
relatives did the cooking for the outings and parties, and she found clever ways to
entertain people with skating parties and other lively activities. As the firm became larger
and more profitable, she even hired professional entertainers for the company’s midweek
picnics, which included elephant shows, daring rides on hot air balloons, horses, or
Harley Davidsons, etc. Barbara stated “I built my company on pure fun, and believe that
fun is the most underutilized motivational tool in business today. All of my best ideas
came when I was playing outside the office with the people I worked with” (Corcoran &
Littlefield, 2011, p. 283). What did she get in return for the fun atmosphere? She had the
“most profitable real estate company per person in the United States” (p. 284). By the
time she sold her agency in 2001, she had 1,000 agents working for her, and she had the
largest real estate agency in New York – clearly her motivational strategies attracted a
large number of productive employees.
Barbara Corcoran had sold her firm for $66 million. She thought that would make
her happy, but instead, it made her sad. Although she pretended to be happy with her new
wealth and freedom, she was “secretly miserable” (Corcoran & Littlefield, 2011, p. 232).
She had lost her purpose in life. Barbara stated, “I felt my entire identity gone – wiped
out” (p. 232). In addition to losing her personal identity, she lost much of her social
identity as well when the new owners blocked her former employees from sending her
emails. Without a purpose and an identity, she felt like a nobody.
Barbara set to work making some new goals for herself. She took out her trusty
yellow legal pad and drew a line down the center of the page. On one side of the page,
she listed everything she hated, on the other side, everything she loved. When doing
exercises like this, its important to be honest with oneself. Barbara was honest enough to
realize that she loved the power of her old position. She also liked being creative and
helping other people. She especially loved being the center of attention. These honest
self-evaluations and goals helped her realize that she wanted a new career in the mass
media. This set her on the path to her current job as a cohost of ABC’s show Shark Tank.
On Shark Tank, she can listen to creative would-be entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for
new companies, and she has the opportunity to help them out by investing her own
money into their businesses. And as a TV host, she gets plenty of attention as well: a true
happy ending to her tale.
1. Are you motivated by ambitious goals, such as Barbara’s goal of doubling the number
of sales agents every year? Why or why not?
2. Barbara’s rivals in the real estate industry probably paid the same commissions on
sales to their agents that she did to hers. Given that all the agencies paid the same rate,
why was Barbara able to grow her firm so rapidly?
3. What else did Barbara do to motivate and attract the best agents?
4. Besides money, how will you motivate your employees? Provide some rationale for
your choice of motivator(s).
Source: Corcoran, B. & Littlefield, B. (Ed.). (2011). Shark Tales: How I turned $1,000 into a billion dollar
business. New York, NY: Penguin.