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The Need for Esprit de Corps

“Esprit de corps provides people with a desire to focus their attention on creating success for their profession as a whole, rather than just doing their work in a corner.”

The mortgage origination industry has been taking a lot of shots lately. Big company settlements for consumer abuses make big headlines, and each day more mortgage broker fraud cases are made public. All of them reflect on the mortgage business in the perception of the public—our customers. Even though the bad apples comprise an appallingly small percentage of the origination community, the taint rises odiously from the bottom of the barrel and touches all in the industry. From the 5,000-foot view, it seems to come down to a sense of cohesion. The mortgage origination industry needs more esprit de corps to keep itself glued tightly together.

By definition, esprit de corps is a military concept, forged by those who faced death together on the battlefield. Leaders throughout history have understood that esprit is the intangible spark that enables people to prevail over seemingly impossible odds. How else could Caesar’s 55,000 legionaries triumph over almost 300,000 Gauls at Alesia, or Alexander’s 40,000 Macedonians defeat 250,000 Persians at Gaugamela? Tactics play a role, but esprit de corps makes a tremendous difference.

The mortgage origination industry’s sense of esprit is in the development stage. The industry is fairly new, only two decades old, really. But there are other factors slowing the growth of professional pride. For one, the industry is somewhat fragmented, with originators working for banks and mortgage bankers, as well as independent mortgage brokers. Among the brokers, there are also many working under the shingle of a net branch provider, sometimes co-branded with their own name and sometimes not. There is also vigorous competition from retail and Internet-direct lenders who are certainly mortgage originators, but are well outside the realm typically associated with the term. It’s tough to build a sense of community, of “brotherhood in arms” when there are so many component members. Another factor is the level of activity that is required to be successful in loan origination. It’s beyond a full-time job when you’re building a company; it’s absorbing to the point of leaving little room for other activities, no matter how constructive.

These impediments do not diminish the importance of esprit, given the current climate of suspicion and rhetoric about originators in general and mortgage brokers in particular. The NAMB is working hard to build solidarity among its members and to grow its membership. They understand there is strength in numbers and are doing much to increase those numbers—and along with them the odds of maintaining dominance at the all-important point of sale. The education initiatives are also headed in the right direction, but more people need to get with the program NAMB has put in place, which calls for a “drive for designation” on the part of management. Oftentimes, this sort of aim needs to be driven at the grass roots level, which happens locally if the esprit factor is to exceed the hassle factor when there are loans to be funded.

Creating esprit de corps in an entire industry has to start somewhere. The central value, according to military leaders, is integrity. “Integrity is the foundation of leadership and the key to building organizational esprit de corps,” according to comments by Air Force Wing Commander J.R. Tillery. “At the heart of integrity is a consistent value system that promotes respect and trust.” This is certainly a good place to start when it comes to your own shop. If you are a leader in your business, you can readily demonstrate this value. Col. Tillery steers us to “The Art of the Leader,” by Maj. Gen. Bill Cohen, who advises, “If you want to build esprit de corps, you must demonstrate integrity and if you do, it won’t be long before everyone in your organization knows that you can be trusted, that you say what you mean and you mean what you say. The members of your organization will demonstrate integrity in dealing with you, and each other, and the esprit de corps in your organization will soar.” If this is too simplistic for the industry at large, it certainly carries huge validity for your organization. As a core value, integrity is, well, integral.

What are some other ways to add esprit de corps within your business and within your industry as a whole? Consider some of these suggestions:

  • Band together. If you’re not a member of your local chapter, change that. Get involved with the national organization. NAMB and MBA are working hard to unite the industry. As a single originator or as a single origination business, you’ve got about as much clout as a letter to the editor. As a member of a profession that touches two thirds of the mortgages originated in this country, you’re somebody, but only if you speak as a single voice.
  • Get active. Once a member, participate actively in your local industry association chapter and in the NAMB or MBA. It’s like a love affair: you’ll get out of it what you put into it, so it’s no time to sit back and not pull your weight. You either have a stake in your long-term success or you don’t. Offer to serve on committees to strengthen your chapter. Teach classes, organize seminars, do whatever you can to increase the professionalism of your association’s members, because they reflect on you.
  • Rock the vote. Bring others into the organized sector of the industry; too many brokers out there are content to let others do the heavy lifting. Be a recruiter. Or better yet, be what the computer industry calls an “evangelist.” An evangelist is someone who visits user groups and talks up the product, pointing out the advantages of using, say, a Macintosh over a windows machine. They take the message directly to the people who will benefit and point out the advantages of the product—in this case, industry involvement. There are even benefits apart from the obvious ones by participating in NAMB’s Medallion Program.
  • Get educated. Professional designations bring you closer to your ‘band of brothers’ and sisters. NAMB has created good programs to boost the cachet of their Certified Mortgage Consultant and Certified Residential Mortgage Specialist designations. There are several hundred CMC and CRMS designees; there need to be thousands. Several colleges and universities have introduced MBAs in real estate finance. Industry associations should work with institutions to make these programs as meaningful for their members as possible. While they’re at it, these organizations can lend instructional expertise and co-brand the program with the college in the process. This would certainly boost the prestige of the association, and by extension, its members.
  • Run for office. It’s high time for more mortgage industry representation in government, both local and national. More senior executives in lending and brokering are already giving back by serving in national association offices. We have a lot of highly intelligent people in this industry, and it would be nice to have more intelligent people in government. Imagine, for example, if NHEMA’s Debbie Rosen, the MBA’s John Robbins, and NAMB’s Jim Nabors were representing us on Capitol Hill? The industry continues to suffer, especially at the state level, from legislation that seeks to protect consumers but ends up making life impossible for lending. Having more industry-experienced people in those state houses could help a lot—and boost the esprit of the industry in the process.
  • Meet the minds. It’s a good idea for leaders of the major trade organizations to support each other’s gatherings. By making themselves available for roundtables at industry conventions, they would be making meaningful contact with all points of the process, from the point of sale to the point of investment. Imagine, for example, if Rosen, Robbins, and Nabors were available for panels together, talking about the salient issues affecting each of their associations’ members. Great for the associations, great for the listeners, great for the press, always looking for stories and quotes, and great for the business of mortgage origination, which would gain knowledge, prestige and esprit.
  • Show the colors. The industry will never have a fellowship of the ring as powerful as that of the United States Naval Academy. But you can always wear the pin of your local and/or national organization. As the industry gains prestige the pin will grow in esteem for wearers and customers alike. Use the logos of your associations in your print and Internet advertising, for two reasons: it will raise the public’s awareness of the existence of the organizations and it will show that you care enough to meet the professional standards required to belong. Think of it as the Health Department’s “A” placard in the window of a restaurant. Many people don’t dine without the sign.
  • Think locally, act globally. Build integrity in your own organization and you plant seeds that will grow beyond your sphere and into the industry as a whole. This is a slow but irrevocable process that the Mortgage Bankers Association has already experienced. Their CMB designation, for example, had little cachet 30 years ago, even though it was harder to obtain then. The group has considerable clout across the halls of congress and in the financial community. Members and associate members alike proudly display the MBA’s placard in offices, in exhibit booths and in their advertising for the simple reason that they represent professionalism.

The NAMB could have even more name/image recognition success for a simple reason—their members have more access to consumers by virtue of controlling the point of sale. As the association’s prestige increases, so does the esprit of its members.

And what, exactly, would the benefit be of increased esprit de corps for the business of mortgage origination? How about additional consumer confidence, less government persecution, decreased competition by virtue of obsoleting those who can’t deal with raising the bar for admission to the business, and increased market share. The other big gain would be increased respect among regulators and Wall Street, along with a place at the table when decisions are made that affect the business at street level—product design, as an example. It’s not a small thing.

By James Hennessy

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