HR Tech 2019: 5 HR lessons from Barbara Corcoran (with video)

By the time she was 23, Barbara Corcoran had held down 22 jobs. She was confident her latest waitressing gig in Edgewater, N.J., would land her a big break–and she turned out to be right.

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It was at the small diner that she met her future business partner, who ultimately would loan her $1,000 that kickstarted her real estate career and led to the founding of the Corcoran Group–which she eventually sold for $66 million. Corcoran, who now stars on ABC’s Shark Tank, shared the HR secrets to her success with thousands of conference-goers at the opening session of the HR Technology Conference & Exposition, happening in Las Vegas through Oct. 4.

WATCH as Barbara Corcoran talks trust and start-ups

When she looks back on her storied career, Corcoran said, she can identify five key business lessons that helped her recruit, retain and develop the best and brightest talent–and which today’s HR leaders can embed into their organizations:

HRE at HR TECH: Follow along for full conference coverage here.

  1. Perception creates reality: Corcoran once put together what she billed the Corcoran Report, full of stats on the New York real estate market–in days, the New York Times was quoting from the report. “If the press puts you as an authority in print, you’re the authority. After that, I became the queen of bullshit for the rest of my life,” she laughed. In another instance, she published the Madonna Report, highlighting high-end listings, and was summarily referred to on newscasts as the “celebrity broker.” Those strategies helped her to build a brand, which, she said, makes building talent much easier: As soon as she started getting press for her company, Corcoran said, her recruiting events went from getting a few attendees to more than 150. Publicity was the “secret sauce,” she said.
  2. Expanders and containers: There are two types of workers: those who help expand others and those who help contain them–and the workplace needs both, she said. She referred to an employee she once had named Esther–whose trustworthy nature helped Corcoran double a credit line that the day before a bank had been threatening to lower. “They didn’t trust me. But they trusted Esther. She was the consummate container. When you put expanders and containers together, if they’re equally strong, you can have success without ever having to check on it again,” she said.
  3. Hire happy people: After three years of hiring people whom she hoped to bring out the best of early on in her career, Corcoran said she had a realization: “If their parents couldn’t make them happy, I had no shot at hell of making them happy. So, I stopped hiring people who weren’t happy.” After she interviews anyone, she said, she takes a breath and asks herself is she feels relieved the person is gone or if she has a “happy puff” around her.
  4. Fun is great for business: Corcoran once hired an open-air bus to drive a group of employees around on a surprise, alcohol-fueled trip–orchestrating a fake bus break-down in the middle of Harlem. “If you can have fun, with an element of surprise, you own people,” she said. She organized pajama parties, costume parties, cross-dressing events. “All good ideas came out when people were drunk, laughing and creative,” she said.
  5. Recognition builds loyalty best: When starting out, Corcoran said, she used to underpay people to stretch the company dollar–but said she found that employees valued recognition just as much as money. She struggled for years to have her company secure a $1 million listing; yet, within one week of promising employees a gold ribbon to whomever got that deal first, one employee inked a listing for $3.5 million. And within three years, she said, “you couldn’t walk through any Corcoran Group office without bulletin boards covered with gold ribbons,” she said. “Competition feeds it, and recognition gets people where you want them to go.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].