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RiverRock’s John Combs featured in JPM’s “A Fresh Take On Mentorship″



JPM Jan/Feb 2015: 52-53.
By John Solustri, contributing writer for JPM® 

John Combs, CPM, takes mentorship very seriously. He himself was the recipient of positive mentorship early in his career, and it is something he fosters for the 130 employees of his firm, RiverRock Real Estate Group, AMO, in Newport Beach, Calif. That, he believes, is one of the reasons RiverRock has been voted one of the Best Places to Work six years in a row by the Orange County Business Journal. But Combs doesn’t stop at promoting mentorship in the expected ways.

“We’re about to launch an enhanced mentorship program at RiverRock;’ he said, describing it actually as a “mentorship program on steroids:’ Under the program, everyone at the firm-the kids and the vets alike-will have a mentor assigned to them, a mentor other than their bosses and possibly from outside the firm. The mentors would be responsible for mentees’ ongoing training and their professional development and designations. The mentees will be responsible for keeping in close contact with their mentors.

If the idea of senior people having mentors seems odd, it’s not so much for Combs, who to this day maintains a revolving list of mentors. “I have mentors today;’ he said, “Every year I ask who makes up my peer group now, and every year I establish five mentors with whom I stay in touch. It can be one or two of the same people but it does rotate based on what we’re doing in our careers:’ currently, he leans toward other people running large companies. The benefits are undeniable, and over the years, Combs has found that mentorship has helped him find jobs, relocate, open new markets and take on new business lines  and it has brought some amazing talent to the firm:’ Further, it provides a sense of community, “and an awareness of what everyone else is  focused  on.  His belief is that older veterans can fall into the trap of being active but bored, or believe that the problems they’re experiencing are unique to them. Mentor ship is a sure cure for both of those professional ailments. “I don’t care who you are. You can always learn valuable lessons:’ and it’s good for the mentors. “Most people like to teach others;’ he said, “They like to feel they’re valued. It makes them step up and think about what they can teach.”

As this goes to press, the details of the program are being ironed out in time for a January 2015 launch. Combs pointed out that, ironically the program’s sponsor is actually a Millennial who researched and wrote it. Another part of mentorship at RiverRock is a quarterly series of Forum Calls, as Combs termed it, open -mike sessions, already in place, in which no senior executive is allowed to take part and no subject is off limits. “There are no names attached with comments;’ said Combs, and no consequences for anything that comes up. What’s important is not who said it, but what was said:’ a facilitator is assigned to moderate the call and take notes for management to digest and respond.

A recent topic of discussion was flex time. It seems a lot of people at RiverRock like the idea, “but everyone defines flex time differently;’ said Combs. ‘Is it working from home or doing four 10-hour days?” The firm is currently trying to develop a unified, workable definition of what flex time will mean for RiverRock.  “But isn’t it great that we know there’s interest in it? We’re in touch with what people feel they need:’ such feedback from employees he considers part of the firm’s “secret sauce” for staff retention. And retention is high-93 percent overall, Combs said, explaining that he benchmarks these figures against like organizations. He’s frank that retention drops among the relatively few Millennials he has on board, although at 73 percent, it’s still high. He cited a recent study of young professionals by RETS Associates that revealed Millennials’ desire to change jobs even if they’re happy. In fact, 50 percent said they’d jump ship.

“You can’t teach loyalty;’ he said, “And Millennials are not loyal. That may ruffle some feathers, but it’s the truth. They want a job, and the job sounds great, but they really don’t want to do Excel spreadsheets. If they’re respected and get face time, they pretty much stay. But remember, loyalty is not retention:’ the challenge, he said, is to find how to capture them and take advantage of the talents they bring, “because we’re not Apple or Google with big kitchens or rec rooms. What can we do in this industry to keep them? It’s the key to next steps for all of us in this business:’ In terms of Combs’ own mentorship history, he said his first mentors were the “wealthier clients” he worked with as a horse trainer in college. “They were developers and brokers, and that’s how I got into the real estate game.

Then when I became a regional manager, I tried to meet other regional managers of other companies through IREM and they became my mentors and I just kept going. Today, it can be a mentor or a peer. It really changes:’ but note something significant here: Combs always pursued mentorship. He became an active participant in his own success. The venue can change, as well. He recalled “Breakfast Club” meetings with peers earlier in his career. (Ironically, these meetings included Jana Turner, now of RETS Associates, which conducted the above-mentioned survey.) Today, he said, he gets more out of meeting his mentors at lunch or dinner. And therein lies the core truth behind all of what Combs is doing -or has done-in the name of mentorship: “as long as you’re learning, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Right?”


 Click here to view this article on JPM’s Website.