MMP 107 | Sales And Operations


In this episode, Pat interviews Jason Sasena, Chief Lending Officer, Westerra Credit Union, on how to break down the silos between sales and operations. Highlights include effective leadership strategies to bridge the gap between departments; building relationships with remote sales teams; and creating an environment of shared success.

Breaking Down The Silos Between Sales And Ops With Jason Sasena

We have a terrific topic that all of you have experienced as managers, the silos and breaking them down between sales and marketing. It’s a very important topic. I’m thrilled to have our expert, Jason Sasena. Jason is the Chief Lending Officer for Westerra Credit Union in Colorado, and he has a terrific background. He was with GMAC and Chase. He’s been in all phases of mortgage banking and certainly has seen enough silos to last him a lifetime.

First off, how did you get into managing? Going back now, you’re twenty years or so, how did it happen for you?

I started out in mortgage sales. I did pretty well at that, but I always found myself getting pulled into leadership roles or wanting to be involved. Whether it was a committee with a local association, round peer tables, or special projects, I was always raising my hand. The big break I got to get into management was because I had an interest in doing it and had good sales numbers.

You start weighing, does it make sense or not from an income perspective and then take a look at what drives you. When GMAC Mortgage bought DiTech, I was brought out to California in a manager and training type program where I could look under the hood from a mortgage banking perspective. That led to sales leadership after that. I’ve been in a leadership role ever since.

With all these years and certainly the different companies you’ve been with, what’s the best advice you’ve ever heard on managing because managing is not easy?

Managing and leadership are two different words. Managing is definitely tough. Leadership can come easy for the right people. Some of the greatest lessons I’ve ever had come from mentors. I’m trying to pull what those strengths are and be able to apply that to the business. I don’t know that everybody necessarily drives into management for all the right reasons. A lot of times, they’re pulled in there because they were a great salesperson, then that management left, and they’re like, “Why don’t you go do this?” I don’t know if it’s always the right reasons behind it, but I found that a strong purpose is a good driver for doing that.

I know you read lots of books, but when you look back from an advice standpoint, was there any book in particular that you’ve found helpful in your managing?

There are a lot of great books out there. I would probably name all of the ones that you would think of, like The Speed of Trust, Execution, and Leadership. The greatest lessons come from mentors, those people that you had a chance to work with, being able to pull those strengths and see them in action. Not everybody’s perfect, so being able to see those things that work effectively either in times of the different situational type of leadership that comes out. You see how people react to those that do it well and those that don’t.

To be able to bring that in and add it to your fold has been a good piece. Peer mentorship happens, too. Without formal mentorship, you can acquire and develop sharpened skills by hanging out in the right circles and being in a position where you’re able to exchange some of your strengths with those around you and vice versa.

There are a lot of great books out there. Don’t get me wrong. I’m in a couple of books. I listen to books more than I read books from a time and calendaring perspective. Instead of broad-type leadership books, I tend to dive a little bit deeper into specific things I’m looking at. Everything we’re dealing with the virus, I grab this Stay Positive book.

I saw this on somebody’s post on LinkedIn, it’s a nice daily little piece that helps for reflection of yourself, but then you can also push it out to your folks and help people with the mindset type of piece. I’m also listening to StrengthsFinder, which is diving into people like, “What drives them? What are their core strengths on how they’re able to lead folks?”

When you look at managing from the standpoint of the secret sauce, what do you think it is? 

From a secret sauce, without being clichè, I do think you have to fall back on why you want to be a manager. A lot of times, people are misled about what management or the role is really about. If you could step back and say, “What makes me happy? What provides me fulfillment and happiness? What are the things I’m good at that are aligned with that?”

If it’s more destination, “Where do I want to go? What does my career look like? What are the things that are going to make me happy?” If it’s ego, title, or money, it’s probably the wrong reason to step into a management role. The secret sauce is understanding what drives you and where those strengths are, whether they’re to be developed or if they come more naturally. Understanding that why and getting driven behind a purpose is the best thing you can think of from a secret sauce perspective.

I definitely agree with you, for sure. People sometimes fall into managing because they get an override or some other thing, which isn’t reflecting the core challenge that you have as a manager. That’s a good point that you’re mentioning. If you had to talk about, what is the principle that you keep coming back to managing? In other words, what is your rule of thumb?

My rule of thumb is that you got to be a people leader. I believe my purpose is to help people get where they want to go. That’s different for everybody. It’ll change throughout your career. If you generally care about people, want to help them achieve the things they’re after, and you’re in a position to be able to help them get there, to me, that’s the most rewarding.

If you generally care about people and can help them achieve what they want, that is the most rewarding feeling ever. Share on X

I’ve had people that start from a new loan officer role and then work their way through some of the top sales in the country because that’s the route they wanted to go. I’ve had others that wanted to grow into leadership roles. They’ve started as loan officers, moved into leadership roles, and are running very successful mortgage groups right now. It depends on what those people’s purposes are and what their destination is. If I can be a part of that, I find that to be the most rewarding.

You are saying that it starts with understanding yourself first before you can get into the role of leading, which is a key point. Let’s talk about famous issues. We see it all the time in mortgage banking and in banking, this whole issue of silos and the fight between sales and ops. What do you think that’s about, and what is the best way to resolve these issues?

Breaking out silos has been ongoing. It seems like different companies have different levels of it. Some companies are able to remove it. I’ve been in situations of all of that. I started with silos and was able to help fix that. Reflecting back on it a little bit, it starts with leadership’s ability to lay out a strategy with a solid plan and being able to communicate it to the point where we have a common goal. 

In operations, sometimes they think about the tasks that they have to do. At the end of the day, they’re doing the same thing and part of the origination flow. It’s being able to come up with a strong understanding of the common goal. If everybody is doing their part, then they’re able to execute and create some happy homeowners.

MMP 107 | Sales And Operations

Sales And Operations: Coming up with a strong understanding of the common goal and ensuring everybody’s doing their part can create happy homeowners.

From a leadership perspective, you take a look at the execution components. Do you have all the right people in the right places? Have you laid out the right processes and then added some technology to them? Not that all of those have to be perfect, but people with a common goal want to feel like they have a chance to achieve so they’re going to need those things in place. If they’re not in place, they need to be working on them. Again, never anywhere is perfect.

The other one is trust. This is probably the biggest component of it. Do you trust each other? Do you have the ability to say, “I can do these few things, hand it off, and not look back? Do I have full trust in my partner?” That’s what it is. It’s a partnership between sales and operations. If you believe that and you’re able to put people in a position where they can focus on what makes them the most successful within those roles. Having the trust to be able to pass it on that it’s going to be fulfilled, that’s where I’ve seen sales take origination and new heights.

Part of it is the sales and operations, and trying to get rid of that names and call it, “This is my origination channel.” There are different roles within it, but as we can’t help ourselves, we always fall back into sales and operations. There are other things that can happen there from a goal alignment, whether it’s compensation or some of those other things.

Sometimes disparate compensation can create some angst. Do you have an incentive-based model throughout your origination channel? If not, then what are you focused on? A lot of those different things will come into play between sales and operations, but trust is the biggest one. If people feel like it’s being broken down or not being fulfilled, it’s a reputational risk on one end or the other.

In any of the organizations you’ve been with, I’ve certainly seen lenders give a service contract between ops and sales that, “We’re going to do this and you’re going to do that.” Otherwise, you run across this whole issue that ops feel sales aren’t filling out the ops right. Likewise, sales feel that ops aren’t picking it up. Have you gone to the route where you’ve had a service agreement between both parties?

I call them service-level agreements. That comes out with, “It is your contract. For me to be successful at this, I need to have you do that.” Creating clear expectations for people is powerful, and then holding them accountable for that reinforces it. It’s important to keep things objective, too, because a lot of times, when the motions get involved, it usually doesn’t end up being out. It helps resolve issues if you can take that objective look at somebody who doesn’t trust their fulfillment partner or sales partner to get things done that they’re supposed to be done. If you can follow that back on, “You’re supposed to do A, B, C, and D. I’ve gotten half of an application.”

MMP 107 | Sales And Operations

Sales And Operations: If you can create objective conversations with somebody who doesn’t trust their fulfillment or sales partners to get things done, it can help resolve issues.

The good news is technology helps with a lot of that stuff now so you can prevent people from stopping short. It doesn’t fix all, but it also helps align with reporting and such from a service-level agreement. A lot of that is soft touches, too, like responses in phone calls and emails, or giving me the information that I need to continue on to the next thing. I’m a fan of creating objective conversations. If service level agreements and/or checklists or technology that supports is able to do that, I think it’s strong.

Let’s say you’re at a branch level and you’re out in a remote location. Of course, a lot of those folks aren’t with the operational side on a day-to-day basis. How do you encourage that conversation? How do you improve it when it’s not very good? How do you take it to this other level? Is this once a year that you bring them all together in a sales rally, which is pretty typical? Is there anything else that you do that helps that branch that needs their loans closed?

There’s a lot with that because that’s the hard part. I can just walk over. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the best way, either. What it comes down to is relationships. How can you build those relationships between the counterparts that are working together with working remote and everything we’re dealing with COVID right now?

These video cameras are on every single computer now, so we’ve created a way for people to be able to communicate a little more effectively beyond a cold email. I’m not saying everything needs to be that way, but if you can figure out ways to do remote meetings through either Zoom or WebEx where people can see their faces, there’s some value in that.

That creates an opportunity for people to lighten up a little bit, understand people’s personalities, and get to know them. Typically, when people get to know each other and feel like they have a friendship, they want to serve them more and it becomes more reciprocating. There’s the other part of it, too. It’s like, “We’ve got full pipelines. I can’t drop everything and answer emails because I got work to do.”

Having some call blocking or making yourself available and then making it known that, “I’m going to return all my emails between 11:00 and 12:00.” Picking time so that people can have expectations that you got it, you’re going to be looking at it, and you’re going to be responding. You need a time block because you’ve got an abundance of pipeline to work through as well.

From my own experience, talking to enough top producers, I’m interested in your thoughts. What I always saw with top producers, and probably why they are top producers, is that they recognize that they have internal selling responsibilities in addition to external ones. The internal is the relationship they build with ops. Do you see the better producers recognizing that?

Sometimes you don’t see that with the lesser producers who see this adversarial relationship because they don’t have enough prospects or referral sources. When they lose a loan, that can be dramatic. When a top producer loses a loan, it isn’t having the same impact because they’re bringing in more production. Has that been your experience?

Top producers have a very rigid process in which they function. How things flow and how things go, they’re very acute-detailed on what those processes are. Let’s face it. We’re dealing with people so it comes down to relationships. We’ve seen top producer that blows up operations every single time and the sales manager lets them get away with it every time because of the amount of sales they’re doing.

It’s not breaking down silos. That’s reinforcing or creating deeper silos so that tends to be a problem. The salesperson that understands that there’s a face on the other side of this and a strong relationship puts their respect and shared success on the execution of their ops partners. That’s where you start to see the fluid. Once you respect that, and work together, you’ll have a stronger team and it does come back to the leadership on not letting that kind of stuff happen. We’ve seen the tales from both ends many times.

During the interview process, you think this should be part of the discussion that you’re having with an originator or even an ops person, “What are the standards of services? What is expected?” Do you have those types of conversations when you’re in the interviewing process?

Nobody comes out and says, “I’m a jerk to my operations team.” Especially with the tenure of our business right now, it’s not hard to find out. If you’re doing a little bit of reference checking on who they are, you can get it that way. Smart questioning and focusing on that is important. The other thing I like to do, and I use this as a way for recruiting to bring on top talent, is involve my operations teams, secondary marketing, or some of the other departments.

Your ops team manager or ops leader is going to want to ask a few of those questions, and they’ll smell it out a little bit, too. You start asking a few questions or putting somebody in a tough situation like, “What would you do if this happened?” You tend to get a pretty quick sense of how they’re going to treat your team. The best thing you could do is not let them in the door because once they’re in the door, then it’s a whole other set of things you got to deal with.

You raised a really great point about including the ops people in the interview process. It should be part of the interview process for the reason that you’ve already mentioned. We only have a few minutes left and I thought this is a great topic we could go on for a long time. If you had to say the 2 or 3 things that you would want our listeners to think about and implement regarding breaking down the silos, what would that be, Jason?

It comes back down to leadership. Breaking down the silos starts at the top of the house. When you look at your top of the house, do you have high trust amongst those people working together? Are you creating an environment where you’re invoking and building trust? Do you have empowerment amongst those folks to be able to do the jobs they need to do with the objectiveness back to accountability and making sure that everybody is doing the best they can to get that thing through?

If you generally care about people and can help them achieve what they want, that is the most rewarding feeling ever. Share on X

The last thing is to celebrate the wins together. It’s very easy to call out the top producer, but I found it’s better to call out the top producing team and align the whole fulfillment chain. Maybe it’s the loan officer, a couple of processors, and some underwriters and stuff. They’re getting celebrated together versus calling out people on a single level. It goes further with the whole team and reinforces the fact that it’s a team sport. While we have individuals that do great volume, without that support, they’re not able to accomplish that volume on their own.

That’s a terrific point to end with. I want to thank Jason for sharing his wisdom on this and everybody for reading. Certainly, look forward to our next episode. Thank you.

Thank you, Pat.


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