Driving Disruption: Mike Gomes Of Cortland On The Innovative Approaches They Are Taking To Disrupt Their Industries

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Scale — The multifamily industry is very fractured, and there are only a few firms that can claim to have a degree of scale. We’re one of the top 10 owners and operators of apartment homes in the country. As such, because of that scale we can break out of the mindset that you have to operate each individual property by itself. We have been able to act like many other industries do, which is aggregating information to be able to better manage your assets, better manage your real estate, better manage your business, and most importantly, better attract prospective customers, and better manage the engagement you have with your customers — in our case, with our residents.

In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but also driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they take to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Gomes.

Mike is chief experience officer for Atlanta-based Cortland, a vertically integrated, multifamily real estate investment, development, and management company focused on delivering resident-centric, hospitality-driven apartment living experiences. He honed his expertise at Disney and AMB Sports and Entertainment (Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United), two organizations hyper-focused on creating memorable customer experiences (CX). He brought his talents to Cortland in 2018, as it solidified its focus on becoming the best at CX in the multifamily industry. Mike works across the entire organization to ensure teams are aligned on Cortland’s CX vision and goals.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve worked in the customer experience space for about three decades, spending the first two in the Disney Parks division — a great place to be when you want to learn about guest experience! I worked on a variety of different initiatives and often found myself working as part of cross-functional teams bringing new products and services to guests of Walt Disney World. As the web and smartphones permeated our lives, we recognized opportunities to introduce new digital tools and experiences that complemented the physical experience of the theme park vacation. From there I moved into the world of sports, leading the design and development of the fan experience for what was then the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and its two home clubs — the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. That’s what brought me to Atlanta. It was a great opportunity to work with an amazing group of people to design and then execute a holistic experience that all comes together on gameday.

After we successfully launched the stadium and Atlanta United in 2017, I joined Cortland. I knew little about the real estate and multifamily spaces, but I saw a company with a bold vision for wanting to stand out from its competition by focusing on the customer and resident experience. I knew my background of taking physical experiences and layering in digital engagement to improve the overall customer experience created an opportunity where I could help Cortland achieve its vision.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The multifamily industry at large hasn’t been known for delivering an outstanding customer experience. I was drawn to Cortland because it was clear from the top of the organization on down that we could separate ourselves from other apartment companies by committing to deliver a great experience for residents. It starts with our CEO and founder Steven DeFrancis, who always asks: How do all our collective decisions and individual departmental decisions contribute collaboratively to that ultimate goal of creating really a great place for people to live and call home? Then from our core values to our vertically integrated organization to the talent we seek and the way we train all our associates, we strive to ensure all our decisions flow through a resident-centric lens so the resident ultimately feels cared for and appreciated.

I’ll share a story. We know how important maintenance is, not only to be able to quickly react to something that may go wrong, break or cease to function in somebody’s apartment, but also to fix it correctly. As we continued to grow and expand around the country, we realized hands-on training for our maintenance technicians was critical. Doing that training through virtual channels was not as effective. So, Cortland invested in a full-sized tractor-trailer, gutted the interior and built in it all the building systems — electrical, plumbing , lighting, HVAC. We call it our mobile training unit. It drives around the country throughout the year visiting our local markets, so all our technicians who work in our communities get hands-on training. We won an innovation award for it, but it’s also an example of where we really try to make sure our associates are well-trained and well-positioned. We believe in creating a great culture and a great place to work, and by investing in our associates it encourages and empowers them to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Collaboration — As it relates to customer experience, no one person, regardless of title, is responsible for the customer experience. It takes the entire company, engineered and wired with the right programs, discipline and mindset to deliver our great customer experience.
  2. Communication — Beyond the sense of, “I wrote you an email,” it’s the notion of being able to influence and inspire around areas where we want to go as a company. It’s recognizing the need and opportunity to connect with people across the organization to help continue to bring people along, while also recognizing not everybody’s going to come along at the same pace.
  3. Energy — This could also come through the lens of passion, but the two are different. I once saw an interview on CNBC with Jack Welch, the legendary CEO and chairman of GE at the time. They asked him what trait he looked for when hiring that might not be obvious. He said, “Energy. You know why? You can’t teach people energy.” That has stuck with me. Great things happen in a company, truly, when you consistently bring energy and passion together. And it’s kind of just wired in me and wired across so many people at Cortland. It’s also why even after 30 years of developing customer experiences, I still have passion for it.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

In leadership, we’re often faced with hard decisions about one path or another, but one of the things I’m known for at Cortland is being the “both-and” guy. I like to say that whenever you hear somebody say, “You can do either this or that,” it’s an immediate trigger opportunity to ask why. Why do I have to make that trade-off? Why is it assumed we can either do something fast or do it well? Why can’t we be both fast and good? That’s a very simplistic example, but we love looking at opportunities through the lens of both-and instead of either-or. That’s where innovation truly can be sparked.

And it’s what Cortland’s entire business model is based upon. Most companies in our space choose between focusing on taking care of their customers or their investors. Cortland eschews that notion, and instead sees desirable business results for our investors because we take care of our residents. Because we have a resident-centric approach, we’re known for being a great place to live, and our residents are willing to stay longer and pay more for the experience of living at a Cortland community.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”?

There are two different ways in which I think you could define disruption.

The first type of disruption involves a significant change or significant shift in business caused by outside forces. This is disruption that happens to you. Look what happened at Kodak when the world of film quickly dissipated and went digital, or what Uber did to disrupt what had been the traditional taxi industry and caught that group kind of flat-footed and by surprise.

The second type is internal when leaders become the catalyst for disruption within their own organization. Part of our ethos at Cortland is that we’re not afraid to “Thoughtfully challenge the status quo of the traditional multifamily industry.” So even though we’re a big player in that industry, we’re not afraid to look at ourselves in ways we could do things differently and shift in a significant way — the way in which we may operate, the way in which we may try to serve the customer or the way in which we may pursue investment opportunities.

How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?

The need to disrupt isn’t always necessary. Your company may be working very well; you’re profitable or you’re delivering on your business expectations, in which case, staying the path and focusing on consistent execution may be OK. However, I do believe it’s imperative for all companies to consider disruption — internal and external — and determine if there is a need or opportunity to truly challenge yourself to do things differently.

Within multifamily, Cortland has been very successful. If we just simply did what everybody else did, we’d probably still be a successful firm. But our CEO Steven DeFrancis believes we should constantly innovate and we should continuously challenge ourselves. One of our core values is “Have the courage to be better.” And at its core, that means having the courage to do things that are different and having the courage to speak up when you think there are new ideas and new opportunities.

Disruption itself isn’t about smaller, incremental changes; it’s more about strategic innovation and significant changes to realize new avenues of growth. An advantage that I’ve had in my last two roles is that I have come from an outside industry. And as an outsider, I don’t come with a predisposed notion of how things have historically been done or how they should have been done. Several of my Cortland colleagues also come wired with best practices from other industries, where they have been much more disruptive and consumer-centric. That’s given us the opportunity to act like that on a more daily basis as opposed to just simply doing your nine-to-five and going home and running the business like it’s always been run.

What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?

I’d say one of the biggest ways I challenge conventional wisdom is to literally do just that by asking questions. In some cases, it’s been easy for me because I’ve been asking questions steeped in ignorance because I came from outside the industry. But being able to continuously probe and ask not only how we do something, but also why. Have we explored trying to do things differently? Have you ever looked at another industry, because this doesn’t seem to be how the hospitality industry would handle this type of opportunity? And then truly listen deeply around what it is that the person might say so you can try to understand the context and the nuance. Starting from a position of asking questions and not starting from a position of “I think I know the answer” has affected my leadership approach over time.

Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

When I first started with Cortland in 2018, we probably had about 35,000 apartment homes around the country. At the time, the communities didn’t carry the Cortland name. In fact, we didn’t even have a single Cortland website to house all our Cortland communities. Each website was just focused on an individual property.

Having worked at Disney and for the Atlanta Falcons, brand was a prominent thought on my mind. So, I asked, “Why don’t we put our Cortland name on the community?” With our investment strategy, we have conviction in the markets in which we operate and we want to continue to grow our footprint in each of those respective markets. Our marketing leadership started thinking about ways to grow awareness in those individual markets as an apartment brand residents, consumers and potential residents could trust. And from our efforts broadly on our daily operational execution and the resident experience, we have also benefited from having an outstanding online reputation.

It would seem obvious with our brand reputation combined with our brand name to unify under the Cortland banner, but that is not a common approach in our industry. Because so much of the industry operates with third-party management, while we own and operate our own properties as part of our vertically integrated structure and many people question what the value would be to the brand.

The multifamily industry has typically led with property and real estate and not the consumer. We had an opportunity to really create a brand for our consumers that we knew would also have benefit to our investors, vendors or others that we partner with that could create some sustainable advantage for us. It may not seem disruptive broadly, but it was a disruptive change to Cortland and the industry’s traditional approach.

What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?

1 . Vertical integration — Having this structure allows us to control nearly every part of the property and the resident experience. When we find out we’re going to get awarded a community for acquisition, our in-house investments team, interior design team, construction team, operations team and marketing team immediately collaborate and set forth to determining renovation scope, building design plans, developing construction schedules, ordering supplies, fixtures and elements, and forming a marketing strategy around which new customers (prospects) we think will live in this renovated community. From the moment we close on that acquisition, we can immediately start making improvements. If we were just an investment company hiring third parties, our speed and velocity of making positive improvements for the residents would be compromised, and our ability to get to business results faster would not be possible.

2 . Brand — We have leaned into our brand, and not as just a name. It’s easy to think of brand as a logo, but the brand is indeed a reflection of everything you do as a company, every interaction you have with a stakeholder. That stakeholder is a resident, an employee; that stakeholder could be an investor, a vendor or a general contractor. We make sure the way in which all of those stakeholders who interact with us start to feel about us reputationally is that Cortland acts with integrity, Cortland delivers on its promises, Cortland goes above and beyond to be a great place to work, Cortland goes above and beyond to be a great place to live — that is kind of disruptive in our industry, and something we believe provides some significant overall value for the firm.

3 . Resident-centric — Cortland believes its resident-centric approach of creating great places to live is a distinction in the marketplace that can create competitive advantage in an otherwise commoditized space of multifamily apartments. Our excellent reputation creates long-term value for us. That resident-centric approach is not just for the operations teams directly interacting with the resident — it’s the whole organization. The decisions we make as an asset management division or the decisions we make on how to address or design our amenities are all informed by our consumer insights and our operational knowledge to help ensure all our individual and collective decisions contribute to creating a great place to live.

4 . Scale — The multifamily industry is very fractured, and there are only a few firms that can claim to have a degree of scale. We’re one of the top 10 owners and operators of apartment homes in the country. As such, because of that scale we can break out of the mindset that you have to operate each individual property by itself. We have been able to act like many other industries do, which is aggregating information to be able to better manage your assets, better manage your real estate, better manage your business, and most importantly, better attract prospective customers, and better manage the engagement you have with your customers — in our case, with our residents.

5 . Proprietary data and technology — One of the things that that scale also provides us is a large amount of proprietary data and the opportunity to invest in technology. As one of the largest, if not the largest operator and owner in a place like Dallas, we believe we have more proprietary knowledge and data around our customers, our assets and operating in that market. To leverage that potential advantage, we have built our own data management platforms along with in-house analytics and AI capabilities. This allows us to build proprietary data models that can serve our investments, asset management, marketing and operations teams to help them identify opportunities and optimize overall business performance. Scale has also given us the opportunity to invest in new technology platforms that allow us to modernize our operations and create a much better experience for our associates and our residents, and to be able to serve the residents from anywhere through a variety of channels. The ability to invest in technology is much more difficult for firms in our industry who lack meaningful scale.

Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?

It’s allowed me to work on cool stuff! Just becoming known as somebody who’s not afraid to disrupt the status quo means any time there was a brand-new project or initiative has allowed me to work on wonderfully fun things over the last 30 years.

From a surprise standpoint, I have found that as I’ve moved into more senior executive roles that almost all the people who report to me are much smarter in their individual roles and disciplines than I am. I’ve had people report to me who are engineers, user experience (UX) designers, digital professionals, industrial engineers, marketing executives, event programmers, etc. I’m not at all an expert in many of those functions! In my opportunities to lead these cross-functional groups, the magic or the secret sauce I try to provide is stitching these seemingly independent disciplines together to create something that is more of a holistic, singular experience. What has surprised me is I don’t have to be the functional expert. I don’t have to be the person with all the ideas. I have been in positions where I’ve been a leader of so many others in different disciplines who all had great ideas, and my role has been to figure out how we make those ideas as great as they can be when you merge them across these different functions.

Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you on a personal level?

I’m more risk-averse in my own personal life than I am at work! Maybe it’s because I’ve come into work every day for the last 30 years challenging aspects of the state of status quo, so in my personal life, keeping on a steadier track has probably been a counterbalance to that.

In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?

At no point have I been part of a team that just recklessly said, “Let’s disrupt this for the sake of disrupting it.” The strategy has always been well-honed and thought through, but it doesn’t always mean the strategy is right. You look at customer research and trends, see how outside industries have done things, do pilots, gather more insights, and refine or re-examine certain assumptions. There’s a point where you feel confident in the strategy and move forward, but you never have all the answers.

As an example, in previous roles, I was involved in a couple of launches that were taking traditional analog businesses and moving them to digital, and we knew it would take time. At one point we were six months in and had been losing money compared with the analog model of doing things. We looked at each other and my leader said, “This is the moment of intestinal fortitude.” We’d spent so much time working on this strategy, and we were confident it was the right direction, but we definitely questioned ourselves and whether we were indeed on the right path. In the end we knew we couldn’t just abandon ship. We had to listen and course correct…quickly. And that six month mark ended up being the new baseline, and we took it from there. I’ll always remember that notion of none of us sleeping well at night, but we each had the intestinal fortitude to trust our guts and to trust our instincts. That was a valuable lesson.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

One of the things that has occurred to me as I went through school and then seeing my kids go through school has been the giant gaps in life disciplines that don’t seemingly get taught across the board. Or they get taught in a way that are not comprehensible. Those two areas are what I’ll call nutrition/physical fitness and just basic financial acumen.

The best place to fill this void is in elementary education through high school education. And I don’t mean just teaching nutrition, because nobody understands the Food Pyramid. If someone asked me, “Did you have four helpings of fiber in your diet today?” I can’t tell you what the size of a helping is. And if it says four ounces, I don’t know what four ounces is!

How do we really help people to understand the basics of their personal wellness? And in the space I’m in now, I realize how little people truly know about the basics of how money and financials work, and how many people in their adult lives struggle with it. A big part of it is that it’s not taught to them in school. I understand we’re teaching math and algebra and calculus, and those things have real value. But I don’t think we teach enough of some of these very practical things I think could have a huge impact across so many people as they age into adulthood. We need much more intentional approaches to things that will affect their lives and affect their kids’ lives as well.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.