Image: iStock
Image: iStock

This week, I'm celebrating the birthday of our greatest American. That, of course, is Bruce Springsteen, who turned 65 on Sept. 23. I'm not sure why there isn't a national holiday for this great man, especially since such a celebration would have given me a reason to take the week off from writing this column. Alas, there is not, so in his honor, I will write my entire column about how we should take inspiration from Mr. Springsteen.

If Bruce isn't the voice of our generation he surely has provided the soundtrack for my own life. I was a teenager when "Born to Run"and "Darkness" were released. (Notice that I am on a first name basis with the Boss's 1978 release.) I remember my older sisters listening to those LPs down the hall in my suburban home. (Note to millennials — LP stands for "long play" which is in reference to the fact we used to listen to an entire album in one sitting, without interruption of text or Facebook posts.)

At heart, Bruce was rather like today's regulators and mortgage investors. He was a perfectionist and wanted everything just right. He spent six months recording one song — the great "Born to Run," the title song from an album that he worked on for nearly two years. And it was great, sort of like a perfect loan file that has been worked and reworked many times.

I guess we should be thankful we don't have a "boss" that forces us to spend six months on overdubs for each loan file we produce.

But, Springsteen is not always about perfection, especially when he is on stage. He is renowned for his long shows, but also for the variety of each individual show. In fact, I have seen some great shows by other bands, but I am struck by how similar they are from night to night. Well, Springsteen avoids that by constantly mixing up the set list, calling audibles and changing things up on the fly. In interviews, he says he does this for the audience, but also for the band, that it keeps them on their toes and energetic even as both the band and the audience approach their golden years. (Note, I took my daughter to her first Springsteen show this past year, and she actually said "he is pretty good." She also looked at my wife and I like we were crazy as we sang and danced for more than three hours. We all survived.)

There's a good lesson here for our industry, especially when it comes to how we manage our teams during turbulent times. We tend to set a procedure, get into a grove and then expect our people to keep time with the music. That gets old, then people tune out, they stop learning new things and mistakes multiply.

A better approach is to sometimes mix things up, change your training paradigms from time to time and surprise your people with unique approaches to their work. Now, it's hard to do that and maintain a commitment to the C word (Compliance) and I don't think you should necessarily come in one day and make the head of production do the head underwriter's job. (Actually, we tried that a decade ago. It didn't work.)

But you can create a program of cross training so that employees get exposed to more than just their single function. You might find that you can even pick up a lot of productivity, such as having more people pitch in on closing loans at the end of the month and then helping out post-closing the first few weeks of the next month.

My point is that staying vibrant, energetic and committed is not just the process of making a perfect process (or in Springsteen's world, the perfect song), it's about always providing your people with opportunities to stretch and challenging them to do something different.

I guess the biggest thing we can learn from Bruce Springsteen's work is that stories are powerful. The vast majority of his work, like other great songwriters we can think of, is telling stories with music. Millions of fans worldwide have heard his stories and bought into them. They feel like he "gets" them because he's singing about something they know.

There is a sense of optimism in Springsteen's music that I think we need to latch onto as an industry. People have to be optimistic to buy a home and expect it to appreciate into a worthwhile investment in post-crash America. Without this, it's hard to convince them not to just rent. Homebuilders get this. That's why they measure optimism and use it as a gauge for predicting future business.

The story about the mortgage industry too often is about what went wrong (foreclosures) and not about those things that went right (lots of homeowners did make their payments, lots of chances to refinance, lots of lower payments, much better customer satisfaction in servicing). We need to tell the stories about how now is the right time to buy a home, and why low rates and new products are leading to really low payments. We need to focus on what we are doing for consumers, and what the consumer is getting out of our products. Right now, our stories are often too much about winners and losers inthe industry, rather than whether we are helping more consumers win the opportunity for homeownership.

It's time we took control of our own stories. Or, as the Boss might put it, "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive; Everybody's out on the run tonight but there's no place left to hide."

Now, I think I'm going to put on a Springsteen playlist (yes, he is available digitally) and listen to the Boss sing about trying to get out and pursue the American dream. Let's hope as an industry we can help people do the same.

Happy Birthday, Bruce.

Garth Graham is a partner with Stratmor Group and has over 25 years of mortgage experience.