What a Renovation Can Teach You About Leadership

dilapidated-blog.jpgBy Niran Kulathungam

I still remember so clearly walking past the porch light?a replica of a human skull, holding a candle?and into the semi-detached house. The owner and his friends sitting slouched on the couch. The smell of stale beer and other substances. Contractors and would-be homeowners assessing what needed to be done.

The kitchen was interesting. Some of the cupboards had their doors painted dark green, and a couple were also spray-painted with red graffiti, for an edgy, streetwise touch. Others were missing doors, possibly in an attempt to emulate an open-concept feel. The refrigeration system was environmentally friendly?a case of beer jammed between the back door and the dilapidated screen door, and a cooler on the back porch. There was no stove.

Upstairs, the bedrooms were, well, let?s just call them rooms. The bathroom looked as if it had never been cleaned.

You could hardly stand upright in the basement, the ceiling was so low. The floor was dirt in places. My children later commented that we could bring in extra income by filming horror movies down there. On one basement wall was a gap in the brick?a massive crack. What was most interesting was the smell. My real estate agent, Christina Moore, who was pregnant at the time, almost threw up from it. We didn?t even look at the basement bathroom in our rush to get out of there. Turned out, it was the bathroom that was the source of the aroma.

Leadership Lesson: We often think about leadership as leading people. But leadership is also about leading process. It is about being able to see around the corner, and to create a response for whatever may be around that corner. For example, I typically have a building inspection done after securing a property. But in a multiple-bid situation, the fewer conditions you impose, the better the chances that it will be your offer that?s accepted. So, in order to minimize risk, I do a pre-inspection before submitting an offer. The type of inspector I use depends on the age and circumstances of the property. If it is an old property or if my renovations would be extensive, I use an inspector who is an expert in structure, or sometimes even an engineer.

New investors often feel pressure to get the deal done. As a result, many underestimate; they ignore or minimize possible challenges. That corner of the house showing evidence of a past water leak? Even though it?s dry now, there will probably be a leak again. On the other hand, some new investors will walk away if they find a problem?facing the problem is emotionally overwhelming for them. But renovating a house is all about facing problems. You have to clearly identify the challenge and be able to respond with emotional tenacity?and a process.

 We had the house inspected and submitted our offer, which was the second highest of 20 offers. I believe we were successful in securing the property because:

  1. We had a large deposit. With the offer, I sent a photocopy of the cheque for $100,000, written out to the listing agent in trust.
  2. When I was in the house, I made a point of talking to the owner and treating him with respect?always extremely important. I had noticed a lot of junk in the property. I had noticed that his kids? heights had been marked on a doorjamb. I asked him whether, if I were to buy the house, he would like me to cut out that piece of doorjamb for him. I told him not to worry about any of the extra stuff he didn?t want to take with him, I would look after it all. I knew that if I wanted to get the property, I would need to deal from one of my strengths?my ability to connect with people. I connected with the owner, but it was not with the primary intention of getting the house. In fact, I highly doubted we would get the house. I connected with him as a human being, created in the image of God, and realized that I had this moment in order to influence him for the better and to be influenced by him. The secondary consequence of such a connection was that it made it easier for him to say yes to me.

Leadership Lesson: Leadership is not merely about leading a process. It is about creating authentic connections, creating a process, and then helping others manage that process. There?s an art to creating authentic connections. One of the keys to connection is to approach each conversation from the perspective not only of influencing someone but also of being open to how that person can influence you for the better. Sometimes wisdom is found in unexpected places.

Starting the Renovation?and Growing as a Leader

Once the house closed, the first thing I did when I walked into the house was look around and say to myself, ?Niran, what have you done?? My wife, Loria, and I had done renovations before. Our largest renovation cost around $80,000. The budget on this was pushing well over $200,000. The scope of work was massive. We had committed to gutting the house?literally rebuilding the entire house except for the exterior brick walls. There would be new HVAC, with new ductwork. I would be moving the water meter and electrical panel. We were creating a brand-new modern layout, the kitchen was completely changing, we would be relevelling the floor, and putting in insulation, new framing, new electrical, new plumbing, a new roof, and stucco to replace the siding. Oh, and did I mention that the back of the house was cracked and falling? We?d have to underpin the house. Fix cracks in the wall. (We ended putting steel plates in the wall to hold the house together.)

I was going to have to manage different trades, work with a general contractor I had not worked with before, and deal with an underpinning company. From a planning perspective, I had to bring together an architect, a geotechnical engineer, a structural engineer, and the trades and get them all on the same page, so to speak. I knew that this would be extremely challenging, and not simply from a renovation perspective. I would be challenged as a leader.

I was delayed in starting (some people would say that I took too long to start). I think I started at just the right time, when my capability, my emotional backbone, and my growth as a leader intersected. Yes, I had to come up with a detailed plan, but I also had to build myself up to the point where I was capable of handling such a load. First comes excitement, then the feeling of being overwhelmed, and then fear.

Fear has a crippling effect. It makes you want to fight or flee. It makes you want to fight with all the people around you, or ignore the obvious. Neither of these two actions are acceptable in most circumstances, especially if you want to be a great leader. And what was important to me was not just the renovation itself but how I managed the renovation. How I came across and how I changed; who I became. So when I became overwhelmed and fearful, I did the following:

  • I talked to friends and other REIN members. I was completely transparent with a few of them. While most people I spoke to did not have the same renovation experience as me, they knew me and, most importantly, they were entrepreneurial leaders. So I sought their help in navigating my emotional turmoil and my bottlenecks in process, and to help me ask the right questions. Loria, who is a master of the art of calmness, helped keep me focused on what was important.

Leadership Lesson: Asking the right question is far more important than having the answers. A solution is nothing but information structured and packaged in a certain way. Asking the right questions will determine how the information is structured and allows for the formulation of solutions that can be customized to your specific situation.

  •  I read about leadership. Some people might think this was a waste of time. But I knew that when I started to feel the ground shift under me, I needed to improve as a leader. So I disciplined myself, in the middle of busyness, to journal and to read. Most people look at the result they want to achieve as the goal. The result is definitely a goal for me, but I had a greater goal. My primary overarching goal was me?who was I becoming by walking through the process. How was I changing? What type of leader was I becoming?

Leadership Lesson: Being and becoming is more important than doing. Doing with ease and style flows out of a state of being. Too often we spend more energy on getting things done than on ourselves. Learn to listen to the voice within. Although I tend to be surrounded by people, I make it a discipline to cultivate solitude. Learn to be comfortable with silence, for it is in aloneness that one gets to know oneself.

Starters vs. Finishers

Some people have a certain bent toward starting; others, toward finishing. That is, there are starters and there are finishers. Which type of person are you? Starters love beginning new things. They usually have myriad projects that they?ve begun but not completed. Finishers, on the other hand, tend not to begin a project until they feel that they can complete it. They have an incredible capacity to look after the details and get tremendous reward from finishing a project.

Are You Are Starter or a Finisher?


1. You feel happier and more energized when you start a project than when you finish it.

2. You?re more big-picture oriented than detail-oriented.

3. Finishing a project takes discipline. When you feel overwhelmed, you have a tendency to start something else.

4. You feel that there are lots of projects on which to embark.

5. You love to create change. Things staying the same irritate you.



1. You derive great satisfaction from getting the job done.

2. You?re more detail-oriented than big-picture oriented.

3. Starting a project is difficult for you.

4. You feel that you have a lot of tasks to complete.

5. You love to create stability. Change can be challenging for you.

Starters need finishers in their lives, and finishers need starters in their lives. I, like many entrepreneurs I know, tend to be a starter. I can think up new ideas and new projects any time; I love starting new things. The dream, the determination, the faith that what I will need I?ll find, create, or be given are paramount for me. I also know that what slows me down are uncompleted projects. When building my team, I look for finishers?people who not only can help me but can actually finish the project themselves.

If you are a finisher, partner with a starter. Although it might feel scary, after doing your due diligence, allow your partner to start. Then you go in at the completion phase. In such a relationship, it?s important to remember that what we need from each other is also what is most frustrating about the other. Communicate from a position of respect. When you feel yourself becoming irritable, step away and think about what is truly important and the outcome you want.

Dreamers and Doers

At the beginning stages of a renovation, you need to clearly define two things:

  • What do you have?
  • What do you want the finished product to look like?

The first thing l needed to do when my wife and I bought the property was determine what type of renovation we wanted to do, and, beyond that, to understand what we had in the building we had just bought. This can be accomplished in a few ways:

  1. Be present. It?s important not to rush ahead but instead to stop and take stock of what you really have. I visited the property a number of times before making any decisions. I stood in each room and looked around. I dreamed. I envisioned. But the primary thing I focused on was getting a feel for the house.
  2. Consult with design-able people. These people are not professional designers. They are the ones who love to watch HGTV, who have opinions and advice?the armchair quarterbacks of design. Although they may be involved in real estate, like your agent, often they have limited building know-how. What they do have are ideas and an eye to see what can be. Dreamers are part of my consolidation team.

 At the beginning stages, I took several people through the house. I told them the story of how my wife and I bought it, and a little about the plans we had for it. I did this for a few reasons. First, it helped me think out and communicate what was in my mind and heart. I also wanted to share my excitement. However, I was careful not to share too little or too much of my plans. If you don?t share any of your plans for the property, some people may feel overwhelmed by the task you?ve taken on and won?t know how to respond. If you share too much, their responses may become limited by your vision. The amount of information you share depends on the person. I like to tell people just enough to get them excited. And then I ask questions. I listen to the ideas and thoughts they have. I listen without judgment or dismissing their ideas. This allows me to mine a whole lot of creativity.

Leadership Lesson: Good leaders create an environment where creativity can flourish. Ask questions such as ?If you could not fail, and budget was not a concern, what would you create here?? At the beginning stages, stay away from limiting creativity by getting bogged down in process.

  1. Architecture and interior designers. Not all architects are created equally. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some architects are good at design. Others are better at positioning your project in order to have the plans approved by the City. Know each of your team members. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Leverage these strengths and minimize these weaknesses. Help your team members do what they are really good at.

If you do not have an architect and interior designer who you have worked with before, spend some time on the hiring process. Your architect and interior designer will be key people who will impact greatly the outcome. You should treat this meeting as if you’re having a job interview and are required to fill out some questions on a software similar to Zenefits. So, what questions to ask them?

  • What is your area of specialty? What type of homes do you like to work on?
  • Who is your ideal client?
  • Can I see some of the work you?ve done?
  • What is a realistic turnaround time for you?
  • What percentage of your work is similar to my project?

Think of the interview as a first date. You?re trying to get to know this person. Everyone has an area they are better at. Make sure their strengths are aligned with the outcomes you?re looking for. For example, if they are good at traditional homes and you are building an über-modern home, they likely are not a good fit.

Pictures are worth a thousand words?so use them to your advantage. Find pictures of properties that have been renovated in a similar style to what you want the finished product look like. Websites like Houzz and Pinterest are great for this. Share your pictures with your key designers and contractors. This helps to get everybody moving in the same direction.

Create drawings and plans. You can do them yourself or have them professionally done. Mark clearly what is unmovable. Even for small cosmetic renovations, I find drawings extremely helpful. They allow you to create your renovation without having to constantly go back into the house.

Consult the Stager

Most people who use a stager bring them in once the renovation is complete. I like to choose mine well in advance, and have them visit the jobsite early. At this meeting, we talk about what the finished product will look like. I ask her about furniture placement and the creation of microenvironments. I want to create cozy, functional, and purposeful places within the home. I take all the information I have at this point and create a furniture-placement map. This allows me to have an idea of the flow and functionality of each room. This, in turn, will affect the lighting placement, the HVAC pipes (especially cold-air returns), and framing (for example, if you know that a TV will be in a certain spot, you may want to put in an electrical outlet, Ethernet, and cable box, as well as plywood in the wall, so that when you mount the TV, you don?t have to locate the studs).

Mechanicals and Other Major Building Blocks                                                                                                

Start with structure and the building envelope (foundation, exterior walls, roof). Look for cracks in the foundation and water leakage. (Tip: If you?re using a digital camera, turn the flash on and the lights in the room off, and take a picture: past watermarks will show up.)

My house had numerous cracks. Some were so wide, I could put my hand through and touch the neighbour?s lath and plaster, and tap on the ductwork for their furnace.

Examine the joists. Look at the slope of the floor. Older homes typically have floors that slope in one direction or another. Is the slope minimal? If you can feel it, can it be characterized as character or does the floor need to be relevelled?

Examine the roof to ascertain how much life is left in it. Also, what colour is the roof? Would a change in the colour of the roof affect the after-repair value and general attractiveness of the house? What?s going on in the attic?how much insulation is there?

The house I bought had an ancient HVAC system. The cold-air returns in the basement were massive, as they were from a near-ancient gravity-assisted system. Some of the vents ran through the house in interesting ways. In redesigning the HVAC system, I learned that engineers tend to design for efficiency and not aesthetics. My HVAC installer considered things from an installation perspective. In the planning stages of creating your dream, you will need to balance multiple agendas.

Leadership Lesson: Meet the HVAC engineer and your installer onsite. As they design the layout, ask what the implications of it are to aesthetics, budget, and timeline. By having both the engineer and the installer onsite, you?ll be able to forge a consensus that balances the aesthetics, installation challenges, engineering challenges, and budget. Sometimes installers do not like what engineers draw, and vice versa. Having them both onsite and creating an environment of relationship building will help get team members working together.

Also look at what you have in terms of electrical and plumbing. On this renovation, we ripped everything out and started fresh. This meant that we needed to plan out where every plug, switch, light fixture, heat vent, and cold-air return went, as well as the furnace.

One of the most important questions to ask constantly in every discussion, at every opportunity, is ?What does this mean to the aesthetics of the final product, to other aspects of the renovation, and to timeline and budget?? For example, Loria and I looked at six layouts for the kitchen. For the one we chose, building code called for an electrical outlet on the peninsula. I did not want to see an outlet on the face of the peninsula, with its smooth, white, high-gloss surface. So I spoke with the electrician, and he was able to position the outlet on the end of the peninsula, where it was less visible. I still didn?t like seeing it there. As we dialogued and considered the ways in which people would live in the space, I realized that the end of the peninsula would be a great place to charge electronic devices, so we included a USB port in the outlet. Now if anybody noticed the plug, the USB port would be a positive talking point. I repeatedly heard compliments to our team about our detailed planning.

Renovations, regardless of scope, can tax and overwhelm investors. If done correctly, it is an excellent way to add value to the property. In this article, I?ve outlined areas to consider in your planning, to help you succeed. In part 2 of this blog post, we?ll look at managing the major aspects of a renovation while also managing the budget.


L. Niran Kulathungam, B.Sc, M.T.S., REIA, Residential Redevelopment & Investment Specialist, business coach, human change agent, and dream architect. Lover of conversations with people and dogs and all things complicated.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *