Reza Jahangiri – Founder and CEO of American Advisors Group

To ensure I’m productive, I am a bit obsessive about writing down major priorities for the next day.

Reza Jahangiri is the founder and CEO of American Advisors Group (AAG), serving as CEO since July 2005. AAG is a leader in reverse mortgage lending, with a singular mission of providing reverse mortgage loans to benefit the senior population—helping them age in place. The company enjoys unparalleled brand recognition, featuring national spokesperson former Senator Fred Thompson.

Jahangiri serves as vice chairman on the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA) board of directors and is co-chairman of the NRMLA policy committee, dedicated to the implementation of critical industry reforms. He is also senior publisher of The Reverse Review magazine, an industry trade publication focused on best practices and current market trends.

Where did the idea for American Advisors Group come from?

I was exposed to reverse mortgages in early 2004 by a friend who was running the reverse mortgage department of a bank. I fell in love with the product, and how it solved a looming social issue–seniors living longer while having less liquidity for retirement.

What does your typical day look like?

I wake up at about 6:00 a.m. and spend time with my 14-month-old son. Four days out of the week I’ll work out, training in the morning. After that, I have phone calls scheduled. I arrive at the office in the late morning to begin my face-to-face meetings. I generally wrap up at the office at about 6:30 p.m. or so. And then I go home to spend time with my family before my son goes down to sleep at night.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I bring ideas to life by making sure to surround myself with the right team to help execute on them. I personally don’t execute on every single idea; I’m more of a sounding board for what we want to accomplish. Key executives, management team members and I collaborate and run through a vetting process together. We talk through the concept from a strategic perspective, and then I leave it up to them to execute at a tactical level.

While I usually don’t prescribe how the team should perform on a tactical basis, I make sure the proper resources are allocated to the team to help them achieve their objectives. I also ensure that my team is held accountable for their performance/actions.

What trends really excite you?

I am excited about the availability of new technological tools that can help optimize organizational health. I like the prospect of being able to capture the opinions and ideas of company associates—regardless of titles or locations—and have that information roll up to senior management, who then turns their ideas into actions. There’s a new technology my friend is working on called PoPin, that encourages and empowers staff from any division to share innovative ideas and constructive feedback on what’s working and what’s not working within their respective areas.

In the reverse mortgage world, there’s a tremendous secular trend we’re seeing—sharp growth in the aging demographic—and the fact that many seniors lack the liquidity they need to retire comfortably. While this trend doesn’t excite me, the fact that we have a solution that addresses the issue does.

What habits make you more productive as an entrepreneur?

To ensure I’m productive, I am a bit obsessive about writing down major priorities for the next day. The list can be shifted on daily basis, based on the critical needs of the business. I make sure to do this at nighttime before I go to bed, which helps center my focus for the next day. I email myself a list of priorities for the day, and may add, subtract, or reassign them, depending on what’s going on.

It’s also important to me that I am responsive to people. I don’t let things stew or sit. I make it a priority to try and respond to every call I receive.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

In my first year in college, I was a valet parker. The upside of that job was that I learned the importance of tipping someone and how valuable a tip is to service providers.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have “tough” conversations with people earlier and make the more challenging decisions that may be uncomfortable sooner. It is very important for a leader—and an organization as a whole–to not prolong the inevitable and to do the right thing. Instead of choosing the more comfortable path to avoid tension with people, or not holding somebody accountable or addressing an issue, I would choose to deal with it head-on sooner, rather than later.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I believe it’s imperative to never to get comfortable with the status quo—to not be complacent. I drive my team to reconsider how we do things as the company is growing—as we’re running through cycles in the economy and experiencing changes in our industry. Just because something worked today or yesterday does not mean it will continue to work tomorrow. I challenge the “old” way of thinking.

To encourage my team to continuously improve and/or take a fresh approach, I lead by example. I do it myself. And I also push people to move out of their comfort zones when I think they are not pushing themselves enough to evolve.

Tell us about key strategies you’ve implemented that have helped grow your business.

Along with hiring and retaining a strong leadership team, I don’t allow myself to get distracted by multiple business models or opportunities. I’ve learned that the most effective strategy is to narrow in on a singular business model and perfect it over time. That type of focus—versus launching multiple revenue channels or business models during the early stages of a business—allows the model to evolve into a best-in-class blueprint for success. It also ensures available resources are fully optimized to execute on strategy.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In my first career in the healthcare world, I considered too many opportunities, had too many entities to manage and too many business models in the works. Basically, I spread myself too thin.

When I decided to start a new business, I told myself I would eliminate all other outside distractions, and promised myself that I would give this next business the right amount of time, attention and resources it needed to succeed.

And then came AAG — a business I was extremely passionate about. I noticed the favorable demographic trend associated with aging seniors. We’re seeing the largest generation of seniors to date, who are living longer, have less liquid savings and many times need to utilize home equity to help fund their retirement. I had an interest in finance and liked the fact that we had an actuarial-based product—one that had the backing of the government. What excited me most was the concept that we were helping people solve a significant social issue.

There has been a massive lack of awareness in this industry, and the product has been misperceived. I realized that we had a chance to positively shift perceptions to gain a higher penetration within this product’s demographic. Recognizing the gap in awareness, I saw that a significant opportunity existed.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

The first thing that comes to mind is an exclusive Old World wine bar that includes cheese, charcuterie and light gourmet foods, all-in-one. I have run across similar concepts in New York, but haven’t noticed them in Southern California.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

My first passion is music. I studied music in college, played in bands and recorded in the studio. In fact, I once had the chance to jam with Elvis Costello. That was a fun and amazing experience I will never forget.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Right now, I have my leadership team reading “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni, a book given to me by a friend. It is a valuable source that informs readers on the importance organizational health, of which I’m a big believer.

The whole premise of the book is that you could be phenomenal at marketing, finance, or sales strategy and have the smartest people on your team, but if you don’t have the organizational health—including communication and trust—then you’re not going to be able to build a business from top to bottom. It will break down. Some of the smartest people in the world are not able to execute on a business model due to the fact that they are more focused on their own self-interests or their organization is plagued with team dysfunction and there’s no trust. “The Advantage” provides a framework to fully optimize an organization’s functional resources.