Jonathan Keyser

August 14, 2019

You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win: Jonathan Keyser

Jonathan Keyser

When Jonathan Keyser, the author of You Don’t Have to Be Ruthless to Win, entered the cutthroat world of commercial real estate, he became the worst version of himself and he hated himself because of it.

One day, Jonathan decided that he’d had enough. He realized he was sacrificing his values in pursuit of success and that he needed to stop. He stopped being ruthless and reinvented himself as a selfless leader, which skyrocketed his brokerage firm to eight figures.

In this episode, we’re going into the ferocious world of commercial real estate.

But this is about you. You’ll learn how to activate selflessness in your life, and you’ll know why this counterintuitive strategy can create huge long-term success for you and your business.

Jonathan Keyser: When I was a kid, I was raised by my parents to love, serve, and give. That was pounded into my head from a very early age. The problem was, we were very poor. So, in my mind, there was this direct correlation between selflessness and being broke. I didn’t like being broke.

I spent a part of my life overseas as a kid, and when I got back, I realized in this sort of flash of unhappy epiphany that everybody else had stuff and I didn’t have stuff and I wanted stuff. I decided at an early age that I was going to be successful. I got into commercial real estate after college because a buddy of mine said that I’d be good at it and that I could make a lot of money.

I realized really quickly that it is a ruthless industry. Everybody is scratching, clawing, and fighting. I said, “Okay, if this is what it takes, I want to be successful. I don’t want to be poor like my parents were–I want to make money.” I became ruthless and I became good at being ruthless.

I was arguably one of the more ruthless commercial real estate brokers out there, but I was miserable. I was misaligned with my core values.

About 14 or 15 years ago, I went to this conference and this guy gets up. He starts having a conversation about success through helping others succeed. I had never heard anything like it, and I was fascinated.

I tracked him down after the break-out session and I said, “Hey, is that really true? Do you actually do that or is that just a cool schtick that you say in front of groups?” He said, “No, this is actually how I built my business.”

I thought to myself–how is that possible, how come I’ve never heard about this before? That started this journey of looking into if it could be possible for me, and I made the decision to reinvent myself around this idea of succeeding by helping others, because it resonated with me at such a core level.

Before that, I felt trapped. I didn’t realize that it was possible to be successful in a ruthless industry by just helping others–that concept had never crossed my mind. I got to work, and it was a long, hard road.  One of the answers he had given me when I said, “How come nobody else is doing this?” He said, “Because it takes too long.”

He likened it to planting seeds versus hunting. A lot of people that are in some sort of sales organization, they know about hunting. They get up, they go make a call, they try to get some business, then they close the piece of business, and they go get some more. That’s the typical commercial real estate model.

This was more like planting citrus trees that you nurture, water and prune over time. I have a citrus tree in my back yard. When it was a little kid, it just didn’t yield any lemons for a while and I thought it was kind of a waste of space. Now, today, after taking care of it for years, it has grown and it’s almost annoying how many lemons come off that tree.

That was the concept that I employed in the market place and it grew. We launched my own firm in 2012 with the idea that we wanted to change the industry, we wanted to prove that all this was possible.

I said, “What if this could be scaled? What if this could be done better? What if I could teach other people what I’ve now learned about how they could create success for themselves through selfless service?”

Today, we have the largest firm of our kind in the state of Arizona and one of the fastest growing in the country. It’s all built around this idea of success through service. I wrote the book because I believe there’s a better way.

I believe that a lot of people wish they didn’t have to be ruthless in their respective industries, but like me, they feel like there’s not a better path or a better way. Everybody knows that you’re supposed to do the right thing, but there’s a big difference between knowing you’re supposed to do the right thing and act the way that our parents taught us, and actually being successful doing it.

We have a movement that we’re at the helm of to change the industry and prove that you don’t have to be ruthless to win–that you can create extraordinary success even in a ruthless industry just by helping others succeed.

Success through Service

Rae Williams: What would you say is the key message in this book in terms of something that people can take action on?

Jonathan Keyser: That’s a great question. One of the things we teach in the book is the three levels of reinvention. The book is designed as a path of how you can do this yourself. It is packed with tidbits about how to do it. Built into that is the three levels of reinvention, which are starting with yourself–change starts from within, you have to be the change you want to see in the world to quote Gandhi–and then it’s outward. It’s the company culture that you transform through service, and then it’s all your clients and collaborators.

It’s an inside out revolution. We teach, through Keyser’s 15 cooperating principles, how a company can create success for themselves and a culture of selfless service through utilizing these principles.


Rae Williams: What would you say was the most difficult part about the life you were living, and what was the hardest part about transforming yourself?

Jonathan Keyser: The hardest part for me about living the old way, the ruthless Jonathan Keyser, was the fact that I felt so misaligned with who I believed myself to be and how I was raised. I felt like I was trading my soul for money, if that makes any sense. I felt like I was selling out, I felt like I was doing whatever I needed to do, because I thought I needed to, but I wasn’t staying true to how my parents raised me.

I think that’s not an uncommon feeling, especially in hyper-competitive businesses. The hardest part about making the transition was that it took forever, so it wasn’t instant gratification overnight, I wasn’t some overnight success. For five years, I was laughed at, mocked, criticized, questioned, pretty much everyone around me decided that what I was up to was idealistic and nice to hear, but not realistic, because I wasn’t delivering on revenue creation.

So, being able and willing to withstand the negative scrutiny was definitely extraordinarily hard. I had my own doubts as I was going through it, thinking, “Man, maybe I’m doing this wrong or maybe this really doesn’t work.” Some of the voices that were outside of me kept sticking in my head.

At the end of the day, to make that transition, the time involved, the lack of revenue, and the withering criticism from all around me, made it challenging. Add to that the fact that there were really no other examples around me, outside of the individuals that told me about it, so I felt very much like I was on an island. But I could feel it–I could feel it happening. I could feel it in every act of service, and that’s what I did–I started helping everybody in the community with whatever they needed.

Sometimes they would ask me to connect them with potential clients, so I’d do that. Sometimes they would ask me to help their kid get a job, or sometimes I’d help them get a job. I became like a concierge for the community, helping as many people as I could.

I could feel, one–it felt great to do that, but two–as I did it, I could feel their gratitude. As I did it more and more, people started talking more and more about me and what I was doing. I went from trying hard in my old life to convince everyone I was a good guy, and nobody really thinking I was, to serving as many people as possible, and having everybody talk about me like I’m a great guy and making introductions for me.

There’s this really neat process, but it was not for the faint of heart. Here I was, speaking completely differently from anybody else in my industry, doing things completely differently, and not having the financial success to demonstrate that it was actually working.

Falling in Love with Service

Rae Williams: All right, you have a chapter in your book that’s called The Work that Led to Balance. What was that work and what kind of balance did you achieve?

Jonathan Keyser: Part of my journey was coming to grips with the fact that even as I was doing this new business model, even as I was helping as many people as possible, the reality was, I was still doing it manipulatively. That was not something that I was even aware of.

I was really just looking at it as if it was a different kind of sales tactic, so to speak. I ended up hiring a coach and that coach helped me see that I was doing this in a manipulative way. Once I saw that, I didn’t want that anymore for my life. I didn’t want to be doing yet another thing to manipulate–I wanted to actually be helping people. So, hiring the coach was a big, big part of it, but also being willing to make the change and fall in love with serving.

Also, I stopped keeping track–because before, I would keep track in my mind who I would help, and if they wouldn’t reciprocate, I’d think, “That person is a taker.” But once I fell in love with service, I stopped keeping track, and all I would do is help everyone that I could.

It was that transformation that helped me–that is when the success started, that is when the happiness started. I really embodied the philosophy fully and once that happened, everything changed.

First Steps

Rae Williams: If we want to use your method to change our businesses, to change our lives, what are the beginning steps?

Jonathan Keyser: So that’s what I love about what we’re doing here. This is not complicated stuff. I mean at the end of day, is there nuance in it? Yes, but what this really is, is the stuff that you and I really know. It is what our parents taught us–it is what we teach our kids. We know how to love. We know how to serve. We know how to be selfless. The only question is, are we doing that when it comes to business, or are we just keeping it in our homes?

Why is it that in our homes, in our social lives, with our friends, it comes pretty naturally for us? Yet, when we get into business, we put on our top suit and we get to fighting. The reason I wrote the book the way that I did was that this concept sounds a little crazy. Success through service, success by helping others succeed, not having to be ruthless to win–all of these things, particularly in commercial real estate, sound a little bit unrealistic and utopian to the average Joe.

The reality is that if somebody could see my story–how I went from being ruthless to creating success through service, and then showing and detailing for them how we built an entire organization around service, and then leaving them with the three levels of reinvention that they can implement in their own lives, it becomes an extraordinary opportunity for the reader to take this on and not only get excited about it conceptually, but also get real, practical steps for how they can do it.

That’s what the book was really designed to do. Starting with, “Here is my journey,” so you can see that it is actually possible. I spared no self-criticism–I have been told it is one of the bravest books people have ever read. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I am very clear with all of the ways that I was ruthless.

By the time they’re done reading the book, they have everything they need about how they can create this selfless service mindset and culture within their own respective organization.

Coachable and Present

Rae Williams: Tell us a little bit more about being 100% coachable and 100% present.

Jonathan Keyser: One of the things I think is essential for selfless leadership is the willingness to take any and all feedback and really put it to work in your own life. It doesn’t mean that what anybody says, you just take it at face value–sometimes people give you bad advice. It means being open for any and all feedback, particularly from your team. What I see most leaders doing is not wanting that. They choose, instead, to use their dominant position as a bully pulpit to intimidate and silence people around them.

Being 100% coachable means that anybody within the organization, even the most junior newest person, can approach me, is encouraged to approach me, and share areas that I could improve. That is the culture that we’ve created. It’s being excited about other people’s feedback, taking it un-defensively without arguing, just listening to it, and taking it and trying to figure out how that could be true, instead of discarding it. For us, coachability is everything. It’s one of the key tenets of our firm and it is part of why we have such a happy environment here, because everybody knows they can be authentic–they can be truthful and other people welcome the feedback that they can provide.

Being 100% present–one of the things that’s pervasive in today’s world is the 18 different things going on in a person’s brain, while they try to do one, or looking at their cellphone every three minutes. We believe that being 100% present brings the best of each of us to whatever we do, and we want to make sure that we are fully present in every action and interaction that we participate in. It is a mindset that the person I’m with is everything to me right now and I am not worrying about what’s tomorrow. I am not thinking about what I did this morning. I have my phone put away, I am staring intently at the person, and my whole focus is, “How can I serve this person in this moment as I look at them?”

Importance of Health

Rae Williams: Talk to us a little bit about how exercise and proper nutrition changed you and how that should be a part of your routine.

Jonathan Keyser: Yes, I see so many people, myself included, that over the years have prioritized success over health. The reality is, that is a young person’s game, and you can’t play it very long before it starts to catch up with you.

To be 100% coachable, one team, and to have fun, requires health. Not prioritizing your health is a recipe for having to prioritize it in the later years of your life–if you have those later years.

So, as we’re trying to be of service and grow, to have health as center piece of the organization is critical for us now. We are not doing weigh-ins or something ridiculous like that. It is a mindset. Like all of these principles, they are a mindset. It is a focus on taking care of ourselves, keeping ourselves healthy, prioritizing health, which in the generation that I grew up in is not the case.

A Challenge

Rae Williams: If you had to issue a challenge to your readers, to people who are looking to use your method, to transform their lives and their business, what would that challenge be?

Jonathan Keyser: Here’s the challenge that I would give–a lot of people when they hear about this business model and they hear me talk about how we created an entire firm where we’re referral only, because all we do is serve other people, to them it sounds like such a stretch from where they are today that it almost couldn’t be possible. So, my challenge would be to start at the beginning. Just decide that you are going to do one act of selfless service a day for someone.

Just one–when you wake up in the morning decide, “I am going to do something for someone else that has nothing to do with me–that is just giving.” I think what you’ll find is that it creates an extraordinary opportunity for things in your life that you never thought possible. I believe that success through service is the greatest business principle of all time. Again, you don’t have to go all in like I did. You can start with one a day.

If you want an example of the good things we could do, go to the website.

You can download all kinds of tips about how to do that, but the idea is start small and then grow that. So, maybe the next week you are doing two a day and the next week you are doing three a day. The ultimate goal is to that in every interaction with another person, you are selflessly looking for ways to serve them, not because you think it is the right thing to do, although I do believe that it is, but because you believe that it is the greatest way to create an extraordinary relationship that leads to success.

At the end of the day, I am not some guy up on a stage that is talking about doing the right thing. I had that shoved down my throat all my life. That is not what this is. This is a guy who has lived as a ruthless broker, has changed his strategy to just serve others, and now has much greater success than I ever had before. The idea is success through service and showing people that you can actually create extraordinary success for yourself by helping others succeed.

Part of what is exciting about what we’re doing is we’re rolling out the Keyser Institute. The Keyser Institute is designed to help people that want a little bit of additional assistance beyond reading the book about how they can actually do this for themselves–how they can realize success for themselves and for their organization. We have some neat products related to that at the Keyser Institute.

At the end of the day, what we are looking for is a movement. This is a movement of people that want to be part of this mission of changing the business world through selfless service and proving that you don’t have to be ruthless to win. You can actually love and serve people and have extraordinary success. You can have your cake and eat it too. That is what we’re all about at Keyser.

Rae Williams: How can people get in touch with you if they would like to learn more?

Jonathan Keyser: So, the best place to go is I would also order the book. Reading the book would be a good first step and you can get the book on Amazon. I also do a lot of speaking, if someone would like to have me come and talk at a conference. I have talked to a lot of big audiences, telling them about this.

Part of our mission is help organizations and help companies with their real estate. We are a commercial real estate brokerage firm and we’re bringing transparency. We are bringing authenticity–we are bringing integrity to that process in an area where people really haven’t thought that about commercial real estate brokers in the past.

For commercial real estate brokers out there, that are sick and tired of being sick and tired of their traditional firms, call us. We’d love to talk to you. Go to and engage with us. We’re looking to do a national roll out and find individuals to build with. It is a big piece of what we’re building.