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How rejection can drive success

Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran calls rejection the “lucky charm” that fueled her success. Here’s how she did it.

7 min read


How rejection can drive success


“You know you’ll never succeed without me.”

Those were the parting words real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran heard from her former boyfriend and business partner Ramone Simone as she walked out of the offices — and away from the business — the two once shared. Simone intended his words to be an elegy for Corcoran’s future endeavors but instead they fueled her ambition and resilience.

“That was the insurance policy that was going to take me to success,” says Corcoran. “Because every time there was a down market — just when I thought I was going down — I would remember those words. They were beautiful words. And I would think of one more idea, try it and it would work.”

They sure did. Twenty years to the day after she left those offices, Corcoran sold her company — the Corcoran Group — for $66 million, cash.

How did she do it? Corcoran shared her formula for success during her keynote address at this year’s HR Tech Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas. 

Look the part

If you look the part, the part usually takes care of itself, says Corcoran.

When the real estate market took a downturn, and her firm needed exposure, Corcoran created “The Corcoran Report” — an information piece with data and analysis about the housing market in New York City. She mailed it to more than 80 reporters at the New York Times. A week later, the paper ran a story featuring data from the report and attributed it to Corcoran.

“I learned that if the press puts your quote of you as the authority, in print, you’re the authority — even if you don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Corcoran. 

Put expanders and containers together 

“There are two kinds of people in this world: expanders and containers,” says Corcoran. “The sooner you decide who you have in front of you — an expander or a container — the better off you are.”

Corcoran tells the story of a woman named Esther Kaplan who applied for a sales position. At first, she felt Kaplan was a wrong fit — too prim, proper and buttoned up. She continued with the interview, nonetheless, and when it was over, she gave Kaplan her business card. As Kaplan opened her purse to tuck the card away, it tipped forward and Corcoran caught a glance inside. She quickly changed her mind and hired Kaplan.

“I found my opposite,” says Corcoran, calling Kaplan the consummate container and her purse a miniature filing cabinet. 

“If you put an expander and a container together…and if they are equally strong, you have a success without ever having to check again. It’s just the way it goes,” she explains.

Hire happy people

Corcoran has a litmus test that she uses to assess people she interviews for jobs.

“[A]fter they leave, I take a little breath and ask, ‘Am I relieved they’re gone or do I have a little happy puff around me?’” If she did not have that “happy puff” she did not hire that individual.

Unhappy people poison healthy organizations, says Corcoran. She advises companies to focus their recruiting efforts on positive people.

“You can’t afford negative energy in a company,” says Corcoran. “I don’t allow it today in any of my businesses. You have to have happy, happy people.”

Prioritize fun

Corcoran once surprised her staff with an open-air bus tour through Harlem. The tour, which took place on a hot August night, included free-flowing alcohol and a mock breakdown in the middle of the neighborhood. 

“That’s where a bus tour, drinking alcohol and scared out of our minds was probably the most fun any of those people ever had,” says Corcoran.

When she returned to the office Monday, she found her top two salespeople talking and laughing together. Corcoran was surprised; the two did not like each other and typically avoided conversation. The ride through Harlem changed that.

“How did they become friends? Shared fun,” Corcoran explains. 

And so fun became a priority at the Corcoran Group. It was part of the culture — and the secret sauce to innovation.

“All the good ideas came out when people were drunk, laughing, creative, on the way back to the bar,” Corcoran says. “All the goodness and creativity came from the fun.”

Recognition — not money — is the best motivator

People want to be recognized for the work they do, says Corcoran. They will prize recognition more than money.

When Corcoran wanted to break into the high-end market, she implemented an incentive program to motivate her sales team. She posted a large gold ribbon in the office and told everyone that the first person to make a million dollar sale would get the ribbon. Most were unenthused by the offer. Only one salesperson, Ron Rossi — a former professional ice skater — embraced the challenge. One week later, he returned with a $3.5 million listing and won the gold ribbon. 

Corcoran’s plan worked. Bulletin boards around the Corcoran Group offices were soon covered with gold ribbons. 

“[R]ecognition gets people where you want them to go,” Corcoran says. “I used recognition as my power tool to motivate the people to stay with me and to love me. You give people recognition and attention and they love you back. It’s as simple as that.”

Rejection is your lucky charm

Two weeks after Corcoran signed a contract to join ABC’s new series “Shark Tank” she received a call saying the producers were changing direction and had another woman for the show. She was floored but refused to accept defeat. 

Corcoran went on the offensive, penning a powerful email to studio owner Mark Burnett — calling his rejection her “lucky charm” — that convinced him to give her another shot. After three days of auditions, Corcoran won the seat.

“Could you imagine if I didn’t stand up for myself?” she asks. “I have the best job in the world where I get to play fairy godmother to all these young people with dreams. I get to work with excitement every day. It would not have been possible at all–at all!–if I hadn’t stood up for myself with ‘Shark Tank,’ which is what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

Play in traffic

Corcoran tells young people not to paint themselves into a corner and worry about what they will be when they grow up. 

“The best experience a kid could have is a million jobs because you learn something with every single job,” says Corcoran. “For kids to find out what floats their boat, what makes them happy, they have to try a lot of things.”

When she hires someone new for her company, she assigns them to multiple roles and tasks, watching for what they do well. 

“I like to give kids the opportunity to play in the traffic,” she says. “I shove them all over the place, doing a myriad of things. I see what they’re good at. I tell them they’re amazing, why they’re good. I’m not blowing smoke. And that’s how they become successful.”

Choose what matters

When asked how she balanced running a business and raising a family, Corcoran was blunt.

“I didn’t. I lived like a man,” she says. Corcoran had her first child when she was 46. She says she could not have built a successful business and raised a family at the same time. A woman’s heart, she explains, is divided between wanting to be a wonderful mother to her children and a wonderful mother and leader at work. 

“I sold my business because I wanted to be a mother,” Corcoran says. “I couldn’t have done both — that’s the truth.”


Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education & Leadership.


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