Tying corporate pledges to measurable actions has been a proven formula for navigating change and opening up new business opportunities in commercial real estate. Industry insiders involved in many of those initiatives — whether related to sustainability, proptech or other kinds of repositioning and investment strategies — are endorsing the same tactics to broaden the base, leadership structure and decision-making insight of the real estate workforce.
“We need to give diversity, equity and inclusion the space it belongs in our industry,” says Sunita Mahant, head of global initiatives, diversity, equity and inclusion, and senior director of legal affairs with Ivanhoé Cambridge. “Some of our industry leaders have put this at the forefront. It is a business priority; it is built into their strategic plans today. But I think we are lagging behind. If you take a look at the industry as a whole, and compare ourselves to other industries, we have a lot of work to do.”
She and other likeminded proponents have coalesced into the recently launched CREED (commercial real estate equity and diversity) Council — which officially delivered a call to action via an introductory online forum and panel discussion earlier this summer — to build a supporting network and offer resources. Thus far, the CREED Council’s 22-member volunteer board of directors is influentially placed in senior management roles in property management, development, leasing, finance/investment and various professional support services, and 12 organizations, including commercial real estate companies, industry associations and service providers, have also signed on as partners in the effort.
Joining Mahant in the panel discussion, Sonny Kalsi, chief executive officer of BentallGreenOak (BGO), outlined his company’s hiring policy, adopted in 2020, requiring that two-thirds of new employees be women or minorities. Given the turnover of approximately 100 to 150 staff annually across the property management/property fund firm’s employment base in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia, he sees the policy as an instrument to meaningfully rebalance the composition of BGO’s workforce and make it more reflective of the general population.
“Unfortunately, this is an industry that has not been super diverse,” he said. “There are a lot of things that you can and cannot control as a company. You can control who you hire. You can control who you promote. You can control what opportunities you make available.”
Dismissing the perceptions of observers who would term the initiative “revolutionary”, Kalsi suggests it’s more straightforwardly “math” since women make up 50 per cent of the population and visible minorities account for 40 per cent of the U.S. population and more than 52 per cent in Toronto, where one of BGO’s four key global offices is located. The mandate is also in keeping with the kinds of key performance indicators that real estate owners/managers typically apply to track progress on strategic priorities.
“Inherently, we need to put quantitative measures in,” Kalsi maintained. “Ultimately, everything we all do for a living is very quantitative. It’s how we do the things we do, and how our success is measured.”
Rallying in-house resources and wielding outside influence
Additionally, Mahant calls for dedicated resources both to translate strategic plan statements into measurable actions and to promote those goals and actions across all business and operational divisions. She also notes that companies like Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate arm of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and BGO, the real estate arm of Sun Life Financial, can wield the clout of their institutional connections.
“Just like any other business strategy in the real estate sector, we need to invest in who is going to execute this plan. You can have the best strategy in the world, but having an intentional people strategy is how we’re going to succeed,” she urged. “We have so much power and ability to influence. I think it starts with these conversations with the partners that we sit with, where we invest our money, who we’re partnering with, and really sitting down and making sure that our goals and our values are aligned.”
Pino Di Mascio, head of impact strategy and delivery with Dream Unlimited Corp., tallied the many contractors, suppliers, skilled trades and labourers involved in construction and operations, all which present opportunities for real estate companies to persuasively makes their preferences known.
“One of the unique aspects of our industry is that we can be involved in this on two different fronts,” he said. “That can be thought through in social procurement strategies so that the partners that we’re working with understand what our values are, and we encourage them to work towards similar goals and objectives.”
Turning to the other front, he addressed career development within real estate organizations. Dream, a real estate investment trust (REIT) with more than $12 billion in assets under management throughout North America and Europe, has labelled its own in-house program, “Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement” to emphasize that the executive ranks particularly require attention.
“You can see lots of organizations are starting to become better at reflecting the broader diversity at a full organizational level. Once you get into more senior manager roles, it is less diverse,” Di Mascio said. “There are less opportunities, and creating those pathways in organizations is extremely important.”
Examining biases and redefining meritocracy
Tridel Corporation, a Toronto-based developer specializing in high-rise condominium projects, also moved to make those pathways more transparent. As a third-generation member of the company’s founding family, Andrea Del Zotto, director and executive vice president, reflected on some of the distinctive aspects of family businesses and some of the common scenarios that any company might encounter in adjusting its corporate culture.
Clear statements of Tridel’s criteria for advancement and the company’s behavioural code are part of a package of new measures it has introduced in the months since several galvanizing motivators in 2020. That includes both the homicidal racism of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota and racial harassment much closer to home with a series of hateful messages left on Toronto construction sites. In response, Tridel revised its established marketing tagline from “Built for Life” to “Built for Respect” and began scrutinizing its own management practices with the help of an outside consultant.
“When we started, it was the senior level of leadership participating in something called an IDI assessment, which is intercultural development inventory, and it’s a tool that measures how well you’ve developed your intercultural skills,” Del Zotto recounted. “In our recruitment and hiring, we’ve created an accountability network. Our communications are now audited for diversity, and we are looking at targets for underrepresented groups and then measuring against those targets.”
Many commercial real estate companies are now similarly grappling with acknowledging and counterbalancing biases in recruitment, promotions and allocation of professional opportunities. The panellists all agreed that the industry’s traditional view of meritocracy needs to be revised to account for the challenges — or lack thereof — candidates have faced and surmounted to arrive at their current standing.
“Much of the first step toward creating inclusion has been about understanding biases and maybe understanding that we carry more than we thought we did. So we can look at how we interview or how we recruit or how we deal with eliminating some of that stuff. That’s the first step,” Di Mascio advised. “The one after that is acknowledging the systemic barriers that actually exist that prevent true meritocracy from being realized.”
Kalsi credited BGO’s hiring policy for creating the parameters in which candidates with non-conventional qualifications can gain employers’ attention — maintaining that those “who went to the right schools and had the right internships” and have “really, really relevant experience” have the advantage of being conspicuous, but aren’t necessarily more promising.
“The easier thing to do is hire (candidate) A. The harder thing to do is give (candidates) B or C a shot and help them grow, and that’s what we’re going to continue to push ourselves to do,” he affirmed.
Building industry momentum and consensus
Early participants in the CREED Council see it as a mechanism for building industry momentum and consensus around pursuing and achieving equity, diversity and inclusion — perhaps somewhat in the way that collegial yet competitive programs like GRESB and race2reduce have supported industry efforts in ESG and climate action.
“We should be working very closely across companies, across the industry, to help each other, push each other. If we can achieve those quantitative outcomes, then it challenges others to try to do the same or do better.” Kalsi said.
“We have a lot of great organizations within our industry and I think CREED will be very helpful for all of these organizations to help us move forward and build better,” Mahant concurred.
“We’re all starting at different places and points, but we all have to make a conscious effort. We’re already perhaps being reactive, not as proactive as we like to think we should be,” Del Zotto mused. “It’s not easy. It’s uncomfortable at times. It’s awkward and you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. I would say: Get comfortable with discomfort and just do it.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.