Professional, community and broader economic development issues were closely linked in the discussions that kicked off the CREW Network 2017 Spring Leadership Summit last week. Delegates from 73 chapters in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom gathered in Toronto for two days of workshops and small-group meetings that offered the 271 attendees opportunities to glean insight from prominent players in the commercial real estate industry and to share their own career experiences.
The acronym CREW — commercial real estate women — aptly depicts the membership, which, while open to men, predominantly consists of women who have at least year five years of experience working in one the industry’s many disciplines. However, Network is equally intrinsic to the definition of an organization that bills itself as instrumental in fostering business relationships and peer support.
The Toronto event began with an open plenary to consider best practices for advancing that network’s goals and providing relevant programming for members at all stages of their careers. Panellists from CREW Dallas, New Mexico and Denver outlined the premise, logistics and outcomes of their student outreach, mentoring and member value programs.
None of these are unique to any of the chapters, but presenters had both practical advice and some bigger-picture reflections on lessons learned as they explained how the initiatives had been tailored to reflect community needs and make best use of local resources. As a package, the three examples also parallel the typical professional’s career progress from uninitiated to aspiring to entry-level to entrenched status.
Outreach to students
The Dallas chapter’s CREW Careers addresses the front end of that continuum with an immersive experience for high school students. The program is strategically targeted to a demographic that is thinking about postsecondary education, with the aim of showcasing some possible options.
“We want to bring this information to young women who may not even know what commercial real estate is,” explained Paula Beasley, CREW Dallas president-elect and a partner with the legal firm, McTaggart and Beasley PLLC. “Career counsellors may not understand commercial real estate either.”
She traced the steady momentum of the program, which was launched at one all-girls school in the Dallas Independent School District and has now expanded to 10 schools and about 100 girls. Something like a moot court for commercial real estate, CREW members coach students who assume various roles in the development/redevelopment process. These CREW coaches initially visit a school to talk about what they do, then leave it to school officials to sign up student participants.
An actual building site serves as the living laboratory — which might be a new-build or repositioning of an existing building — allowing students to take on roles in design, planning, finance, project management, leasing or property management. This culminates in a competitive charrette, during which teams devise and present plans for the project.
At the next stage of the CRE career path, CREW New Mexico focuses on the women who have not yet gained the requisite five years of experience for full membership. The program pairs five mentors with five protégés, following a set course agenda that’s open to indefinite informal extensions.
“They are going to spend six months together and, hopefully, a lifetime being friends,” reported Martha Carpenter of CREW New Mexico, a vice president with Colliers in Albuquerque. All mentors are CREW members, while protégés are generally identified through a referral process.
The chapter’s application and interview process for both halves of the prospective friendship ensures that mentors are truly committed and protégés want real estate careers. “One question we ask is: where do they see themselves in five years? If they say: ‘I really want to be a teacher’, that’s kind of a ding there,” Carpenter quipped.
Beyond initial vetting, mentors and protégés choose each other via a “speed-dating” exercise. The whole group of 10 meets monthly, but duos are encouraged to communicate more frequently.
Over the course of the program, several former protégés have become eligible for full membership — including one whom Carpenter introduced as she sat among the delegates at the Leadership Summit. “Seventy six per cent of our protégés have advanced in their careers, been promoted in their careers or got another job that was a promotion,” she added.
CREW’s multidisciplinary membership underpins the organizational goal to be “the premier resource and referral network in commercial real estate” yet poses some professional development challenges in balancing dozens of often complementary, but distinct fields. Courtney Ryan of CREW Denver noted that her chapter’s recent move to revise its programming is still subject to scrutiny and refinement, but is an effort to appeal to a broader base of members and capture specific interest groups.
“We are finding there is a definite stratification of where people are finding value,” she observed.
Smaller scale events — like the popular Dinner with an Icon, in which ten to 15 members have an opportunity to meet with a influential industry or community leader, and a bring-your-own-lunch midday seminars — have been added, while the number of all-member events have been reduced. Ryan warns that a surfeit of options stretches the base of prospective attendees in too many directions.
“We were competing against ourselves. So now we’re very strategic with no more than one signature event a month” she said. “Every time we creep up over two (signature and small-scale events) a month, attendance for all events falls.”
A move to limit casual attendees’ access is another part of the strategy to promote the value of CREW membership. Previously, about 95 per cent of events were open to non-members, who simply paid a higher price for their tickets. Now, only about 50 per cent of the events provide this option. “It was, frankly, a big shift,” Ryan acknowledged.
Part of that shift involves reframing the expenditure. “What we really found is that women have a hard time valuing themselves and their network,” she said.
Similarly, Carpenter noted that her chapter’s mentors must often be actively approached and encouraged to apply for the role because they underestimate qualities in themselves that others can clearly see. Meanwhile, Beasley summed up a common perception of the commercial real estate community in her city as: “It’s a bunch of white men.”
She urged continued action on all fronts to create a more diverse pool of replacements from future generations. “Hopefully, the idea is we’re changing the face of commercial real estate,” she reiterated.
Photo: CREW Network President, Alison Bedard, with Paula Beasley, Courtney Ryan and Martha Carpenter.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.