The quest to remain relevant in rapidly changing times challenges the commercial real estate industry as a supplier of product to the marketplace and as an employer. Tenants’ increasing demand for space that expresses their corporate values and engages their employees is mirrored in the industry’s own needs to retain top talent and attract successive generations of skilled professionals.
Prominent senior real estate executives attempted to pin down the somewhat intangible concepts of leadership, team-building and inclusiveness during a panel discussion to kick off BOMEX 2017 — the national conference of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada — earlier this fall in Toronto.
Beginning with a few upfront quips to acknowledge the panel’s prevailing age, gender and ethnicity in contrast to the workforces they lead, moderator Michael Brooks, chief executive officer of REALPAC, probed how organizations are recruiting, deploying and advancing real estate talent. Panellists represented a cross-section of key employers, including the public sector, pension funds, private equity and listed companies, but voiced some common staffing goals and concerns.
“Building a high-performance team and a high-performance culture is a core focus of my career,” said Jon Love, CEO of KingSett Capital, as a preface to his three-point strategy for attaining those results.
That entails: 1) providing opportunities to learn, thrive and advance; 2) compensating staff in line with their achievements; and 3) having leadership in place to ensure that steps 1 and 2 occur. It’s a philosophy other panellists echoed.
“Our organization comes down to our people. People want to be part of something that’s growing,” concurred Blake Hutcheson, president and CEO of Oxford Properties Group. “The culture comes from a series of tiny and good decisions through which you demonstrate how to behave.”
Underpinning those value statements are big corporate agendas like commitment to sustainability, openness to innovation and targets for growth that make for an invigorating work environment, as well as the nuances of how expectations are stated, performance is evaluated and contributions are recognized. Among the challenges, panellists agreed there is both a need to inject commercial real estate’s ranks with a steady and high-calibre supply of entry-level employees and to broaden its base to be more reflective of Canadian demographics circa 2017.
Recruitment goals and challenges
Toni Rossi, president of Infrastructure Ontario’s real estate division, decried levels of gender and ethnic diversity that lag other sectors and society at large. “It’s actually a problem for our industry,” she said.
Rossi urged companies to be more proactive in “putting programs in place that make people want to be included.” Suggesting efforts should be framed as targets, not quotas, — “Quotas cause people to have the wrong visceral reaction,” she maintained — she pointed to the already existing targets for more women on boards of directors and in senior executive positions and advised that such policies must be backed up with active mentoring and monitoring.
Hutcheson reported that Oxford, which is the real estate arm of OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System), one of Canada’s largest pension funds, is “loading up the organization to get it right for the next generation” while the current leadership structure still skews largely toward white men. “We’re not getting it totally right at the most senior ranks,” he conceded.
The same is true of other companies represented on the panel, such as QuadReal Property Group, with just one woman on its six-member board of directors, appointed earlier this year. However, the newly formed real estate subsidiary of British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (bcIMC) has been on the frontlines of forging a corporate culture as its workforce has grown from zero to 500 in the course of about 16 months. This also involves absorbing asset-level staff from the companies that had previously been the outsourced managers of QuadReal’s $24.5 billion portfolio and melding them into a unified whole.
“It’s a journey,” observed Remco Daal, president of QuadReal’s Canadian division — noting that the company’s human resources department is currently disproportionately larger and younger than other staff complements.
Ambitious plans for growth and diversification, including significant portfolio expansion outside Canada over the next decade, figure in hiring priorities. “If you want to attract younger workers, you need younger recruiters,” Daal reasoned.
Given the company’s antecedents, it’s perhaps not so surprising that securing outside expertise also remains central to the management strategy. “I would say our philosophy is: partner, partner, partner.” he noted.
Outreach underpins management
Panellists stressed that effective leaders listen, draw lessons from a wide array of resources and make receptiveness a cornerstone of problem solving and strategic planning. “Every CEO, and any manager who’s any good, is interested in what people are saying and thinking,” Love asserted.
“I notice there can be a disconnect between young professionals and people in the organization who have more experience,” reflected Adam Paul, president and CEO of First Capital Realty.
As a Gen Xer, he faces a relatively equidistant gap to bridge to either the millennials or boomers on his team. To do so, he has devised some formal channels for reaching out in an informal way, including regular “coffee chats” with four or five staffers from different departments. Student interns are also encouraged to submit ideas for new ways of working or delivering service.
“I was blown away by their intellect, their energy, their creativity,” Paul said. “As leaders, if you simply spend some time with them, it goes a long way.”
Rossi likewise recounted how summer students successfully introduced Yammer as an in-house social networking platform that now facilitates both idea sharing and intergenerational communication for the entire organization. She sees entry-level staff and aspiring young professionals as a potential tonic for the current homogeneity of upper management.
“It’s the younger group that may start to leapfrog,” she predicted. Nevertheless, Paul suggested the mid-career cohort has little reason to fear it will be left behind.
“To be in your 40s and in the real estate business today, is probably the best time to be in real estate,” he said. “I think there’s a ton of opportunities.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.