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What Does The Next Generation Of Leaders In The Property Industry Think About The Current Lot?

Property seems to be going through a period of self-reflection. Whether it is fears about being left behind by advances in technology, facing the fact that it lags in terms of diversity or worrying about its social impact and wider public perception, there is an air of existential angst about real estate right now. The world is changing fast, and property is working out how to change with it.

That change will in a large part be driven by the inexorable march of demographics: younger generations entering the workforce, with new ideas and beliefs. 

CBRE's Lorna Walker and the BPF's Melanie Leech

What does the next generation of leaders in the property industry think about the current generation? Bisnow sat down with CBRE Director Lorna Walker, winner of the Rising Star award at last year’s BPF Futures Tomorrow’s Leaders Awards, and British Property Federation Chief Executive Melanie Leech for a full, frank and wide-ranging discussion on what those rising through the ranks in real estate think the sector can and should change about itself.

Entries for this year’s Tomorrow’s Leaders Awards, in association with Bisnow, are now open, and Walker also discussed what it meant to her to win the award. It is a lot more than just a certificate.

Walker is one of those people whose bio you read and think, “where do you find the time?” On top of being a director in the special projects team at CBRE and working on deals such as the £1.5B Network Rail arches sale, she was a co-founder of CBRE’s first BeyondMe charitable team, set up CBRE’s UK Innovation and PropTech Board, leads its strategic relationship with PI Labs and has been part of CBRE Women’s Network advisory board for almost 10 years, working toward gender equality for men and women.
In her spare time, Walker founded Peer 20, a cross-industry organisation that aims to connect, encourage and inspire the next generation of young professionals as well as use their skills to help make the world a better place.

She said part of what attracted her to work in the property industry was the chance it offered to make a positive impact on society.

“I’m very passionate about equality and social justice,” she said. “I’m not really that passionate about buildings — I have a lot of friends that are, but I am interested in changing people’s lives and in how we create the places that people live.”

The BPF's Melanie Leech; CBRE's Lorna Walker, winner of the BPF Tomorrow's Leaders Rising Star award; and Oxford Properties' Paul Brundage

Walker joined CBRE as a graduate a decade ago, and she said in that time she has noticed a shift in the industry, which now talks less about buildings, and indeed money, and more about people and creating better environments for them.

“When I joined the industry it was quite traditional, and was much more straightforwardly about real estate,” she said. “But that has changed. I think it will keep changing, and it will have to keep changing because of the challenges society is coming up against. Because of technology we are going to have to keep evolving; as an industry, but also because property will become more important and more of a touch point in people’s lives. That means the industry has an even greater responsibility.”

While she feels there are some generational differences between those just starting out in the real estate industry and those already established, Walker said the attitudes she sees among her contemporaries is often mirrored by older generations. The difference is that the mindsets of young people are empowering their seniors.

“I think the millennial generation definitely wants to act in a more socially conscious way, but I think for most people, the thing is they need to be given permission to care about these things. People always look to role models, and if the people at the top seem to care about these things, then that changes the behaviour of an organisation. If you look at someone like [British Land head of campus] Juliette Morgan and what she has done in terms of educating herself to understand climate change, she is not head of sustainability or head of CSR, she just believes in her core that we are hurtling towards disaster and we need to change. That is very powerful.”

“That point about feeling like you have permission is very important,” Leech said. “I don’t think the wrinklies think any differently than younger people, but they didn’t have the framework to express it. So people expressing these ideas today are pushing on an open door.”

Leech said internal and external drivers have aligned, and CEOs have more expectations now to understand and be aligned with how people think.

“There are always going to be some people who are on pace and some people who are behind the pace,” she said. “My job is to tell the positive story about the things the industry is doing but also challenge the industry: We can be a safe space where CEOs challenge each other because if industries don’t change, then they cease to exist.”

CBRE's Lorna Walker

The public image of the property industry does not always fit the positive image they are presenting, Leech said. It is something she said the BPF is working to change.

“That is one of the frustrations of people at all levels of the industry,” she said. “There is a perception that we are all rich, middle-class white males from the shires. People can have a positive view of individual companies or schemes, like King’s Cross Central, but a negative view of the industry as a whole, and unless we change that, we won’t be successful. So we need to tell a better story about the way the property industry can change people’s lives.

“Partly it is about the way younger people are in a position to come and change the way the industry works and looks. But it [is] also about the way people interact with the industry. A lot of people’s only interaction with property is the process of renting or buying a house, which is often negative. So things like build to rent professionalising the rental process will make a huge difference.”

In terms of changing the makeup of the industry and introducing greater diversity, Walker said that had also improved in her decade in the industry. She has a strong view about the single most important measure to improve diversity.

“The biggest thing from a practical point of view is shared parental leave; it’s just as important that new dads get parental leave as new mums,” she said. “It has a lifelong impact on men in the way they bond with their kids, and it has a big impact in terms of making sure both parents are able to work if they want to.

“In general, you need a workplace culture that is flexible, where your boss knows not to schedule a conference call for 5pm because you might need to pick up your kids. And that flexibility is not just about diversity — flexible hours and a proper work and life balance is really important for mental health.”

Facing camera: Landsec's Colette O'Shea and Lendlease's Sherin Aminossehe

Leech said the property industry needs to improve on diversity, but that it is on the right path, especially if more attention is paid to the levels below chief executive.

“At the CEO level you don’t have that 50/50 split: It will change, but it might take a generation,” she said. “For every [Landsec CEO] Rob Noel there is a Colette O’Shea [Landsec London managing director]. There are some really strong role models in the C-suite and the pipeline of potential CEOs is building up. People need to see role models are all levels of the business — they won’t join the industry if they don’t feel welcome. Not everyone joins a company wanting to be CEO, but they do think they might become a board member or lead a team. We need mentors and champions at all levels of business.”

That includes within the younger tier.

“Young people are changing the industry and shaping its future and we want to celebrate and highlight the great work a lot of people are already doing,” Leech said. 

Walker epitomises this, and she said getting the recognition of winning the Rising Star award meant a lot.

“It was just really great to be recognised and it was a big confidence boost,” she said. “[Frogmore Chief Executive] Jo Allen put me forward for it and I’m so glad she did. I had just come back from maternity leave, and thought I hadn’t really done anything that great to merit being nominated. A lot of young people are doing fantastic things, but think it is not that special or enough to warrant putting themselves forward, but they should be confident.

“It has also really helped to improve my network, and given me access to people like [former BPF president and Oxford Properties head of European and Asia real estate [Paul Brundage] who I might not otherwise have met.”

In the space of just over a year, BPF Futures (the part of the organisation dedicated to younger professionals in property, giving them opportunities to network with their contemporaries and senior industry figures) has grown from zero to more than 1,100 members, Leech said.

The generations within real estate aren’t really so different after all, it would seem. It is just they are now being given the opportunity to sing from the same hymn sheet.