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Adversity, Failure, Ambition And Getting Ahead In CRE

Sophie van Oosterom was working in the London office of Lehman Brothers almost exactly 13 years ago when the lights literally went out on a September Sunday evening. Suddenly, no one wanted to take her calls. 

Working in the real estate private equity business of the failing investment bank, she kept her job only because technically she was working for the investors in the funds Lehman managed rather than the bankrupt company itself. But she went from the top of the pile to the bottom, learning lessons she has never forgotten in a career that has taken her to the helm of global real estate at fund manager Schroders.

The Lehman Brothers London HQ sign, auctioned at Christies.

“There was that moment of uncertainty when all of the operating partners we were working with wouldn’t pick up the phone any more, because they said, 'You were the money before, but now you’re nothing,'” she recalled at Bisnow London’s Women Leading Real Estate event, a live, in-person gathering attended by more than 250 real estate professionals.

That sudden change of attitude taught her a lot about relationships in business and how dealing with adversity can be formative in a career.

“It really gave you an insight into those relationships, how you’re aligned with people," she said. “But also that situation, working through it, dealing with the banks, making sure you work through everything and that you don’t take anything personally, it was a fascinating time. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world — afterwards.”

Van Oosterom was just one of several chief executives, board chairs and senior directors at the event to give insight into how to get to the top of the real estate profession, how to stay there and how to be a good leader once arrived. Failure and adversity came up more than once, along with not being afraid of ambition and taking as many opportunities as possible.

McArthurGlen is one of Europe’s biggest and most successful outlet mall developers and operators, and Susie McCabe is its co-CEO. In spite of the lofty position, she said her career stemmed from a failure and explained that embracing positions that might have seemed like a step down helped her to move up.

CMS' Victoria Henry and Schroders' Sophie van Oosterom

“I wanted to become a lawyer, but I didn’t get the score I needed in my LSAT [legal exam] test,” she said. “So I went into retail and have never regretted it; it’s such a collaborative and creative industry.”

McCabe's career spanned 17 years at Ralph Lauren and a spell at Under Armour before she took her retail expertise into the property sector at McArthurGlen.

At Ralph Lauren, she ran the global giant’s huge outlet mall business, one of its largest and most profitable divisions, before moving to lead a smaller and loss-making part of the business. It was a decision many of her colleagues didn’t understand. 

“This part of the business was on life support and people thought I was crazy,” she said. “But I’d had no exposure to this side of the business and the design element, and I thought, I need to understand that and get closer to that.”

Bisnow's Women Leading Real Estate event

That move gave McCabe a greater breadth of experience in how the company worked and made way for a later move into running the entire Latin American side of the company. McCabe advised not sweating the small stuff too much when it comes to taking new jobs.

“I once almost passed up a new position because I wasn’t getting a title change and that would have been a terrible mistake, she said. 

Like McCabe, Oxford University Development Chief Executive Anna Strongman looked to build her skill set and her career by taking a variety of different roles, in her case at different companies.

“My career path looks like it has been peppered by a series of pretty dramatic changes that have given me new opportunities and the chance to keep learning,” she said.

Those changes have included stints working at the UK government, brokerage DTZ, building consultancy ARUP, developer Argent, and now OUD, where she heads up a £4B joint venture between pension fund Legal & General and Oxford University.

In addition to her desire to gain experience, there is something else at play, Strongman said.

“I’m not going to deny I’ve been driven by ambition,” she said. “Some of those moves have been made because I’ve thought, 'No, I’m better than you, you’re the boss, I’m going to be the boss!' I’m not ashamed of saying that, and I’ve always tried to keep moving forward and not tread water.”

Fried Frank's Patrick Williams, Greystar's Angela Russell, OUD's Anna Strongman, McArthurGlen's Susie McCabe and Norton Rose Fulbright's Jennie Dorsaint

Strongman said there's another thing people don’t always want to say out loud, especially women looking for the flexibility to undertake childcare and continue a career: Don’t be afraid to ask for a raise.

“This probably isn’t a PC answer, but ask for more money because if you’ve got more money, you can afford more help,” she said. 

One speaker at the event who has also had a varied career is Penny Hughes, one of the UK’s most senior business figures. She ran Coca-Cola’s UK and Ireland division aged just 32 and has held non-executive board positions at companies as varied as retailer The Body Shop, telecoms firm Vodafone, lender Royal Bank of Scotland and supermarket chain Morrisons. In the real estate world, she chaired the board of iQ, the student accommodation provider bought by Blackstone for £4.7B last year, and is currently chair at Riverstone, the UK senior living developer backed by Goldman Sachs

As president of Coca-Cola UK and Ireland she was the first woman to hold a regional presidency at the firm and by far the youngest.

“I was much more nervous about doing it at 32 than being a woman,” she said. “To get there, every time they wanted to expand or grow, I just put my hand up."

Hughes stressed one often-overlooked point when successful individuals talk about their careers: No matter how good they are at their jobs, leaders need supportive companies.

Slaughter and May's Jane Edwarde and Riverstone's Penny Hughes

“Companies need to help people,” she said. “They gave me the mentorship, the support, the help with leadership skills. So I had mentors and buddies and essentially just people around me that wanted me to win.”

That need for a wider network was a theme picked up by Norton Rose Fulbright partner and CREW UK board member Jennie Dorsaint. “We’re told at school that if you sit at your desk, put your head down and work hard, you will succeed in life,” she said. “But it’s not always true. The network is so important ... The people you meet, you take them through your career, and it is from knowing them that these different opportunities arise."

Schroders’ van Oosterom echoed this idea.

“In the beginning of my career, someone asked me, do you want to get promoted? I said, of course, I work incredibly long hours, I put my head down, I solve problems," she said. "And they said, yes, but you need to talk to your boss more. How are they going to know you solve all these complicated problems unless you tell them? You have to realise your boss doesn’t always notice what you’re doing.”

And once at the top, how do you make sure you’re a good boss and bring other people along with you? Qualities like empathy and inclusiveness are key in the modern world, speakers said, along with one more: authenticity. 

“At times I have deliberately cultivated my leadership style, but I think the main thing is you just need to be genuine,” Greystar Senior Director Angela Russell said. “That means being empathetic of course, but do I talk about sports, am I a bit rough around the edges, can I be a bit, aggressive, you could call it? Yes, but that’s because that is who I am, not because I am trying to portray what are seen as male characteristics.”