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Weekend Interview: Lendlease Americas CEO, Global COO Denis Hickey

This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.

Lendlease, a massive international property investment firm of 8,200 employees, aims to be at the forefront of environmental, social and governance standards across the globe, and Denis Hickey is one of the people pushing the company — and industry — forward.

Hickey, Lendlease’s CEO of the Americas and global chief operating officer, chairs its diversity, equity and inclusion advisory committee and thus has his fingerprint on initiatives like the Cornerstone Program, in which new professionals undergo two years of intensive training, mentorship and networking, including rotating through several roles at the company. The program has hit its target of 60% female and 40% people of color participation.

While many companies are aiming for net-zero carbon, often including carbon offsets, Sydney-based Lendlease has committed to being absolute zero carbon, including its supply chain, by 2040. 

Hickey was a professional cricket player in Australia before he entered the world of business and has been in real estate for 25 years, including serving as CEO of ING Real Estate, Australia. Now that his kids have left home, he spends much of his weekend time on the golf course, a game he said he loves for its social interactions and inclusivity.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
Lendlease Global Chief Operating Officer and Americas CEO Denis Hickey

Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way. 

Hickey: I think that over time, my leadership style has evolved and I’m sure will continue to. However, I firmly believe that leadership is not about charisma; it’s about character. There are lots of people who can play the room and deliver good speeches. However, the good leaders are the ones with deep philosophies that serve as the compass for their decision-making. Ultimately, as a leader, people want you to be real, be visible, be approachable, be consistent and, above all, be open with them. You really need to be the champion and face of the company’s culture and talent.

My advice to emerging leaders is to be acutely aware that people are actively looking for those traits, and make sure your actions and decisions are anchored in your beliefs and what you stand for as a person; this has always been the foundational basis for my leadership and served me well.

Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now? 

Hickey: When I grew up, the role of the CEO seemed to be more authoritarian in nature than what it is now. Today, a CEO needs to be much more skilled at managing both people and teams’ emotional intelligence. The CEO still needs to be accountable for the strategic and financial performance of the company. However, now more than ever, they need to be skilled at managing the different dynamics within their teams. This is not too different from what we see in the evolution of professional sporting coaches. The modern coach is as much a people manager as they are a tactician.   

Another change I have seen relates to speed of decision-making. I’m a believer that a business can only move at the speed of its decision-making, and that decision-making can only move at the speed of information. We are now operating in a truly global environment, connected by a plethora of global information platforms that can take time to absorb. However, speed of decision-making remains essential, so I find that the modern CEO needs to act faster, but with less-perfect information.

Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?

Hickey: The CEO of the future is going to be held more accountable by the external marketplace for the social contributions made by the company they run. The list of stakeholders that expect, or demand, visibility and accountability on a corporation’s social and environmental impact is going to continue to grow and extend well beyond what we think of today.  

This can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how this change is managed. At Lendlease, we embrace this change because ultimately it is consistent with our beliefs as a company. We have a long track record of considering how our company impacts society at large, and we welcome and are excited about this evolution. 

Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?

Hickey: The CEO position was not ever a conscious goal of mine. I have always enjoyed being part of a team. I think this stemmed from my younger days playing professional sport, through which I really experienced the power of what a united team can achieve. So, when I entered the corporate world, I always sought out opportunities where I could be a part of a team, and ultimately gravitated into leadership positions because I’m curious, I like solving problems, am competitive and really enjoy the thrill of team success. Now I get to do that as a CEO; it’s both fun and daunting at the same time.

Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader? 

Hickey: When I think about my mistakes or what I could have done better, I think more about the decisions I didn’t make, or took too long to make. The old adage that “the best decision is the right decision, the next best decision is the wrong decision, the worst decision is no decision” cannot be more correct! We can always correct a wrong decision, but it is hard to recover from taking too long, or never making a decision.  

In the earlier part of my career, I used to think that because I was the boss, I had to have all the answers, and therefore had to make all the decisions. As I have evolved, I have come to realize that as a CEO, my job is not to make all the decisions; rather my job is to make sure all the decisions are made. So, over time, I’ve become more comfortable surrounding myself with other people who are smarter than me, have better ideas and better solutions than me. My job is then often more about the coordination of the intellect around me that gets us to the right decision. And that’s quite a different thought process. 

Lendlease's Denis Hickey

Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?

Hickey: Obviously, the pandemic has been revolutionary in terms of how quickly the bulk of our office-based workforce was able to move to work remotely, virtually overnight. It was quite remarkable to see this happen so quickly.

That shift has challenged existing paradigms about how we do office-based work. The innate expectation of being in the office five days a week has been fundamentally turned on its head, and I think that’s a great thing. The world, and certainly Lendlease, is having lots of conversations about determining what the long-term balance between remote work and flexible work will be. I think it’s going to take all of us a few years to figure out, and it won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. Some roles can be permanently flexible while others require strong collaboration and teamwork, which really works best when people get together. So, we’re going to try to find that right balance.

Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?

Hickey: Driving more diversity throughout our whole company is a key objective for Lendlease globally, as it is one of our core beliefs. Personally, I spend a lot of time with our leadership teams developing ways in which we can prioritize DEI at all levels of our business, including leadership positions. At Lendlease, we believe it starts with young talent identification and creating opportunities for that talent to grow, learn and develop. For example, we have a program for new graduates of university or trade schools called our Cornerstone Program. This is an accelerated skill development program for the first two years of their time with Lendlease. Through this program, we are investing in training courses, mentorship programs and networking opportunities, and we ensure participants rotate through several roles during this period. The program targets 60% female participation and 40% POC participation, and it’s really encouraging that we have been able to hit those numbers. These employees are the foundations of Lendlease and, by investing in them, we will surely see the company benefit. 

We also have a series of employee resource groups that are given the opportunity to shape specific areas of diversity for the company. These groups are critical to develop our thinking and objectives. The leaders of the ERGs sit on the company’s DEI Advisory Committee, which I chair. This committee has a mix of internal and external experts who frequently come together to shape our direction and measure outcomes. It’s a great collection of talent.

Whilst we are committed to driving this agenda and have some great initiatives in place, we do recognize that we still have a long way to go and are always looking for ways to improve. So, while I have more work to do, I’m encouraged and believe more diverse employees will be in the C-suite as their careers develop and people create opportunities for themselves to step through that door. 

Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning? 

Hickey: I think the recent focus on sustainability and climate change is fantastic. For years, people have looked to the government to tackle these issues, and gains have often been regulatory-led. But recently, we are seeing a significant shift, where society is looking at corporations to be leaders in the climate change and social agendas. Many companies and players in the CRE sector have a direct impact on how our current and future cites operate, in all aspects of sustainability — environmentally, economically and socially. So, we have a great opportunity to shape the future. 

For us at Lendlease, this has always been a founding principle. Our founder, Dick Dusseldorp, famously stated back in 1973 that “Companies must start justifying their worth to society, with greater emphasis placed on environmental and social impact, rather than straight economics.” For 1973, this thinking was way ahead of its time. And here we are some 50 years later, with this mantra starting to become the expectation of corporates. I think it is a really exciting time.

Our Mission Zero commitment, which includes the industry-leading goal of achieving absolute zero carbon by 2040, is perhaps the best example of how we are working toward a more sustainable future for our company and the communities in which we operate. It sets a high bar, holds us accountable and provides a model that companies across industries can use to reduce their own carbon footprints.

Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?

Hickey: I think that, as an industry, we get it wrong when we prioritize the outcomes of the building — that is, the physical asset — over the outcomes for the people who are going to use it and the place that we are creating. The reality is that most of the lasting value lies not in the physical asset, but in the benefits it creates for the occupants, users and broader urban ecosystem. The best real estate starts with a clear understanding of the end user so we can better anticipate how they will use the space both today and in the future. 

Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?

Hickey: Life science is an incredibly exciting sector. This has been a growing asset class for many years as technology advancements have allowed for much more flexibility and interchangeability in the use of lab and medical space. However, I think Covid opened people’s eyes to the speed at which new innovative treatments and other life-altering products can be created. As such, the interest and influx of capital into this space will only increase in the years ahead.  

I also think multifamily assets will remain strong. The younger generation loves mobility and flexibility, and I think owning traditional real estate is less important to them until much later in their lives. We’ve already seen evidence of the sector’s resilience coming out of the pandemic, when many predicted millennials had left cities for good. However, as the cities have opened again, the people are returning in droves as they still love what the big cities have to offer. As such, rents have rebounded to now be higher than pre-pandemic levels, which speaks to the enduring appeal of urban living. Buildings that successfully integrate sustainability, technology and flexibility into the residential experience will be best positioned to succeed.

Finally, logistics will continue to perform well. Covid accelerated many people’s use of online shopping by a decade and the growth will only continue. This will ultimately require more investment in distribution, especially last-mile fulfillment, so it’s an area that has great opportunity for innovation and new solutions. 

Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?

Hickey: I think the TedTalk by Simon Sinek on “the great inspiring leaders — the golden circle” was fantastic. 

There are libraries filled with many books on leadership and strategy, however, many of them are overly complicated and one-dimensional. I think Simon’s articulation of the common denominator for inspiring leaders and companies was very refreshing and his articulation of the “why” as the driver was very impactful.

Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?

Hickey: My favorite is Get Smart, the classic comedy from the late ‘60s. I love it because when I was little, I would watch it and laugh because it was funny. Then when I was older, I watched it again and realized it was clever in its satire of many great movie classics, namely many great Humphry Bogart movies! So, it had a whole different meaning to me, and it made me laugh for a whole new set of reasons. 

Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?

Hickey: For many years, I would spend my Saturdays with my kids, doing whatever it was that they were doing. As they’ve moved on to their own lives, I have more time to spend on other things, and that is starting with more time on the golf course. Golf is quite fascinating to me — it’s truly a beautiful game. Firstly, it’s high-value social time in that you’re spending several hours with people, so you really have an opportunity to connect with whomever you’re playing with. Secondly, it’s one of the rare games that people of differing abilities can all play to their maximum yet everyone can play together, and finally, it is a game that spans all ages — kids can play with grandparents and all play at a similar pace. It really is a very inclusive game.