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Weekend Interview: Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO For JLL Work Dynamics

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.

Sanjay Rishi is Americas CEO for JLL Work Dynamics, the corporate services arm of the global brokerage that helps clients with their office strategies and workplace technology to ultimately improve employee attraction, retention and productivity. One tool JLL is piloting among its own employees to improve well-being is “The Hub,” a digital portal that integrates with employees’ calendars to block time for de-stressing activities like yoga or meditation.

Rishi hasn't always been a real estate pro — he led IBM's Global Cloud Application Services Business and did stints at GM, PwC and Johnson Controls.

The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO for JLL Work Dynamics

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

Rishi: For leaders across industries, including myself, the past two years have required a completely different set of leadership skills to navigate this new world of dynamic business change and hybrid working. Like many across the workforce, I’ve felt the impact of the pandemic — from virtual fatigue and burnout to struggling to create boundaries between work and home. Recognizing that many of our employees at JLL have also experienced the pandemic on a psychological front, I’ve found that soft skills like listening and building morale are as important as the business skills needed to lead. In this new era of hybrid work, my leadership philosophy has certainly shifted to integrate those softer ingredients and new behaviors to create a culture of care and empathy for our employees, regardless of where work happens.

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

Rishi: Since joining JLL nearly four years ago as the Americas CEO of Work Dynamics, so much has changed. Never has the workforce been more vocal about their individual aspirations integrating with organizational vision. While the pandemic incited a crisis of new challenges, there has also been this incredible opportunity to cultivate more connections. In this era of digitally enabled work, I’ve prioritized more virtual face-to-face conversations with our people, which has been a wonderful time to connect — not only on a different level, but with more people than was possible before the pandemic. Listening to our workforce, cultivating empathy and sharing our perspectives and experiences over the past two years has influenced my leadership approach. There is an enhanced need today to create an organizational culture that embraces people as social creatures, cultivating responsible communities that we live in. And that really is at the heart of how CEO roles have evolved and will continue to.  

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

Rishi: The pandemic will pass, as pandemics always do, but the learnings and experiences of a yearlong remote work posture will remain and continue to shape the role of the CEO in the years to come. As technology enables portability of talent, culture will become increasingly more important. Creating a differentiated culture that attracts and retains talent will not be as easy as before, and CEOs will need to double down on the human element as they create and implement their visions that harness the evolved flexible, dynamic nature of work to enable business growth. Looking ahead to the next decade, this will mean closely partnering internally, and even more so externally across existing and new ecosystems, to establish and realize strategies that will help win the war for talent long-term and offer a competitive advantage.

Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO for JLL Work Dynamics

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

Rishi: Titles aside, I believe teams, not individuals, lead organizations to success. I’m fortunate to be one amongst many that play our part in that pursuit of success. Even early in my career, I learned about the power of high-performing teams. Every day brought new challenges and opportunities to solve client problems. Collaborative strategic development and bringing innovation and creativity to our clients continues to inspire me. I find fulfillment in seeing human potential unleashed, as we challenge our teams to come up with new ideas, reach ambitious goals and have an entrepreneurial mentality. My passion continues to be mentoring and leading people and enabling individual and organizational growth. 

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

Rishi: The mistake I worry about the most is not learning from my mistakes. And while I have had my share of them, as long as I am learning and we are growing as an organization from those mistakes, that’s OK. What is most important is how we ensure that we don’t continuously repeat them. How can we use it as a teaching tool to get to a better, desired outcome? The costliest mistakes are the ones that affect our people, talent, culture and our ethics, and I try very hard to not let that happen. 

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

Rishi: The world today is a very different place than it was in 2019, and the workplace has continued to evolve with it. Many of the changes we’ve seen are trends that were already bubbling up, but were accelerated by the pandemic, including the need for greater flexibility and a shift toward digitally enabled workplaces. 

As we move through 2022, the workplace will continue to become much more agile. In counseling clients across the globe, we’ve found that companies are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to meet the ever-changing needs of their employees. As a result, we’ve found a few trends that have developed across the board: workplace flexibility as the new normal, so employees can alternate between different places of work as their needs change; digital transformation to drive solutions to quickly changing business needs; sustainability strategies that translate environmental goals into action that creates real value; and physical and mental well-being sustained by a regenerative workplace. 

In fact, our research shows that work-life balance is now the No. 1 workforce priority, even ahead of salary. That’s very telling of the shift in workplace dynamics and the increased need for companies to create healthy workspaces, so employees can feel energized, valued and productive. At JLL, we’ve embraced this shift as an opportunity to create a compelling employee value proposition to attract and retain the best talent. Our office strategy encompasses a strong focus on the human experience that prioritizes worker preferences, as well as health and well-being to fuel workforce resilience. As just one of many examples, among our employees we’ve piloted “The Hub,” a digital portal that integrates directly with employees’ calendars to block time for micro-habits to combat work stressors felt throughout the day, including customized on-demand well-being services like yoga and meditation that match each individual’s interests and needs.

Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO for JLL Work Dynamics

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?

Rishi: We feel the urgency and are taking action at JLL to pave the way for tangible, industry change. It’s my belief that the single most effective approach to advancing more people of color and women to the C-suite over the long term is building an active pipeline of diverse talent, starting with entry-level positions. We have visibly moved the needle on succession planning, recruitment and equity to accelerate our aspiration to have a workforce and leadership that is representative of the communities we serve.  

We have also taken steps unique to the industry, recognizing that the commercial real estate commission-based salary model can be a huge barrier to entry. For those in the lower socioeconomic bracket, who often aren’t able to withstand the low base salaries because of other financial obligations, like student loan debt — we announced several new programs last June designed to reduce these inequities in starting a career in CRE. This included a $4M investment to fund entry-level compensation for racially diverse and female sales professionals to help supplement the industry's traditional commission-based salary structures. Additionally, with NCES indicating that women and people of color graduate with a disproportionate amount of student loans, we launched a college loan repayment program in JLL’s Capital Markets business in the U.S. Through the initiative, all new hires for Capital Markets with student loans will receive up to $5K annually in loan repayment support with a lifetime maximum of $15K toward student loan debt.

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?

Rishi: We view the increased focus on sustainability and climate change today as an essential shift — one that has been a priority area for our business for many years. With the built environment accounting for almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we feel the urgency of the climate crisis and are working with our clients to deliver the solutions they need to redesign and retrofit buildings to reduce their carbon footprints. 

Our work to decarbonize the built environment has never felt more important as the demand for more sustainable buildings increases. Our research even found that 80% of “leading” investors say they consider climate risk and resilience as part of their due diligence process when acquiring new real estate. We’re also seeing growing financial incentive to pursue carbon reduction, where 73% of investors say that green strategies lead to higher occupancy, higher rents, higher tenant retention and overall higher value. 

A sustainable future is our only future, and I’m encouraged by the tangible progress our company has made over the past year to decarbonize real estate. This included achieving the first United Nations-sanctioned global, science-based standard for net-zero goals. We’re one of only a handful of global companies across all sectors to be recognized for bringing net-zero commitments in line with climate science. As part of this commitment, we also pledged to reduce our absolute emissions to 51% by 2030 and 95% by 2040.  

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

Rishi: When we look at space through the eyes of multiple generations co-existing in the office, we find that a more flexible environment is better able to weather long- and short-term shifts in preference and usage and is ultimately a better portfolio strategy. Diversifying location options and offering an array of workspaces for heads-down work, collaboration and meetings of varying sizes prolongs the life of your space and creates a better employee experience. Even furniture design can be sustainable and flexible, and react to changing space needs. We encourage our clients to see the office not as a necessary expense but as a tool to attract and retain employees, and promote culture and creativity. Offering this flexibility and variety is the key to long-term success for clients in almost any industry.

Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO for JLL Work Dynamics

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

Rishi: Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen certain verticals — such as industrial and data centers — perform very well, and we don’t expect this to slow down. However, I’m still a firm believer in the critical role the office will play in the future of work, particularly now when talent is at a premium and a sense of belonging and affinity to organizational culture are paramount. We believe offices will perform quite well over the next five years. As feelings of burnout and stress continue to persist for employees in a virtual work environment, the office will be poised to emerge with a new purpose post-pandemic as a hub for fostering collaboration and productivity, with human experience at the center.

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

Rishi: A few months ago, I had the pleasure of partnering with my colleagues, Ben Breslau and Peter Miscovich, to write a book about the trends that are reshaping the future of work. The Workplace You Need Now: Shaping Spaces for the Future of Work is an introspective look at how the pandemic has left its mark on the way we work and offers a strategy for how to plan, invest in and create effective digital and physical hybrid workplaces. The opportunity to write a book about this pivotal moment was too compelling an opportunity to pass up, and I’m proud of what we captured — a window into the probable and a glimpse into the possible — creating a personalized, responsible and experiential workplace for the future of work.

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

Rishi: At some personal risk I must admit, I can be glued to the TV watching sports. Netflix and Prime have been stress-relieving reprieves when I am on my endless days away from home — and a guilty pleasure has been gripping storylines that portray the underworld. 

Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?

Rishi: I enjoy playing golf when weather permits and getting together with friends, as well as spending time with my family. I consciously try to distance myself from work on the weekends. Even if I am working, I make an effort to avoid reaching out to colleagues to give them the space to recharge as well.