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What Does It Take To Be IREM’s CPM of the Year? Dr. Debbie Phillips Reveals Tips and Tricks to Her Success


At this year’s IREM REME Awards, Dr. Debbie Phillips of the Quadrillion was awarded the CPM of the Year award for her dedication to “developing top-tier leadership development programs for emerging leaders.” A nationally acclaimed author and speaker with more than 25 years of experience in real estate management, Debbie had served as vice president for two of the nation’s most prominent real estate companies before receiving her Ph.D. from Georgia Tech and founding the Quadrillion. She has also taught at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and the New School of Architecture and Design as well as technical schools across the state and even recently directed a comprehensive textbook on multifamily housing. With so many credits to her name, Debbie seems like a natural fit for Bisnow partner IREM, an organization dedicated to providing excellence in property management. It’s also why we were excited to talk to Debbie about her drive, her views of education and the CPM Program.

To find out more about the CPM program, click here. To learn more about our Bisnow partner, click here.

Bisnow: What drives you every day?

Debbie: I fundamentally believe “when much is given, much is expected.” I gave a presentation to IREM’s Georgia chapter, and I asked everybody to think about who invested in their lives. All the opportunities that have come to me have been simply because someone saw something in me worth investing in. It gives me a tremendous responsibility, and every morning I wake up, my No. 1 goal is to tell someone about the opportunities in real estate. 

I see a lot of people who are walking around dead, with no fire in their belly, and that disturbs me. When I see people just going through the motions, that really concerns me, because they’re not adding value and they’re certainly not enjoying it. So if I can share just one little spark with them—when you light someone’s candle, yours doesn’t go out, you just pass it on! I really feel my “genius zone” is planting the seed, so I do that through my college students, my adult learners, my co-workers, and people in my circles of influence and so forth. They hold me accountable to a higher bar. 

To me, the law of the lid is 9's and 10's won’t follow a 7. Be worth following! Get up every day and look for the opportunity to really serve. I think the award and recognition came because people are supportive and honored the service. It’s not about me being a better property manager, it’s just about looking under every stone for opportunity to help another person.

Bisnow: Would you say this opportunity to inspire and light a candle in someone else is what attracted you to the CPM program or was there something else that set it apart?

Debbie: You don’t ever want to associate with somebody running at your pace. If you want to run faster, find someone who runs faster than you. I was fortunate to work around some giants in the industry and I had these giants tell me their expectations for me. I had doubts about whether I could actually do what they wanted. I mean, everybody does if they are honest with themselves. But IREM had a reputation and brand I wanted to be associated with and support. Now I look for people who will support that brand at the same level or higher. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I worked around incredible leaders. I have been really fortunate to work with strong, dynamic leaders that expected that of me. 

But that’s something I think people need to think about: where are you leading and where are you learning? Everybody has something to contribute. I speak all over the country and talk to people about staying and playing in their “Genius Zone” and identifying their strengths. My parents were both educators, so I grew up learning from teachers and understanding what teachers do when making an impact. Teachers give 100% of themselves and my goal is to go home empty every day. I want to pour it all out for somebody, but you’ve got to have someone worth pouring into first.

Bisnow: During your classes and in IREM courses, do you recommend the CPM program and feel it was worth it for your career?

Debbie: Well, not only do I recommend it to others, I make it a priority in my discussions and tell people that it’s a game changer designation. If somebody comes and has a CPM designation, it speaks to me about who that person is. It’s the intentional direction of a person and what they choose to do with their time. The CPM course, because of the rigor, is no fly-by-night program, and its rich content takes personal responsibility from the student to sit down and read through all the materials. They had to put not only the sweat equity to do it, they had to use all different types of skillsets to accomplish that designation. A CPM is very unique because it’s not just a plug and play, they have to use their intellect, innovation and creativity to say what they did on their case study or final capstone product. It’s not a one-size-fits all.

Bisnow: Can you give us an insight into your application process for the CPM? You’ve had this designation for a while, but before then, you were working at several prominent real estate companies. Did you have special treatment because of your experience?

Debbie: Well, I will tell you this: the most rigorous accomplishment that I’ve ever achieved was getting my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech—that was huge. But if you rewound the film strip, when I was going through the CPM process, I was wondering how I was going to make it up this mountain. We all have our strengths, and the accounting and financing module was extremely challenging to me. I mean, for me to even sit down and focus on calculating internal rates of return and net present value, those are the kind of things well outside my genius zone, but I knew that was part of it and knew I had to sit down and plug through it.

I tell people you are only as strong as the people you surround yourself with, and I went out of town to take the finance course with a colleague of mine. When you’re going through challenges you keep going and lean on your friends and vice versa. That’s what was exciting for me. By the end of the week, it was exhausting but I never felt better about completing something. I’ve completed several marathons, but getting the CPM was more rewarding than finishing a marathon. It’s not to be taken lightly, it ultimately defines you and makes you a better person.


Bisnow: Speaking of your Ph.D., you are currently an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech. What do you find to be the role of higher education when it comes to the commercial real estate industry?

Debbie: Today, you hear about careers in real estate because financing and capital markets are driving real estate from a more sophisticated perspective because it’s a numbers game and the margins are thin. So you’ve got to really have that entrepreneurial spirit about you to drive performance. You’ve got to have that entrepreneurial gene to know how to maximize income. Anybody knows you can control expenses only so far, but you can never make more than your income. People are eager to learn how they can build wealth, and that’s the exciting part. People are understanding it as an investment opportunity, not just from a career perspective, but from a personal one as well. 

Across the country—from Tier 1 universities to community colleges, from career academies to high schools and even workforce organizations—there are students taking property management courses or facility management classes. They’re all being exposed to possibilities, and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg of opportunities. I think more and more educators or leaders in education are starting to ask what it’s all about, and it’s because the students are asking for a rigorous curriculum and something that is relevant and can help them get a job in the industry.

Bisnow: So you would say while this education has been around for a long time, the reason it's gaining prominence is because there’s a deeper drive and desire to learn in students today?

Debbie: Absolutely. Whether it is a Millennial or someone coming back to the real estate industry, people want to make a difference. It’s about meaningful work. Pay is not the No. 1 driver for people signing up to work for these companies and do their jobs. People are eager and thriving to do meaningful work. The reason I bring that up is because you can see results immediately. You know if you’re filling up a community with the right resident profile that is going to drive income because the people can afford to live there, that’s meaningful. On affordable housing, to provide quality housing is meaningful work. The career changers tell me they were tied to a job and were chained to a cubicle, they couldn’t see how they added value in their job, but when they get to see a resident say “thank you” for taking care of any problems in their apartment, that’s meaningful work. I just think while business and industry has gotten more sophisticated, we are attracting more people and at a rapid pace because of the meaningful work. 

Bisnow: What do you try and teach to people who want this meaningful work in order to get resident satisfaction?

Debbie: Well, there’s two things: It’s authenticity and adding your signature to something. I always tell my students to put their name on their work. I don’t mean that literally, obviously, but they should own what they are doing. I think you can talk about social media all day long, how residents find you or how residents are seeking the next place to live. Beyond that, people continue to live where’s there’s value and appeal. Today, it’s not where you live, it’s how you live. It’s focused more on communities. We’re seeing people develop communities within communities, special interest groups that are into cooking, health and wellness, etc.

I think people are beginning to understand that it’s the authenticity that makes a difference. In Atlanta, we have 11,000 units coming on line. What is it going to take to make people choose that particular apartment home? Well, you can have the glitziest and most sophisticated website that links you to that apartment and gives a panoramic view, but at some point in the sales process, they’re going to have to interface with a human. It might be the day of move-in, it might be when something breaks in the apartment, but that is the quintessential value of a certified apartment manager.

Also, ethics is something rarely ever talked about in college programs from a proactive standpoint. It’s always a case study about what somebody read about insider trading or the latest scandal. I have a unit in my career development class about business ethics and it’s neat today to be associated with a group of people where ethics is paramount. It’s the pinnacle of understanding property management.