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The Skills You'll Need To Thrive In CRE In 2021

With no telling when in-person office work will return, CRE has an uncertain year ahead.

Business advisers and career coaches often preach the gospel of evolution: To succeed in business, one needs to adapt or die. After the tumultuous 2020 experienced for commercial real estate, that sentiment seems not just obvious but cliched. So what advice can prepare CRE executives and talent for what’s sure to be another roller coaster year of rapidly changing market conditions and new opportunities?

Bisnow spoke with a cross section of CRE executives and experts to get their advice about the skills and characteristics needed for a successful 2021. The ability to adapt to change, not surprisingly, was a central theme. But like so much in the coronavirus era, they saw the pandemic as more an accelerant for needed industry shifts, such as diversity and technological adaptation, than a singular event.

“COVID has thrown up innumerable challenges for a traditionally listless industry that is having to adapt quicker than ever before,” said Gavin Kamara, head of leasing at Kontor, a London- and New York-based, tech-focused office broker. “Landlords and occupiers need advisers, not brokers chasing the next deal.”

Uncertainty has resulted in a flood of buzzwords and theories about the direction of commercial markets, Kamara added. It’s imperative that professionals be able to “sift through the noise and evaluate the trends that are actually solving specific operational headaches for occupiers.” 

“The COVID-19 pandemic caused a bifurcation in locations and asset classes on a scale that we have never experienced before,” CrowdStreet co-founder Darren Powderly said. “What was true 12 months ago may be false today and vice versa. The investment manager, armed with accurate data, who has a skill for trendspotting, will be financially rewarded.”

Not just spotting trends but putting them in a framework that your clients can understand will be key. 

“I know this will be a little controversial, but the central problem in 2021 in my opinion is uncertainty,” SquareFoot President Michael Colacino said. “The best way to assist uncertain executives and principals is to be able to analogize this crisis with previous events, and even though this pandemic is unique, questions like ‘has the market bottomed?’ and ‘how far ahead should I plan?’ and ‘should I do nothing until the situation is clearer?’ are all questions common to the last several market disruptions.”

Making the most of 2021 means mastering new trends and technology. Colacino said that, with the satellite office concept taking hold, those who can do small deals in multiple locations will be in higher demand than those who have deep, but narrow, knowledge of a small number of markets. Site selection expertise, including transportation and demographic analysis, will be even more valuable skills.

Patrick Keeley, head of the Washington, D.C., portfolio for Columbia Property Trust, agreed that success requires innovation, communication skills and adaptability. 

“Uncertainty is at an all-time high for the office sector, as it is unclear to what extent COVID-induced structural changes in the way people work are here to stay or are transitory in nature,” he said. “It will take years, not months, to see the impact of these companies’ decisions in the gateway office markets that we invest in."

Employers will increasingly look for self-starters and those who can manage clients in different markets.

Another emerging trend, according to Chris Papa, a managing director at Jackson Lucas, an executive search firm, is the need for expertise in impact investing. The coronavirus crisis has spotlighted social inequality and how real estate fits into that gap, as well as the affordability crisis. COVID-19 is “reshaping society around how we use real estate,” he said, and along with increasing industry diversity and working between different cultures, CRE professionals need to rethink their larger role.  

Talent looking for new roles should keep these shifts in mind and retool their search strategies, said Carly Glova, president of Building Careers, a commercial real estate talent firm. Budget-conscious companies want employees who can tackle their roles and wear multiple hats. Those who can sell themselves as resourceful self-starters with a mastery of digital tools will be at a great advantage when traditional office relationships and guidance remain unavailable. New markets, such as life sciences, also present extensive opportunities. A Building Careers report on compensation within the sector found that a dearth of managers with requisite experience offers many job opportunities.

“Without a manager's open door nearby to walk in and ask questions, companies are looking for resourceful hires,” she said. “We have seen this evidenced by more and more companies focusing on situational questions in their interview repertoires.” 

Jess Scott, vice president of talent at VTS, a real estate tech firm, went further, saying that hires need to be more fluent in data analysis and show their fluency in market analysis. 

“We’re always looking for team members who can help us deliver on that value, and at the moment they largely fall into three buckets: people who have a strong data science and/or research background who can analyze our data and communicate the story it tells, client success/advisory professionals with a strong understanding of real estate fundamentals who can work with our clients to build strategies that enable them to adapt to the new COVID reality, and product management professionals with CRE expertise who understand how our clients operate and can translate their needs into the products they'll need in a post-COVID world.” 

Maureen Waters, a partner at MetaProp, a venture capital firm focused on real estate, said she agreed. She said she sees a growing interest in data engineers and data scientists and believes many larger firms will look to hire or empower heads of innovation.

Most of all, the new environment isn’t conducive to complacency, Kontor’s Kamara said. The staff cuts across CRE firms mean there are large numbers of highly skilled individuals setting up their own practices and trying to kick-start their own books of business. In the face of new competition, it is even more important to be aggressive. 

“These lone rangers will be going full steam ahead to persuade clients to give them business,” he said. “Now is not a time to rest on one's laurels. If you're not speaking with your clients regularly and adding value, you can bet others will be.”