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Top Female CRE Leaders On Supporting New Talent, Building A Diverse Pipeline

The coronavirus pandemic has deeply shaken every element of American working life, but for those just starting careers, it is particularly challenging.

In-person networking is impossible, internships have been canceled and many managers have spent the last few months focused on stabilizing companies and meeting their own personal responsibilities, rather than mentorship and career development.

But there are still opportunities to grow and learn, leaders in the industry say, if those in their early years work to think of creative ways to provide value. Living through something like this, early on in your career, can act as a valuable lesson, too.

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“What I have told some of the folks that are starting out in their careers is that in this phase, you may be running around a lot and not doing a lot of deals, but it’s a great experience period. Going through this cycle and just seeing how anything that could go wrong, does go wrong — it’s very tough to learn that, it’s almost impossible,” Invesco Real Estate Managing Director Teresa Zien said during Bisnow's Women Leaders in Real Estate webinar this week.

"[They] may be frustrated because promotions will be delayed and they are running in circles and all the deals are falling apart," Zien said. "This is very valuable experience for their career down the road.”

Neha Santiago, the head of real estate credit and a managing director at Cerberus Capital Management, said leaders and managers need to be more responsible for stepping in and supporting junior members of the team — a time-consuming, but necessary part of keeping operations rolling.

“This is a challenging time for young people to be starting [their] careers, not having daily access to your managers and leaders and being in a situation where you are starting out and you are sitting at home in a reactive role ... You are kind of waiting at home for that phone call to come from VPs to say, ‘Hey, here’s the deal we’re working on, and here’s what we need you to do,” she said. “The responsibilities on leaders and managers is on us to be extremely communicative with them, to be reaching out constantly."

Santiago joined Cerberus this year after an eight-year stint at Goldman Sachs, and she said she is onboarding a whole team right now and is raising a global fund, but makes it a priority at the end of the day to call every member of her team to check in with them — even if that turns into a three-hour exercise.

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Clockwise from top left: Herrick, Feinstein partner Belinda Schwartz, Cerberus Capital Management Managing Director Neha Santiago, Invesco Managing Director Teresa Zien, Ikea North America Real Estate Cluster President Angele Robinson-Gaylord and Greystone Vice President Lisa Fischman

Keeping teams functioning and motivated and balancing responsibilities like family and child care were discussed on the webinar, along with the innovative ways people have been managing to execute on deals.

Ikea North America Real Estate Cluster President Angele Robinson-Gaylord said the company is opening a store in Queens, but had to shift the entire process to remote and is still managing to pull it off.

“I tell my team to put your oxygen mask on first. We have co-workers who have small children, newborns,” she said, adding she has 18-year-old and 11-year-old sons. “I was trying to pass sixth grade again, via online learning, but at the same still trying to drive the business forward."

She said she started a weekly newsletter to keep everyone on her team connected and encouraged throughout the crisis, hoping it will work as a way to keep team morale up.

Many people have expressed concerns that the push into remote work that the virus has enforced will negatively impact women and minorities in the workplace. Across the board, women are statistically far more likely to be saddled with child care duties. Some have said that without being able to effectively network in person, their ability to meet with the right people and strengthen their careers may be stymied.

But Santiago described the experience of the pandemic as more of an “equalizer” — as increasingly people are open about the demands of their personal lives and the struggles they are facing.

“Not really being able to hide your personal life from your professional life, I think in some ways it has equalized men and women as parents and professionals," she said. "It’s going to change how we interact with each other and that openness with bringing our personal lives into our professional lives when we are all eventually back in the office.”

Certainly, creating a more inclusive, more diverse industry has become even more urgent in recent months, following widespread demonstrations against racial inequality and police brutality.

Panelists discussed the importance of representation from people other than white men — and ways to make it happen. Greystone Vice President Lisa Fischman suggested that in the disruption and uncertainty of the current moment, people will be looking further afield for talent and ideas.

“The creativity that comes from diversity is really well-received right now — because every industry is looking for solutions to problems we’ve never faced before," Fischman said. "Organically, if there’s any diversity on the team, the ideas that will be flowing will elevate some individuals that would previously not have necessarily had a voice. The ideas they present may be the solutions the company needs.”

She added that, with interest rates having put her in a position to hire more people as her company's mortgage banking division takes off, she will be looking to inject more diversity into the company in the hiring process.

“Diversity will create more ideas and more creativity — and if we need anything right now, it’s more creativity and smart, wise decisions,” she said.

Robinson-Gaylord said the demonstrations and the impact of the pandemic have allowed for people to start having conversations within the workplace that weren't happening before. She expects that will allow for a more thoughtful and methodical approach to tracking diversity with companies and a close examination of demographics within each level of the firm.

And while building an early talent pipeline with a strong mix of different backgrounds is important, panelists noted it is imperative diversity is truly reflected across commercial real estate’s highest ranks.

“That’s something our industry has struggled with, where they may make a very conscious effort to recruit and [make sure] starting classes are 50/50 or whatever is … [and then there’s] a filtering,” Zien said. “I think it’s tough when you are from a diverse background and you start and you see the leadership committees and you don’t see yourself there. I think that’s something that needs to change. And it shouldn’t just be a token person.”