By Joshua Burd
Good advice can be valuable for any young professional.
For Mindy Lissner, one such example came in the early 1990s, in her early years as a commercial real estate broker with CBRE, when a colleague recommended she connect with the organization then known as ICREW, or Industrial/Commercial Real Estate Women.
Heeding that advice proved to be a good decision.
“It turned out to be somewhat life-changing in my career,” Lissner said, as it allowed her to forge personal and professional relationships with women in many segments of the industry.
“I still maintain a friendship with a lot of those women to this day,” she added. “So I think having those support systems is important, especially for women in this business.”
Lissner, an executive vice president with CBRE and one of New Jersey’s top industrial brokers, can attest to the value of networking, mentorship and team-building within the industry. She is not alone in that regard. It’s why commercial real estate services firms have increasingly sought to make those resources available to professionals within their ranks, aiming to stay competitive as employers and better promote diversity and inclusion.
“Yes, it’s the right thing to do. We all know that, but that’s not why businesses often make decisions,” said Janice O’Neill, Cushman & Wakefield’s global head of talent management and diversity. “It’s about our business and it’s about driving innovation and really delivering creative, meaningful solutions to our clients. And the only way we can really do that is if we have diverse perspectives and life experiences that we bring to the table.”
Diversity and inclusion programs are nothing new for the industry’s largest brokerage and service firms, but those efforts are increasingly bearing fruit across individual markets. Local leaders in New Jersey say the initiatives are critical in a time when the competition for talent employees is as fierce as ever.
“Our newer professionals, our younger professionals yearn for networking opportunities,” said Jeff Hipschman, a senior managing director with CBRE, who leads the firm’s New Jersey offices. The global real estate services firm has long-established network groups highlighting diversity by gender, race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, along with groups dedicated to veterans and rising professionals.
Equally important is the need to provide the groups with content and programs that will keep their members engaged. Hipschman noted that CBRE’s Women’s Network, which has about 700 members in the tristate area, offers a range of events, from a brown bag lunch series focused on market topics to more personal and informal mentoring sessions.
The latter category includes young broker dinners, speed networking and an annual event that convenes senior women within the firm’s tristate offices, who host small groups known as Lean In Circles with other women. The programs allow rising employees to meet directly with not only top female producers such as Lissner and Suzanne Macnow, but also iconic figures such as Stephen Siegel, the firm’s chairman of global brokerage, and Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of CBRE’s New York tristate region.
The events are key for both recruitment and building a long-term culture.
“It’s a proactive way to help them build a network within the company,” Hipschman said. “So it’s an important part of any discussion we have as someone thinks about joining our company.”
The benefits of diversity and inclusion programs can be difficult to measure, but executives say they have an important place in their day-to-day dealings. Andrew Judd, Cushman & Wakefield’s market leader in New Jersey, noted that brokerage and other service lines are often seen as commodities, so having a diverse team can make a difference when pitching business to a prospective client or sourcing a new vendor.
“The differentiating factor is that we look and sound like our clients and we’re not just going in with a cookie-cutter approach, lifestyle and life experience,” Judd said. “We’re bringing all of these things and, I think from that initial 30 seconds, people put their guard down, they feel that ‘This is an organization that we could work for and with, and they’re not just giving us a corporate tagline. They really believe it and they’re really living in it.’ ”
That’s not say that C&W and other firms are hiring unqualified candidates in order to meet a quota. Quite the opposite, Judd said, noting that “the qualifications get you in the room. All else being equal, we need this influence not only in our team, but also to help us drive business.”
As to whether the overall industry is becoming more diverse, Judd said “it’s clearly changing,” but there is still work to do. He believes that promoting employee resource groups and similar offerings are an important step.
“We’re not nearly where we should be, but I think the first stage is awareness and education. And then it’s just asking people … ‘Do you want to join, do you want to be a part of it?’ ” he said. “And nine times out of 10, nobody has asked the question — and 10 times out of 10, they say ‘Yes, and here’s what I can contribute.’ ”
Industry leaders say they are as focused as ever on improving diversity. A representative for Newmark Knight Frank’s New Jersey office said the firm “has ambitious goals for diversity and inclusion across our firm, employee network, client relationships and community.”
“NKF’s New Jersey employees, brokers and management represent a variety of ethnicities, religious beliefs, physical abilities, nations of origin, genders, sexual orientations and family structures,” the representative said. “Local and corporate leadership celebrate professionals and clients who promote and highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion. The office fosters an environment where anyone from any background can feel empowered enough to contribute and succeed.”
Such efforts also continue to earn recognition for the industry. For instance, CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield and JLL all were named to Forbes magazine’s America’s Best Employers for Diversity list for 2019.
“JLL succeeds through inclusion, and the company has been recognized within and beyond its industry for its policies in this area,” said Monica Marquez, who was named JLL’s head of diversity and inclusion earlier this year. “As part of my role with the firm, I’m excited to build upon the company’s achievements and to continue developing and engaging JLL talent.”
Diversity vs. inclusion
Janice O’Neill knows it better than most: The terms “diversity” and “inclusion” are often used interchangeably, yet the concepts present two very different sets of challenges.
For a company such as Cushman & Wakefield, diversity is “about representation of different backgrounds and different kinds of people,” she said, from race and ethnicity to gender and sexual orientation. That often involves measurable goals or percentages.
Inclusion, she argues, is “the harder nut to crack.”
“It’s what I think of as the secret sauce,” said O’Neill, C&W’s global head of talent management and diversity. “It’s what makes diversity work.
“We can do all of the recruiting efforts in the world to bring in diverse candidates …but if we do not have an inclusive culture, we will never have an environment where those people want to stay,” she said. “So working on inclusion has been a big focus of ours.”
Enter the firm’s employee resource groups, a collection of organizations within Cushman & Wakefield that are dedicated to showcasing and supporting team members with diverse backgrounds. That includes groups such as the Women’s Integrated Network, Blacks United in Leadership and Development and UNITY, a group dedicated to the LGBTQ community, along with Cushman & Wakefield Future Leaders and the Veterans Initiative Program.
“The ERGs are all about people feeling like they’re part of something meaningful to them,” she said, while noting that they include not only employees who are representative of the group, but those who are there to show support.
The Women’s Integrated Network has 52 members in New Jersey, who are among 2,500 nationally across the firm’s various markets. For those who participate, one challenge is marrying the goals of the company with the goals of the group.
Vicky Fajardo, C&W’s operations director in New Jersey, encountered that challenge earlier this year as a co-chair if the firm’s Women’s Integrated Network chapter in New Jersey.
“We sat down and we thought about: ‘How could we align our initiatives with the goals of the organization?’ ” Fajardo said. “And one of those things is driving organic growth. We talk about it a lot here and it’s an easy way for us as women to get together and help really drive that initiative — by speaking about topics together, how we can push forth these initiatives and have a voice in the organization that, maybe a hundred years ago, we didn’t have.”
That has given way to initiatives such as participating in the Verizon Corporate Classic, a 5K race supporting Jersey Battered Women’s Service Inc., along with Habitat for Humanity’s Build Day, when team members helped construct a new home for a U.S. Army veteran in Perth Amboy. Other programs include guest speaker events featuring inspiring women.
Fajardo also noted that she has encouraged her administrative team to join the groups, seeing it as a way for them to get involved internally in addition to community engagement.
“I think it’s important for them to get into and understand what’s happening at a national level and a local level … and just be really engrained in the business and not behind the scenes so much,” she said. Rather than being viewed as only support staff, “now you’re going to be looked at as a voice. It’s just a good way to get them integrated into the organization, whereas years ago that probably would not have been the case.”