By Al Barbarino
Jim Fagen recently had a jarring moment.
The senior managing director at Cushman & Wakefield was preparing for what he called a “competitive presentation” with a prospective client interested in leasing services.
As his team prepared a detailed PowerPoint presentation to explain the company’s services, a young broker called out: “We should do it on an iPad.”
Fagen pushed back. “I was kind of against it,” he said. “But then someone asked me how I would like it if one of our competitors put on a presentation and handed iPads out to everyone in the room,” conjuring an image of a competitor sweeping away the potential client with technological allure.
“I think I’d have been sick to stomach,” he said. Fagen reworked the presentation and brought iPads in for the presentation.
As a key mentor in Cushman & Wakefield’s Future Leader’s program, Fagen is usually the one teaching the lessons. Courses cover the tenets of success in real estate, from public speaking to negotiating lease terms.
But as commercial real estate firms take steps to ramp up internal educational programs to build up company morale and pave the way for the future, Fagen and others involved in mentoring programs are learning that the benefits are reciprocal.
When Fagen entered the business, he said brokers weren’t “taught to swim, they we were thrown in the pool.” It’s a sentiment that seems to persist in the industry today.
In a recent poll of 620 industry professionals by media company ALM, commercial real estate firms received poor marks concerning mentoring programs, with 61 percent saying that “Real Estate Firms Suck at Mentoring.” Only 13 percent stated that “Mentoring Is a Priority at My Firm.”
Firms are investing time and money into mentoring programs to change that. As well as Cushman & Wakefield’s Future Leaders program, companies such as CBRE run a Wheel Program, and Denihan Hospitality has its own Talent Development Academy.
The scope and goals of each program differ significantly, but they all emphasize the importance of investing in the industry’s newest professionals, who often are not afraid to speak up if they see a better way to do things.
“Their technology is changing so fast, so they are very accepting of things,” Fagen said. “Too often some of the more successful, older people like me say, ‘This is how you have to do it.’ But then you see that maybe you can use technology to do it differently.”
Cushman & Wakefield took its Future Leaders program national in 2011. The program is based around the “four C’s” of collaboration, community service, continuing education and communication.
“The benefits are great for us because it builds a community within Cushman & Wakefield,” said James M. Underhill, who became Cushman & Wakefield’s Americas CEO about a year and a half ago and spearheaded the national expansion of the program. “It shows that newcomers to the industry are important here and that we really want to help you succeed.”
Underhill decided to expand the program after visiting the firm’s San Francisco office, where Future Leaders got its start 10 years ago and where a team has raised over $250,000 for Habitat for Humanity.
“I walked into the room about 30 of them and they proceeded to tell me what they were working on,” Underhill said. “I was just struck by the energy, the creativity and the innovation that they brought and I said, ‘you don’t have to be rocket scientist to see that we should be doing this everywhere.’”
Within a year, the firm launched the program in every U.S. office and it’s now active in Mexico and Canada as well.
CBRE took its Wheel Program national last year, too, and it’s now in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. offices.
The in-take program is focused on educational and professional development for recent graduates, with mentors working to figure out individual interests and needs, said Kyle Schoppmann, senior managing director at CBRE’s Midtown office and program manager for the Wheel.
The program, which started in New York City, lasts 14 months and allows participants to cycle through a “wheel” of the firm’s business lines, with individualized learning and development activities, with plenty of room for exchanges of ideas between mentors and pupils.
“It was part of an overall refocusing that CBRE took on having seen a lot of success, with high retention rates and a greater number of people interested in real estate,” Schoppmann said. “We’re trying to make sure that people feel good about being here and want to know that the company they are joining is good for their career.”
That type of assurance helps embolden young professionals not only to participate in the programs, but also to take initiative in having their voices be heard.
“It’s educational on both sides,” said Thomas Martin, a vice president at Denihan Hospitality Group, who spearheaded the firm’s Talent Development Academy.
The in-house experts and instructors at Denihan often pick up tricks and tips from the newer generation, particularly when it comes to social media and other internet-based tools, he said.
While the nation appears to have emerged from The Great Recession, with an election around the corner and economic uncertainty remaining, making investment in the industry’s future leaders is as important as ever.
That’s why business needs are being approached in a new light at Denihan. The program was designed specifically to harness the company’s internal strengths in a new economy.
“The needs changed from pre- to post-recession,” Martin said. “Our economics and staffing models changed when we saw that we could do just as much or more with less.”
Each session of TDA, which launched about five years ago, is comprised of 12 to 15 Denihan associates working side-by-side with in-house experts who teach business topics. Students are asked to apply the lessons in hands-on, business-related projects.
“The program is designed to give candidates with high potential a very hands-on experience,” Martin said. “We tap into existing talent so they can communicate their special skills to the rest of the company.”
The Denihan program is open to associates at all levels, from front desk agents to sales managers, and topics range from social media, to software programs and tutorials on the firm’s hospitality and restaurant divisions, to courses on the budgeting process.
In realizing that a previous overlap between positions meant that the firm could do more with less, the company reduced staff by nearly 1,000 from its pre-recession peak to a current total just shy of 2,200 employees.
Meanwhile, customer service ratings increased, and of the 40 employees that have graduated from TDA, 55 percent have received promotions, Martin said.
Greg Smith, an EVP of human resources at Denihan, works one-on-one with a former elementary school teacher turned administrative assistant who is interested in teaching opportunities at the firm.
Smith called the mentoring program a great way to “keep you connected to what’s going on in the business.” After discussing long term professional goals with his pupil, he suggested that she get involved in special projects. She is now helping with the orientation of new hires.
“We are always looking for better ways to do training and by speaking with this person it was just a great win-win to have someone not from the corporate office and not from leadership interested in sharing her perspective,” he said.