Mary Ann Tighe, CEO of the New York Tri-State Region at CBRE, started her career at Edward S. Gordon & Company in 1984.
Back then, comments that today could be considered sexual harassment were just part of the colorful personality of ESG’s eponymous founder. (In later years, the firm’s general consul levied cash fines against Gordon for every risque remark, with proceeds donated to a women’s group.)
And Tighe was usually asked to keep her voice down if a colleague’s wife called the office.
That kind of attitude wasn’t out of place with the times. According to a New York Times article published in 1992, it was estimated that of New York’s 5,000 commercial brokers, only about 100 were women.
Tighe was drawn to Edward S. Gordon in part because one of her future partners in dealmaking, Carol Nelson, had already risen to the level of managing director and gained a strong reputation at the firm.
It took over a year for Nelson to take her under her wing, Tighe told Real Estate Weekly, but that relationship became instrumental to her success. “Mentorship is really the only way to effectively learn our business,” Tighe said.
That was all the more true before the days of academic programs devoted to commercial real estate. Even asking which books she should read to learn the art of dealmaking led to laughter, Tighe recalled.
“It was a business of oral tradition.”
Tighe was “blessed” with a number of mentors, she said, but there were hurdles. One of her male mentors, (“who shall remain nameless,”) told the future head of CBRE in the tri-state region that his wife could never see her in his office, Tighe said, and asked her to keep quiet in the background when his wife called.
The relationship was purely professional, but with female brokers such a rarity, Tighe’s more experienced colleague was worried what his spouse would think.
Today’s young real estate professionals have more female role models, but they are still in the minority.
“Despite the fact that you have some extremely talented women in real estate, if you look at the numbers they’re totally out of whack,” Rob Speyer, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, said at a recent luncheon hosted by the Association of Real Estate Women.
Speyer counts Tighe among his significant mentors, he said, and his firm, Tishman Speyer, ensures that half of the people it hires out of college into its training program are women.
If the real estate community doesn’t cultivate female talent, Speyer said, “it’s terrible for the industry because it’s going to be 55, 60 percent of the workforce that we’re freezing ourselves out of.”
At Jones Lange Lasalle, the firm runs a formal mentoring program that matches entry-level professionals with more senior colleagues in other markets. And learning from veterans who are willing to share their experience — not to mention their connections — still makes a world of difference to a budding career, according to Alexis Tener, a JLL vice president who is participating in the program as a protégé.
Tener speaks on the phone with her San Francisco-based mentor every other week, she said, and the program has introduced her to many senior JLL executives, who now know her by name.
“It just made me feel like the firm got a lot smaller,” she said.
Tener is also a member of JLL’s women’s networking group. Women are still noticeably in the minority, she said, but “I think the positive side of that, is the few women that are in the business tend to be closer and band together.”
Women who have reached a high level in their careers are often eager to share their accomplishments with the younger generation, both through networking groups and one-on-one mentoring relationships.
“I hope that for younger people, having more senior women who have been able to achieve prominence in their fields is a very positive thing,” said Elise Wagner, a partner in the land use practice at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel who counts Brookfield Properties’ John Zucotti among her own mentors.
“It shows younger people that to be successful it’s not a question of being a man or a woman — it’s dependent on someone who knows how to be effective in their field and has the knowledge, expertise and ability to serve their clients in a positive way. I think that is a great example for younger people and for future generations.”
For those seeking a helpful relationship with a more experienced colleague, Tighe’s advice is the same for women as it is for men — figure out what it is you have to offer.
“What you’re going to engage in is a trade of assets,” she said. “What are you going to do for them? Everyone needs something.”An ambitious entry-level professional may help an older colleague use modern technology more effectively, she said, or make their foreign language skills available to help their mentor make inroads in an international market.
The exchange may happen outside the office — on the tennis court, for example — as long as it conforms to office-like standards of propriety, Tighe said.
Wives may be more accustomed to husbands working with women than they were 30 years ago, but it’s still important to keep things professional.
“I’m not a believer in flirting in the workplace,” Tighe said. “Nothing good ever comes from it.”
With additional reporting by Orlando Lee Rodriguez.