Q&A with women leaders in commercial real estate

Capital One CRE execs offer career tips to next generation of female leaders.

Over the past decade alone, the commercial real estate industry has paved a significant pathway for female leadership at all levels of an organization. But as with all major endeavors in business, change requires continuous effort.

Within the CRE industry, women hold just under 10 percent of C-suite roles, according to the trade news outlet REjournals. Inspiring and effecting change is a collective effort, and it takes more than one generation of female leaders to build on the progress already made.

Three Capital One leaders shared their tips and advice on career growth for women within the commercial real estate and finance industries: Desiree Francis, Managing Vice President of Community Finance, Phyllis Klein, Head of Agency Production, and Mary Lucy Lester, Southeast Market Manager.

Looking back now, what is one thing you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

Desiree Francis: One thing I wish I knew earlier in my career is the power and benefit of networking. I was always taught to put my head down and get the work done, and while that’s certainly important, it also helps to look up and build relationships with those around you.

Phyllis Klein: You don’t have to be “one of the boys.” Since there were no women around, I had no models for how to behave or interact, so there was always a tendency to want to corral with the boys. Frankly, that is not the world we live in now. There is no longer a stigma that you have to be smarter, better or more knowledgeable than a man. 

Mary Lucy Lester: There is more to life than work. It is something that probably was said to me early in my career, but in passing, I didn’t pay attention to it. Now that I have been in the business for 25 years and have older children, it is really starting to resonate. It is something that I want the next generation to hone in on. Early on, I wanted to be the last person to leave the office and felt that I had to prove myself. Part of that is true. But people who adapted to that philosophy ended up burning out pretty quickly. While your work product can speak for itself and your interactions with other people can carry you a long way, life is about far more than just work.

What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders?

Klein: For me, learning to play golf helped me to build some of my strongest relationships. Golf is a big deal in our industry and is an important aspect of relationship building in CRE. This is not about being one of the guys, but about enjoying the entertainment that is available to create customer relationships. How do you build relationships as a woman? To me, you do that by being yourself, bringing your whole personality to the game and building relationships based upon your intelligence and knowledge in the business.

Lester: Women leaders, especially in real estate, are still few and far between. I would tell the next generation of women to stay true to themselves. Stay true to what your values are. At the end of the day, being true to who you are is the most important thing you can have. When you hit the pillow at night, you have to ask yourself, “Did I do things that fulfill me today? Did I stay true to myself?”

Francis: Take measured risks. Oftentimes, opportunities come along and we count ourselves out before we even put our hats in the ring. We tend to focus on what we don’t have rather than thinking about transferable skills that we bring to the table. When it comes to finding new opportunities, it’s important that there’s room for growth. So, if something comes along that excites you—even if it’s not a perfect fit—take the risk and focus on the areas where you do have the skills and experiences to succeed.

What tips do you have for women seeking to develop mentor relationships?

Lester: If there is a woman you can forge that relationship with, that’s great. But it is not necessarily important whether they are male or female. The experience that these mentors have had is more valuable than the gender they may or may not identify with. You are there to learn from and gain insight from their overall work experience. It’s also about finding someone who is willing to share and give you the necessary time.

Francis: Mentorship can take different forms, and we need to be more expansive with how we think about it. Mentors can be any level or in any role, and it can be a formal or informal relationship. What’s important is that it is a two-way street. Both parties bring something to the table and can provide value to each other.

Klein: Think outside the box. Don’t go to your direct manager. Go across business lines to people outside of the industry and find someone you respect as a leader. With one mentor, I was not in her reporting lines, but she was an adviser, a friend, and I watched her grow in her own career. Seek mentors who are outside of your field—man or woman—and look at leadership skills, not just work acumen or expertise.

What advice would you give to young professionals about fostering inclusivity within their networks and in the workplace?

Francis: Get to know people and be open to learning from them. Inclusivity thrives when we take into consideration others’ perspectives and lived experiences. Rather than expecting people to assimilate to group norms, we can shift our thinking to focus on what they can bring and add to the culture. It’s also important to be aware of the unintentional things we do or say that may make people feel excluded, particularly if they come from a different background or don’t have the same experiences as others on the team.

Klein: Join as many organizations as you can—in real estate and in your community. You will be surprised how many connections you make early in your career that come from organizations outside of real estate groups. I am finding that a lot of people at my level are retiring. The younger generation is moving upwards and obtaining control. Early on, developing relationships with your peer group, not just the next level, is important because that peer group is going to grow with you and you will create those long-term relationships.

Lester: Inclusivity is the standard, not the exception. It’s an action item that should be expected, although it does not always happen. I think back to phrases like “the good ol’ boy network” and “men’s club culture.” That is something that existed in the past that does not exist today, at least for me. I would say to a young professional, if you feel that you are not in an inclusive environment, it is time for a change.

What is your experience in overcoming imposter syndrome, and do those feelings ever go away?

Klein: Imposter syndrome never goes away. You can sit in a room and listen to others talk about something you have no background in, but those situations breed questions. If you don’t know, it’s fine to ask. That is the joy of a career in CRE; it changes all the time, there’s always something new going on and you can learn from it. I treat imposter syndrome as an opportunity to learn and get new information.

Lester: I definitely felt imposter syndrome when I was younger. It still exists sometimes, but I think that is something I had to overcome early in my career. The younger generation certainly faces this, but at the end of the day you have to stay true to who you are, identify your own values and remember the reasons you’re in the business. Organizationally at Capital One we have tried to find ways to recognize junior talent and showcase their abilities. When these people are working hard, you have to make sure you take the time to recognize them. Organizations have adapted to that, whether it is through an awards system, spot bonuses or acknowledgement in quarterly updates.

Francis: Imposter syndrome is a fear that you’re not good enough, so it’s important to acknowledge it and believe that you’re here for a reason—that people believe in you. I’m a big fan of self-talk and positive affirmations. I use physical reminders and notes to remind myself that I belong, or simply to remind myself to breathe and move forward.

What’s a situation or challenge that you have overcome? How did you manage through it?

Lester: There are challenges and discouraging situations that exist weekly—it is the nature of the business. If things feel untenable, identify the right people and elevate it. If you are dealing with a difficult individual or an unethical situation, you have to call it out and recognize that it’s not right. Address it sooner rather than later and don’t let it continue to be a problem. It’s not productive and it’s not necessary.

Francis: When obstacles arise, I put them in perspective by considering the long game and how far I’ve come or how far my team has come. I also lean on my support group and broader network to problem-solve, which helps me think clearly about certain issues and how to address them.

Klein: I had a difficult boss and it taught me a lot. Instead of saying, “What’s wrong with me?” or “What do I need to do?” I thought about what caused her to act the way she does. Understanding where she was coming from allowed me to change my thinking related to some of the issues she was facing, whether that was insecurity or her own challenging manager. You have to change your mindset to turn things around.


This article was originally authored for the CREW Network.

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