Adrian Washington of Neighborhood Development Company: “Almost all of them come down to”

Almost all of them come down to — and this will hardly be a revelation — that success in business is all about people. Your employees, your partners, your customers — select them well, treat them well, communicate often and openly with them — and you’ll not only be successful, you’ll be happier and sleep better at night. As a part of our series […]

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Almost all of them come down to — and this will hardly be a revelation — that success in business is all about people. Your employees, your partners, your customers — select them well, treat them well, communicate often and openly with them — and you’ll not only be successful, you’ll be happier and sleep better at night.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Washington CEO & Founder of Neighborhood Development Company.

Mr. Washington has over 20 years of experience in urban real estate development, construction and management. Mr. Washington founded NDC in 1999 and served as President from 1999–2005. From 2005 until early 2007, Mr. Washington took a leave of absence from NDC to serve as the President and CEO of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation (AWC), the entity charged with leading a 10 billion dollars, 20-year initiative to revitalize Washington, DC’s Anacostia Waterfront and surrounding communities. Mr. Washington grew up in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood and is a lifelong resident of DC. Adrian has a B.S. in Economics and Political Science from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers
would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your
“backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My path is not typical, and I came into it fairly late in life. Until I was past 30 I had literally never heard the term “real estate developer”. But while I was working in management consulting — which I hated — I had bought an old brownstone in a run-down but up and coming part of town and started fixing it up, and found that I loved the process of transforming neighborhoods and buildings for the better. So after one particularly long, exhausting day of doing soul draining work for a client I didn’t care about, I said — why not try doing something you’re really passionate about? And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s
disruptive?

Despite what people say, creating structures where people live, work and play is really the “world’s oldest profession”. And at a base level — materials, design, methods — the way we produce structures today has changed very little from the way it was done centuries ago. The nearly one trillion-dollar (US) building industry is incredibly ripe for disruption. Our process, the Advanced Development System (ADS) is disrupting the industry in two ways — first, by applying leading edge technology in both information management and “hard” machinery, and, more radically, by completely re-imagining the relationships between the different people and entities in the industry. Our method allows us to deliver buildings cheaper, faster and better.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t know if this was a mistake or funny but it’s one that I’ll always remember. We were doing a renovation of a building that had been abandoned for so long that the telephone company had literally just strung a cable through the basement — totally illegally. We kept calling them to get them to move it, but they never would, and month after month we worked around it as best we could. Finally, when the building was almost finished, they still hadn’t come, so I took a pair of bolt cutters and cut it myself. It turned out that I had single handedly cut off phone service for the entire neighborhood! Needless to say, they came out and rerouted the line that very afternoon.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your
mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve had many, many mentors along the way — mentors are an amazing, high level resource, and everyone should have these relationships, whether formal or informal. One of the things I learned from mentors early on was that there are multiple models of success — I’ve had mentors who were intellectual powerhouses and used that to great advantage, while others wouldn’t blow you away with sheer brainpower but were master networkers who could find what they needed through these connections. The lesson is that like the Avengers, we all have a unique superpower that lets us accomplish our goals. Probably more important than the “technical” assistance my mentors have given me is the emotional support they’ve provided me when things weren’t going as smoothly as I’d like.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But
is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our
readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an
industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you
mean?

I think disrupting is almost always good for an industry. The world is constantly changing, and new ideas and ways of doing things are presenting themselves all the time. Sometimes it takes a while for the right person to come along, see a previously intractable problem, recognize a new way of addressing it, and having the courage, drive and creativity to bring it to life. Of course, no way of doing things — either the old way or the new, disruptive way — should ignore the impact on society of their activities. All of our companies are triple bottom line — profits, people and planet. We take the second two just as seriously as we take the first.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your
journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Wow, that’s another whole article in itself! Almost all of them come down to — and this will hardly be a revelation — that success in business is all about people. Your employees, your partners, your customers — select them well, treat them well, communicate often and openly with them — and you’ll not only be successful, you’ll be happier and sleep better at night.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We’re starting a non-profit! We want to expand upon the already high level of mission — driven work that we do, and there are so many exciting ideas we have that just don’t fit on a for-profit platform. We want to use the talents and experience we have to help as many people as possible.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your
thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so
resonant with you?

A friend of mine gave me a book called “The Daily Stoic”. It’s a series of daily meditations on the philosophy of Stoicism. Far from its gloomy reputation, Stoicism is really about finding what’s most important to you, focusing on that, and not getting distracted by all the other crap that swirls around us. As you practice this you move towards a place of calmness and joy. It’s had a big influence on how I see things and how I conduct my life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share
how that was relevant to you in your life?

I couldn’t quote just one. Maybe six or seven!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that
would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There is so much human potential out there that is being wasted. Our world has all the resources we need to make life fulfilling and sustainable for all living things. I would love to see a movement that brings everyone together instead of divide them. That’s all it would take — the realization that we’re all in this together and that we cannot just survive but thrive if we put aside our tribal interests.

How can our readers follow you online?

Connect with us:

LinkedIn

Twitter @NDCRE

Facebook @NDCRealEstate

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