Be willing to think outside the box. We are dealing with people’s homes and lives, so sometimes we have to get creative and not just think in black and white terms.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tammy Shields, CCIM.
Tammy is the vice president of operations for Audubon, an Atlanta-based real estate firm specializing in the acquisition and management of multifamily properties. A graduate of The University of Florida, Shields has over 20 years of experience in the multifamily industry, including her current 14-year tenure managing operations for Audubon’s 25-property portfolio containing more than 6,000 units throughout the Southeast.
Can you tell us about your background and what brought you to the real estate industry?
Igot into the industry as a leasing consultant in Chevy Chase, Maryland right after high school, because I didn’t think I needed to go to college. I was a military brat growing up and was used to moving around, so when my dad left the Virginia area and headed to Florida, I decided to follow and began working for a company down there. I started with a new company as a leasing consultant, then became an assistant manager, and decided I ultimately wanted to become a manager. The company told me they wouldn’t consider me without a college degree, so at 22, I decided I needed to go back to school.
I got my associate degree, then transferred to the University of Florida and completed my bachelor’s degree. This allowed me the opportunity to become a property manager and later, an area manager, and I’ve continued growing and evolving ever since, leading to my current role as the vice president of operations for Audubon, where I’ve been for the last 14 years.
What lessons have you learned along your path that have had the biggest impact on your career?
There’s been a lot of lessons I’ve learned over the years, the first one clearly being the moment I got knocked off my pedestal at 22 and had to go back to school. You learn how to self-manage when getting an education. Bigger picture, the most important thing is accepting our industry is ever-changing and you have to be open to learning new things. As I’ve matured professionally, I have become more open to people coming up with new ideas and giving them opportunities, which is key in keeping up to date with the changing nature of our industry. Also, giving and receiving constructive criticism is empowering — it’s not always easy, but it’s important to be open to those exchanges.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
Audubon is very small and entrepreneurial, so we are able to make quick decisions to keep things moving within our firm. We have worked hard on peer development, which I think is very important. Some people really thrive in huge companies like Greystar, but one of the things we can offer to people is the opportunity to really make an impression on your property’s performance and your team’s performance. We offer structure, but we don’t define every decision they have to make. Some people don’t like that, but the flexibility we offer that bigger companies can’t is what makes us stand out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Are there any particular people who helped you get to where you are now?
I’ve had three notable people in my career. The first one is Theresa Bruening, who was a regional VP for Colonial. I worked with her back in the 90’s and she was very methodical and organized — just a well-rounded and even-tempered person. I went from working with her to the VP of Capital, Judith Rourke, who was a spitball of fire, so I got to learn the industry from a different perspective through her. Finally, Audubon’s founder and CEO, Andrew Schwarz, has really brought me a long way over the last 14 years and taught me a lot. That relationship has been filled with constructive criticism, and even though sometimes I wanted to go home and cry, it was well-meant, and I grew from it. All three of these individuals are people I still think about to this day and were meaningful to my journey.
Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The real estate industry is dominated women, but despite this, less than 20% of senior positions in real estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
I think there is an imbalance because the senior staff tends to derive from the financial and investment side, and not from the property management side. I see it even in my own firm, as I’m one of two women on leadership, and the rest all started from the investment side. I think a lot of this also stems from the fact fewer women pursue a college degree in finance, so it does limit their ability to take on senior roles and get into the corporate office.
What three things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
I think it starts with recruiting in the finance world. If you look at enrollment in finance programs at universities, they lean predominantly male, but I think it’s becoming more balanced. I think this will lead to a more natural progression of women moving into senior-level roles. I think this also has to start with recruiting.
Audubon interviews both men and women for senior-level roles, but there are far fewer female than male candidates. It’s not that we aren’t trying to hire women, but the pool of candidates is simply so skewed toward men, especially on the finance side, and our corporate office really requires people with backgrounds in finance, as opposed to just property management expertise.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by female executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
A little over a year ago, I was in a meeting with a group of male executives and it came time to order lunch. One of the men looked directly at me when he started listing his order, and I immediately asked if the reason he looked at me was because I was a woman. He was stunned, but it certainly struck a chord. Sometimes I feel some of the remedial jobs the leadership team deals with have been assumed to be part of my job because I’m a woman, and I don’t want to say it happens all the time, but it has happened enough that some of the men I work with have become more mindful of it.
Can you share three things that most excite you about the real estate industry?
- We do a lot of repositioning, and it’s exciting to see the changes we can make, being able to take something that’s tired and fading away into the market and bring it back to life.
- I enjoy the people, and really, the madness of real estate. Quite frankly, I think you have to be a little crazy to be in this industry long term, but I have never wanted to sit in an office all day, every day. It’s always changing and I enjoy the craziness of it.
- I love the challenges presented by our industry. it’s a lot of work, but it’s rejuvenating because you get something done and then you can move onto the next project.
Can you share three things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- Being able to find qualified candidates for the correct pay rate. As the economy has changed, it’s been challenging to find the right talent and I’m concerned we’ve been overcompensating in this industry, especially because of how cyclical it is.
- I think our industry needs a mandatory continuing education program. There’s a lot of stuff out there with housing and HUD laws and it’s all left to the individual management companies to do that training. I see discrepancies in the way management companies manage that. There is a certain level of ignorance because people aren’t expected to continue their education, and it’s difficult to ask that of our employees when competitors aren’t requiring it.
- There is high turnover in this industry, and people are easily willing to jump ship. We need to focus on further engaging employees and get them more invested in their workplace. To that effect, we’ve been doing a lot of work on our corporate culture, so our team members feel more included and want to stay and grow with us.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their teams thrive?
I think you have to give people a sense of ownership — trusting them to make their own decisions and empowering them to follow through. We talk about it all the time — you’re going to mess up, and that’s fine, as long as you learn from it and don’t keep making the same mistakes. I really do let people have that freedom, and sometimes it takes a lot of effort for me not to interfere. But when I am able to give my managers that space, they tend to make the right decisions and prove my confidence in them was justified.
If you had to advise someone about five non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the real estate industry, what would you say?
- You need to know when NOT to talk. It can be tough, but even the best salespeople have to know when to stay quiet.
- Go with your gut decisions. Our investment team does a lot of market research, but whenever they invest in a property, it’s still somewhat of a gamble. It’s the same thing with people — you have to trust your gut when making decisions.
- Be willing to think outside the box. We are dealing with people’s homes and lives, so sometimes we have to get creative and not just think in black and white terms.
- You need to have patience. Our deals and renovations often take time, and you have to stay the course to see the results pay off.
- Be a pioneer. This isn’t just being creative with new ways of doing things, but doing new things entirely.
If you could inspire a positive movement across your industry, what would that be?
One thing I emphasize with my team is honesty. Again, everyone makes mistakes and bad decisions, but if you’re just honest and reflective of how you got there, we can deal with it. So many people don’t want to take responsibility for failures, but they create additional problems when no one takes ownership. It makes it much harder to work with people when they’ve been dishonest, so I would hope for a future where more and more of us are honest and choose to deal with our failures in a productive way.