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“Recognize that we work in multi-generational and multi-cultural workplaces” With Jason Hartman & Lisa Dunavin

Recognize that we work in multi-generational and multi-cultural workplaces. Different people require different paths of training and motivation, but most people across generations and cultures and life experiences want very similar things: to be heard, to be respected, and to know their efforts are valued. Women currently dominate the residential real estate industry. While that […]

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Recognize that we work in multi-generational and multi-cultural workplaces. Different people require different paths of training and motivation, but most people across generations and cultures and life experiences want very similar things: to be heard, to be respected, and to know their efforts are valued.


Women currently dominate the residential real estate industry. While that is true, the situation is reversed when it comes to commercial real estate. Regarding senior positions in real estate companies, women currently hold only about 1 in five senior positions. As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Commercial Real Estate Professional Lisa Dunavin.


Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I had the privilege of working on one of Atlanta’s largest redevelopment projects known as Ponce City Market. My partner and I were representing the owner in the leasing of the office component of the building. The redevelopment had not yet commenced, and the property was still viewed as a blight on that part of the community. We had scheduled a tour with what would later become our first tenant of approximately 80,000 square feet, but as the tour bus pulled into the parking lot, we received a call from the prospective tenant’s broker informing us that they did not want to get out of the bus. We could see them, and they could see us, but they would not get out of the bus. Needless to say, it took a lot of negotiating over the following months to secure this tenant, but the company and its employees are thriving at what is now a renowned property in the Atlanta market. For me the take-away was multi-fold: (i) change can be difficult and extreme change can be frightening; (ii) change takes both an advocate and a change manager; and (iii) what looks like a roadblock may be your best opportunity.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had lots of help along the way from my superiors, from peers in the market, and from teammates. Early in my career, I was given an opportunity to work with Rockefeller Development Corporation. Lee Saltzman, who was the asset manager for a property I was leasing, took the time to work me through the financial analysis of complex deals. Later while interviewing for the lead leasing role in Atlanta with Equity Office, I was asked at the end of a two-hour interview to do an NPV analysis on an HP3 calculator. I did as I was asked, and the interviewer told me I was the first person after 30 interviews that could do it. I got the job, but this is just one story where someone took notice and either invested in my career development or was an advocate for me as new opportunities arose. John Whitaker of AIG, John O’Neill of Cushman & Wakefield and Joe Stettinius of Cassidy Turley/DTZ provided me with great leadership examples that I later emulated and built on in my future leadership roles. And, the teams with which I have worked have made me better at every step of my career.

What do you think is the cause of the imbalance of women holding senior positions in the real estate industry?

I believe part of the imbalance stems from the genesis of the industry from the development phase which was comprised only of men until recently. Even today, there are very few women developers. Men dominated transaction representation well into the 1980’s and 1990’s due to the furtherance of opportunities from existing male-dominated relationships. Slowly, more women started working in property management and then landlord representation as more institutional investors opened those doors. Today, women are making great strides into senior positions, but many of those same strong historical relationships continue to give men the upper hand when competing for senior roles. The exception, once again, is strongest with institutional investors who recognize the importance of diversity in CRE and in business in general. Nevertheless, I still am surprised when I am faced with blatant sexism from good men who are oblivious to their actions. I believe it is critical that we point out sexism in as professional a manner as possible when we are confronted with it, and hopefully, the battles we have to pick will be fewer and farther between.

What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

Everyone has unconscious biases whether toward gender, race, age, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. The challenge lies in making people aware of their biases, and more importantly, how their biases are limiting their perception of others. It is human nature to surround ourselves with like-minded people, but when we allow our biases to close doors to others, it limits creativity, innovation and equitable prosperity. I believe if we as individuals challenged ourselves to face our biases, and companies provided extensive bias training and used metrics to track the results of unconscious biases, and society acknowledged the negative impact of these biases on the overall happiness and prosperity of its citizens, gender balance would be only one benefit realized.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I believe it goes back to those same unconscious biases. Women and men may approach challenges differently to get to the same end result, but the woman’s path is more likely questioned until the result is realized. A woman also is more likely to be criticized for behavior that is viewed as assertive in a man but as aggressive in a woman. Exhibitions of anger or irritation are more readily overlooked in a man. These biases require woman to do more internal scrutinizing of how they communicate on multiple levels throughout the organization. I recently was criticized for sending out team communications that were intended to show appreciation while also creating motivation. A senior male team member suggested he found them irritating. When I asked him why, he said he gets too many emails, as t is. I asked him if he wanted me to delete his name from that distribution list, and I continued with the periodic communications and the positive feedback from the team far outweighed his criticism.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

I don’t know that I need 3 things to relay my excitement for this industry. CRE allows you the opportunity to be exposed to the inner workings of the companies and organizations that drive our economy, grow our communities, create jobs, and design our skylines. Providing a needed service in partnership with those organizations is an extraordinary career.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

My concerns impact the industry from three different directions: 1) lack of diversity, 2) commoditization of CRE services, and 3) development without thorough impact studies on traffic, infrastructure and affordable housing.

I suggest the first would be addressed to some degree by my responses above regarding biases, but I also think we have to invest financially with a beginning salary and extensive training and mentoring rather than the old-school way of expecting people to learn as they go and eat what they kill. My second concern will be addressed as the industry evolves. It is possible the industry will continue to be commoditized to the extent that it is run by private equity firms and banks, but I believe the needs and demands of our clients will continue to enhance the services offered and thus the value proposition. My third concern is harder to address, but must be addressed before the things we love about our cities are lost.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Recognize that we work in multi-generational and multi-cultural workplaces. Different people require different paths of training and motivation, but most people across generations and cultures and life experiences want very similar things: to be heard, to be respected, and to know their efforts are valued.

If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? If possible, can you please give a story or an example for each?

Unless you choose a path in CRE that does not require client interaction, I strongly suggest that you ask yourself if you genuinely like people, people in general, not just “your” people. CRE transactions and relationships are long-term. I have been fortunate in that many of my friends today started as business relationships.

CRE is not a career; it is a way of life. I say this in part because of the above comment about relationships, but also because it does not follow a clock or a calendar.

Don’t forget to let your friends, family and extended network know what you do. Most people do not know what you mean when you simply say “I am in commercial real estate.” I have heard so many peers tell a tale of woe at having learned after-the-fact that a neighbor or friend engaged someone else to represent them in a CRE transactions, because they did not fully understand that is what they do.

Become a great storyteller. People relate to stories with which they have a connection. If the person I reference above had perhaps told a story at a neighborhood bar-b-que about an interesting client he recently worked with who developed a new innovative product or service and that he helped that client find a fantastic new office space or warehouse his employees love, that neighbor may have made a different decision.

When times get tough, and they will, ask yourself why you chose this path. The answer usually will keep you going through this challenge and on to the next opportunity. If it doesn’t, it is time to choose another path.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

Listen to others. Check your biases at the door. Be kind.

How can our readers follow you online?

Currently LinkedIn is the best way to stay connected with me. However, I also am considering starting a blog specific to women in CRE.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisa-dunavin-90b1b016/

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