Women Discuss Getting to Coveted Corner Office

So how do women in the industry climb to the top – and how do they remain there once that goal is achieved?

October 21, 2010
By Allison Landa, News Editor

SAN FRANCISCO – Moving from the senior ranks to the C-Suite – CEO, COO, and CIO, among other top-level positions – hasn’t proved easy for women in the commercial real estate industry. According to the Women in Commercial Real Estate 2010 survey, which was released on the eve of the Commercial Real Estate Women Network & Marketplace, C-Suite positions remain predominantly male, with 9 percent of female respondents holding such a position as opposed to 22 percent of male respondents.

So how do women in the industry climb to the top – and how do they remain there once that goal is achieved? This was the subject of a roundtable at the CREW conference on Thursday, with panelists Lucy Billingsley of the Billingsley Co.; Nancy Ferguson of Lehman Bros.; Beth Lambert-Saul of Vision Capital Real Estate; Dorine Holsey Streeter of James Campbell Co. L.L.C.; Lynne Rieger of Bank of America; Diane Paddison of Cassidy Turley; and Andrea Zulberti of the ProLogis Board of Trustees.

Paddison noted six themes keeping women from making it to the C-Suite: results, focus, productive handling of crucial conversations, not pleasing everyone, mixing family and career and making the transition.

“I hope what I do is consistent, well-communicated and well-understood,” Billingsley said with regard to getting results. “I think the biggest problem comes when the results are not achieved.”

“You don’t want to lose sight of long-term … valule as well as income growth,” Holsey Streeter said. “So when we set up our metrics, we have short-term goals as well as long-term incentive.”

Rieger noted that goals within a team must be aligned – both within that team and with the corporate goals. “By having that alignment, you really do have much more effective delivery … because everyone’s working toward the same goal,” she said.

With regard to focus, Ferguson said that success comes from having the best possible team – and providing incentive. “You have to be the kind of leader that people are lining up to work for,” she said.

Zulberti opined that women can sometimes have a desire for control. “And that’s something we have to shed fairly early on,” she said. “It’s fairly dangerous to do everything yourself. … You don’t grow if you try to do everything yourself, and that ties into the other problem: A Type A personality. I think because women have started from where they have been struggling to get into the C-Suite, it’s been very difficult to restrain yourself because you’re really exciteda bout what you’ve got ahead of you. You’re very interested in progressing, and you just try to take on a lot. We have to recognize our shortcomings and really work on those.”

When it comes to crucial conversations and tough communication, Lambert-Saul takes the direct approach. “When someone asks you for an opinion, there’s a way to deliver it where it’s really clear what the message is,” she said. “It’s important to have a strong basis for why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that there’s clarity in it.”

In terms of pleasing people, Ferguson said she believes that by nature some people are consensus-builders and actively want to make people happy. “We have to keep in mind that as leaders, we have to make decisions,” she said. “(If you don’t, you) withhold information that’s critical for deciding (issues) so people who are looking to you for good ideas are not going to get them.”

Juggling personal and professional lives was the topic of sometimes-emotional discussion. Paddison noted that it is important to evaluate the culture of a company before taking on a position – some are more amenable to a work-life balance. “But man, it’s tough,” she said.

Finally, when it comes to making the transition from management to leadership, Zulberti warned that there are several crucial differences.

“Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right thing,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight when you become a C-Suite person, but it happens over your career. In a sense, it’s very scary because w hen you actually become C-Suite eligible, you don’t do a heck of a lot in the sense of original work and it’s scary because all that time before you produced a result that was very tangible. … But at the end of the day when you sit back, you are not producing any tangible product. You providing guidance, leadership, and hopefully an idea as to where the team is going to go.”