UB Insider #74: Alison Beddard: Leading a CREW and Changing an Industry
About this episode:
Alison Beddard of Cushman & Wakefield recently wrapped up a term leading the Commercial Real Estate Women network (CREW), where she was the youngest president in the international organization’s history. Besides the string of accomplishments she has left in her wake, Beddard is also helping lead the charge to help diversify the commercial real estate industry as a whole, and she talks about that effort and her experience at CREW here.
[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]
Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Alison Beddard of Cushman & Wakefield recently wrapped up her year serving as president of the Commercial Real Estate Women network, or CREW. Her accomplishments over the year are too numerous to list, but she’s here to talk about some of them as well as the state of the industry. Welcome.
Alison Beddard: Hi, good morning. Thank you.
Lisa Christensen: So tell me about your time at CREW. How did that come about and what was that like?
Alison Beddard: CREW network is a commercial real estate organization dedicated to advancing women in the commercial real estate industry globally. We weren’t always a global organization, but that’s something that we expanded our presence in last year. So I am going to speak a little bit on that. But what’s cool and unique, I guess, about CREW is that we’re multi-disciplinary. We represent all 26 disciplines within the commercial real estate industry.
One of the challenges I had last year coming into my presidency was that we were onboarding five new board of directors positions. And when these five board of directors were selected to the board, they didn’t know who was going to replace the current CEO. In my term as president I served on that CEO search committee. We had had the same CEO for 11 years so this was an unprecedented move for most of us. In a volunteer leadership position I had never done anything like this. I didn’t fathom that I would be tasked to lead a board of directors in a new CEO year. But that being said, I served on the search committee which ended up being one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences that I could ever be given in my career because it stretched me.
I flew all over the country and interviewed all of these top candidates – CEOs of other organizations that were interested in getting in and serving with CREW network. It was a time which was and still is so pivotal for women taking on more leadership positions and controlling more in the commercial real estate industry. So we had to be very selective about who that next leadership was going to be. It had to be somebody who could expand our presence globally, who understood the industry and who could teach all of us. So anyway, going into 2017, we selected a new CEO and we were onboarding five new board of directors…
Lisa Christensen: You mentioned that the board of directors itself is very small.
Alison Beddard: Yes, our board of directors only has 10 members that represent almost 11,000 members worldwide. We’re in 74 markets. Last year, our newest market was CREW UK in London. That was a part of our strategic plan. We were going to expand. But we had to do that while also in the midst of onboarding our new CEO.
Wendy Mann, our new CEO, is a remarkable lady and she hit the ground running. Nothing fazes her and she said, “I’m up to it. Let’s do it.” But that brings me to kind of the larger question here which is how did I get involved with CREW? Why is it important?
I joined the local chapter – we’re located in 74 markets – the Utah chapter in 2008. It was brand new and I was very young in my career and I really didn’t have a network. I didn’t know that I actually needed a network to be successful in commercial real estate. I was kind of head down, trying to figure out how to make money in commercial real estate. After all, I’m commission-based. I’m in the brokerage side so it’s very challenging and very male-dominated.
So this group was newly formed and I went and joined. I decided to get involved locally but I had no idea about the reach of the organization. I had no idea it was national or international at the time until I went to the conventions. We do an annual convention and that really opened my eyes. What it opened my eyes to was the image of 1,200 professional women who were all CEOs, senior VPs, entrepreneurs, owners of their businesses networking together. They came from all sorts of disciplines in commercial real estate and they were all there to help one another succeed. And when I saw that I thought, this is what I want to be. I want to be a woman in business like this. I want to be an influencer and have impact and here is a path forward.
Once I got involved in going to the conventions and really understanding what they were about, I started seeing these leadership positions and I began asking more and more people in leadership positions how they could help me. That’s true sponsorship. It’s something that’s very important in anyone’s career but especially a woman’s career. You have to find those sponsors that can help them.
Lisa Christensen: So you have said that when you started as president you didn’t know what you were in for. What did you mean and what did you find?
Alison Beddard: Well, a couple of things. CREW network really prepares you. I had a lot of support and guidance in the experience, but I am the youngest president to ever serve the organization and to be honest, I’m still the youngest person on the board of directors. I’m now serving in my fifth year on the international board of directors. So I think I had been holding onto that in the back of my mind. I’m the youngest one. Are people going to respect me? Are they going to wonder why I’m here? Do I deserve to be here? I thought about things like that. I had a little bit of that going into the year that I quickly released. I had to let go of that kind of stuff.
I realized after that CEO search committee work, that working with that group of women tested me. I had to be the one in the interviews to answer all the questions about the organization. I had to be the one to share what the vision was moving forward. It was a very interesting dynamic in the room when the most senior people in the industry are looking to the most junior person at that table for direction. So it was a real confidence booster, but it really set the tone for the year. I can’t say enough about the great relationship I have with my board of directors and my new CEO. We can really communicate and be vulnerable with each other which is sometimes a dirty word for women. I’d say it’s a real strength to be able to be authentic with each other and to recognize when you need to ask for help.
Lisa Christensen: How has your experience being president changed your outlook or your way of doing things in your career?
Alison Beddard: That’s a great question. The word that crosses my mind every day over the past year is perspective. My perspective has changed so much over the past year. Things like the way I interpret my clients, what’s on their minds and what they’re going through have changed. I’ve now had the experience of talking with CEOs about their business plans and about understanding the inner workings of their business. It makes me much more effective as a leader in my own business to understand their perspective.
When we went to London last year, and now with my new friends in London working throughout that industry, understanding the challenges that they have in their markets makes me more effective in my own business and also help me lead my team. I’ve really learned to look outside of our own box and understand the bigger picture. That’s something you can never have unless you’ve experienced the scope of different people and disciplines that I’ve had the opportunity to interface with.
Lisa Christensen: Now as you’ve mentioned, your industry is typically very male dominated, especially your sliver of the greater real estate industry. What barriers or advantages have you found in being a woman in the industry?
Alison Beddard: In the commercial real estate industry there is an interesting statistic. At CREW network, we publish a lot of research on this, so some of the statistics I’ll cite are probably coming from the CREW network research. 43% of the commercial real estate industry is women. But the key difference is that only 15% of the commercial real estate industry is occupied by women in senior leadership positions. So we’ve got them in the door, but they’re not advancing to the senior levels. So to me, you look at the barriers but you also look at the advantages.
A barrier in business would be that women tend to isolate. Sometimes they do that because they just don’t have the sponsorship or mentoring or they don’t know who to ask. Or maybe they’re in a situation or a company that doesn’t really support that success or advancement. I have been the beneficiary of a company who has been extremely supportive and kind of a thought leader from the moment I was hired. It’s how the CEOs and the senior leadership interface with their female employees. So as far as a barrier in commercial real estate, I would say the sponsorship piece. If they haven’t sought out sponsors that is something that’s available. Then there is some of that unconscious bias and things like that that we’re working through.
An opportunity for women is that we’re unique. Women in business are some of the best. I mean, we looked at the top 10 brokers at Cushman & Wakefield, out of the top 10, three are women. We’re talking about the very highest level of commercial real estate. There was a woman last year, Joanne Podell, who was number one in the world at Cushman & Wakefield. She leads a retail team. I’m so proud of Joanne and her team. Women wouldn’t make it in business if we weren’t good at what we do. We certainly wouldn’t be up at the highest levels. So the question is, how do we create those environments for women to succeed? That’s what my work has been about.
Lisa Christensen: Tell me about that work. What strides do you see for women in business?
Alison Beddard: I love to bring up the example of my new associate whose name is Anna. She joined my team two years ago. She’s a young woman starting out in this business who is very career focused. She’s so much further ahead. She’s two years into the business but I throw her into all kinds of situations, you know, meeting with a client. I like to challenge her with assignments that previously, I think if I had used unconscious bias, I wouldn’t have given to her. I would have said, “I don’t know if she’s ready for this yet,” and held off. Instead, I just said, “Well, she can figure it out and I’m always going to be there to help her if she needs help. But she needs to stretch and grow.” It’s like watching a clear, live example of somebody in action. She takes on anything that’s in front of her. She’s part of CREW – not that she had a lot of choice in the matter – as she jokes, but it’s on her.
I’m seeing a lot of success there the more that we bridge connections across the table with senior leadership teams in different companies. They want to do good too. They want to promote their women in their companies, but they’re not sure how to do it. So CREW is a great example of a network that helps promote the right tools. It provides forums for discussions and helps to make things more inclusive. It’s everything from language to perception. How you address the women in your firm? That kind of thing.
Lisa Christensen: How is that working in business now? How has the commercial real estate industry changed since you entered it?
Alison Beddard: I would say there’s definitely more women entering the field. So in my particular sector, office brokerage, we’re probably lagging behind a little bit compared to some of the other fields. But architecture, engineering and the STEM disciplines are really starting to see more and more emphasis on women entering the field. What I’m seeing is more and more younger women forming networks and joining groups like CREW and becoming a part of their women’s networks within their company. We also need to encourage men to be at the table, not just women getting together. And that’s one of the key changes I think that we have to pursue if we’re going to continue to advance this field.
Lisa Christensen: What challenges do you see that still exist for women in the industry? What kinds of things do you think still need to be addressed?
Alison Beddard: The unconscious bias, the gender discrimination and those types of things are still very alive and well. I was sharing this with a colleague the other day, that even with all of my success and all of the influence and opportunity that I’ve had, just in the last couple of weeks I was in some meetings where I was interrupted like six times by the men in the room. That’s hard. I was actually reflecting on it. I’m an empowered person. I feel very confident and I could bring it up in the meeting. But I’m also trying to pick the right times. I want to promote a really inclusive environment that’s going to be conducive so that the men in the room will be interested in learning and… what’s the word?
Lisa Christensen: Not feel chastised?
Alison Beddard: Yeah, or feel put on the spot. Because that’s not the motive. I mean, I don’t want that. I just want them to recognize that every time you shut down a voice, after a while it goes away. I think it’s really important to have other women in the room. And I’m focused on women just because I am a woman in business. But any kind of diversity is represented here in my discussion. We’ve kind of stalled out at about 20% in most areas in businesses. And so it’s this push for integrating men and women together at the table.
I’d like to see more private, one on one conversations and more opportunities to talk with the senior leadership. It really comes from the company and from the leadership. I’m going to be speaking at a company event in a couple of weeks and I’m going to be talking with all these senior leaders. Each person is the leader of their particular market and I will be talking about the CREW network white paper research. We’ll discuss some of the findings and why diversity is a business advantage. It’s better for the bottom line of the company – there’s research now that shows that. There’s research that shows that when you have 50% women on your board of directors you will actually have less debt on your books and a better ROI. So it obviously makes a lot of business sense. It makes sense from a philosophical and humanity perspective and it feels good, but that’s kind of the work that we’re doing.
Lisa Christensen: To appeal to both of those sides, as you mentioned, the humanity side but also the bottom line which drives so many decisions.
Alison Beddard: And I have more and more female clients. I was in a transaction just recently where it was me and my female associate, Anna, and then on the other side of the table was the CEO and her senior director. We’re all women. And as we all sat there we kind of chuckled. We were like like, oh my gosh, this is going really well. It was cool. It was neat to see so many women. And I think that my business has evolved to where I represent a lot of women in business. It’s obviously a growing sector and there are a lot of really talented women leading their businesses and actually taking a very entrepreneurial route. They’re finding a lot of success there.
I had a really cool assignment come up. At Cushman & Wakefield we were tasked to present an RFP to a Fortune 100 company. As we were deciding who was going to be on the team for this pitch, the senior leader said that we’ve got to reflect the diversity of this client. This client happens to have one of the top equality ratings – a 100 rating on the equality HRC scale. They’re a very forward-thinking company. So we assembled a team that reflected as much diversity as we could. But it was authentic diversity. We didn’t just assemble a team to make it look good. We had to actually get along and trust each other while having confidence in one another.I give a lot of credit to my male peers on the team because they know my value. I know their value and because we have such respect for each other, we assembled a team that is very dynamic and cohesive.
When we went and pitched to the client they were impressed. They thought that our team reflected their values. They thought, these are the types of people that we want to work with because of the reflection of diversity on the team. To me, that’s where we’re headed. I shared that with another colleague who has three men on his team. They’re all white men. I said, Hey, I know you’re very successful right now, but have you thought about how you’re going to be successful in the next 10 years? If you do not have diversity reflected on your team, I don’t know that you’re going to be competitive.” And he just sat there looking a little dumbfounded and shocked. But I was really saying it in a caring way. I care about your business, but these tools are not going to work for you in the future. He ended up bringing a woman onto his team. They’ve had some challenges, but I think it was a really wise move on all his part.
Lisa Christensen: What makes you optimistic for the future of the commercial real estate industry?
Alison Beddard: We’ve hit a tipping point and we have so much momentum. I’ve learned through CREW network that it’s important to have a network. It’s important to have those relationships and to have an avenue for success. You need to bring the right people to the table – the people that you want to be in those decision making seats in the future. So all of that is moving in the right direction. You’ve got more and more emphasis from private employers to push on this very thing that they recognize the importance of it.
Women make up half of our society and women are 50% breadwinners in many cases. So I’m very optimistic. I look at the younger generation and I can’t believe I have to say that there’s a younger generation now. I’m not the young one anymore. But watching their optimism and their ability to be flexible and take risk and see value is impressive. The younger generations, the millennials, the Gen Z’s have this emphasis on values and how that’s going to contribute to the work that they do. That’s just wonderful. It just marries to these concepts of gender diversity and inclusion that we’re facing today.
Lisa Christensen: Well thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it.
Alison Beddard: Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate it.
Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help. Thoughts on today’s episode? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to us on social media at @utahbusiness. Don’t forget to subscribe to UB Insider wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.