Leadership & Learning: Searching for New Horizons

Though seeking new horizons and new opportunities can help restore excitement at any stage of a career, pursuing change also calls for a thoughtful approach.

By Paul Rosta

Getting a job in agency brokerage was probably the furthest thing from Bob Martie’s mind in early 2010. For his entire career, he had worked on the development side of the real estate business, most recently for New Jersey-based Advance Realty. The recession battered the development business and proved equally unforgiving to the investment partnership that followed. Then an unexpected opportunity popped up when service firm GVA Williams was acquired by Colliers International. The new affiliate needed a leader, and the challenge appealed to Martie.

After more than three decades in the business, switching from the landlord’s to the broker’s side was a major change. But these days he has little time to ponder the novelty. “I came in the door and said, ‘How do we get market share?’ ” Martie explained. “I’ve put on a whole lot of hats all at once.”

In his new role as executive vice president for Colliers’ operations in New Jersey, Martie has a full plate. Among other tasks, he is charged with recruiting talent and developing business in a market that ranks near the top of the industrial and suburban office sectors. Working in a different area of the business and supervising the efforts of junior colleagues has also given him a fresh appreciation and confidence in his own professional experience. Martie reports that the new responsibilities have given him his second wind. “I’m turning 61 next month, and I’m raring to go,” he said.

Experiences like Martie’s are a counterpoint to the unwelcome change that has upended the careers of many real estate CEOs and rookies alike during the past several years. But whether a career shift is choice or necessity, the question arises: How drastic should a change in focus be? It has been said that people, like plants, need to be repotted every so often. That certainly goes for commercial real estate professionals.

Especially for veterans, judging when the time has arisen for a restart is largely a matter of trusting one’s instincts. The signs that change is called for remain as valid in an uncertain economy as they are in a boom time. Disagreement with colleagues over strategy or skepticism about the company’s financial viability, the prospect of an ownership change or simply the opportunity for greater responsibility and compensation can all contribute to the urge for a change of scenery.

But as every industry veteran knows, other factors can warrant a search for a fresh start. Though individual experiences are unique, no professional should ignore more subtle signs that a new path is called for, such as a nagging sense that one has grown stale or a feeling that the job is insufficiently challenging and presents few opportunities for learning. Experienced professionals who also have the gift of self-knowledge say that they have learned to trust their gut instincts.

“When I feel that the learning curve has reached a peak or slowed down dramatically, that’s when it’s time to think about other things to do,” said Carl Weisbrod, who joined the faculty of the Schack Institute for Real Estate Studies at New York University last year. “When you reach a point in any particular position where you feel that you’re not being challenged anymore or you don’t look forward to every day, then it’s time to start thinking about making a change.” That is essential for keeping senior professionals sharp, he explained.

Variety has been a trademark of a 30-plus-year journey in real estate during which Weisbrod has held a series of top positions in the public and private sectors. He first began earning his reputation as a real estate executive in New York City government in the late 1970s, serving as executive director of the New York City planning department. Next, Weisbrod took the reins of the 42nd Street Development Project Inc., the public agency that coordinated the public-private partnership credited with the Times Square redevelopment effort.

Weisbrod’s experience also includes leadership of two economic development agencies— one public, one private. From 1990 to 1994, he served as the first president of the New York City Economic Development Corp. From there, he moved to the non-profit sector, and spent a decade as the founding president of the Alliance for Downtown New York. The nation’s largest business improvement district, the Downtown Alliance, took a leadership role in revitalizing Lower Manhattan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

From 2005 to 2010, Weisbrod oversaw the real estate portfolio of the 300-year-old Trinity Parish in New York City, before turning his attention to education, accepting an opportunity to start the program in global real estate at New York University’s Schack Institute. Weisbrod reports that his recent work meets a vital requirement for veteran professionals: “The older you get, the more important it is to stay excited and engaged by what you’re doing.”

Thinking it Through

Though seeking new horizons can help restore excitement at any stage of a career, pursuing change also calls for a thoughtful approach. After a long career in real estate investment banking, most recently with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Jeffrey Warwick joined Portman Holdings this spring to lead the expansion of the Atlanta-based company’s investment platform.
Moving from the lender’s side to the owner/ investor/developer side represents a major transition, but Warwick emphasized, “I don’t see this as a change; I see this as a career evolution.” Managing the process of change is a skill in itself, and Warwick spends ample time discussing his career trajectory with family and friends. Even though any career is affected by the unexpected at one time or another, he explained, “it’s a course that’s not driven by the movement of the wind.”

Besides the challenge of making wise career choices, most senior professionals are called on regularly to advise peers and junior colleagues on their direction. Knowing when to play cheerleader, devil’s advocate or both simultaneously is a valuable judgment call. This fall, a longtime friend asked Madison International Realty L.L.C. CEO Ronald Dickerman for some advice on a potentially life-changing career move. The friend had spent a lifetime in the family real estate business and was considering an offer to head business development for a commercial real estate services fi rm. The upside of making the shift was that it offered the prospect of a change of pace and a possible increase in compensation. But accepting the offer also carried with it a big downside: uprooting the family from the East Coast and relocating to the Midwest.

Serving as a sounding board, Dickerman urged the friend to weigh the relative costs and benefits of making the move, to look closely at the compensation level and consider whether accepting the job made sense for the long haul. After giving it some thought, Dickerman’s friend realized that he was underwhelmed by the firm’s business plan and that the opportunity was not worth the disruption of relocating his family from the East Coast to the Midwest. The moral of the story, Dickerman said, is that “the first opportunity isn’t necessarily the best opportunity.”

Nor does the change have to be so extreme. If the goal of change is to recharge the batteries, there may be effective ways that do not necessarily require switching professional specialties or even moving to another company. A reliable cure for the mid-career blahs is dedicating time to industry organizations or community service. “I think it is really important for anyone doing any kind of meaningful work to have outside activities,” Weisbrod said. “I’ve always found that there are new challenges and engagement in participating in outside activities.” A former Ford Foundation trustee, Weisbrod chairs the New York State Health Foundation, which funds innovative healthcare programs. Educational programs offered by industry organizations have also influenced and improved his work, Weisbrod added.

As part of their duty to mentor young people, veterans can remind them that the first stage of a career frequently offers the most flexibility and opportunity for experimentation. Most twentysomethings are inclined to try different jobs, and that openness to change can provide valuable exposure to multiple real estate specialties at a formative time.

“If you have an opportunity to do something new, spread your wings and do it,” said Willy Walker, CEO of Walker & Dunlop. Walker could have taken his impeccable credentials—an MBA from Harvard Business School, to name one—directly to Wall Street, as many of his classmates did. But with the encouragement of his family, Walker had the confidence as a young man to unconventional paths. The variety of unusual opportunities he pursued—running an airline in South America, for example—stood him in good stead by handing him significant responsibility at an early age.

If a fresh challenge presents itself, Walker suggests erring on the side of the more challenging opportunity, even if it requires leaving a congenial and comfortable situation. “If you’re good at what you do,” he argued, “who you worked for will almost always have you back.”

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