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Career success in Real Estate: advice from those who have accelerated to the top

Posting date: 21 April 2021
Nicholas Carman our consultant managing the role

One year and 24 episodes later, the Accelerating Careers in Real Estate series has reached a milestone. 

With guests spanning all corners of the industry - Development, Construction, Asset Management, Architecture, Planning, Design and Investment - we gathered the intel from the personal career journeys of our Managing Directors and CEO's.

Our host, Nick Carman, set out to determine what happens in a career to mean it is more successful than others?

From the outside, it may seem like these careers go off like a rocket, but no career starts off on a trajectory and sticks to it. Careers are built-in waves or chapters - accelerating or resting. 

What pits our guests against the status quo is that after a period of 'accelerating' they yearn for more. The period of resting or consolidation is meant to be comfortable, but for them, it is a period of discontent.

What we quickly learned was each person had a different story to tell. Each had established a unique toolset to navigate the stages in their career. 

Marc Vlessing didn’t begin his real estate career until his early 40’s but he has real passion for the problem his business Pocket Living set out to solve; Roger Madelin the visionary of the Kings Cross, famous for its design but began life on a site in mucky boots building large out of town retail sheds. 

In their own words, here is the advice and the common themes from those who accelerated to the pinnacle of their careers.

Listen to podcast audio here instead.

1. Never get too comfortable

As Will Bax, CEO of Retirement Villages, eloquently puts it:


I’m highly inquisitive about the world around me. I love learning new things, I love innovating. I am easily inspired. Where one of those things fall down, where I don’t feel that I’m learning at a fast enough rate or I don’t feel inspired by those around me or the work that I’m doing, I’m someone that can become frustrated and disillusioned quickly. At the end of that initial two-year period at Grosvenor, I felt that race of learning had started to plateau and I was increasingly hungry for the next catalytic step that would take me out of my comfort zone. As soon as I felt comfortable in my career I always felt that something was out of kilter. They have been the less positive periods of my career.”

2. Don't be scared to make decisions

Jonathan Goldstein, Founder of Cain International, believes having conviction in your decisions will help you grow:


Making decisions involves risk, and it doesn't matter if that decision is to wear a red tie or a blue tie today, or whether or not it's to pay 'X' or 'Y' million, but ultimately you have to make a judgment and sometimes those judgments are going to be wrong. But if you get six or seven big decisions right out of ten, you will flourish."

3. It's never too late to seize a career opportunity

The beginning of these careers was not always filled with drive and determination to reach the top of the industry. Many were fraught with early indecision or disappointment, as Steven Skinner, CEO HB Reavis explains: 


I was a university dropout. I left school and went to Sheffield University to study economics. My mum was a maths teacher and I’ve always loved maths. Very quickly I realised that it wasn’t going to teach me what I was looking for which was how to turn £1 into £2, and two to three and three to four. It became too theoretical for me so I dropped out and spent a year doing lots of different jobs. My younger brother was looking for a university degree and left out the prospectus for Sheffield Hallam University on our kitchen table. I had a flick through and saw there was a property course, and thought everyone who seems to do well are in property. The course had already started but I called them up and asked to join."

4. Whatever your path, you'll learn important skills along the way

Occasionally, our guests took a more unique path to arrive at their current role in real estate, as describes Neil Young, CEO of Young, and credited with being the father of the Build to Rent sector in the UK:


I was working as an accountant looking after the food bills for BA (British Airways) – taking trips around different airports and deciding whether we should take half a tomato off a dish to save some money when it was budgeting time. After a year, I moved up to a management role working in corporate finance. I had the opportunity to go to the executive team meetings once a month in my mid-twenties, looking at the forecasting side of where BA was at. Going along to those meetings, I learned as much about how to run a business as to how not to run a business. It’s really something I look back on and still use what I learned to this day."

5. Determination pays off

We named the podcast 'Accelerating Careers' because we often find a common theme in interviews. Our guests have a habit of learning quicker, conquering challenges, and moving forwards, not letting their careers stutter. However, for many of our guests, they struggled to get their foot on the ladder. 

Jan Tribizan, Design Director at Northacre, describes how in the face of hundreds of rejected applications to get his first role in architecture, he found a novel way to stand out:


Squire and Partners had a street party organised, which was synonymous with Squire and Partners as a practice. I pick up a brochure and one evening when I flicked through, I found they were working on a residential scheme in Slovenia. I resent my CV but at the time they said weren’t hiring. When I took a holiday back home in Slovenia, I visited the site to see if I could find the person or director responsible for it. My friend and I talked to one of the locals who turned out to be ardently opposed to the construction of the scheme; he walked out with a stack of plans. So there I am in the middle of Slovenia looking at plans from Squire and Partners. In the revision bubble, I ended up picking out the names of the associates and emailed them. It turned out that I’d emailed one of the partners directly and I had piqued his interest at the directness of my approach. A couple of days later I was invited for an interview.”

6. Find a mentor stay in touch

Our guests found ways around obstacles. They don’t take no for an answer and they go looking for help on how to conquer the challenges in their path at the early stages of their career. 

The importance of mentors is a recurring theme. Tom Gaffney, Managing Director of CBRE’s Hong Kong region explains:


Where I had been fortunate in the early years of my career, I was able to latch on to some of the best people to be mentored by, and I still go to these people today for guidance and support or council when I run into a problem. It’s extremely important in those early years to find a mentor or find someone you can speak openly to, whether that’s in your company or external. Share your challenges and go to them with choices: ‘which one would you pick if you were me, A, B, or C?’. You’ll quickly realise that there are a lot of people out there that want to see you do well.

7. Don't let good opportunities pass you by

The topic of seizing opportunities is a very common theme. Our guests often try to play it down by describing it as luck, or happenstance. We prefer to think this is one of the fundamental building blocks of an accelerated career, being awake to new opportunities that others may let pass by. 

An earlier guest Morwenna Hall, Chief Operating Officer of Argent, touches on the point that careers aren’t linear. If you allow them to, they grow, and if you allow yourself to be more open you may be surprised by the number and type of opportunities that reveal themselves:


I’ve never had a career plan, and I think if I had had one, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. What I’m doing now has come through opportunity as opposed to a plan that would have had a very linear route. I think I am opportunistic, and I think it does take a lot of confidence to be that way. You have to be open, flexible, and adaptable to what comes and not beat yourself up if things don’t go as you expected. By being that way and allowing my mind to think like that, I’ve been able to take on greater responsibilities, and challenge and create things that wouldn’t have otherwise been suggested to me."

8. Increase your chances of 'good luck'

One lesson that we have learned in the last 12 months is these opportunities don’t always work out and they aren’t always what they seem. A trait of our guests is they make the most of different situations, and any luck they chance upon, to take the fullest advantage of. 

Varoon Raghavan, Co-founder & Chief Operating Officer at Princeton Digital Group, explains:


When you have a range of things you are doing, it gives you the opportunity to maximise your chances of hitting that one thing that will give you the ‘lucky’ success. If you try different things, seriously and with commitment, there is a higher chance of being successful. There is an element of luck; maybe not ‘dumb’ luck, maybe some ‘semi-sophisticated’ luck. We cannot allow ourselves to deny that.” 

9. Don't get intimidated by your big break

Our guests and their accelerating peers aren’t afraid to make that bold move as Amelia Bright, Executive Director of Grosvenor UK, explains when she made her first director move aged just 24:


My boss at the time left, and rather than hiring another Director, they gave me his role of managing our investments and joint ventures. I had a big step up in terms of responsibility and complexity of the role and managed the corporate refinance of one of our joint ventures. At the time it was an intimidating position to take on. I was 24, sitting around the table with four other male directors, discussing how we should run our development business. It’s the first time I learned that I can just be open about what I did and didn’t know, and that provided you do that people will generally help you. It was a really interesting time for me.”

10. Don't allow yourself to be discouraged

Some of our guests excelled in the face of others' advice or common opinion. 

When Caroline Harper, Chief Planning Officer at BeFirst, left behind the corporate planning world to go and work in the public sector, many questioned if she was retiring:


I did get asked ‘why are you doing that?’. There is this ridiculous public-private divide. If we were a bit more collaborative, it would be a much more effective system. Public sector planners often get a bad rep and there are different kinds of bureaucracies that both sides have to deal with. There was a mix of views as to why I was making that move to the public sector, and for some people, it was almost like you were saying you’re retiring.” 

Bonus: Be bold as the industry moves to the future

We want to end with how James Pellatt, Director of Innovation and Workplace for Great Portland Estate, describes the changes to real estate and what it means for the industry as technology continues to make an impact:


Real Estate is a slow-moving business. It takes seven years to build a building from concept to finish and an occupier moving in. It took Instagram from one million users to one billion users in that same period. Technology moves quickly. You have got to stay open-minded you have got to understand how a building gets put together then look for the opportunity, and that’s how we can make those buildings smart. Fortunes are going to favour the bold. Other competitors may wait and see, but for us, it means we will always be ahead of what occupiers need. If we can package and sell that we’ll be working on some really exciting projects to come over the next decade.”

The full lineup of the Accelerating Careers in Real Estate series can be found here.

To take the next step in your career find all our current vacancies or get in touch with one of our expert consultants near you.

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