Where are all of real estate’s rip-up-the-rule-book leaders?

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Leadership has been on people’s minds this month. A perennial talking point, discussions around the power of bold, transformational governance have been noticeably prevalent over the past few weeks.

Perhaps this is being fueled by the pressures of a challenging market. Perhaps it’s the result of compounding frustration around the speed – or lack thereof – of real, transformational change within the sector. Whatever the reason, emotions are running increasingly high. From private comments made in one-on-one meetings to open campaigns for action in webinars (like one panelist’s call for widespread change management in our Sustainability webinar last month), passion around this subject seems to have ratcheted up a notch since the start of 2024, and one comment struck me in particular.

“Where are all of the really brave, really bold leaders in this industry? Where are all of the leaders prepared to take massive, game-changing risks?” For context, this was said by someone well-known and senior at a large real estate company.  Their frustration was fueled by their experience over decades of property companies the world-over, particularly those at scale, basing decisions and overarching strategies on winning against each other, rather than making truly bold, transformative moves to tackle the big issues around people, planet and innovation. The result? “Nothing ever actually happens.” There was an expletive in there for emphasis, but I think I’m safe to leave it out in the retelling without losing any of the oomph. You get the picture.

These statements in themselves are not new. We all know that real estate is not the fastest moving sector. We all know that an industry as conservative and long-termism as property struggles to take business-rocking risks. And we all know that, for many real estate bosses, being answerable to shareholders makes high stakes plays complicated at best and nigh on impossible at worst. This is all the other side of the argument stuff. And it’s real. The last thing I want to do here, directly or indirectly, is kick an industry already in the midst of tough market conditions. Nor do I want to cast and unfair, blanket judgement on the people leading their companies through the storm.

But it did get me thinking. Is rip-up-the-rule book leadership even possible in an industry like real estate? Particularly within large companies. It’s all well and good for people to call for it, but can it actually be implemented?  And, if so, what are the results?

The overarching answer to all of those questions is yes, it can be done and it can be done successfully. Massive, systemic, transformational change can be applied to an entire real estate company structure, its practices and strategies. Dutch-based developer EDGE’s story is a prime example of what that looks like.

Chief executive Coen van Oostrum completely shifted the direction of the business - almost overnight. I ran a “Trump-like” organisation he told me once. “It was much more traditional and money focused. Then I went to a talk by Al Gore, and decided we needed to do everything differently.

“I remember I went back to the office the next day and said: ‘Right, we are going to change everything. From now on we are only going to build sustainable buildings, we are going to get rid of all of our terrible BMWs and everyone is going to drive a Prius’.”

The reaction was mixed, people left. “People loved their fast cars and the glamour, he said. “Then I came in one day saying what we were doing should be more focused on design and sustainability, and about more than just making money.

“There were a few people who were so hardcore they just said, ‘I’d rather work at a broker and flip real estate’, so they left. There was also quite a big group of people who were quietly into this new way of development all along, so we were then left with a really large group who needed to adjust.”

And adjust they did, he said, reasoning that, sometimes, the best way to start a movement is to force a cultural shift within the business.

For EDGE, the move paid off financially as well as environmentally - a result van Oostrum puts down to the business’s comfort with rule-breaking. Indeed, the company is now one of the biggest, most successful developers in the Netherlands. And while this sort of systemic change is, admittedly, pretty rare, EDGE is proof that with the right company structure and a brave enough leader at the helm, it can be done. There are other examples too, less extreme, of large, traditional real estate companies trailblazing. And there is no such thing as trailblazing without risk.

Those brave, bold company leaders are out there - on that note, any that you feel might be flying under the radar, let us know.

Some are already at the top of their game trying to navigate market forces and restrictions, and then there are the future leaders. Some are on their way up, moving through the ranks. But others are already in extremely senior positions advising, pushing and persuading from their comparably sheltered position a job title or two away from the limelight of the top job. These are the people who have infiltrated large real estate companies, many with a clear strategy from the outset, to work from the inside to change perceptions, promote risks and turn attention away from winning the race against competitors in favour of joining the race against the clock on everything else. The big stuff.  climate, decarbonisation, innovation, AI, social value. The list goes on. I know they are there because I have met them, spoken to them and listened to their frustrations.

So, the next time you feel despondent about the rate of change just remember, those rip-up-the-rule book leaders are there. Some in situ, many in waiting. The leaders who are prepared to take those massive, game-changing risks. Maybe you are one of them. I hope so.

- Emily

Emily Wright

Head of Content

CREtech

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