Mentoring 101: learning never goes out of style

Think about your career and how you got where you are today. Many of you might have received that so-called and much-coveted “lucky break” to land your present position. Others might still be waiting for their break to arrive.

Chances are, though, that somewhere along the line you have been, or will be, touched by people who have a lot to teach you, both in structured professional environments and in more casual, personal encounters. In today's increasingly competitive job environment, there is a rich supply of mentoring opportunities, particularly among commercial real estate professionals.

At first, you might not realize all of the different forms that mentoring takes. Some of the most common opportunities are made available through the continuing education courses offered by industry associations and trade groups. Also, stop and think of all the people you see and come into contact with at industry meetings and conferences. Each encounter is a chance to learn more about what's happening around you.

Along these two parallel tracks, information spreads and grows. Here we will focus on how several trade associations are tackling the mentoring challenge, and also explore how and why three real estate firms created their own in-house “universities.”

First, let's start at the beginning with a few of the basics, like what getting ahead really means. From that point, then we can better figure out how to get there.

What makes a great leader?

It all starts at the top, doesn't it? After all, the proverbial “corner office” is still the position to which everyone aspires, right? But how do executives get there, and more importantly, stay there? What are the leadership qualities that people admire most?

“A leader thinks strategically, envisions the future and cares passionately about today's conditions and tomorrow's welfare,” said Pamela Hinton, executive vice president of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors (SIOR), based in Washington, D.C. “The most successful leaders I've seen in the SIOR have the ability to grasp complexity, boil it down to essentials and motivate other people toward change.”

It also has to do with understanding the direction a company is headed, emphasized Darbin T. Skeans, CCIM, the 2001 president of the CCIM Institute, based in Chicago. A CCIM designation, which stands for Certified Commercial Investment Member, is a degree conferred by the Institute, which has been awarding them since 1969. The degree requires 240 hours of graduate-level curriculum. To date, only about 6,000 professionals hold the CCIM designation.

“A good leader also is someone who is a good listener, because by listening to your colleagues you can gain insight about the organization from them,” Skeans said. “Also, leaders must know how to assess the strengths and weaknesses of team members and how to delegate tasks effectively.”

Being outgoing and letting your personality shine through can help, too, said Jonathan Kempner, president of the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), Washington, D.C. “Interpersonal skills are important, along with a high level of integrity, a solid sense of fairness, ability to communicate and a well-timed sense of humor. Raw intelligence, while important, is secondary to those other qualities,” Kempner said.

Important points for rookies

Since not everyone in the industry is a veteran, new entrants into the commercial real estate business need to know several key factors that will serve them well in their future careers.

“Ethics are not optional,” Hinton said. “Ethics apply in good markets and difficult times. Success is built on service quality, and that professional credential is important to your current situation and future career.”

Ultimately, people entering the industry will go farthest if they just use common sense and deal fairly, Kempner said. “If someone wants to enter the commercial real estate business and not exit soon after, he or she has to realize that honesty and fair dealing is the single most important trait,” he said. “If you play fast and loose in our business, you might as well get out of town because people have long memories and short propensities to forgive dishonesty.”

Anyone entering the commercial real estate field must have a clear understanding of the business end of the industry — how to optimize property to its highest investment potential, Skeans said. “Commercial real estate is an investment. A commercial professional needs a solid grasp of the potential of that investment to project how it will perform and meet the investor's objectives,” Skeans explained.

Courses, of course

As soon as professionals enter the business, they are offered the virtues of learning how to maximize their own potential. Today, continuing education programs exist in all shapes and sizes imaginable to fill this need.

For example, if you're a building manager, then the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), Washington, D.C., sponsors a complete line of courses for you to explore through its BOMA University. Some 55,000 students have attended BOMA University seminars and courses since 1992.

The Building Owners and Managers Institute (BOMI), also based in Washington, D.C., offers four major designation programs, including the Real Property Administrator (RPA), the Facilities Management Administrator (FMA), the Systems Maintenance Administrator (SMA) and the Systems Maintenance Technician (SMT). BOMI was established by BOMA members in 1970. This year, BOMI is recognizing National Commercial Property Ethics Week, April 23-27.

On the finance front, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America (MBA), which represents more than 3,000 companies in all elements of real estate finance, launched its own CampusMBA last August. The goal is to create an online education site to provide cutting-edge information technology and links to learning resources.

“As an information and education clearinghouse for MBA members, CampusMBA will be an indispensable resource for learning, training and scholarship,” said Christopher J. Sumner, past president of the MBA. “Moreover, by attracting members of the general public to the information on this site, MBA can help promote broader education and scholarship for all Americans.”

J. Parker Deal, MBA's senior director of education, is similarly enthused. “The value of this new tool is that it creates a Web-based community that provides for interaction among professionals in the mortgage banking industry who have interests and needs that range far beyond their core business,” he said.

Similarly, for real estate space brokers, the opportunities to learn more in a formal setting are nearly endless. SIOR offers two tiers of courses — one tier for certification as a SIOR and a second for recertification. According to the Hinton, SIOR is the only professional society in the commercial real estate industry that requires continuing education and recertification in order for professionals to maintain standing as a holder of the SIOR designation. “This is a sign that SIOR members remain at the top of their profession,” Hinton said.

The courses required for the SIOR designation include property sales, leasing, negotiating, ethics, technology, development and tenant/landlord representation. According to Hinton, these basic threshold courses represent core competencies for individuals with three to five years in the commercial real estate industry. So-called “subject matter experts” develop these continuing education courses in conjunction with an expert in instructional design.

For the recertification process, courses are typically half-day seminars designed to keep senior professionals current. “The Society was the first organization to design courses on tenant representation and brownfields, two areas that have become vital for success,” Hinton said. Members who attended certain sessions during the RealComm technology conference last June earned continuing education credits. Seminars offered also included ethics, advanced sales skills, national representation and environmental issues.

What are the pros who take these courses saying about them? “Courses and seminars receive high ratings for immediate ‘take home’ value and for establishing long-term relationships among the students and members who travel from around the country,” Hinton said. It also helps that the seminars are typically held in “local” markets and provide value for those who may not attend national courses and conventions.

For its part, the CCIM Institute offers four core graduate-level courses covering financial analysis, market analysis, user-decision analysis and investment analysis — which Skeans described as “the cornerstones of commercial real estate practice.” The courses provide practical applications to today's real estate challenges. The Institute also offers an “Introduction to Commercial Investment Real Estate” course that provides a foundation for advanced studies.

Skeans said that experienced CCIMs created all courses, with input from the academic community. In addition, all courses are refined regularly to keep current with industry changes.

Who's doing their homework?

Who is really using these organizations' services? Who's really taking time out from the busy work routine to pick up the books?

“As a professional society, our clients are commercial real estate brokers, sales managers and consultants who have at least five years of experience in their field,” Hinton said. “To receive the SIOR designation, members meet high standards in terms of experience, transaction volume and professional integrity.”

One interesting fact about SIOR's members is that more than 90% of them handled assignments for Fortune 1000 companies during the past year. The profile of a SIOR member is a top producer with 20 years of experience in the industry, and who is highly entrepreneurial and involved in his or her community.

There are SIOR members in 20 countries, with 39 local chapters throughout the United States and Canada. Some 90% of the members are male, though Hinton said female membership has increased from about 2% to 10% over the past 10 years. Skeans said CCIMs — both new and experienced, but especially those who want to sharpen their skills and become a better resource to their clients — attend the Institute's education programs.

“CCIMs are employed by virtually any business that needs a skilled commercial practitioner — from corporations and institutions to private investors, brokerage houses and governmental bodies,” Skeans said.

It's conference time — again

Industry conferences have become the lifeblood that bind industry professionals together. Every year, the spring and fall seasons are full of conferences of all shapes and sizes, in many different and always-rotating venues. But the common thread is the chance for attendees to reconnect with their peers and to get the latest scoop on what currents are running through the industry.

Kempner is an old pro on the industry conference tour. He both organizes quarterly conferences for the NMHC and attends numerous conferences in his capacity as president of a large association. Ultimately, he considers conferences to be the ultimate movable classroom.

“Keeping up with developments in any profession is critical. One especially helpful approach to doing so in the real estate field is to attend industry meetings where you can learn from the experts and, by osmosis, from schmoozing with your peers. It is with great satisfaction, for example, that at the NMHC we hear time and time again from our members on how much they learn at our various meetings,” Kempner said.

SIOR's two annual conferences attract a large number of attendees. “We are developing remote online education, but high-touch is irreplaceable,” Hinton said. “Our members tell us conferences are very valuable for several reasons. When done well, they can be great motivators. They are also useful in helping people articulate problems and find solutions without competitors at the table. They can see new technology, talk to people who do the same thing for a living, make friends, receive continuing education credits and licensing credits and gain information and perspective from industry experts.”

CCIM's Skeans is a big advocate of conferences. “I believe they are very important because conferences give you the opportunity to get educated on what's happening now in the industry. Also, they are great venues for networking.”

Ben Johnson is an Atlanta-based writer.

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