Presented By: Capital One
Cap One’s Byford: DIB Change Requires Difficult Conversations
Kate Byford, head of agency finance for Capital One, was one of the speakers at Commercial Observer’s recent Diversity & Inclusion Forum. She spoke to Commercial Observer’s Partner Insights team about Capital One’s extensive diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIB) initiatives, and why the effort resonates so strongly with her.
Commercial Observer Partner Insights: Why is diversity in commercial real estate important to you and important to the CRE industry as a whole?
Kate Byford: Diversity is a necessary and critical component for every business, and commercial real estate is no different. Research shows that diverse organizations are more creative and innovative, ultimately resulting in better financial performance. Diverse teams are also better at solving complex problems and they present the potential to break into markets that have yet to be explored. So, there are plenty of reasons this is important in the CRE industry.
For me, personally, when I was first asked to share why this topic matters to me, I thought back to my trading floor experiences, and my first reaction was, “I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining.” I have really only started to open up more about my experiences coming up in the industry since I started my new role, and I can now recognize that it’s not complaining — it’s validating my experience and the experiences of other women in the industry.
As I have become more comfortable sharing my story, it has become more apparent that many of our associates have had similar experiences to mine, and the real value is being able to share these experiences with one another. Having diversity is important, and it’s equally important for us to create an environment where we can acknowledge the different perspectives and experiences of others.
This is precisely why it matters so much in this space. CRE as an industry isn’t exactly the most diverse, and a lack of racial and gender diversity leads to the absence of diversity of thought, fewer new ideas, and less of the innovation that the industry needs.
CRE executives have long been mostly white men. Do you find this changing at a satisfactory pace?
What hasn’t kept pace is the addition of people of color and women to the industry’s executive ranks. But I am more hopeful now than I’ve ever been. There’s momentum and a recognition that the industry will benefit from adding new voices to the chorus.
Has being a woman in this largely male-run industry ever placed you at a disadvantage?
It certainly has had its challenges and I’ve definitely wrestled with it. But I was ultimately able to push through, create a network, and find my niche. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to differentiate myself and found areas where I could shine and use that to my advantage.
Talk about what the industry can and should do to quicken the pace of diversity.
First, we need to be intentional about looking for talent everywhere, not just the traditional places that may lack the diverse talent we need.
Secondly, and equally as important, we need to ensure the culture is ready for the talent once we find it. Which goes back to my earlier point — we must promote a culture where differences are celebrated and all perspectives are embraced. This takes work, and we know it doesn’t always feel comfortable.
Ultimately, I think every single leader needs to lean into the discomfort. Uncomfortable situations are where we learn and change. And it needs to be more than just words — it has to include action. It has to be intentional. That is what we haven’t had before.
Frankly, I came to Capital One for the culture, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Building a culture where people feel they belong, can have their voices heard, and perform at their full potential is what we’re after. Recently, we’ve had some people of color within the industry reach out because they heard positive things about the culture at Capital One. I’ve never experienced that before. It serves as an important marker of our progress that tells us we’re on the right track, but there’s still work ahead.
What are people outside of Capital One hearing about the company culture?
They’re hearing that it’s a very collaborative and inclusive environment. The agency finance team is a fairly flat organization. We try to get a lot of feedback about what people want to see in the culture and how they feel about their associate experience, and we integrate that into our people goals and strategies. When candidates interview with us, they see that immediately. Our leadership team and those down the chain are well connected. We just started a diversity, inclusion & belonging (DIB) council, and it’s not meant to only be top-down, but also bottom-up. People want a voice. They want to tell their stories.
Tell us more about this council.
We created this council to give a voice to associates at all levels who are passionate about building an inclusive and diverse culture within CRE. As leadership, we don’t want to just make decisions unilaterally. Instead, all members of the council will take part in facilitating our future roadmap.
We sent out an email to everybody in our CRE organization to gauge people’s interest in joining the council, and we’re excited to have more than 50 associates who will take an active role in changing our culture. We recently kicked off our first coffee chat for Black History Month, where four associates shared their stories and ideas for change.
Are there other things that you have done to help further diversity and inclusion within the agency finance team and across CRE?
I am the accountable executive for DIB and CRE — all of CRE, not just agency. We have spent a lot of time working with our recruiting team to develop new practices to ensure that we have a more diverse candidate pool. That’s non-negotiable.
I think it’s important to note that while racial and gender diversity are top of mind for us, we’re also focused on supporting both our front-end and back-end associates. Historically, the back-end of the business doesn’t get the same visibility as the front-end, which we recognized needed to change. We have an all-hands call, and each month, we feature associates from varying backgrounds to give exposure to people that may otherwise stay behind the scenes.
Additionally, in an effort to increase retention, we’ve been creating new practices around associate onboarding. You can recruit diverse talent into your workforce, but if they don’t feel like they belong and have a voice, they won’t stay. To begin instilling that sense of belonging from day one, we’ve started pairing our new hires with buddies — someone in their affinity group and someone outside of it. We want to make sure we’re fully supporting our new associates by helping them build their network to feel connected in a new environment.
How confident are you that the commercial real estate industry will make major strides in DIB over the next five to 10 years?
I’m hopeful, and it’s imperative that we do. This is the first time I’m seeing this much traction. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily see widespread change over the next five years, but I think you’re going to see pockets. It’s going to be more important to some organizations than others, but that may produce a competitive advantage for some that becomes the necessary catalyst for others.
What advice would you give to people from diverse backgrounds who find themselves in a non-diverse work environment?
Remember that your differences can be what give you an edge. Find a way to showcase who you are and your ideas and opinions. I have experienced how difficult that is, and it’s certainly easier said than done. I think a lot of this is going to have to be deliberate and, unquestionably, it takes courage, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Look for your allies and people in your network who can help to amplify your voice. When you find leaders who are willing and eager to engage, take them up on it. Reach out to those people to begin building your network, sharing your experiences, and discussing ideas about how to change the processes and products in your business. That will ultimately help your clients and the greater community.
Thank you for speaking so candidly about this sensitive topic. Anything else to add?
As leaders, we have the influence and platform to make sure we provide structure around priorities and fairness and equity in our practices. Going back to what the CRE industry can do, I really do believe we need more leaders to lean in and make sure these conversations are happening.
It’s going to be hard for associates to feel like they can speak up and share their experiences or ideas if leadership isn’t creating a space for that dialogue. While it’s important to provide a platform to allow associates to share their thoughts, leaders also need to be authentic and vulnerable to build trust with their teams.