Presented By: Savills
Why Diversity and Strategy Must Become Two Sides of the Same Coin for Companies
Ann Duncan holds three titles at Savills: vice chairman, chief strategy officer and chief diversity officer. The last two, in particular, are titles you rarely see paired together. Partner Insights spoke with Duncan about why diversity has to be seen as a crucial strategic component, and how Savills has been expanding opportunities for diverse new professionals within CRE.
Commercial Observer: What are your responsibilities as chief strategy officer?
Ann Duncan: Being chief strategy officer is very exciting, especially at such a dynamic point in history where everybody is trying to think about things differently because the old playbook doesn’t really work. What’s exciting is that my role connects so many important functions: strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions work, marketing and PR, business development and other support functions. Because the chief strategy officer role is integrated with virtually every business function within the firm, it seamlessly allows the diversity, equity and inclusion work we’re doing to become foundational to all of our strategies.
You’re also chief diversity officer. Talk about some of Savills’ accomplishments on the diversity front.
Our Junior Broker Development Program, which began last October, has addressed a serious challenge in commercial real estate. It has been very successful at removing barriers to entry into the industry for women, people of color and other minority groups. We had an inaugural class of 10 recent college graduates that was 90 percent diverse. Each participant receives a full salary as they learn about commercial real estate and establish their career. All of the candidates who completed the rotational program are now working in full-time positions with the company. The first program was in New York and Washington. We now have participants in Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago, and we’re already recruiting for our third class.
This program has three key functions. One is recruiting — talking about the benefits of our industry to young professionals. Then there is a curriculum component which gives them a strong foundation in CRE from our company’s leaders. The third component is retention — making sure that these graduates have the right mentors, and that we have good career tracks for them.
Then we have our employee resource groups, or ERGs. One is Black Excellence United (BeU), and the other is our Women’s Initiatives Network (WIN). I’m a co-founder and a former co-chair of WIN. These employee-led committees let our people collaborate with each other across all levels. We’re helping build their industry knowledge and bringing in great speakers. Probably 90 percent of our female brokers are actively engaged in WIN, and now they’re referring business to each other.
How challenging is it to create a truly diverse workplace?
It’s challenging. Diversity doesn’t just happen. You have to be thoughtful in your recruiting. You have to allow time for orientation and education. But, ultimately, the benefits that come from diverse perspectives enable us to better address our clients’ evolving needs in today’s changing landscape.
What are the most important benefits of getting diversity right for a company like Savills?
First of all, it’s the right thing to do. Mitch Rudin, our chairman and CEO for North America, has been a champion for diversity throughout his entire career. For him, it’s not a talking point — it’s a real, tangible objective.
The world is so dynamic now that problem-solving requires different perspectives, which means you need diverse life experiences at the table. By building authentic, diverse, high-performing teams, we are helping better solve clients’ problems since we’re able to better anticipate issues or challenges. Our clients are expecting it of us. They’re holding us accountable, starting with asking questions about it in the request for proposal, or RFP, process, and then by making sure we’re following through in our implementation. It’s important to them, and making these changes says that it’s important to us as a public company.
Before coming to Savills, you owned your own commercial real estate consulting business for almost 15 years. How did your experiences running a business clarify what was needed in improving diversity practices within commercial real estate?
It was a great training ground. When I started my business, my first five hires were men, because that’s who usually applies for those jobs, or who you see in those jobs that you try to recruit. At one point, a client asked if there were any other women on the team, since this was a woman-owned business. It was a great inflection point for me to realize that it’s not enough that I’m a woman at the helm. I need to build a diverse team. And so I started hiring women and other diverse members of my team to help us grow.
I set out to seek complementary skills in my hires as well as complementary backgrounds, and the team I built got fully acquired when I sold the company in 2015, which I’m very proud of. There’s tremendous synergy and energy that comes from that sort of team development.
Given your experience in this industry, are there certain experiences you had when you were coming up in the business that you want to make sure young women starting today don’t have to deal with?
When I was dealing with it all, I just thought of it as, this is how it is. Now, looking back as a more mature person, I think, that really was hard. One simple example: one of the owners of the first company I worked for said, “you should join Rotary, you’ll meet a lot of business people and it’ll help you with prospecting.” But when I joined, three men quit because I was the first woman, and they said I had ruined it for them. Later, I became the first female Chamber chair.
Despite the challenges I faced, I was very fortunate to have great mentors, and they helped me get a seat at the table. Representation is just the tip of the iceberg, but it means so much when you’re young and finding your way in corporate America. As we’re moving forward, that’s something we really have to keep top of mind. Without that advocacy, it is a lot harder to break in.
What are some of the things that excite you most about Savills’ future?
We’ve brought in so much new talent, and added so many new service offerings and skills, that I’m excited about the synergy. If we can bring together the pieces and make our whole greater than the sum of our parts, then we’re going to do great things for our clients and our employees. I’m most excited about the opportunity to give clients the best of both worlds: A large, global public company, but with the agility and entrepreneurial nature that lets us adapt to changing environments and meet our client’s needs.