The following article is published in the current issue of the Southern California CoreNet Chapter newsletter, Real Estate Perspectives. Please visit http://www.corenetglobal.org/chapters/socalif/news/chapter_documents/newsletters/RealEstatePerspectives_Summer2007.pdf to see the entire newsletter and learn what the premier CRE organization in the region is up to. Also, don’t miss the opportunity to support the December gala event – it is shaping up to be nothing less than spectacular!
CRE Projects Change More Than the Building
By Ken Burkhalter, CFM
Corporate Real Estate executives do not always think of themselves as change agents, but that is exactly what they are. Almost by definition, the very purpose of the CRE function is to create and manage change. Lease actions that change office locations, building new facilities, relocating operational units, business expansions and contractions all place stress on organizations at multiple levels. It may be “business as usual” to you, but for your internal and external customers it is everything but normal. Work priorities are shifted, old routines and patterns are changed, and personal lives are affected, sometimes in very significant ways. Regardless of the reason for these changes everyone knows who is leading the charge on the project. They may be reluctant to call the CEO and express their views, but your number is there just waiting to be pushed.
Several years ago I participated in a large development project, moving a long-established non-profit to a new campus. Its history had been one of excellence in its field, inattention to “unimportant” infrastructure areas, and several failed attempts to move to a new facility. Soon after joining the staff the opportunity to attempt another development and relocation project presented itself and from the outset it was obvious that this time it would work. The opportunities were nearly without limit. Aside from the design, construction and relocation project, large initiatives to upgrade technical infrastructure and skill sets were required, all of which were embedded in the culture of the organization - a culture which would undergo its own transformation. In short, change, and a lot of it
When you are tasked to lead a large CRE project there are big questions to be answered. How will you be effective at leading this project? How will you develop broad-based participation and cooperation? How will teams be organized? Who do you need to encourage? Who needs skill support? Who is at risk? Who are the most important stakeholders? Who are the most important influencers? These questions and a host of others will likely begin to swarm around inside your head the instant you hear the “go” decision. Some of the most important questions, however, will be ones you ask yourself.
Am I willing to be the first one changed? One of the more interesting and sometimes challenging aspects of being a change agent is that you will be the first to be changed. You will be bought into the project and committed to seeing it through before most others are engaged or possibly even aware of a coming change. That fact alone means that your relationships will change, at least in the short term. The project may mean a different role for you, represent a difficult risk/reward scenario, or present any number of other challenges for you personally and professionally. Getting others involved and “bought in” quickly is important to developing momentum and minimizing any chance of isolation. How you lead from the front and help others to understand, accept, and internalize the project and its goals will speak volumes to the team around you and help reinforce your credibility.
Who will I lose by implementing this change? Possibly one of the toughest questions you will have to answer is how the change will affect others that you depend upon. In large projects, especially those involving relocations, it is not unusual to lose up to twenty-five percent of the key leadership staff. The project may position the organization for substantial and rapid growth but it almost certainly will come at the cost of losing some talent. And the talent game is the number one game in business. You may have some who are so important to the project or organization that special retention measures are appropriate. Such cases are rare and need to be dealt with delicately and quickly. Regardless, you can count on unplanned staff changes occurring, often at the seemingly worse possible time. To get ahead of this curve one of your highest priorities must be a strategic and candid evaluation of the project team and key staff during the earliest stages of the project. Upon thoughtful reflection you may realize that some will just not be able to be successful in the project or the changed post-project environment, or you may be able to predict who will have particular difficulties in making the required shifts but are important to retain. In either case, you have the opportunity to approach them honestly and share your thoughts, beginning a dialogue and process that can help them make the best decisions they can make, and protect you against unwanted surprises.
Will I be around after the change is made? Not a small or unlikely question. Just as others will find a changed operating environment after completion of the project, so will you. If you have been focused on leading a multi-year project then you may have been uninvolved or on the periphery as the organization continues to constantly flex and evolve. When the time comes to turn your attention back to your original job, will it still be there? If it is, will you be cognizant and positioned to join step as you meld yourself back into the day-to-day life of the organization? Thinking about this early on provides the opportunity to put safeguards in place, not thinking about it until too late opens the door to an unpleasant surprise. Given the chance, it is likely that you will be able to negotiate protections for yourself and turn your engagement as project leader into an even greater win, both for you and the company. But it doesn’t happen by accident. An honest and transparent dialogue with corporate leadership is in order. You should walk away from the end of those discussions with agreement on the project charter and goals, your lines of authority and accountability, and your role after the project is complete. Some of these will certainly change over the course of time, but being a partner in their formation and acceptance gives you a seat at the table when changes do occur, allowing you to influence the outcome.
In the end the project I mentioned earlier was a success. We were able through intentional process and consistent communication to keep the leadership team together while honoring and assisting those who had played an important role but needed to make transitions. The new physical plant with its enhanced capabilities and appeal became the springboard for rapid growth, the development of important new partnerships, and the formation and launch of several new programs.
We set out to build a new campus for the organization. In reality what we affected was a dramatic makeover of the institution, its culture, and its reach. And that is often the case with large CRE projects, regardless of the business of the organization. Development projects simply have a way of testing and challenging, often leading to change in areas that had not been considered a part of the project when the process began. Inevitably, they are a part of the outcome. Those that understand this avoid the pitfalls of unplanned effects of the project process while allowing themselves to be strategic and intentional when taking advantage of opportunities.
Careful consideration should be given when you are asked to lead a large change initiative. Before accepting the charter, think about the 360 degree future. Plainly speaking you need to ask yourself: Am I willing to pay the price this change will require? Leading is always difficult and change is often threatening to people. Leading positive change, however, can be one of the most important, empowering, and dynamic things you will ever do.