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Better together

Thriving through change at the 2021 Global Summit

By John Salustri
IREM's Governing Council
IREM's Governing Council

IREM kicked off its 2021 Global Summit—its first in-person Summit in two years—in grand style. There was fun, to be sure, and plenty of networking—with masks, yes—but face-to-face at last. The full range of educational and keynote sessions at the Las Vegas event featured treatment of such on-point topics as cannabis industry tenants, bias in the workplace, and the implementation of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs.

In a rousing General Session that opened the event, President Chip Watts, CPM, CCIM, C2EX, AHWD®, of Watts Realty Co., Inc., AMO, celebrated the return of the Summit to an in-person event after the extended social distancing protocols of last year. During his remarks, he commended the progress that IREM has made despite the limitations of operating in a largely virtual environment. He also gave this year’s association standouts the ample in-person recognition they deserved. These included the 2020 class of Next Gen CPM leaders, 30 Under 30, Diversity & Inclusion Succession Initiative (DISI) leaders, Student Scholars, and the Student of the Year.

He also led the audience in a moment of silence for the family, friends, and colleagues we lost over the past 18 months.

President Watts celebrated our collective successes and the “decisive action to move the association forward” by such initiatives as translating virtual learning programs into Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Russian to “help members connect globally.” He said that connection is more important than ever, a clear reflection of the Summit theme: “Together we thrive.”

He also emphasized the goal of making IREM the global diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) leader in real estate management. “But it will take time,” he said. “This isn’t about perfection. It’s about progress. Our success depends on it.”

From prejudice to performance

Keynote speaker Risha Grant

It was a perfect lead-in to a discussion on DE&I and unconscious bias, delivered by keynoter Risha Grant of Risha Grant LLC. She held a mirror of sorts up to the audience to challenge our preconceived notions of race and other common points of differentiation, admitting that she, like everyone else, carries assumptions fostered from childhood. “Our parents weren’t trying to teach us hatred,” she said. “They were only trying to protect us.”

Bias, she said, can be defined as “preconceived and unreasoned feelings” about someone else. “But the price of inclusion is much cheaper than the price of exclusion,” she said. To overcome bias, she recommended four basic rules:

  • Build authentic relationships
  • Be intentional, “because we’re all creatures of habit”
  • Question our assumptions
  • Challenge microaggressions

These all drive toward unconditional love and “and a total acceptance of humanity,” she said. “People deserve this.”

But, if that’s too ethereal a concept, she echoed one of President Watts’ opening comments: “By 2039, minorities will be in the majority. But it’s happening a lot sooner,” she said, adding that that makes DE&I even more about the sustainability of your business.

On a related topic, author and leadership guru Jon Acuff focused his keynote on team motivation. Based on surveys his firm conducted, Acuff exploded the long-standing myth that “motivation grows as you work toward a goal.” In fact, “It’s the first thing to leave,” he said.

To ensure the satisfactory completion of goals, he urged leaders to be empathetic and understand—simply by asking—the needs of their people. “Care about what the people you care about care about,” he said.

And since motivation can wane, remember that enjoyment matters, especially in our very challenging jobs. “There are two main types of motivation: reward and fear,” he said. His company’s survey findings revealed that focusing on rewards produced a 31% increase in satisfaction and a 46% hike in performance.

Cannabis and COVID

Can a proliferation of marijuana shops hurt area property values? This was just one of a wide range of topics covered by Ted Thurn, IREM’s senior director of Government Affairs, and a panel of experts in “COVID, Cannabis and Beyond: Advocacy and Action for Real Estate Managers.”

And the short answer is: It depends. But Melissa Kuipers Blake of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP provided more nuance. While on the one hand, the issue could be likened to too many liquor stores in a neighborhood, “There is mindfulness among municipalities about overextending licenses.”

She added that a safe-haven bill for banks servicing legal cannabis businesses, currently being considered in Congress, is garnering a lot of support from both sides of the aisle. But given more immediate issues—the lingering potential for a shutdown of federal government operations among them—the bill is not likely to see floor time this year and possibly not even in 2022 either.

Turning to the issue of emergency rental assistance, Erin Stackley of the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) said it was “unsurprising that the rollout of funds has been a thorny issue.” She explained that such massive legislation would typically involve two years of Congressional debate and then, if passed, spend years going through the regulatory process.

One of the thorns in the relatively rapid-fire passage of the relief bills was the involvement of as many as 500 grantees—states, counties, and municipalities—all of which had to come up with their own platforms for application and disbursement. The good news is that NAR and IREM have been advising government agencies on a uniform platform designed to speed up the application process for housing providers and renters.

The issue of affordable housing vouchers also received treatment in the discussion. The Cumberland Housing Authority’s Susan Monaghan, CPM, reported that 200,000 new Section Eight housing vouchers, wrapped up in the administration’s two proposed infrastructure bills, the American Jobs and American Families plans, would be a good start. “It’s guaranteed money,” she said. “But it’s up to the individual to take advantage of it.”

How to implement ESG

Another major issue for the industry, and therefore for IREM, is the implementation and management of ESG programs and protocols. 2020 IREM President Cheryl Gray, CPM, led an expert panel through an exploration of its best practices. The panel consisted of Jesse Anderson, CPM Candidate, Blanton Turner, AMO, Rhianne Menzies of Brookfield Properties, and Nancy San Pedro, CPM, of Equity Residential, AMO.

ESG “has to be treated as a journey,” Gray told the audience. “It’s an evolving area of real estate.” Driving the movement are such factors as the expectations of clients, tenants, and residents, as well as growing insurance underwriting concerns.

Given the breadth of stakeholders, implementation is, by necessity, a community initiative. “It shouldn’t just come from the top,” said one panelist. “Conversations have to take place, including those with tenants and with the property manager. There’s a lot of value you can get from the people in the trenches. You can’t change what you don’t know.”

Of course, there’s a large and growing list of benchmarking platforms to monitor the environmental portion of the ESG initiative, including ENERGY STAR®, LEED, and IREM’s Certified Sustainable Property (CSP) program. As one panelist recommended, you must choose the platform that works for your goals and your properties.

Other advice from the experts?

  • Start small
  • Define your goals, but given the evolutionary nature of the topic, be prepared to retool those goals along the way
  • Break down those silos to engage other departments in goal-setting conversations

Softer side of property management

Nuts-and-bolts guidance was clearly a major theme of the Summit. But so were “softer” considerations that could lead to a more well-rounded approach to business, life, and leadership.

Well-being strategist Oksana Esberard tackled the issue of burnout, and a central focus of her presentation revolved around mindfulness and breathing as a tool to maintain a healthy overall self-awareness. “Challenge your status quo,” she advised.

Keynote speaker Liz Bohannon

Keynote speaker Liz Bohannon, CEO of Sseko Designs, suggested to IREM members that “thinking big” can be a fool’s errand, and “thinking small” instead can open increasingly large pathways to success, especially when coupled with a well-developed curiosity.

“Curiosity over criticism,” she advised the crowd, noting that studies prove that in achieving success, “curiosity is as important, if not more so, than IQ.”

You can develop a stronger “curiosity muscle” by cultivating a greater awareness of your critical nature, directed either inwardly or outwardly, and breaking it down to a single question: Why? Questions, rather than declarative statements, elicit a response, and in so doing, allow for growth. “This is how we build change,” Bohannon said.

To a great degree, building change was an unofficial recurring theme of the Summit. And, as it began with words from President Watts, it wrapped up with thoughts from President-Elect Barry Blanton, CPM, of Blanton Turner, AMO. He continued the twin themes of thriving and change: “Let’s take what we’re doing today and bring it into tomorrow.” 

Journal of Property Management

John Salustri is a contributing writer for JPM.

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