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Learning the ropes

Passing on leadership skills to the next generation of real estate students

By Kelly Avery, MPA, Associate Member

Leadership merits a significant focus as a critical competency for any successful university curriculum aimed at educating the next generation of real estate professionals. Being a leader in real estate management means developing the ability to translate vision and strategy into results with and through people in the industry. While there are many variations on what leadership means and what it encompasses, it’s best to take a simple and pragmatic approach to leadership within an academic context.

Torgersen Bridge at Virginia Tech

Like other university majors in real estate, the property management program at Virginia Tech University not only prepares students for their first job out of college, it prepares them for a career. The ambition of the property management program is to contribute to the next generation of outstanding leaders in the real estate management industry.

Let’s look at some of the key elements of the leadership paradigm.

Foresight for the organization

Leadership is all about vision and strategy. A good leader understands the full economic environment as well as the specific dynamics of the property management industry. Leaders in real estate management must constantly ask:

  • What are the factors that will drive the future development of the industry?
  • Which political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTEL) factors have the greatest positive or negative impact on the industry?
  • What are the strongest business dynamics that will shape the future of the industry?
  • What are new customer needs and trends?
  • How will industry rivalries change over time, and what does this mean for the company that the individual manager—and future leader—works for?

Property management curricula put a high emphasis on developing students who see the big picture. The aim is to identify and cultivate those who see beyond just a few specialized functions like sales or marketing and can instead connect the dots of different internal and external factors. These factors will define the business strategy of the student’s future firm.

Curricula must take a market-centric and customer-focused learning approach. For any vision and strategy, it’s ultimately the customer and market that provide the guiding star. A good leader helps their company win in the market and gain a sustainable competitive advantage. Every company wants to grow and be successful. However, a leader goes beyond abstract and vaguely formulated ambitions to a clear right-to-win way of operating.

Developing great leaders means enabling students to identify and implement a right-to-win that gives a competitive edge and a unique value proposition. Equipping future real estate leaders with the necessary market-centric skills can be done with case studies, visits to different properties, and in-depth market analyses. All of these activities can provide valuable learning moments for students to understand the importance of customers as the ultimate true north. However, these are always embedded in a thorough understanding of the larger economic and real estate industry context.

Virginia Tech Property Management Major
The Bachelor of Science in Property Management at Virginia Tech University was the first of its kind in the U.S., and its faculty remain committed to helping prepare the next generation of industry leaders.

Along with courses in core subjects such as finance, marketing, and communication, students receive instruction in multifamily operations, commercial leasing, and specialized housing. In addition to classroom learning, students gain first-hand property management experience through internships with industry partners around the country. Graduates of the program leave equipped with the skills they’ll need to eventually manage multimilliondollar investments as leaders in real estate.

Click here to learn more about the program at VTU.

Delivering results

Vision and strategy are wonderful. However, all too often leaders develop high-gloss PowerPoint slides about vision and strategy but fail to deliver any measurable results. Owners and other stakeholders expect profitable growth. This progress should be driven by above-market, top-line market share growth that translates to an even higher bottom-line profit growth.

Educators in real estate majors must be able to prepare students to eventually become great leaders of their firms’ profit and loss (P&L) performance. A well-designed curriculum should, therefore, offer various courses that equip students with a full set of interdisciplinary tools such as marketing, sales, operations, and finance. Possessing such broad ranging competencies will allow students to become effective stewards of their future firms’ assets and deliver on their strategies’ promise of profitable growth.

People leadership

Leaders will only be successful if they are able to take their teams along with them. Creating an inclusive environment in which diverse teams deliver outstanding results is exactly what a property management degree program prepares students for.

What differentiates a leader from just a mere supervisor?

  • Helping colleagues and team members link their work back to the guiding strategy
  • Providing a sense of pride and purpose
  • Helping team members continuously improve and develop
  • Being challenging and demanding while offering unwavering support

It also takes a personal vision of how great leadership is able to put these ideas into action. John Quincy Adams said, “If your action inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader.” Peter Drucker, whose writings helped found the basis for our modern understanding of business management and organizational culture, wrote, “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights. The raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard. The building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Helping students explore their own basic assumptions and beliefs is a great place to start developing leadership skills. The inwardly directed attention then gives rise to the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ). This added dimension complements students’ expertise in analytical tools, policies, and core processes that any leader in the property management industry needs to master.

Another important approach to teaching people skills within a classroom setting is the focus on teamwork. Assignments require each student to be an effective team member, but also take either a formal or informal leadership role to lead their team to high performance. This approach helps students develop the essential skills that are critical to success in the “real world.”

Prepared course assignments are best accompanied by direct, meaningful input regarding team dynamics, typical roles within teams, and best practices in establishing a high-performing team. These assignments are practical and valuable exercises that prepare each student to be an effective team member and become a great leader when they transition into the corporate world.

The critical function of role models

Students learn a lot from books and case studies, but they learn even more from observing leadership practiced inside and outside of the classroom. Faculty, guest speakers, advisory board members, and others together shape the student experience of what good leadership looks and feels like. Faculty and advisors must be fully aligned to demonstrate good leadership practices daily. Modeling good leadership behaviors every day, helping students reflect on their own behavior, and being a good coach and mentor may very well have the biggest impact on developing future industry leaders within the scope of a university campus.

Some of the basic leadership behaviors that faculty and staff commit to embodying on a daily basis include:

  • Being well prepared
  • Owning one’s own performance
  • Providing and accepting constructive feedback
  • Creating an inclusive learning environment
  • Insisting on high performance standards while offering continuous support

Putting it all together

There is no magic bullet for creating great leadership. It is complex. A university’s property management program needs to combine hard skills and soft skills, those people-centric aptitudes that help students become good people-leaders.

Interested in pursuing an education in real estate management or know a student who may be? Visit for information about other property management degree programs throughout the U.S.
Leadership in the workplace is a formal responsibility, but informal leadership is equally important. It’s something that students should be encouraged to begin embracing during their academic education. Leadership needs to provide a convincing and emotionally compelling vision, a strategy with a clear right-to-win, and, ultimately, results that demonstrate that the property management firm is winning in the market.

What bridges the high-level vision and strategy with the specific financial results is a leader and the people they inspire. A great leader will take his or her team with them on the journey, making people the driving force of positive change while at the same time developing these employees in their own career paths.

Are you currently a full-time college or university student?
Even before graduating and starting your path toward becoming a CPM, you can become an IREM student member for free. Meet industry leaders, access a targeted job board, and take advantage of exactly the kind of knowledge and network that can give you a big head start on your career in real estate management. Join your peers in taking the first step toward planning your career today.

Journal of Property Management

Kelly Avery, MPA, is an associate member of IREM with over 15 years’ experience in the property management field. She received her MPA from the University of Kentucky and is an associate professor at Virginia Tech University, where she has held the honorary Residential Property Management Advisory Board Professorship since 2019.

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