RLJ CEO Leslie Hale on diversity in CRE: “I am not a unicorn”

by Kasi Johnston26 Jun 2020

The U.S. commercial real estate industry is known to be one of the least diverse. According to the 2017 report The Diverse Asset Management Project Firm Assessment, written by Bella Research Group and the Knight Foundation, researchers found just 0.7% of 889 real estate investment management firms were women-owned and just 2% were owned by minorities.

A 2013 diversity report by NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, found 75% of commercial real estate senior executives were white men, compared to 1.3% Black men. White women held just over 14% while non-white women held less than 1%.

In a webcast hosted by Walker and Dunlop CEO Willy Walker, Leslie Hale, CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust, says she is not a unicorn, and there are many people of color and women who have the as much skills as she does. Believing that the pool for potential executives is limited will only allow organizations to accept a lack of diversity, she explained, and that concept needs to be dispelled.

“The most impactful thing to do is to add diverse leadership on the leadership team because those individuals will directly and indirectly drive diversity throughout the organization. And while it's important to add diversity in the lower ranks, that won't necessarily help you drive it through the organization.”

Since joining RLJ in 2005, Hale held the roles of CFO in 2007, COO in 2016 and presently, the president and CEO of the REIT in 2018, becoming the first Black woman to be CEO of a publicly traded REIT in the country.

Sourcing talent

Finding quality, diverse talent just requires leaders to look beyond their own network and sphere of influence. Hale says she’s amazed when people say they can’t find quality, diverse talent because it exists. Leaders also need to be willing to give someone a shot who doesn’t fit the box perfectly.

“Does this person have the aptitude? Do they have relevant experience, not necessarily perfect experience, and do they have a proven track record of being able to parachute in and deliver on whatever opportunities they're given?”

Hale says Tom Baltimore, past CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust wanted to make sure he had diverse talent and took a risk on her, despite not having a lodging background.

“I wouldn’t be here today if he chose to stay inside that perfect box.”

In order to bring in high-level diverse talent, it’s not enough to just bring in diverse candidates, said Hale. There needs to be a focus on access to opportunity, meaning leaders need to set targets around diversity in key and high-earning roles, and these candidates need to be given the support to succeed through mentorship and sponsorship.

“When I was at GE Capital and Goldman Sachs, the vast majority of my mentors were white male. [I point that out] because it’s important for diverse talent to understand that mentors and sponsors don’t have to look like you. It’s equally as important for leaders to understand you can impact somebody’s career no matter what point you touch it,” she said.

As her career progressed, her support network evolved. In the middle of her career, mentors were largely Black men as she focused on understanding the politics of corporate America. In the latter part of her career, Hale says her mentors were largely women, because they understood the challenges as a female leader and a mother.

Leaders need to create an environment where diversity is truly valued.

“That's what happened for me at RLJ. I didn't have to worry about being African American, I didn't have to worry about being a woman, I was able to focus on outcomes and my performance.”

In a recent push for diversity and inclusion, fueled by the Black Lives Movement across the country, some commercial real estate firms are taking action. Walker and Dunlop CEO Willy Walker said the issues of racial justice must remain in our corporate strategies for years to come and committed to incorporating ambitious targets for women and minorities in management and top-earning positions at Walker and Dunlop.

CBRE announced that Tim Dismond was promoted to the newly created role of chief diversity officer, joining CBRE’s executive committee.

Mohr Partners, the world's largest minority-owned commercial real estate services firm has appointed Clyde Robinson as head of its diversity and inclusion.