Helpful Hiring Hints

Learn to Make the Right Decisions During the Recruiting Process.

H elp wanted: Commercial real estate company seeks professional with strong sales and people skills and considerable industry experience who fits the company's culture.

Anyone who's ever hired a commercial real estate professional knows the demands of trying to find the right person for the job.

“For a search to be successful, the fit must work well for the [company] and the candidate,” says Barbara Moss, owner of Moss & Co. Executive Search in Seattle, which recruits candidates for general business, real estate development, construction, engineering, architecture, and property management companies.

Each company has its own spin on how to fill vacant commercial real estate jobs. Moreover, the bigger economic picture affects overall hiring trends. For instance, last year, 69 percent of commercial real estate organizations surveyed planned to increase hiring either slightly or dramatically, according to a study by Chicago-based Ferguson Partners.

In the recent past, it has been “more difficult to entice some seasoned top performers to move, since they have been making such good money,” says J. Reagan Dixon, CCIM, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Cawley Wilcox Cos. in Dallas.

However, as the economy changes, so do the job market and the availability of candidates. “For about the past two years, the demand for skilled talent has increased without a corresponding increase in availability of skilled talent, resulting in it taking longer to successfully conduct job searches,” Moss says. “This year, we are seeing a small decrease in demand and a somewhat greater availability of skilled candidates.”

Despite greater availability of talent, those seeking candidates for job openings still must determine the best person for the position and how to gauge their fit with the company. From placing the ad to figuring out a trial employment period, commercial real estate companies offer a number of techniques based on experience and thoughtful consideration.

What Employers Want While companies seeking commercial real estate professionals typically have specific qualifications they want in new hires, they can be flexible. Although education and experience that mesh with the job description clearly are important, employers often consider other sales experience a plus.

“We would much prefer to hire an experienced and successful salesperson with no real estate experience and teach them the business,” Dixon says.

Residential experience “is of very little value,” says Ralph D. Spencer, CCIM, SIOR, GRI, of Innovative Learning LLC in Orlando, Fla. However, “Technical real estate knowledge can be acquired. Experience with another real estate company is desirable.”

“We look for people in related investment/financial fields, or with financial degrees, and/or entrepreneurial types who will understand the value of being in our profession,” adds Floyd Cerf, CCIM, vice president of the Keyes Co. in Miami. “Top salespersons from other industries who go out and meet with the clients are also preferable, not the salespeople who wait for customers to come into a showroom to pick a color.”

Additional expertise such as industry designations indicates that candidates are serious about their careers and lends credibility to their reputations, Moss says. “It sets them apart from the pack.”

Where and how companies seek candidates for commercial real estate jobs depends on the level of the opening: Entry-level positions can be recruited through local colleges and universities, while middle-management or executive positions require more searching using resources such as newspaper ads, Internet job sites, word-of-mouth, or third-party recruiters.

Company size and resources dictate who coordinates and implements the hiring process in-house; large companies may have human resources departments to help or lead the charge, while smaller company management is on its own.

“We are a team of the CEO, president, and senior vice presidents of brokerage and property management,” explains Quentin Dastugue, CCIM, chief executive officer of Property One in New Orleans. “We all recruit and interview, plus our present brokers/agents help in the recruitment process.”

Cerf says that his company contacts prospects taking local real estate courses “and offers them an interview to specialize in commercial and investment realty. So far, we are successful with this approach and see no need for third-party recruiting.”

However, some commercial real estate companies do turn to professional recruiters to facilitate the hiring process.

“We have used a headhunter in the past at times,” Dixon says. “For key positions, they can talk to the very people we are looking for — the ones that aren't looking for a job.”

Moss, the headhunter, naturally agrees. “If you don't [use a recruiter] ... you're more likely to reach the very people you're not particularly wanting to hire — the unemployed,” she says. “Not everyone who is unemployed is undesirable as a candidate, but there are far more qualified candidates to pick from in the ranks of the actively employed.”

Interview Instruction Once potential candidates are identified, interviewing lets company management get a feel for each applicant and vice versa.

“Do they have the technical skills required to do the job?” asks Del Still, principal of Management Development Systems LLC in Dana Point, Calif., a recruiting consultant who wrote High Impact Hiring . “Do they have the appropriate work habits to function in the organization's culture and work environment?”

The primary principle that should drive successful interviews is: “Past job behavior is the best predictor of future job behavior,” Still says. “People are creatures of habit. Therefore, if we can get candidates to describe the actions they took in situations that relate to the skills we are looking for, we can predict how they will act in similar situations in the future.”

Spencer also stresses studying behavior in interviews. “We focus on behaviorally understanding the job and then behaviorally matching the individual to the job,” he says. “Too many executives, particularly in real estate, don't understand natural behavioral tendencies, can't recognize behaviors during the interview process, and manage everyone the same way, once hired, failing to pace the individual based on their behavior.”

Besides studying behavior, commercial real estate professionals and recruiters employ various questioning strategies during interviews.

“Identify what precisely the candidate accomplished himself/herself vs. what the entire team may have accomplished,” Moss suggests. To determine if they are the “cream of the crop,” ask for specific examples of how candidates went beyond their regular duties to contribute to the success of other companies where they have worked, she adds. “To grasp the complete picture, explore what area a candidate may feel is a weakness.”

Dastugue's queries to interviewees include: “What's the hardest thing they have ever done? What makes them mad? What would one of their references tell me about them?”

Some interviewers go beyond standard questions and answers, employing strategies such as role-playing, case studies, or tests to further gauge a candidate's fit. “I do a phone call to them, as though I am the salesperson and they are the owner,” Cerf says. “Then, I ask them if that is something they see themselves doing.”

Salary also should be addressed — at least in general — before it's too late in the process, Moss adds. “When using a recruiter, a salary range is already discussed prior to candidates being presented,” she says. “If hiring directly, it's best to address the salary expectations early on to avoid disappointment and a waste of time in the end.”

Many with hiring expertise also recommend getting a variety of perspectives on each potential hire. “We believe in team interviewing,” Dixon says. “Or, at the very least, make sure three to five key people agree on the hire.”

Interviewers tend to make several types of mistakes during the questioning process, Still says. These include making snap hiring decisions without conducting a thorough interview and failing to create a structured interview with pre-written questions. People also should not rely too much on intuition or gut feeling, he advises.

Finally, interviewers shouldn't make a “cloning or mirror-image error,” Still says, meaning “hiring someone because they once worked for an organization the interviewer did, or went to the same school, joined the same clubs, etc.”

Interviewers also shouldn't forget to sell their company in addition to questioning candidates. “You can't be successful without doing both,” Moss notes. Interviewees need to understand what makes the company stand apart. However, “It's not in anyone's best interest ... to oversell the opportunity or to present it in a less-than-honest light,” she says.

Ready, Set, Hire A thorough selection and interview process should produce viable options for commercial real estate job openings. Nonetheless, “A person can never be 100 percent certain that they have chosen the right person for a job,” Still says. “Interviewing is not a perfect science. Much of the error in the process can be eliminated if a systematic behavior-based process is used, supplemented with other tools such as standardized tests and complete reference and background checks.”

References are a common and important check, while not everyone uses background checks. “We call all references,” Dastugue says. However, Dixon notes, “Never call an existing employer without permission.”

In the end, the new hire's performance will show how the choice plays out. “Know that even the best of instincts can make mistakes,” Moss says. “Only time can prove the decision was right.”

Barbara Stevenson

Carol C. Honigberg, JD, is a partner in the real estate group at Reed, Smith, Hazel, & Thomas LLP in Falls Church, Va. Contact her at (703) 641-4220 or Steven M. Nolan, JD, is a member of the firm\'s environmental group. Contact him at (412) 288-4158 or


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