Women Leaders Of Real Estate: Allison Owens of Project Management Advisors On The 5 Things You Need To Succeed In The Real Estate Industry

An Interview With Jason Hartman

Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine

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There’s strength in vulnerability. Be willing to admit when you don’t know the answer. There’s a right and wrong place to do that, but that is how you grow. In real estate, there’s a tendency to act like you have all the answers or know everything, but the people who succeed are the people who recognize what they don’t know. That’s true for everyone, at every level, inside and out of the company you work for.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Owens, Western Regional President for Project Management

Allison is an accomplished project management professional, helping to steer complex development projects from cutting-edge life science campuses to luxury high-rise apartment and condominium buildings, leading tech company headquarters to mixed-use commercial and office properties. She is the most senior woman in PMA’s history, and the rare woman in a commercial real estate leadership position. We had a wide-ranging conversation about what it means to be a leader in real estate, why diversity of thought is paramount when tackling complicated challenges and how Allison uses her role to engage and motivate PMA’s 200- person team.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

I had an entirely different career before I got into real estate. After finishing my undergraduate degree in economics, I became a Wall Street trader. I worked as an analyst and manager of a $15 billion real estate-backed bond portfolio. But I found the work to be transactional and focused on the short term, trying to execute the best price moment by moment. I was more interested in partnerships, relationships and long-term strategy and there wasn’t much of that work I could do on Wall Street.

I ended up going back to school and earning a masters in architecture, which fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming an architect and got me into commercial real estate. But the architecture role was an overcorrection. It was all about design, without any room for my interests in finance, business and the overall development process.

When I became a project manager, it felt like I finally had the balance of creativity, personal relationships and business savvy I was searching for. It’s the kind of job where you’re faced with a new problem every day and are always coming up with original solutions. You have to know a little about a lot and be willing to learn on the fly. We touch so many parts of the real estate process, from master planning and entitlement to design and construction. You can’t be an expert on everything, so you have to be willing to learn and be humble enough to admit when you don’t know something.

I like that project managers are committed to a team and a client for the length of their project, at least, which can be anywhere from 5 to 15 years or longer. You develop deep, trusting relationships that can be lifelong, in some cases. And at the end of the day, you’re creating physical spaces that you can drive by or walk through. It’s tangible in a way that I find immensely satisfying.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I think because the project management role was such a natural fit for me, I advanced pretty quickly. That meant I was often one of the youngest people in the room, but also one of the most senior in terms of my job title and responsibilities. That combination is confusing to many people, especially people in commercial real estate, which tends to be dominated by older men.

One time at a contractor-hosted happy hour, I was standing with a few team members, including one of the vice presidents from our office. Now, this VP was 20 years my senior, but I had just been promoted to the general manager role of our San Francisco office, meaning I was his boss and in charge of all the projects for PMA’s largest office.

One of the contractors assumed that I must be the VP’s subordinate and kept addressing us in that way. Now, some people would let that slide. But the VP couldn’t help but correct the contractor and let the guy know that I was, in fact, the most senior person from our company in attendance, and assuming otherwise was hurting the contractor’s chances for doing more work with us. We all had a good laugh about it, but I hope that contractor learned a lesson about making assumptions. You never know who you’re talking to, what skills they bring to the job, or what opportunities they might have for you in the future.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We get to work on so many different projects as owners representatives. Personally, I’ve worked on projects that total more than 5 million square feet, all along the West Cost, from Arizona to Oregon, and even into Mexico. I’ve worked on office high rises, corporate headquarters, life sciences research and development campuses, and multifamily developments, to name a few. Every project has the potential to help people live better, work more effectively and engage with their environment differently.

We’re seeing more mixed-use developments, which combine residential, office, retail and other uses like hotels, community centers and programming into one space. While the concept is not new, the scale of these projects has grown in recent years. We’re currently working on a new mixed-use project in South Bay, San Francisco that has a huge housing component — around 2,200 units — that will integrate with retail and office spaces, effectively creating a new community in a highly desirable location.

It’s always challenging to introduce multiple uses to a space, especially at this scale. But these projects are also exciting because we’re introducing new ideas into the built environment about how people live, work and play.

Before the pandemic, it was common for people to have long commutes and to have very little interaction with the towns where their office was located. Today, there’s more emphasis on expanding development to meet and integrate with existing communities. It’s a more sustainable approach to development and one that absolutely has the potential to reshape how people spend their time. It also has the potential to create more affordable housing, which is desperately needed throughout the country and particularly in high cost of living areas.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Project Management Advisors is an owners representative firm. That means we align with our clients — including real estate developers, owners, investors and end users — to make their real estate projects successful by tapping into the guidance and expertise of our entire team.

As consultants, it’s our job to stand in complexity and figure out the best way to make a project work. We don’t avoid difficult discussions or decisions. We help find the right balance of risk and reward for our clients, on every project, at every stage. That rarely looks the same when you compare clients or projects, and it takes a certain kind of person to be comfortable owning those decisions.

Many consulting firms get caught up in the firm’s approach and the firm’s specific way of doing things. At PMA, we value the individual. My background as a trader and architect gives me a different perspective from someone who had their own construction management firm or who worked in house for a developer. If we can talk through a challenge together, we’ll end up with a better solution than any one of us alone could offer.

We also recognize that it takes all kinds of people to work across the real estate industry. We let our people be themselves and recognize that not every person is going to connect with every client. That’s why we have an entire team to build relationships and deliver results. We have professionals from all different backgrounds, united in a sense of ownership and accountability for their projects.

That emphasis on individualism, entrepreneurialism and collaboration stems from the top. Our founder Mike Tracy is very involved in the business and would be the first to say that he has a distinctive personality — one that isn’t for everyone. But no one would be served by trying to change who Mike is or how he thinks. If you only want to be the biggest firm, watering down your thinking and approach may get you there, but it makes the work a lot less fun and your days a lot less rewarding. PMA has chosen instead to stay nimble, strategic and aggressive in capitalizing on opportunities and that shows in everything we do — from who we hire to how we advise our clients.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without Mike Tracy. When I first joined PMA, my peer mentor told me that I should get to know Mike and find ways to work with him. I took that to heart and I’m so glad I did.

Mike has been in the business for 35 years and is a wealth of knowledge about all aspects of development and project management. He’s not the type of person who is just going to give you the answer to a problem or tell you how to do something, which I appreciate. We quickly developed a relationship of bouncing ideas off of one another, even when I was very new and relatively inexperienced, and that’s what allowed me to grow. He gave me room to make mistakes and recover from them.

His approach informs my own leadership style. Mike understands people and likes to collaborate with individuals who aren’t afraid of a challenge. He values diversity in thought and experience and is the energy behind our DEI initiatives. It’s not lip service to him — it’s something he expects the firm to embrace and act on every day.

More than our professional relationship, I consider Mike to be a friend. We have similar personalities and I value his sincerity. A few years ago, we were attending the funeral of a colleague and friend. Mike and I went out for an ice-cold martini afterward, which was the person’s favorite thing in the world. It’s not every boss who is going to remember those details about a coworker or celebrate them. After our drink, we sat in my car and did some loud, emotional karaoke in our friend’s honor. It was a bittersweet, emotional moment and I think really core to who Mike is as a person. You can have a great moment and great conversation with him that’s not just about a construction project.

When I sit down with my staff, I think about all I’ve learned from Mike. I take an interest in the whole person and what’s going on in their life, not just what they’re doing at work. Mike models that every day, with me and every person he interacts with.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?

Real estate as a whole may be woman-dominated, but the commercial side of the industry is not. The latest Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) benchmarking study showed that women are only 36.7% of the commercial real estate workforce, a number that hasn’t moved much in 15 years. Women are also less likely to reach top positions and just 9% of C-suite roles are held by women. Those numbers only go down when you look at Black women, Asian women and Hispanic/Latinx women, who also earn salaries that are 15–20% lower than their male counterparts.

There are a lot of reasons for this imbalance, many of which are not unique to commercial real estate. At a minimum, there needs to be more sponsors, mentors and leaders of all genders who advocate for women — especially minority women — to reach senior positions. Without these champions, women tend to fall short of reaching their career goals.

Something that is unique to commercial real estate is the cyclical nature of the business. The economy gets tough, and companies stop building, or they pivot to different types of projects. We saw that in 2008 when people lost their jobs, were furloughed or took a pay cut because of the global financial crisis. Those women didn’t come back to commercial real estate. They found a field that was steadier, offering more consistent compensation and more consistent work.

Women are harder hit by that instability because they are usually the primary caretaker for their family. I’ve talked to so many women who come back to work from maternity leave and feel as though they’re being launched from a rocket into a high-stakes, high-adrenaline business with a major focus on client service. It can be all consuming at a time when these women are trying to carve out more room for themselves and their families.

It’s not surprising that coming back from maternity leave is a pivotal moment where many women decide to downshift and work on projects that are routine or they switch specialties to something more predictable. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with women who are able to come back to work more slowly, focusing on a specific client or project, and spend their work hours only on those projects. It’s a viable model for more firms, if they’re willing to be more flexible in their approach, but companies have to actually support those choices and be committed to making it work — not just for women, but for everyone who needs to make other areas of their life a priority.

Part of my role as a woman leader is to think about these shared issues and try to combat them. At a very basic level, I try to treat every person on my team, and truly every person I interact with in a professional capacity, with empathy and respect. I believe we can be entrepreneurial and flexible and respect our employees’ needs, without burying them in restrictive HR policies. Without that care for the individual, we risk losing talent because we’re overly rigid in our approach, which is counter to our values and ideals.

What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

I think it’s important to realize that gender inequality is a systemic issue and needs systemic solutions. That doesn’t mean there aren’t actions individuals can take to improve their situation, but it will take the efforts of everyone in the industry to achieve a greater gender balance.

For individual women, they have to know what their priorities are and be willing to turn down opportunities that don’t support them. No one can be all things to all people all the time, but there are ways to balance the personal and professional if you know what you want to achieve and what you are willing to give up.

For all individuals, finding and supporting women on their career path is an essential service to bringing greater gender balance to real estate. Without supportive mentors and leaders, women will continue to fall short of their career goals.

Companies must have empathy and respect for the individual. They can create and enforce policies that are fair to all, whether that’s maternity and paternity leave, equitable pay, flexible hours or a gradual path to return people to work after an absence. They also need to mine for leaders in every area of their business and elevate people who believe in equality.

Finally, society needs to make large-scale investments that better address women’s health and wellbeing. For too long, the onus has been on women to address workplace equality and discrimination. We all need to find and champion the solutions that allow more diversity in the work and in the world.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

PMA recently kicked off its women’s employee resource group and that was one of the first questions we asked — what are the challenges for women in commercial real state? Across the board, our group of women executives said they struggled to feel heard.

This is a group of incredibly accomplished women, who know how to hold their own in a boardroom and on a job site. But still, we all collectively felt we had to fight harder to contribute our opinion to discussion and to make it resonate.

Women are often socialized to ask for permission, whereas most men with any level of professional success will act first and ask for forgiveness later. As a leader, I want to draw out opinions from all people, but I also want women to know they’re in the room for a reason. You have to be brave enough to speak up, to interrupt the people who interrupt you, and to stand up for what you believe. You’re there because your opinion matters and people need to hear it.

I’ll add that women need to project as much confidence as their male counterparts. One of the things I’ve learned in working across so many different kinds of projects with many different people is that everyone is figuring it out as they go. No one has all the answers. So, stop holding yourself to an impossible ideal and be willing to admit when you don’t know something. It seems paradoxical, but that’s how you earn people’s trust and prove you’re smart enough to know what you don’t know.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

The number one thing for me is that we’re building something tangible. You can drive up to a building, point to it, touch it, tour it. My friends and family may not understand exactly what I do day to day, but they can see a high-rise office tower or a beautiful residential building and know that’s the result of the team I worked with and the decisions we made.

I’m also driven by the relationships you build throughout these projects. Some of my clients are major tech companies, and we’ve been through the highs and lows of the market together. We’ve been there for the sparkling downtown offices and far-flung corporate campuses. We’ve been through COVID and remote work conversations and tackling problems like creating more affordable housing in some of the most expensive cities in the country. It’s not unusual for a single project to take up to five years, so your clients and your team become your coworkers and your relationships deepen over time.

The last thing is that real estate is still a small world. I’ve seen colleagues change jobs and even careers, but they come back to real estate working together again. In those situations, so much has changed, from the job role to the company to the project, but the relationship is still strong. If you’re thoughtful, you can build relationships that span your entire career, and you get the benefit of all the other person has learned since you last worked together. It’s an incredible feeling and something that motivates me every day.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

Getting back those people who left commercial real estate when the market slowed, and projects stopped is a big one for me. We lose so much institutional knowledge and talent. I don’t know what the answer is there, but I’d love to see the industry focus on retaining good people and providing a pathway back to CRE for people who want it.

I also worry about engaging team members and developing talent in a hybrid world. Remote work makes it more difficult to really get to know the people on your team. It’s harder to get people’s attention now, and even when you have it, it can be fleeting. We have so many initiatives to advance people’s education and training but there also has to be consideration of the interpersonal work we do that makes all of the technical aspects of the job function. Every company is struggling with this to some degree and no one has found a perfection solution, but we need a balance between giving the people the freedom to work where they want and creating a collaborative, supportive environment that supports true teamwork.

Finally, commercial real estate is falling behind in terms of technology. The industry has been slow to adopt technology in nearly every area. So much of the development process is highly fragmented and deeply inefficient. While we’ll always need people to do the mental and physical labor of creating new spaces, we need to incorporate technology to solve some of these inefficiencies. We’re starting to see progress, from 3D modeling to smart building systems, but greater adoption of technology is critical.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Get everyone together in the same room! What I see right now is a disconnect between various parties because people are not physically in the same space. Part of the beauty of the commercial real estate industry is that you learn by doing. There’s a moment when you’re stuck on a project, and everyone just rolls up their sleeves and works through the challenge. That’s the magic, and we haven’t found a way to replicate that. For starters, no one wants to be on a two-hour video conference, but the time flies when you’re in the same room with other people.

For young people especially, I think it will be difficult to learn the industry, grow and thrive without sitting in the same room as your peers and the people who have been doing this work forever. PMA especially is a place where we give young talent a seat at the table, so they can watch senior people work and ask the questions they don’t want to ask in front of their client.

Leaders have to make that in-person experience rewarding for everyone. There has to be a benefit for everyone in the room, or else it doesn’t work.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?

https://vimeo.com/844330840

There’s strength in vulnerability. Be willing to admit when you don’t know the answer. There’s a right and wrong place to do that, but that is how you grow. In real estate, there’s a tendency to act like you have all the answers or know everything, but the people who succeed are the people who recognize what they don’t know. That’s true for everyone, at every level, inside and out of the company you work for.

Be brave enough to raise your voice. To succeed in this industry, you need to get comfortable with saying difficult things, speaking up when you believe in something, and gaining the confidence to know you belong in a room — even when you’re told otherwise. The person who silently disagrees can create chaos on a project and upend a team dynamic. It’s often better to just say your piece.

A few years ago, I was working on a high-profile office tower in San Francisco that had gone way off course in terms of budget and timeline. PMA was brought in to help get the project back on track. That wasn’t an easy transition, and there were obvious challenges with the new team dynamic. The entire leadership team got together and organized a dinner where we could talk through the issues, clear the air and move forward.

There were five people at the dinner and four of us were having a very productive conversation — but one person was just sort of sitting with his head down. I asked once if he was agreeing with us and he kind of shrugged and we went back to our discussion. I asked again, after another 90 minutes of mostly silence from this guy and he exploded! He was angry that my team came in to finish out a project and didn’t think we had any right to be there.

It took us another 90 minutes, and another round of drinks, to let him vent about what was bothering him and try to address his concerns. By the end of the talk, things weren’t perfect, but they were so much better than where we started. Everyone else was just going to let this guy sit there, nodding his head, and go on disagreeing with the plan, which could ultimately undermine our team’s decisions and bring down morale. An hour or so of heated discussion was a much better outcome because it gave the team the clarity they needed to really move forward.

Silence is golden. I know it seems contradictory, but silence is a very effective tool that women in particular are uncomfortable using. Too often women fall into the trap of filling empty spaces in conversations and rushing in to smooth out awkward silences, but they risk not letting the other person make their point or summon the bravery to state their case. I’ve also seen people give away entirely too much information while trying to fill the silence. Speak up in groups and don’t fill the silence when you’re one-on-one and you’ll learn a lot about the people around you.

Know how to bounce back. There’s so much complexity in what we do. We face different challenges every day and the problems we’re trying to solve don’t fit into a checklist or tidy box. The industry throws a lot at you, and you have to learn how to be resilient if you’re going to succeed.

The pandemic was a particularly challenging time for me. I’m someone who likes to be around people and collaborate. I like to have too many things to do — it’s what gives me energy. But during the pandemic, I woke up every day knowing I would be staying in my house, seeing no one, going nowhere. I found it hard to rally and step into that. But I started putting one foot in front of the other, and getting through the day, and eventually working to understand myself and my motivations so I could come out of the pandemic a better version of myself. Knowing I had a goal and a plan was essential, but the resilience I learned in the industry also pulled me through.

Teamwork makes the dream work. The most successful projects are the result of partnership and collaboration. See yourself as part of the team, so your problems become shared problems. It takes the pressure off the individual and allows everyone to contribute to decisions and own them — and produce better answers that results in better projects.

Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think everyone should work on improving themselves in small ways. Self-work always has a benefit, whether it’s a stronger mind, body or spirit. As a leader, I try to empower the people who empower themselves. No one is going to care about your career, your relationships and your life as much as you do. Own it and make it a little better every day.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn is my primary social media channel and you can stay up to date with all of PMA’s projects on our website, pmainc.com.

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

About The Interviewer: Jason Hartman is the Founder and CEO of Empowered Investor. Jason has been involved in several thousand real estate transactions and has owned income properties in 11 states and 17 cities. Empowered Investor helps people achieve The American Dream of financial freedom by purchasing income property in prudent markets nationwide. Jason’s Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ is a comprehensive system providing real estate investors with education, research, resources and technology to deal with all areas of their income property investment needs. Through Jason’s podcasts, educational events, referrals, mentoring and software to track your investments, investors can easily locate, finance and purchase properties in these exceptional markets with confidence and peace of mind.

Starting with very little, Jason, while still in college at the age of 19, embarked on a career in real estate. While brokering properties for clients, he was investing in his own portfolio along the way. Through creativity, persistence and hard work, he earned a number of prestigious industry awards and became a young multi-millionaire. Jason purchased a California real estate brokerage firm that was later acquired by Coldwell Banker. He combined his dedication and business talents to become a successful entrepreneur, public speaker, author, and media personality. Over the years he developed his Complete Solution for Real Estate Investors™ where his innovative firm educates and assists investors in acquiring prudent investments nationwide for their portfolio. Jason’s sought after educational events, speaking engagements, and his popular “Creating Wealth Podcast” inspire and empower hundreds of thousands of people in 189 countries worldwide.

While running his successful real estate and media businesses, Jason also believes that giving back to the community plays an important role in building strong personal relationships. He established The Jason Hartman Foundation in 2005 to provide financial literacy education to young adults providing the all-important real world skills not taught in school which are the key to the financial stability and success of future generations. We’re in a global monetary crisis caused by decades of misguided policies and the cycle of financial dependence has to be broken, literacy and self-reliance are a good start. Visit JasonHartman.com for free materials and resources.

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Jason Hartman
Authority Magazine

Author | Speaker | Financial Guru | Podcast Rockstar