UKAA in conversation with … Lesley Roberts, President of the UKAA

The UKAA’s remit is to shape the future of Build to Rent in the UK and Lesley’s tenure has been marked by great strides in both the organisation and the BTR sector despite the covid pandemic, which provided a watershed moment for both.

In addition to her role as President, as director of BTR Operations at Godwin Developments, she is playing a pivotal role in advancing the company’s plans for a £1billion national portfolio, combining performance and profitability with the delivery of a premium customer experience.

As we mark International Women’s Day today, we ask Lesley for her thoughts on how women are forging paths in the property industry, the barriers they have to overcome along the way and why BTR is welcoming the opportunity to implement the EDI agenda.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way to the BTR sector

I’m Australian-born and started my working life in hotels and then in the mining sector where I was involved with media relations, stakeholder engagement, community consultation and the process around unofficial and official licences to operate.

There were always tensions between the mining company and the community, so it was critical to find common ground; essentially they were co-dependent on each other to be viable, but often at odds with priorities.

I came to the UK for a 12-month working holiday after travelling around eastern Europe for 6 months. I ‘fell’ into the property section after a temp job with a developer operator led to a permanent job. One opportunity led to another and 18 years later I’m still here and still working in property. I’ve had concurrent stints in the social housing sector as a non-exec director and chair, as well as involvement with industry, government and trade bodies. I’ve learned an awful lot along the way through trial and error and mostly just by applying common sense and curiosity.

When BTR started to become a ‘thing’ it just so happened that I had skillset and knowledge base which matched a market that was growing. I’d like to say that it was all part of a grand plan, it wasn’t, it was following what I was interested in, being open and up for a challenge, working hard and maintaining a desire to make a difference.

How do you see your current role as president of the UKAA?

A lot of people who ‘fall’ into property come from non-traditional backgrounds and that’s great, especially in an emerging sector.  We need to be able to evolve, need to see things from different angles, be innovative and not bound to tradition or legacy.

I like to challenge the status quo – it’s not about having the best ideas, but more about challenging ourselves to do better. Brainstorming, being creative, resourceful and stimulating ideas lead to fresh thinking which hopefully leads to innovation, improvement and evolution.

I’ve been President for five years and started in what was a small, fledgling organisation. It hasn’t been an easy ride, but the sector has gone from strength to strength, and I feel we are starting to hit our stride. Everyone in the sector has put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears, so I have been very fortunate to have been involved in that.

I see my role as helping to represent and shape a nascent asset class. I’m proud that, as a sector, we are collaborative, strive for continuous improvement and have a desire to grow this asset class.

It was International Women’s Day on March 8. How are things improving for women in real estate?

It can often be a lonely place being a woman in real estate. Fortunately, less so now than before. It’s still uncommon to be surrounded by women at board level and it’s not happened in my 18 years in the industry. I can say though, that I am now seeing more of my contemporaries at that level than I ever have; we’re not there yet, but it feels female representation is increasing more rapidly.

It’s encouraging to see more diversity and it seems there is an awareness that there should be better representation across all facets of the sector. There is evidence that a more diverse leadership team in business equates to better performance; for me it’s a no-brainer!

I don’t believe it is happening quickly enough though, especially in real estate firms who believe that they are too big to change. However, those businesses which are truly interested in making a change are making inroads. I also believe that those who are addressing the situation are more likely to attract best in class candidates, meaning those who don’t will have an ever-shrinking pool of talent.

There has been an inclination in real estate to recruit in your own image because it’s a profile you understand and a feeling of familiarity and reassurance that comes with that. In order to change the status quo, habits and inclinations like this need to be challenged, otherwise we will continue to perpetuate what always was. Ultimately decision makers need to take ownership of their role in changing the face of property.

One area which I see positive movement for women is within ESG. ESG permeates every facet of real estate and I think the last 10 senior ESG appointments I’ve seen in the press lately have been women. This is good news for increasing gender diversity, influence and expertise at the top table where the decisions are made. I know that equality, diversity and inclusion is a much wider topic than gender, but in reference to International Women’s Day, I am talking about women.

There seems to be a broader church when it comes to BTR?

I think that’s true and I think that’s because it’s not just about real estate. At the heart of BTR we are talking about someone’s home and that involves multiple aspects; BTR needs people who are interested in the quality of the experience enjoyed by those living in the properties. It involves seeing wide perspectives, nurturing and multi-tasking and I think women are typically very good at that!

Build to Rent covers the whole gambit of the customer – B2B and B2C. If a scheme is done well it will succeed in paying all our bills but getting it right involves many moving parts, from investment, development and design to ESG, operations and everything in between. It’s a sector which attracts people who want to work collaboratively and enjoy building relationships. In my experience, those who do that are given a warm welcome and thrive.

We understand that working in BTR operations requires being multi-skilled: you have to be able to build relationships, be resourceful, be a problem solver and able to triage. It can be stressful but rewarding.

BTR is a good place to be able to push the boundaries and support EDI. It’s much easier to do that starting afresh than to change an existing culture. Our niche asset class is a lot more diverse than many other property sectors and that’s to be celebrated, and we must keep pushing this forward.

ESG is such a huge part of the next chapter in BTR – it has an increasingly higher weighting with consumers and with investors so it reaches every stage of the process. With the number of women working in ESG, it’s also one of the natural gravitational elements when it comes to improving EDI.

Finally, if we want this sector to thrive, we have to give something back and pass on your experience. I’ve always tried to be a mentor because I had great mentors along the way and it’s great to see people you hope you’ve helped have flourishing careers.

What barriers still exist for women in the property industry?

The sector has had its realisation that success on the front-line operations is imperative to the success of a development. I have seen more diversity in this space than at any other part of the sector, which is encouraging as it’s another pathway for a career in property that we didn’t have before.

In many other businesses there are opportunities to forge a career path – for example, in the retail sector you can start on a checkout and end up in management – and that’s what I see happening more and more in BTR.

In the operational space, BTR developments usually reflect the people who occupy the building – it’s vital to understand your customer base – so we aim to recruit locally and then provide opportunities for support, networking, mentoring and confidence-building.

However, in other parts of the property industry it can be all about your contacts, which university you went to – and that’s before you get down to being a woman. This space can be intimidating. This is really about barriers to entry and that property is not always a meritocracy. The old school tie culture can run deep in property.

In the past I have been the subject of unconscious bias, and not-so-unconscious bias too. Earlier in my career incidents of being inappropriately propositioned, touched up in a crowded environment or offensively spoken to (and or about) were not uncommon. What are you supposed to do if that happens, especially if you are a more junior member of staff? Basically, you can sustain or ignore it, remove yourself or speak up; any of these choices leaves you compromised, and speaking out could lead to retribution that leaves you side-lined.

It’s not okay to have to strategise around what to do in that sort of environment, asking yourself whether you’ll be comfortable in that space and be able to hold your own, or worse still be able to identify individuals to actively avoid because ‘we know what they’re like…’.

I’m relieved situations like this are now rare and believe the dial has shifted – rightly, that type of behaviour just isn’t tolerated anymore.

I am now confident enough with calling out bad behaviour and saying when it’s inappropriate – but I appreciate also that I am in a senior position and not everybody else would feel able to do it.

Overall, I would say I have had some amazing opportunities and experiences, but also some unpleasant ones. I’m making that clear because it’s not fair to women to sugar-coat the situation; it’s not always rosy and there’s a long way to go.

What are your aspirations for the UKAA?

I’ve been president for five years and it’s certainly been an absolute privilege, but the UKAA needs and is ready to evolve to the next level, to expand and develop and we are looking at how to achieve that growth.

The event which has dominated my time, of course, has been the pandemic, which was extremely challenging, but which has also proved to be transformational. It has helped emphasise both our relevance as an organisation and the importance of collaboration.

Prior to the pandemic we were all writing our own BTR rule book, broadly in isolation. The pandemic drove an immediacy for us to collectively navigate the unknown through senior leader forums, operator forums and actively lobbying government (in conjunction with other industry bodies) to ensure we could service assets keep people safe. There’s no doubt we were in a crisis, but the pandemic proved our relevance, and the silver lining is that we have been able to build on that foundation.

They say organisations go through the cycle of forming, storming, norming and performing and I think we are entering the ‘performing’ stage.

We are aiming to be a more strategic organisation, not just a ‘doing’ one. We want to start influencing and shaping policy, demonstrating to government how important the sector is and how it has the capacity to be part of the housing solution in the UK.

There are still antediluvian ideas around renting and I hope we can continue to be a beacon, pushing the boundaries and representing the sector as it builds and evolves.