In an industry as big, diverse and complex as Atlanta commercial real estate, it can be hard to get a handle on just how it all works. Ensuring that the city’s young real estate professionals don’t lose track of the big picture is the mission of the Urban Land Institute Atlanta’s Center for Leadership.

Now in its sixth year, the center is still giving real estate professionals the big picture. This nine-month program takes 35 up-and-coming leaders from a variety of real estate-related industries and immerses them in the big ideas and trends shaping the industry. The goal is to learn how to work together to promote responsible development of the area.

“It gives you a holistic understanding of what a real estate venture involves,” said 2015 co-chair Michael Phillips, marketing manager at FrontDoor Communities LLC. “What often happens is we, as professionals, focus on the one part of the project we’re involved with. We’re not totally aware of all the moving parts that it takes to bring a project to fruition.”

During the program, participants meet in monthly daylong sessions dedicated to a particular aspect of the industry. Each meeting covers a different area, such as regionalisms and infrastructure, the development process and capital markets, design and construction. Woven into the program are concepts like sustainability, regionalism, public/private partnerships and other big trends that shape the industry.

Despite the time requirement, which include an outside project, and cost (tuition ranges from $2,000 to $2,500), the program has no trouble attracting applicants. Organizers have to winnow down the list from 75 or more to just 36 for this year’s class. Participants see the program as a boost for their careers and path to making themselves more valuable to their employers.

“I started asking myself two years ago what I wanted to do next and what do I love to do,” said 2013 alumnus Terri Lee, deputy commissioner of planning and development for the city of Atlanta. “What’s next wasn’t leaving the city of Atlanta. It was ‘what could I offer the city to make an impact?’ ”

After 15 years in the public and nonprofit sector, Lee saw the program as a way to gain a greater understanding of how development really works. She gained an in-depth knowledge of the process and what it takes to make deals work for the private sector and public interest.

“You get a chance to work with folks that are like-minded and you’re learning about concepts that are around the themes of ULI,” said this year’s chairman, Matt Mason.
In addition to classes, the group forms teams that tackle projects called a mini-Technical Assistance Panel (m-TAP). These efforts focus on providing assistance and recommendations for a local organization.

“You spend 100 hours together over the course of the year and for any group, doesn’t matter what you’re doing, that creates a bond,” Mason said. “It creates a deep understanding of the subject material. In applying to be a member of the class, I though it an opportunity to learn and to get to know a group of my peers that would likely be working together in the world of real estate for a long time.”
The center is not the traditional leadership program, according to Lee.

“You’re not going through a class where you’re learning all theoretical leadership principles. That’s not what it’s about,” she said. “It’s a practical, hands-on experience in understanding the leadership principles it takes to be successful in making change within your environment. One of the things that’s most valuable was the true practical on-the-ground sharing we received from different professionals.”

ULI Atlanta has worked to ensure membership in the Center for Leadership is drawn from both the public and private sectors.

“We want a diverse class in the traditional sense, given that commercial real estate tends to be more male than female,” Mason said. “We also wanted a diverse class in terms of disciplines and the sectors they work in.”

The center tends to attract the up-and-coming leaders within the profession that will be shaping the future of the profession and the city.

“This program encompasses the younger thought leadership in all those disciplines,” said Darice Fichter Rose, brokerage associate, Capital Markets at Cushman & Wakefield. “It puts us in a room to work through problems and lets you experience the different sectors of the real estate market that are active in Atlanta.”

It was the quality of the membership that inspired past chair Katherine Molyson, development manager with Cousins Properties Inc., to apply after she was invited to speak during a session on sustainability a few years ago. “For me, I really saw the program as a mini master’s in real estate development,” she said. “Besides, I really think it’s important to step away from your desk from time to time and really learn what your competitors are doing.”

This article originally appeared in the October 3 edition of The Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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