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Women persist at Savills Studley

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are pleased to feature three outstanding brokers, who have forged their own career paths at Savills Studley, and their advice to women entering the field today.

Over Lois Zambo’s 40-plus year career, she has earned numerous awards and her clients’ fierce loyalty, advising many prestigious companies on transactions totaling more than 10 million square feet and over $4 billion. Lisa Davidson has almost 30 years’ experience representing commercial tenants in the Chicago area in transactions totaling more than 20 million square feet. She was recently named to the Savills Studley Board of Directors and is leading a diversity initiative within the company. Anna Shaffer is in her sixth year as a broker with Savills Studley and has over 12 years’ experience in tenant advocacy. She primarily focuses on advising technology companies, nonprofits and government contractors. She has a reputation as the go-to resource for the latest office design trends and cool spaces for startups.

Describe your experience as a woman in a largely male field. What does it take to succeed?

Lois Zambo: I’ve been in meetings where I was assumed to be the secretary. I’ve even had a landlord’s lawyer, frustrated with my persistence, pound the table during a negotiation and shout, “Why aren’t you in the kitchen where you should be?” (With a smile, I told him I was a lousy cook). I learned early on that this was not an easy business, and that those leaders I admired, like Peter Speier, Julien Studley, Steve Goldstein and Eddie Geisinger, were not great or successful because they were men. They were smart businesspeople. I’ve never wanted to be a successful female broker — I wanted to be a success measured by my accomplishments as a professional, not my gender. Don’t get me wrong: I own and love being a woman. However, many women (and men for that matter) have given their best efforts to make it in this rigorous commercial real estate industry only to find that what matters most is your drive and aptitude for the work.

Lisa Davidson: Being a tenant rep is a great career for women, especially if you have children, because of the flexibility to dictate your own schedule. You’re basically the quarterback for tenants in negotiations. You need to be clear, organized and persuasive, and you have to be comfortable with numbers, with an eye for trends and insights. Over time, I’ve found the main attributes you need in this business are persistence, confidence, patience and optimism. It takes a long time to get a foot in the door with clients, to get to know them, and to be patient until there is an opportunity for you to serve them. These qualities aren’t a male or female thing — they come from your upbringing, your personality, your personal grit. You also need a lot of humility — you have to take a lot of rejection, and it can be hard to reconcile the setbacks with all the work you put into it, unless you can maintain perspective and have the humility and optimism to persevere.

Anna Shaffer: Being in a career where I am often the only woman in the room has always seemed to me a wonderful advantage — a way to set myself apart, if only in the initial stages. After all, it may be easier to remember one Anna after a series of Johns and Davids. Past that initial phase, everyone should just be focused on doing their best in the transaction. Different brokers have different strengths, but I have always found the following traits most consistent in successful brokers, both male and female: A strong work ethic, a drive that doesn’t stop, patience (we all still work on this one), and being able to focus on keeping your client’s best interests at heart. In the long run, the ability to listen well and earn people’s trust seem to be the reason why good brokers are able to maintain long-term relationships with their clients.

How did you get into this field and what have you learned along the way?

 Lois Zambo: I started in 1975 as receptionist. Honestly, I could barely type, but I did have a genuine interest in networking, a facility for numbers and details, and a good sense of humor. Peter Speier, who launched our D.C. office in 1968, encouraged me to get licensed and he took me under his wing. He taught me one lesson that has stayed with me: You either learn the business quickly or you don’t. That was what I wanted people to notice — that I knew the business. In fact, one of the highest compliments I’d ever received was from a landlord with whom I had negotiated on behalf of a few clients. He saw me at an event all dolled up in a gown and said that he hadn’t really thought of me as a woman, just as one of the best tenant brokers he had ever known.

Lisa Davidson: In college, I was a communications and economics major. I went to hear a lot of guest speakers who were CEOs and noticed that most of them started out in sales. That piqued my interest, so I decided to look for a sales job when I graduated. Soon after, I joined a small tenant representative brokerage firm in Chicago and grew my career through consistent and persistent cold calling, combined with creative deal making. It’s been a perfect fit as a career. Over time, I began to realize that there just aren’t enough women as leaders in commercial real estate or other industries. When most decision makers are men, they tend to hire people they resemble, which has made it a little more difficult to increase the number of executive women in business.

Anna Shaffer: I started out in a support role on the landlord side with a different firm, where I spent eight years working on proposals and tours. Although I was very comfortable, I knew I wouldn’t have much opportunity to fully realize my potential. Having been a finance and accounting major in college, I knew I had at least part of the background needed and could learn the rest. The drive was there, I just needed to make it happen. Watching Savills Studley veterans like Lois and Lisa, I have been able to grow and develop. I’ve learned to speak up, and that it is OK to interrupt or to be the first to answer a client question. In my experience, businesses and industries have changed over the past five years, specifically with more women in decision-making roles. So it’s advantageous for our industry to have women at the table who are bold enough to speak up and take charge.

What advice would you give to women starting out in the field today?

Lois Zambo: Women currently in this profession or thinking about a career in commercial real estate have a unique opportunity to stand out as there are still very few of us in the industry. There may be 20 Mikes in one room with the same white shirt and blue tie, but there aren’t nearly as many women. However, standing out is not enough. Whether you’re a man or woman, you have to make your own way as a good broker. Meet people. Learn fast. Work diligently. Keep persisting. Be bold. Think creatively. Find solutions. Make recommendations. Stay driven. Trust yourself. But above all else, define your own measure of professional success.

Lisa Davidson: One piece of advice I wish I had heard earlier is that you need to be more directive about your career, don’t just let it happen. I’ve seen male colleagues set goals and go after them. They are always looking for their next position and they take action when they don’t get it. Women tend to wait to be recognized and rewarded for good performance. Recognizing that we need to be proactive to hire and mentor women in this field, Savills Studley asked me to lead a new initiative, Building Inclusivity and Diversity (BID), with a diverse advisory board and regional delegates in the field. It’s a conscious effort to build awareness of the opportunities in the field, and we are looking for women to hire and mentor in the industry.

Anna Shaffer: Before I joined Savills Studley, I found it was hard to break out of a support role and be more of a leader. Looking back, I see now that I sadly underestimated what I was capable of. A change of scenery can help you out of that rut, but don’t wait for someone to ask you. You have to go for what you want. If you want to get into the brokerage side, do it as early as you can (I’m still kicking myself for not getting in sooner). When you’re given the leeway to go out and make your own deals, take the chance. Women have an incredible knack for speaking to people and listening. I learned that meeting people face to face and networking were two strengths that came naturally, while taking rejection over cold calls was just not my cup of tea. My advice to those starting out: Know your strengths, and use them! You may not be a success story right out of the gate, but with the right attitude, work ethic and perseverance, it will happen. Don’t get discouraged. Be bold. That’s the only way to do it.

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Carol McNerney

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