Attracting the best and brightest talent demands more flexible businesses, says Andrea Brown, Knight Frank’s national head of project management and building consultancy.
A RICS Chartered Surveyor, Brown has spent the last two decades working in Australia and the United Kingdom. And she’s passionate about the property industry and its opportunities for women.
“My pathway into the property industry was a combination of love and fate,” Brown explains.
“I had a fascination with buildings from a very young age – particularly industrial or working buildings. In England, the building stock is older and so old mills, dockyards, factories and rural hospitals are mysterious, tell a story and can be imposing and beautiful.
“I thought that this meant I needed to be an architect. That idea was soon put to bed once I realised it involved seven years at university and it was the adaption of existing rather than the design of new buildings that I was interested in.”
Fate intervened when Brown was a 17-year-old in a “very small school in the middle of Cornwall” when a career advisor suggested she would be suited to a career as a land surveyor. Being proactive, Brown arranged work experience prior to submitting university requests, and soon found herself immersed in a practice in the heart of the stunning Devon countryside.
“The land surveying bored me senseless but the other partner in the company was a chartered building surveyor and I loved what he was doing – so much so that I spent my three weeks mostly doing work experience with him instead of measuring stone quarries.”
Brown says this experience encouraged her to “take a leap of faith” and study building surveying at university, which she says turned out to be “the perfect mix of construction, law, economics and design”.
Why property ticks a lot of boxes
After a 10-year career in the UK, including several years with building giant Watts Group, Brown took another leap of faith.
“I saw an opportunity in Australia to progress my career. And I never looked back.”
When it comes to dynamic and rewarding careers, Brown says property “ticks a lot of boxes”.
“I knew I didn’t want to work in an office all day. I wanted to apply and grow my skill set, engage with other people, travel and understand how things work. I have found property is an industry where you can grab all of that.
“But it wasn’t until my first job that I really understood what the property industry was – and how big the opportunities were for me.”
This is why encouraging young women to consider careers in property must start while they are still at school.
“Young women need to understand the opportunities that are out there. And we need strong female and male leaders talking about how amazing our industry is, not just for females, but for everyone.”
Flexibility is the future
Brown applauds the fact that “so many strong women are coming up the ranks”. But she says the industry’s challenge is to support talented women who choose to have career breaks. “This challenge is not unique to property,” she observes.
“Juggling work and family is one of the real inhibitors to women obtaining leadership roles. It’s hard enough going back to work after a baby. If you haven’t got a strong mentor watching your back it can be really, really hard.”
But the business benefits of supporting women after parental leave are immeasurable.
“Everyone I know returning after a career break to have children is more efficient. Women are very good at compartmentalising their priorities and extremely organised, especially after they’ve had children,” she adds.
Attracting the best and brightest talent will demand more flexible businesses, Brown adds. A passionate promoter of flexible working, Brown was the first senior female at her previous organisation to work flexible hours.
“I had a strong mentor who was supportive – and that was instrumental. I’ve worked flexibly for the last decade and I can demonstrate the flexible framework to the people and clients who I work with. I can show them how to manage it.”
Working flexibly hasn’t always been easy, and Brown says there have been times when she’s found herself “working crazy hours and then realising I’m doing a full-time job on a three-day wage. It’s happened to me, so I’m determined to ensure it doesn’t happen to others who work for me – male or female”.
“Flexibility at work needs to be available in some form or another to everyone. Life throws up unexpected things all the time and you need your work environment to understand that and not add to the stress. As long as the culture you have established in the work environment generates high engagement through trust, integrity, vision and recognition, the flexibility piece is the easy part.”
While every career has its challenges, Brown says her two decades in property has been richly rewarding.
“I’ve worked in two countries, I’ve travelled, I work flexibly, meet a variety of people and do not have a typical day. I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and I’m still evolving my career and finding new challenges.”
Andrea Brown’s top three career lessons
- Make the most of mentors. “I am passionate about mentoring and have had some amazing people mentor me over the years – all of them male. Mentors can shape careers. Finding the right person is really important – and it’s a two-way street. Look beyond the people in your business and make sure you both get something out of it.”
- Find a flexible work style that suits you. “One size does not fit all. I work slightly different hours, including some evenings, but I’m happy to do that as I could be collecting my children from school at 3pm. Others like the 9-to-5. Set boundaries around what you will and will not do. I will not take phone calls between 4.30pm and 6.00pm for example – and people accept that.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask. Brown says she has had “all the usual battles that females unfortunately still expect – salary being number one. But if you do not ask, you don’t get”.
Andrea Brown is one of 20 women in property featured in Grow the Talent Pool, a report developed by the Property Council and EY in 2018 to continue the conversation on gender representation, diversity and inclusion in the property industry.