Kelly Diehl has worked in commercial real estate for nearly three decades. And all those minutes in the business? Diehl says she’s loved each one.
Today, Diehl is managing principal with the St. Louis office of Cushman & Wakefield. She’s a leader in her market and her company. That, unfortunately, makes her a rarity: The percentage of women in leadership roles in commercial real estate remains low.
Diehl, though, is an example of a woman who overcame the hurdles in this business and thrived. In honor of International Women’s Day, held on March 8 this year, Midwest Real Estate News spoke with Diehl about her career and the challenges she faced as a woman in a still male-dominated industry.
How did you get started in commercial real estate?
Kelly Diehl: I fell into it. My father was a real estate appraiser and developer of commercial property. In college, I worked for him. I learned the terminology of commercial real estate. I became familiar with real estate. And I enjoyed it. I moved to St. Louis, the closest major MSA near my hometown in Southern Illinois and looked for work in this field. I interviewed with a company that would eventually become part of Cushman & Wakefield. That was almost 30 years ago. Two hours after that interview started, I had a job. I’ve been involved in real estate ever since. It’s been a natural fit. I’ve loved every minute of it.
What has kept you in this business for so long? What do you enjoy about it?
Diehl: I have had the ability to evolve over time in my career, and I never have to worry about doing the same thing every day. I started in this business in property management. That was rewarding because you are involved in multiple facets of real estate. You get to work with owners and help them realize their goals. You work with them on the strategies they have for their properties. You work on how to meet certain key metrics. Not doing the same thing every day, then, has always been a very appealing part of this field to me.
I think people in real estate also have a competitiveness in their DNA. It’s a healthy competitiveness. I always enjoyed getting that win. Whatever it is that I have accomplished, I feel that when you win, you feel good. And after that win? I’m ready to move on to the next one.
Then there’s the way my career has evolved over the years. That has been interesting and enjoyable. I have learned so, so much in the real estate industry.
I know you just mentioned that every day is different, but what is a typical day like for you?
Diehl: In my current position as managing principal, one of the greatest rewards is when our team wins business. Whether it is through management getting a large construction job or whether it is winning a listing or completing a large tenant-rep deal with any of our teams, the best feeling we can get is seeing our team win and have success.
My current position is a unique one. I’m like the quarterback of the team. I work with the brokerage team and I’m responsible for the overall performance of our team in our market in St. Louis. I spend a lot of time making sure our teams have what they need to be able to succeed. I do spend a lot of time on that.
Culture is a large focus of mine. This is a collaborative business. It’s important that we make sure our team members work well together and treat each other with respect. We want team members to come with their whole selves to the office, wanting to contribute. We want to put the right people in the right seats. That is something that I look at constantly.
I also spend a lot of time coaching and mentoring our team. If you look at the real estate industry, there is a need to focus on that next generation of leaders. That is very much the other area I am focused in on, making sure we develop our team so that they can be those future leaders of our organization.
How have you managed to build such a successful career in CRE?
Diehl: When I first started in the business, I was very shy. I was probably one of the most introverted individuals you can be. But I knew I didn’t want to stay in the entry-level position I was in. I always strived to improve myself. I always tried to step outside my comfort zone. I am a quiet, shy person. I don’t enjoy public speaking. So I pushed myself to do public speaking. I developed an awareness of what my strengths and weaknesses are. I focused on those weaknesses. I don’t know if public speaking will ever be one of my top strengths. But I do focus on making improvements and strides in that area.
I also surround myself with successful people. I like to have people around me who are smarter than I am. I don’t feel like I have to be the smartest person in the room. I want to surround myself with strong, talented people who move projects to the goal line. I no longer feel like I have to constantly prove myself. If you are surrounded by others who can do, it will benefit you in the process.
Did you face challenges in this business because you are a woman?
Diehl: This business has definitely changed in the last 30 years. Back then, it was very common to be the only woman in the room. That did add to some of my insecurities. I couldn’t contribute to some of the conversations that the men in the room were having. They did not apply to a woman. I had to learn to shift those conversations.
But I never looked at it as me being the only woman in that room. I knew that I was in that room for what I brought to the table. It’s important to have enough confidence to feel that way. You have to know that you bring something important to the table.
What has to happen to encourage more women to enter the commercial real estate business?
Diehl: When you look at the asset services side, that is where you have the largest female presence. In that trade, about 71% of the individuals in the office are women. But when you look at it from the construction or brokerage sides of the business, there are not nearly as many women. There is a huge opportunity for women to step into those roles.
It is challenging, though, to find women who want to move into commercial real estate. There is a lack of awareness of the opportunities in this business. We are as an industry trying to show women that there are opportunities and ways to be truly successful in this industry. We are going to colleges and universities to speak to women about this profession.
There are challenges, though. Take brokerage, as an example. You need that personality and drive, that motivation to grind day in and day out. It can take years before you see the fruits of your labor. But with the right drive, this can be a very lucrative career, and there are many female brokers in the St. Louis market who are immensely successful. Others are just getting started.
The message we want to share is that people don’t want to walk into a room where everyone looks the same. It’s important to bring some diversity and a variety of opinions to the table. We need more awareness of the benefits of that.
How important have mentors been to your success?
Diehl: Mentors have been very important. There are different forms of mentors. You might have a formal mentor but also some mentor relationships that are more informal. It might be people you are watching to learn how they command respect, how they treat people and how they build their stature within an organization.
There are individuals who have a lot of life experience. It’s important to find those people and take advantage of the knowledge they can share.
How do you spend your time when you are not working?
Diehl: I recently took up horseback riding. I plan on getting my own horse someday. I also enjoy taking walks with my dogs. I read quite a bit. We spend a lot of time out west in Utah. I enjoy being outside, hiking and skiing.