Guest Post by Rob Towne, Senior Director of Real Estate, Microsoft

Some of the best things I know about leading in a global real estate team came from my years in the US Air Force.

This Veterans Day, I’ve been thinking about my years in the US Air Force and the many leadership skills I learned that continue to influence my role as a Senior Director in a global real estate group.

Great leadership, to me, is not only about embodying important leadership skills. It’s also about modeling and teaching these skills to others to create great leaders all around me.

Here are my top four lessons that I still use—and teach to my own leadership team—every day.

1. Be exceedingly prepared

The military expects you to be prepared at a moment’s notice to do almost anything: deploy, take action, carry out a base role, present to higher echelon leaders, etc. Especially when giving data and status updates, you have to know what you’re talking about, what you’re doing, and what’s going on. You can’t just wing it.

Mapping this to corporate real estate (CRE) means being properly prepared every time we go in to talk to our real estate customers, trade partners, and senior leaders. We plan what we’re going to say. We anticipate what they’re going to ask. We gather information and data as accurately as possible. We don’t always nail it, but that’s what follow-up is for.

We can’t just sit on our reputation for being a trusted leader, either. That would mean falling into “mail it in” thinking in which we slack off with, “Ah, they trust me, they believe me, so I can get by with a little less preparation.”

The more we lead, the better we need to prepare for every meeting with every detail in place. That’s a philosophy direct from the military.

2. Cultivate accountability

It’s a very powerful experience as a young 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old military recruit to be assigned a responsibility then be held accountable for seeing it through. If it doesn’t get done or you screw up, there’s no room for blame or accusation. You learn from it and move forward.

This lesson is so important because when we take accountability for a mistake, we don’t make that mistake again, whereas if we point the finger or blame, we very easily repeat it.

Cultivating this kind of accountability creates an immense degree of trust and unity across a real estate organization. When each person, leaders included, is held directly responsible for their own role, we can all rely on each other to keep it all working.

3. Balance tactical and strategic skills

The military expects its leaders to function both operationally and strategically. You must be able to quickly mobilize your team or go after those high priority things that pop up. But you must also snap back fast and drive strategy at a 5-, 10-year level.

Such bi-level thinking is especially important in larger CRE organizations. Today we might be making strategic plans for the future, about where we want to move this portfolio and how to get it there. But tomorrow, if there’s a problem with a flood in a cafeteria, or a chiller pump goes bad, we have to go into operational mode very quickly to solve those problems. 

Exposing everyone to this balancing act is key to training others for leadership. We encourage the folks who are fantastic at being tactical and operational to also draw into the strategic perspective. And we bring those who are strong on strategy into the tactical fold to understand and acquire that aspect.

4. Emphasize clarity

You learn early in the military that absolute clarity sets everyone up for success. There are very specific tasks teams need to do, and very specific ways they need to be done. You make sure each person understands their role, and you train them in how to do it, so they can carry it out safely and surely under pressure.

This is not necessarily the clarity of prescriptive, clear-cut operations. Rather, it is clarity that defines “This is why we’re here, and this is what we do. This is the direction we’re going and what we need to keep doing, no matter what.”

No matter what happens around CRE, for example, development managers need to continue to build. Operations need to continue to run the campus. The facilities team needs to keep the lights on and the heat on and keep our places clean and safe.

If we lose sight of what we do because we think it’s something else, or we get distracted by the stresses of external forces, then we don’t do the basics, and nothing happens.

Leadership times ten

Obviously the military and corporate worlds differ a lot in their environment and purpose. But good leadership is good leadership no matter where it happens, and many skills are transferrable between these enterprises.

Moreover, creating new leaders by using the same proven methods is ten times more powerful than our just being good leaders ourselves.

That’s because, at the end of the day, our real estate organizations have dozens of good leaders who can work together with trust and cooperation to keep our enterprises on track long after we are gone.

Rob Towne is Senior Director of Real Estate, Microsoft