Real estate’s new “it” position: Chief of staff

More companies creating role that can be a pathway to C-suite

Clockwise from top left: Natalie Diaz, Lexie Hearn, Leslie Fox, Clare Newman, a Joint Chiefs of Staff ID badge and Ashley Cotton
Clockwise from top left: Natalie Diaz, Lexie Hearn, Leslie Fox, Clare Newman, a Joint Chiefs of Staff ID badge and Ashley Cotton

Hear the words “chief of staff,” and one may conjure up an image of Rahm Emmanuel preparing for a battle with lawmakers, or, for “The West Wing” fans, Leo McGarry giving President Bartlet a pre-SOTU pep talk. But in recent years, the position has also become a popular one at development firms.

“Typically what I’ve seen from the chief of staff role within the real estate world is, it’s a right-hand person to the CEO or other chief executive,” said Bob O’Brien, the head of global and U.S. real estate services at Deloitte.

“It’s generally a young, up-and-coming talent – someone with potential to be in the C-suite a little further on in their career,” he added. Firms in New York that have embraced the role include Time Equities, Megalith Capital Management and Forest City Ratner.

Corporate chiefs of staff aren’t necessarily new. O’Brien said he knows CEOs today who started out in the right-hand role decades ago. But more and more real estate firms are finding the position to be valuable for grooming future leadership and to ensure that those at the top only have to deal with the most important decisions.

Time Equities’ Francis Greenburger runs a company that oversees some 22 million square feet of real estate and development projects nationwide, including the $1.1 billion 50 West condominium tower in the Financial District. A few weeks ago, he tapped Natalie Diaz, the company’s former public relations director, for the chief of staff position.

“The idea came from Francis basically needing more support than just administrative help – something more substantive,” Diaz, who started at the firm as an executive assistant over four years ago, said.  “My role is really going to be prioritizing decisions and following up on zillions of open-action items on any given day.”

Those tasks include qualifying information before it gets sent to Greenburger for approval, overseeing projects on his behalf and reviewing and clarifying budgets so that there’s less back-and-forth.

“The more I can resolve something and say, ‘This thread has been closed,’ . . .  that’s just one less thing that needs to go back to Francis once it’s resolved,” she said.

Lexie Hearn joined Megalith Capital Management in 2013 after a stint at a Connecticut-based hedge fund. Her former company had a chief of staff position, and after one year at Megalith she discussed the position with CEO Sam Sidhu.

“I was the second hire to the company; I’d actually have to go back and look at what my title was back then,” she said with a laugh. “I came on to support Sam, and as the firm is growing and relationships with our partners are growing, it’s important to have a person that can help the CEO or other C-suite members put out fires.”

In just a few short years, Megalith has put together a development portfolio of roughly 1 million square feet, including a 25-story condo project on the Upper West Side with partner Extell Development.

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While CEO, COO and CFO are ingrained in the corporate lingo, and even newer titles like chief technology officer (CTO) are catching on, there’s still some ambiguity among colleagues about just what the chief of staff does.

“I think one of the common questions I get is, ‘What’s the difference between you and a COO,” said Leslie Fox, who was promoted to chief of staff at the International Council of Shopping Centers when new CEO Tom McGee joined the trade association last year.

“It’s distinct from the COO in that I’m not looking at the day-to-day components necessarily,” Fox said. “I’ll work with the COO on HR components, and I might work with the CFO on financial issues.”

Some chiefs of staff at real estate firms come from the public sector, where the position is ubiquitous.

Clare Newman worked on real estate dispositions for the New York City Economic Development Corporation and then later at Blooomberg Philanthropies before she joined the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation in 2014.

Ashley Cotton worked with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg before she joined Forest City Ratner in 2012 as vice president of external affairs. When MaryAnne Gilmartin rose to CEO the next year, she tacked on the chief of staff title to Cotton’s resume.

“I think the proxy example rings true,” Cotton said. “Listen, I have a sense of her [Gilmartin’s] judgment and I’m close enough to her professionally where I can help make decisions and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yea – MaryAnne will be fine with that.’”

Many chief of staff roles in the industry are held by women, which may not be a coincidence, Deloitte’s O’Brien said.

“I do think the real estate industry recognizes it has trailed other industries in terms of moving women into senior executive roles, and a number of real estate CEOs I talk to are committed to changing that,” he said. “There may be an inclination to find talented women who can ultimately be C-suite executives.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Bob O’Brien’s company.