NEW YORK CITY-As the commercial real estate industry continues to rebound, people are going back to work in ever increasing numbers. Yet, the national unemployment rate still hovers around 7.6%, and there continue to be more capable applicants than available jobs. In an uncertain job market, one would imagine that sourcing talent would be easier than ever. While applying for a job is as easy as clicking “Apply” on as many job listings as you can find on LinkedIn, HR departments, on the other hand, often take on the burden of sifting through hundreds of resumes, which may or may not even include a single star candidate. And so, the question remains: How do you assemble a team of the best and the brightest?
For Ackman-Ziff President Simon Ziff, the answer is clear. “Make it a priority, and be hands-on.” In that vein, Ziff personally meets every candidate before he or she joins the firm. Ziff takes a five-step approach to his hiring and retention program, and it seems to be working. The firm’s impact on real estate finance continues to steadily grow both in New York City where it is headquartered, as well as nationally. Its presence in South Florida, in particular, is booming after the opening of its Miami branch less than two years ago, illustrated by the recent landmark deal closing of the Lincoln Road Portfolio. And after nearly two decades heading up the firm, he remains flanked by two of his principals who have been with him for the bulk of that time.
For Ziff, a strong recruiting program is a no-brainer when it comes to success. “One of my biggest drivers is for Ackman-Ziff to be the best in class in raising capital. To do that, you need to have the best people.” His steps for building an award-winning firm are straightforward.
- Know your competition. “We know nearly everyone at our competing firms and have a target list of around five to 10 people we would like to have join our team if they become interested in making a move,” says Ziff. In hand-selecting top players in the industry, Ziff looks for individuals with integrity, creativity, intellect, and who know how to be aggressive when necessary, but also know when to ease off the pedal.
- Think young. “Generally, there are only a handful of existing brokers we would consider bringing on, as our model has typically been to train our own way.” Most professionals join the firm near the beginning of their real estate finance career as associates and work their way up through the ranks of the firm. Ziff says that the firm has made it a point for the past 20 years to meet the graduating classes at many of the top business schools and real estate programs even if the firm might not be actively hiring at the time. “It keeps us in front of the talent and that talent ultimately becomes important to us,” he says, “either at our firm or at another firm.”
- Look in unexpected places. Though nearly all of the firm’s 35 professionals have an advanced degree, real estate is often not their first career. “Our ideal associate candidate is in his or her late 20′s and may have been a lawyer, an accountant, or in corporate finance first before attending graduate school.”
- Nurture your talent. “After we recruit new talent, we have several paths at the firm based on that person’s individual strengths,” Ziff explains. “We spend a meaningful amount of time strategizing about each person’s growth through various paths, expertise, mentors, etc.” He emphasizes that the way a team functions is the single most important part of deal execution and that depends on how each person’s talent is utilized. Alignment, both externally and internally, is one of the main focuses for the firm. “It goes without saying that we should never be in a competitive position with our client, but the same holds true within a firm,” says Ziff. He has seen it far too often over the course of his 26-year career. “I have seen other firms, including some of the largest in the world, embrace internal competition over the years, with everyone fighting over clients or fighting to get higher up within the company, but it ultimately leads to a poor environment, which results in inconsistent execution for the client. To align interests internally and, in turn, achieve the best results for clients, you have to nurture people’s strengths and allow them to be valued by the entire team,” Ziff says. In addition, Ziff has recently considered embracing a flat organizational model, notably used by companies like Google and the web analytics firm KISSmetrics. “I think a firm with no titles better reflects how we function. It’s one team and everyone helps each other. Everyone’s role is essential.”
- Knowing when to let go. People outgrow positions and even companies. Despite high retention rates, after nearly 20 years, Ziff has seen firm members come and go, but he doesn’t see it as a bad thing. “A number of our former employees are now successful owners, and we represent them as clients,” he says. More than half of the firm’s professionals have been with Ackman-Ziff for over 12 years, but Ziff admits that “not everyone is a good fit.” Sometimes market timing comes into play and things don’t work out, he says, but occasionally he has had to ask an employee to leave because he or she is simply not in sync with the rest of the team. “It’s a tough call to make, but we try to do right by people, even if they aren’t necessarily right for Ackman-Ziff.” He estimates that during his time heading up the firm, they have placed nearly 40 former employees and interns in positions within the industry after they leave Ackman-Ziff.