In the face of uncertainty, many choose to remain in place or scale back on activities until turbulent circumstances settle. But Atlanta-based Cortland Partners, a private real estate developer, did exactly the opposite when the United States’ economy was on the decline in late 2008.
“It was clear that we would have to either find another place to play in the marketplace, or we would need to quit while we were ahead,” said Priscila Mattingly, executive vice president of talent at Cortland Partners.
The firm, still quite young, was in the business of developing from the ground up — finding land, developing apartment communities before a third-party company came in to manage them, and then selling the properties down the road. Each venture was no easy feat, requiring millions of dollars to even start a project, and real estate development isn’t the kind of business that lends itself to lasting through a recession, Mattingly said, who said she’d see construction sites in the city where development had started then stopped.
Cortland prides itself on running a data-driven operation, and so does its CEO Steven DeFrancis. A look at the numbers revealed an opportunity to take the company’s expertise in building from the ground up and apply it to apartment communities that were already built. Before, apartments were viewed as a transitional residence. Now, young adults were primed to rent more than previous generations. People who couldn’t own their homes anymore also came back to the rental market. Mattingly said people would want a different product and be willing to pay a little more for it. So Cortland began to renovate communities to a larger extent than was usually done.
The approach was risky and expensive; DeFrancis spent two years convincing investors of the value proposition — “but as soon as the first project was under their belt, they proved with higher than normal ROI to investors, that this was a viable model, then our growth was tremendous,” Mattingly said. “Everyone wanted to invest in the process.”
When Mattingly arrived to the company in 2014 to start Cortland’s learning and development function, the company had 13,000 apartment units and 435 associates. Today, the firm employs 1,200 associates and has 34,000 apartment units.
She said she sees valuable parallels between DeFrancis’ approach and her work executing the company’s training and development strategy. The company’s application of existing skills to respond to a new environment is “the very concept of learning agility: Take what you know and apply it to the situations where you don’t know what to do.”
The ability to easily meet transforming market needs is an imperative for Cortland’s employees and for talent in the broader workforce. Mattingly said the company uses interviews and special assessments to gauge people’s learning agility and their ability to apply what they know in ambiguous situations.
“Every day, we come in thinking ‘how can we do this better and faster than ever before?’ To be this type of company, we need to have the creativity and courage to do something when we just don’t know what to do,” she said.
Learning leaders can work with HR to ensure candidate interviews zero in on agility with questions about times candidates faced a new project or function that required a new skill set. Cortland’s talent acquisition team also tries to steer candidates away from common answers and asks plenty of follow-up questions.
The thing is, Mattingly said — and Cortland wouldn’t be the first company where this is the case — the positions the company is hiring for don’t necessarily exist in other places, so it’s crucial that new hires can apply what they’ve learned from previous experiences to a new reality. As fluid and uncertain as today’s business environment is, the need for agility in business and talent isn’t going anywhere.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: StrategyTagged with: development, strategy, talent management