Supporting gender diversity – Interview with Lesley Roberts, Godwin Developments

Supporting gender diversity and conversations to support the growth of women, David Phillips talks to Lesley Roberts, Director of BTR Operations, Godwin Developments.

Lesley Roberts, Director of BTR Operations, Godwin Developments interviewed as part of the Women in Leadership diversity series | BTR News
Lesley Roberts, Director of BTR Operations at Godwin Developments interviewed as part of the Women in Leadership diversity series.

I came into the property sector by chance. After studying business and IT, I worked in five-star hotels across all parts of the business, which gave me a good feel for operations, services, and the mechanics of big buildings. I then worked on stakeholder engagement in mining before coming to the UK for a working holiday that I’m still on 18 years later! Here, I fell into a temporary job in property, where I followed different opportunities as they presented themselves. I’m fortunate to have been able to bring my skills from different sectors into what I do now in Build to Rent, where I see managing all the different specialisms to be a bit like conducting an orchestra.

Have you ever struggled to progress in your career?

When I reach my goal in a particular project I sometimes get ‘summit syndrome’, wondering where the next goal will come from. For example, when I was working in the private rented sector, I saw there was a lot to learn in social housing, so I joined a housing association board and ultimately took up the role of chair. I’ve also experienced challenges around unconscious bias and recognition of my worth, which led to some tough decisions. I believe that if you want the sector to be better, then you have to contribute to that.

Have you felt that being a woman has given you an advantage in the industry?

Despite unconscious bias in what is still a male-dominated environment, being the only female – on a board, for example – does make you more memorable. Although the sector is changing, there’s still a long, long way to go, not just in terms of gender but also the wider diversity piece.

Given the industry’s gender gap in leadership, how did you reach your level of success?

I’ve always had a strong curiosity around listening to other people – and my non-traditional path into property gave me a fresh perspective that has helped me to find better ways to do things. I’m a great believer in continuous improvement, putting myself into a ‘stretch zone’ to explore new challenges. I see feedback as a constructive gift; it’s very valuable to ask for it and listen to it, and to hear what you can do differently.

We can’t see ourselves the way that others can. And I’ve been privileged to manage people, where there’s so much both sides can learn from the relationship when it’s not ‘top down.’ Finally, success is about being 100% yourself – being true to who you are and what you believe in. I see more of this in younger candidates today. It helps to build trust with others, in a business that is very much based on relationships.

What needs to change to inform the next generation of female leaders about the industry and the roles available to them? Do we need more support for women at school level to understand the opportunity?

There needs to be change at every level. For example, I know of one scheme that talks to people in schools about potential careers in property at around age 11 to 12. After ten years, this has been shown to have a much higher success rate, in terms of people considering a career in the sector, than going in at age 16 or 17. Role models and mentoring are important too (I got into mining because it’s what my godfather, who was a great role model for me, did). University graduate programmes and apprenticeships can also help to promote diversity.

Overall, I see two big changes that will make a massive difference. One is ESG, where most recent senior appointments have been women. Because ESG now has a seat at the top table of companies, it’s helping get female decision-makers there. The second is that to make change in organisations, decision-makers need to own the issue of diversity. As leadership becomes more diverse, the change is more likely to happen.

What does the future look like for women in property and what advice would you give the next generation of female leaders joining the industry?

Build to Rent is a very collaborative subsector of the property world. We have more diversity here because operations can be a great entry point. For example, people can move from the front desk to team, property and asset management. This pathway attracts people who might not come through traditional routes like graduate programmes. As the sector grows, we have an opportunity to have a more diverse mix of people move though the industry.

For the next generation, I’d say: be open about what you might not know; ask questions; be able to put yourself in another’s shoes; be kind and generous with your thought and time, and really enjoy what you do. And overall, people who collaborate do better in this sector.

Who inspired you/are your role models and who do you admire in the industry?

It was really refreshing to see Alison Nimmo appointed to head up the Crown Estate – she did a great job, and it was interesting to see how she navigated it. I’d also cite Helen Gordon, who heads up Grainger, the largest listed residential landlord in the UK; Vanessa Sims, who is CFO of Landsec; and Sue Clayton, one of very few female agents in commercial real estate. They paved the way: their success has helped me to see what’s possible.