Ladies who don't lunch: Maike Currie talks to CBRE's Sue Clayton about property, parenthood and raising your profile

Maike Currie
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Sue Clayton: Women need to be less self-critical

It seems like a lifetime since I met up for lunch with Sue Clayton, executive director at the commercial property adviser CBRE.

It’s actually only been a few months since that sunny afternoon at Northbank restaurant on the City side of the Thames. But in the meantime I’ve had a baby so that day feels like another world. And, of course, it’s turned my brain to porridge – well that’s my excuse for taking this long to write up our interview, anyway.

I get a stark reminder to get on with it as I page through the newspaper on my first day back at work. There’s a quote from Sue in an article about the death of Irvine Sellar, the property developer behind The Shard. She and Sellar would often go for coffee together and she remembers a straightforward man who built a skyscraper in a recession and told it like he saw it. “He didn’t like bullshitters.”

I smile – the quote is as telling about Sue as it is about Sellars. She also calls it like she sees it, and when it comes to the UK property industry, she knows everyone. In fact, on the day we meet, we find ourselves seated next to an industry competitor. Sue is congenial and then quietly explains the situation to me. I make some clumsy excuse about the sun being in my eyes and we quickly move to another table. Sue is unfazed – after more than three decades in the industry, this isn’t a first.

Read more: The property world pays tribute to the late Irvine Sellar

Sue originally wanted to go into law but ended up completing a three-year real estate course at the University of Reading. After university, she joined CBRE (Richard Ellis at the time) and as she puts it: “worked her way up.” I do a quick calculation in my head – so that means you have been with the same company for 35 years? “That’s right,” laughs Sue. “I’ve just got some extra holiday.”

She started off doing valuations, which she describes as a very sound basis for learning about the industry. From there, she moved into fund management and found the bit she enjoyed the most was investment buying and selling.

I ask her what’s kept her with the same company for so long. “I think changing roles at different stages helped and also the company has evolved hugely over time.” Over the years, Sue helped drive the internationalisation of the business, overseeing various mergers and acquisitions. Today CBRE is the world’s biggest global property adviser.

After 13 years with the company she was the first woman to become one of its equity partners which inevitably has me asking about the male-dominated nature of the industry. She admits that there are still not enough female faces. “When I did my university degree course, I think 10 per cent of the class were female. In most property-related degree courses today it’s still not 50-50 with probably around 30 per cent of the class women.”

Sue continues: “We’re all members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and they tell me that fewer than 14 per cent of qualified chartered surveyors in the UK are female. So actually, as a whole the industry has moved on a bit, but not a lot. It’s disappointing for our profession.”

Why does she think this is? “There’s a slight mystery around property – girls in schools have never heard of it. It’s not a career where naturally you know what people do, as you would with a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor. The profession has been poorly sold in schools and that means there has been a preponderance of people who have got into it because they had a relative in it.”

Sue’s a good example. Her father, who she credits for her work ethic, was a chartered surveyor and while growing up in the Peak District in Derbyshire meant it was never a given that she was going to follow suit, “at least I’d heard of it.”

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Getting more women into the industry is an issue to which Sue doesn’t simply pay lip service. She is involved in various school projects as well as an apprenticeship programme aimed at bringing in a much more diverse group of recruits. She also chairs the CBRE UK Women’s Network Advisory Board which, as she explains, was initially very much focused on attracting and retaining the best female talent in the industry.

But since then she’s set up an informal mentoring scheme aimed at improving the rate of promotion. “Say you were working for us and hoping for a promotion. I would pair you with someone a level above with whom you could share experiences to ensure you are planning and thinking about what the key building blocks and stakeholders are to raising your profile. Also, if your line manager was not being supportive, to help you figure out who in the business you need to get on board with.”

Sue explains that it’s about looking beyond the day job. “It’s a generalisation, I know, but a lot of girls tend to think that if they’re really good at their job someone will tap them on the shoulder and ask them if they would like to be promoted. It doesn’t work that way of course – you need to be more proactive and more confident in asking and certainly in flagging that ambition way before the actual promotion interviews.”

She describes her own career in the property industry as “really good fun” and puts this down to the people. “I’m more interested in the people than in the buildings, even though my job is obviously based around the buying and selling of buildings.”

Read more: Why unconscious bias is still holding women back in the City

More recently her focus has been on strategic advice to clients, investment consultancy and client relationships. “Women tend to be great at client relationships, regardless of the industry, because ultimately you need to be a trusted adviser. You need to understand the client, know their business and really work with them to deliver their objectives. In the end it needs to become a partnership. I find that I almost think like the client.

“You need to be a good listener, taking on board what they’re telling you, and be collaborative – women are quite collaborative and have a lot of empathy with a range of different people. With clients that’s important because they’re not all going to be the same type of people.”

As with any industry, the more you get to know your clients the better, and Sue confesses that it helps that property is quite a “sociable profession” with a lot of networking events. “When I had children I cut down on these quite a lot and became much more selective. Also, as you get older you do have the benefit that people know who you are. I still go to the important ones.”

I ask her about motherhood. Sue had her son and daughter 16 months apart, and says that one of her colleagues once teased her that they were “recession kids”. “It wasn’t deliberate. I got married and was in my thirties and thought, ‘well I’ve got to get on with it’. So I had my daughter at the end of 1990 which was just as the market was beginning to fall. I then came back full-time mainly because of the nature of investment agency. If you’re doing a deal, you do need to be around.” She had her son in April 1992 “so it was quite busy for a few years.”

She credits her husband, also a chartered surveyor, with helping a lot during this time. “He was very good at doing his share and very much wanted to be involved. He was never shy to stand up in a meeting at 6 o’clock and say ‘right, sorry I have got to go, I am on nanny duty.’ That made a massive difference.”

She admits that she did feel guilt going back to work – “don’t all working mums feel guilt? Women are very self-critical anyway and there’s a danger that we don’t pat ourselves on the back enough and say ‘actually you are doing an amazing job’. We tend to think, we’re not doing the best at work and we’re not doing the best by the family. I think we need to be less critical of ourselves.

Read more: Why fund management can be the best and worst job out there

“But yes, I did feel guilty. I was helped by my husband being very involved and I was very determined that the children would always be the priority so I did do a lot of school drop-offs and went to the important things. I was relatively senior in the business and I think that helped – it can be tougher for more junior staff. I always encourage my employees to go to those important milestones because if you miss those you can’t make that up years later.”

At this point, Sue glances over at my (then very large) belly and asks me whether I have given any thought to what I will be doing once the baby’s arrived. “No, not really…” and then to fill the space I tell her that I am having a girl.

She smiles. “Well one thing – going back to the guilt issue – over the years my daughter has always told me how proud she is of me for being a working mum, and even more so now that she’s older and seen how everything works. She says ‘you’re the best role model I could have had.’ “I never thought that was what she was going to say, I always thought she’d say, ‘where were you, why weren’t you there at 4 o’clock?’ Those pangs of guilt which I felt at different moments haven’t caused any difficulty in our relationship.”

She then adds: “I am sure your daughter will say the same to you one day. It’s about being present – I always made sure that when I was with my children, I was totally with them and when I was at work I was very focused.”

Porridge brain or not, it’s a good thing I finally got around to writing up my lunch with this lady...

Ladies who don't lunch is a regular feature in which Maike Currie profiles a woman working in the City. All interviews are conducted at a restaurant table – as an exception, nothing is eaten within the proximity of a PC, with a plastic fork or out of a cardboard box. Maike writes about investments and money matters for Fidelity International, following a career in financial journalism. @MaikeCurrie

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