Real estate needs more ‘cognitive diversity’, Canary Wharf tells PropCast

In the latest episode of our BossCast series, Canary Wharf Group’s managing director of people, culture and customer experience Jane Hollinshead speaks about the areas where real estate has been successful in championing equality, diversity and inclusion, and the lengths it still has to go.

Despite being in the job for less than a year, Jane Hollinshead has been making waves as the managing director of people, culture and customer experience at Canary Wharf Group (CWG). Her message is clear: you ignore the next generation at your peril. But improving diversity is a complex, multi-layered challenge.

Hollinshead’s role is no simple one, given the breadth of CWG’s remit as owner, developer and operator of 128 acres of one of London’s central business districts, as she explains: “You’ve got almost every part of the real estate ecosystem within the organisational umbrella. And when you’ve got a company that’s this diverse in terms of roles, you’re not going to solve any diversity problems if you’re setting broad targets. You need to be diving down into the detail, and that’s where I’m looking to drive the change.”

One of Hollinshead’s policies has been the creation of a junior board to bring in greater diversity of age in decision-making. “You can bring lots of people in from diverse parts of the organisation with different backgrounds, lived experiences and skills to start thinking as a collective and working with them as a sounding board,” she explains.

This push towards a greater diversity of backgrounds in real estate comes in part due to Hollinshead’s own upbringing. Despite receiving a scholarship and securing a place to study law at the prestigious London School of Economics, being raised in a single parent household in Liverpool caused many to doubt her.

“Instead of investing in a new suit, I should invest in elocution lessons, because no one was going to pay me to work in the City with a Scouse accent,” Hollinshead jokes of the advice given to her at the time.

But despite the discouragement, Hollinshead has enjoyed a thirty year career at the top of real estate, beginning at law firm Addleshaw Goddard and swiftly rising to become head of its real estate department, before moving to British Land, and eventually forming her own strategic consultancy that counted Knight Frank and Savills among its clients.

This professional experience taught her that not immediately fitting in is actually a strength. “It gives you the ability to look at things from a different perspective,” she reflects.

In terms of what the industry can do better, Hollinshead thinks that diversity at the top is one of the best ways to signpost inclusivity. “Role models are really important,” she explains. “That’s how mandated targets at senior level can be a useful weapon.” In this vein, the Davies and Hampton-Alexander reviews, which targeted one-third women representation on FTSE 350 boards, were important for shifting the dial.

“But targets are only one weapon in the armoury,” Hollinshead adds. “You don’t want to end up with a box-ticking exercise.”

“If you want to do something measurable as a company,” she advises, “you can do a lot worse than early intervention in schools.” Indeed, Hollinshead’s involvement in Pathways to Property,  a programme that raises awareness of real estate professions among young people, does precisely this.

What the real estate veteran really wants to see is “cognitive diversity”. “You get great ideas when you marry up lots of different perspectives and lived experiences,” she says, explaining the concept.

Real estate also has a “dual responsibility”, Hollinshead notes, because as well as company culture, “we’re also linked to the built environment, where all people should feel comfortable and like their adjustments are being included.”

And whether the industry likes it or not, Hollinshead thinks change is coming – and from a number of directions.

Firstly, generational. “You ignore the next generation at your peril,” she warns. “They have a different perspective that’s incredibly valuable. It would be a huge missed opportunity to not listen to and invest in that next generation. They are your future customers and stakeholders.”

Secondly, as the industry becomes more hybridised, “the agenda will be forced as we move into different sectors, such as life sciences or data,” Hollinshead observes. “We can’t fish from the old pool.”

As ESG increases in importance, so will equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), Hollinshead says. “EDI will possibly morph in as a subset of ESG,” she predicts.

“The other thing that’s going to force the hand of real estate is the acknowledgement that we’re going to have to become customer-centric,” Hollinshead concludes. “When we genuinely put customers at the heart of what we provide for them, we will be looking to bring in more people from outside our industry.”

You can listen to this podcast via Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Amazon or SoundCloud or listen to it through the player above.


Jane Hollinshead

Managing Director of People and Culture

Canary Wharf Group

Andrew Teacher

Managing Director, Real Estate


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