08/30/2021 | by

Nareit’s REITalent series shines a spotlight on talent in the REIT industry, highlighting various roles within Nareit member companies and the unique career paths individuals have taken.

Most recently, Nareit spoke with Director of Human Resources at Brookfield Properties (NASDAQ: BPYPP), Vern Johnson, about his path to a role in ESG. 

Find current job opportunities available with Brookfield Properties.

Learn more about the information and skills needed to succeed in roles with ESG responsibilities at Nareit’s upcoming REITworks Conference, Sept. 20-23, 2021.

What are your key responsibilities as Director of Human Resources for Brookfield Properties?

I have two functions that I oversee. The first being our diversity and inclusion efforts as an organization where I look at inclusive culture elements such as employee resource groups and our training for diversity and inclusion, as well as our benchmarks and demographics to understand where it is in the organization that we need to spur a bit more diversity and inclusion.

The other aspect of the work that I do is professional development or learning and engagement. At Brookfield Properties, this includes training modules for managers and foundational training, one-on-one meetings, performance management, as well as mandatory trainings for employees, such as code of conduct or sexual harassment trainings.

Has your career always been focused on ESG or is that something that you transitioned to?

Vern Johnson of Brookfield Properties
Vern Johnson, Director of Human Resources at Brookfield Properties

I received my bachelor's degree in health care management and my master's in public health, so I always had that calling to take care of the environment. At the beginning of my career, I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. Through that experience, I was able to see the breadth of the impact environmental conditions have on people and how elements of environmental justice connect back to diversity and inclusion. I took all those different experiences and knowledge and rolled those things up to really understand and embrace ESG efforts for organizations.

Have you seen an increased focus on ESG in recent years at Brookfield Properties?

ESG is definitely something that we focus in on - particularly our sustainability efforts in terms of our physical retail spaces, and it helps us significantly by being at the forefront of that.

We’re continuing to work on our diversity and inclusion efforts, which we’ve made a lot of progress on in the last year since I joined the organization. We’ve improved and built out our diversity and inclusion strategies and employee resource groups (ERGs), including formalizing ERG guidelines into policy.

For each heritage month throughout the year, each of our ERGs hosts an event or two for the entire organization—from panel discussions to speakers to cultural lessons. We also have this program called Partner to Empower that we launched this year that helps Black-owned and minority businesses into our malls.

So, we have culture, we have commerce, and we have community—which is really about giving back with volunteerism efforts. And then finally we have career, which is really about the professional development of our employee resource group members and employees as a whole.

What would you say are some of the biggest changes around ESG in commercial real estate that you've seen in the last couple of years?

Before I came into the organization about a year ago, I did my research on the industry. I found that traditionally commercial real estate is largely homogenous. There has really been very little movement for women and people of color. I say that not to scare folks, but to acknowledge that if you don't have diversity, you put your industry and your company at risk when it comes to productivity, creativity, and attracting top talent.

I believe by 2045, there'll be more generational and racial presence within the workplace. Diversity is coming. Organizations that don’t embrace the expectations of the workforce going forward-around diversity and inclusion, flexibility, and succession planning -will be seen as stagnant.

We are going into a new phase, which is the emotionally intelligent workforce. It's a really important phase that we really have to pay a lot of attention to because if we don't, we can end up missing important opportunities. Diversity and inclusion—and an emotionally intelligent workforce—can help ensure our industry has the right people in the room to be making the right decisions for the future of our organizations.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment to date in your current role?

The greatest thing is hearing employees and leaders say “thank you” for a program that they attended. There wasn't a D&I leader at Brookfield Properties before me, so many of the things that I've been implementing are entirely new for the organization. So the organization and I were really on a learning curve journey. When people are on a learning curve, you have colleagues who will embrace it and you'll have people who will be hesitant. I really love to see those who are hesitant become the stewards of diversity and inclusion.

What would you say is the greatest challenge that you've faced in your position?

The greatest challenge is getting people on board with investments that they have never seen before. You have to do your research, because even though you may understand it as a leader in this space of diversity and inclusion, you need to educate people and demonstrate the value of programs or investments to gain buy-in. 

There is also the process of understanding the nuances of best practices surrounding ESG. I’ve found that sometimes people get very pigeonholed into their own organizations and think, “Well, I need to go to a CRE conference that deals with diversity and inclusion.” While there is value in attending industry events, you can go to a general diversity and inclusion conference, pick up many great ideas from outside of your organization, and bring them back and adapt as needed.

What skills would you say are most important in your position?

In my role, you have to be someone who can connect with people. You have to be someone who is authentic and genuine. Often what I tell people is that organizational culture is not dictated by having free food - it's dictated by the leaders in the organization and their emotional intelligence. When we see bad culture in organizations, it's because the leadership is bad. It's because a lot of those microaggressions and macroaggressions are apparent, and the employees feel it.

Especially right now, at the height of this pandemic and with all these different elements of social injustice coming to the forefront of our everyday lives, these things are compounding and impacting us in a deep and impactful way. People want something more, they want something genuine.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make a transition in their career into something ESG focused? 

If there is an area at your organization that intrigues you, see if you can work with that area’s leader on a stretch assignment. Speak with that person about your skillset, how you can contribute, and let them know you are interested in learning X, Y, and Z through this experience. I think many people are apprehensive about doing that because they may not think that people would be open to it, but often people welcome it. All the times I've seen other folks have do this, it has been a truly positive experience. As a leader or individual contributor, always choose courage.

Please note: this interview has been edited for clarity.

Get Nareit Developments blog posts delivered straight to your inbox.


Subscribe to the Developments Blog