09/20/2021 | by

Nareit’s REITalent series shines a spotlight on individuals with various roles within the REIT industry and looks at the unique career paths they have taken.

Most recently, Nareit spoke with Christine McElhinney, director of corporate responsibility, inclusion, and diversity at AvalonBay Communities (NYSE: AVB), about her path to a role in ESG. Find current job opportunities available with AvalonBay Communities.

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. Student rates are also available by contacting member@nareit.com.

What are some of your key responsibilities as Director of Corporate Responsibility, Inclusion and Diversity?

I oversee the S or the social part of our ESG. That entails our national philanthropy program, Building Strong Communities, as well as leading our inclusion and diversity strategy and council. I am also responsible for pieces of the company's reporting, including our annual Corporate Responsibility Report

Has your career always been focused on ESG or is that something that you transitioned into later in your career?

Christine McElhinney, director of corporate responsibility, inclusion, and diversity at AvalonBay Communities
Christine McElhinney, director of corporate responsibility, inclusion, and diversity at AvalonBay Communities

I went to school for graphic design and joined AvalonBay in the marketing team. I transitioned my role from marketing coordinator to graphic designer, which is where I became more involved in employee engagement and communication. I helped start our first ever Spirit of Caring Month, which we're celebrating the 10th anniversary of this year, and therefore I was doing a piece of ESG before we officially had it within AvalonBay.

When we hired a Director of Corporate Responsibility, I told him that I was very interested in corporate responsibility, and that would be willing to volunteer or work on any related projects. Over the course of my 14 years with AvalonBay, I slowly transitioned fully into corporate responsibility. I was able to learn on the job and get the experience to grow into this role.

What advice would you give to someone working in a different department that's interested in transitioning into ESG like you did?

Look for opportunities and volunteer. There are so many ways to get involved because we cannot do the work within the ESG team alone; it takes the work of many associates from across the company. Whether it's part of a philanthropy program, environmental sustainability or inclusion and diversity, speak up, raise your hand, get involved, and make those connections. You never know what could come of it.

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

There has been huge growth in ESG across all three pillars. For environmental, we are currently focused on the two Cs: carbon and climate. For social, our philanthropy program has a focus on community investment and growing impact with through established partnerships. And over the last year, we have seen tremendous focus on diversity and inclusion, really propelled forward by the events of 2020.

What are the biggest changes regarding ESG in commercial real estate that you've seen in recent years?

There's a lot of focus, especially in commercial real estate, on diversifying our workforce and our leadership. At AvalonBay, we’ve set Diversity in Leadership goals to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in our leadership team by 2025. It's exciting to see the progress with diversity, equity and inclusion across the industry and beyond, as it will provide new opportunities and significant impact to the current and future workforce.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment in your current position?

My greatest accomplishment is being able to support and inspire our associates daily. 2020 was a tough year and everyone was taking on a lot personally. Through our philanthropy and inclusion and diversity efforts, we were able to   enable and empower our teams to support one another and our local communities. During a time of so much pain and darkness, we were able to help provide connection and hope. It's been amazing to look back and see what we've been able to accomplish in such a short time and know what a strong team that we have working together.  

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your position?

Finding the best way to make the most impact can be a challenge. Specific to philanthropy, AvalonBay has been able to do that through strategic partnerships. We work with the American Red Cross and the National Urban League as national partners, and with many local organizations within the various regions we operate. When we work with these partners, we don't want to just cut a check and make a donation. We want to roll our sleeves up and get involved, working alongside them to help make as much impact as we can.

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

The most important skill for me has been emotional intelligence, as you need constant empathy and awareness because this role is all about people. I’ve also found that my skills in project and program management have been important since there are so many moving pieces and individuals involved and being able to keep everything and everyone organized and on track is critical.

Ss there any advice that you would give to someone just starting out in their career in ESG?

Learn every day. For me, that’s reading books and articles and connecting with other people in my company, the industry and the ESG profession. In this role, it is important to be constantly learning (and sometimes unlearning), especially regarding diversity and inclusion. As a straight, cisgender, white woman I know I come to the table with a certain perspective, and it is critical that I educate myself on other perspectives and experiences. So, make it a priority to create connections and learn – everyday!

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