ULI New York Blog

Recap: YLG Secrets of Success w/ Melissa Burch

By: Daniel Rojo

As we — members of ULI NY’s Young Leaders Group (YLG) — question not only our own choices, priorities, and paths but those of the firms, organizations, and pursuits where we build and lend our expertise, how do we best set ourselves up for long-term success? How should we be strategizing our careers, where should we be focusing, and what should we be avoiding right now? At the YLG’s most recent Secrets to Success breakfast event, many individuals in the room were not brand new to the professional world, but as young leaders were still early in their careers. Melissa Burch, Executive General Manager at Lendlease and the morning’s featured speaker, shared a number of insights into the perspective and strategy of her firm, as well as her own career and experience. A few themes emerged from her broad and interesting talk.

The importance of Place, and how to create it

Lendlease tends to focus on large, complicated pro, mixed-use projects that emphasize place. How do you create something entirely new and different — that is still tied to its context, what should the pieces be, and how should those pieces fit together? Who are the partners, how can this work for everyone — the community, public officials, local leaders, and the developers. Answering these questions brings aspects of Lendlease’s projects and much of Burch’s career into a “grey space” between business and politics. This might sound malicious, but it need not be. Understanding and working within both the business and the policy realms puts you at a frontier where you can affect solutions and do exciting things that build long term value to all partners.

To successfully create new, high-quality places, you need to have a clear and understandable vision for how all the pieces come together, and the expertise to execute it. In Barangaroo South (in Sydney), a large mixed-use project began with the construction of several office towers that were constructed and leased simultaneously as the first phase of the project. This brought an immediate influx of new people to the neighborhood, which then provided a base for additional programming, residential, and office construction that could build on the value of this new place. This particular strategy is much easier in a market where you can manage to construct and lease multiple office towers at once, but the ability to do so is also a testament to the vision that was put forward, and Lendlease’s expertise and track record to be able to carry it through.

Build from Strength

Lendlease is a large, Australia-based company with significant scale, resources, relationships, and reputation. Recently, the company acquired a major New York-based construction company which gave them local expertise in the actual construction and details. Internationally, they have expertise in large, complicate urban projects. Where Lendlease was previously known for their construction expertise, Burch is leading a push to expand their development portfolio. Burch is charged with building on these core competencies and areas of expertise to further Lendlease’s pursuits as a developer.

Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

When a new front presents itself, push yourself into it. When you see an opportunity, fill it, or someone else will. Opportunities to make yourself useful that might seem tangential to your designated role or interest at the time could lead to unexpected openings to build relationships or present yourself in a new light for advancement. In a specific example Burch shared, the seemingly monotonous task of putting together a presentation deck turned into several weeks of working directly with the highest-level management at Forest City Ratner. Of course, some pursuits can and will lead nowhere; but giving it a shot can open doors. That can also mean being a pioneer at the firm/organization level — for example, Burch pushing into Downtown Brooklyn before others at 80 DeKalb or testing the boundaries of modular construction techniques at 461 Dean.

Burch also emphasized that push extends to “extracurriculars” — e.g., joining philanthropic boards and other activities outside of work. etc. entirely. Relationships and networks are most useful — not just from a career perspective — when broad and diverse. Use extracurriculars outside of your immediate work networks to form and strengthen those relationships. There is a larger conversation to be had here about privilege and access within these extracurriculars, but that doesn’t negate the concept.

Conclusion: Be A Generalist

These two seemingly conflicting ideas — building on strength from specific experience and a push to always delve into new territories — converge at the pursuit of a career towards professional generalism or, as Burch put it, being an “anti-specialist”. Be dangerous in diverse fields, with your expertise in how they fit together.

Now, the entire industry cannot be generalists. We need engineers, experts in streetscape design, others with highly specific and important skill sets. Maybe this only applies to the beginning of your career, but at least initially, don’t get trapped in niche roles. To bring complex, multi-partner, urban projects to fruition requires oversight at the top level that is thinking about all of the pieces together. To create high-quality urban places, this is the skill set that is most crucial, and the skill set to be developing early in our careers.

Daniel Rojo is a Director at James Lima Planning + Development, a real estate and economic development consulting firm focused on the economics of placemaking. He is an urbanist with international experience in real estate development, finance, urban planning, and design — and a special interest in the intersection between them all.

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