David Cairns of CBRE and CBRE Forward on owning the problem and why you need to define your values
David Cairns is VP of Office Leasing at CBRE, a global Commercial Real Estate Brokerage which helps clients secure office space that drives the success of their businesses and people. David is a former professional poker player and a passionate relationship enabler. He is also the founder of CBRE Forward, an entrepreneurial initiative within CBRE that features the businesses and cultures of high growth companies that are part of Canada’s Innovation Ecosystem.
When you look back five/ ten years, where did you think you’d be by this point in your career? How did you get here?
Six/seven years ago, I did not have a career direction and actually felt quite lost. I was going through a very difficult part of my life in general and therefore, wasn’t thinking at all about where I wanted to be five or ten years down the line. I had just stop playing poker professionally, where I had been quite successful but a “real” career wasn’t on my radar. It was a very tough experience to go through. I got my start in this business about six years ago with some help from my Dad and worked my way up from there. I feel very grateful for that opportunity and jump start. Starting out, I built a partnership with a very senior person in our company and was clear about how I wanted to add value and what my goals were. I was upfront with that person which a lot of younger/inexperienced people in my industry struggle with. We got aligned up front and then I worked hard to create the partnership that I wanted. It definitely wasn’t easy though. I didn’t generate one opportunity for the first six months but slowly learned the business, built my client base and got to where I am now by being patient and committing to the hard work that needed to be done over the last six years.
What did your poker background teach you about being successful in business?
I didn’t approach my poker playing from the typical methodical way that many poker players do. Most players will start with low stakes games and practice good bankroll management so that they can slowly work themselves up the ranks but I was always someone who shot for the big tournaments and big wins. Because of that, I ended up failing a lot and losing a lot but doing that taught me important lessons that other players were not learning. My non-traditional path to success in poker taught me how to think creatively, take risks and understand early on that business is very situational – there is no catch all way to handle situations when something meaningful is on the line. I’ve never been much of a planner and don’t “over prepare” which has been quite helpful in being nimble and trying to pick up on the best way to do things in different situations.
Talk about some of the qualities that you’ve observed which makes people successful. What are they?
There is a clear difference between people who are good at something and those who are great at something. In business, those who are truly great, think of things outside of themselves and genuinely care about empowering others more than they do about their own financial success. When you shift your focus to doing everything that you can in order to make those around you (whether that be your clients or team) be successful, that is where I see true greatness and success take shape.
What are the most exciting trends happening in your industry right now?
The demand for office space is largely being driven by growing technology companies and co-working spaces like WeWork and Spaces (an IWG/Reugs brand). This is happening across the globe. More and more, we are seeing companies who want agility when it comes to their real estate (especially in non-core markets or newly entered markets) and as a result a flexible revolution is upon the industry with demand being driven by those that can facilitate flexibility for those who need/want it at both the start-up and enterprise level. This trend is also driving the need for building owners to treat their tenants with greater customer centricity than they have in the past and there is a much stronger demand for experience oriented real estate. Toronto specifically is becoming a Hot Bed for technology companies due to our high quality talent and cost discount to major U.S cities. When you see homegrown Canadian companies like Shopify, Index Exchange and US giants like Microsoft becoming anchor tenants in Toronto’s next wave of development, it’s easy to see how our city is gaining recognition on the global stage.
Tell me about a lesson that you had to learn the hard way. What did you learn from it?
I was once in a situation where I was negotiating a deal for a client and it was clear that they were not happy with what we had on the table. It came to a point where the client asked if this was the best that I could do on their behalf and wanted to know if they should speak to the provider themselves in order to achieve the outcome they wanted. Because I was frustrated and genuinely knew that unless a major pivot happened this was the best deal we could get, I told the client that it was the best I could do and that they should speak with the provider themselves.
In retrospect, what I should have done is acknowledge that the client wasn’t happy and got both of us involved with the provider to identify the client’s objectives more directly as part of the problem was miscommunication (surprising, right?!). By letting my client talk to the provider directly, I gave up ownership of that problem which is a mistake I will never make again. You always want to be the one taking ownership of the problem and seeing it through to the end. I also took the way that the client reacted to my efforts very personally and you can’t do that in business when you are a service provider. People can often vent their frustrations at you but may not be frustrated with you. It is important to care about your work and the service you provide but there is also an element of trying to remove your emotions from situations and not take things personally; a lesson I started learning with poker and am still learning to this day!
What would be the one piece of advice you would give someone in the workforce today to get ahead and find work that is fulfilling?
The reality is, the positive or negative outcomes that happen in the short run are often inconsequential. You need to focus on your values, and ensure that you are getting that from your environment in some aspect. No job will check all of your boxes but it is the ability for you to enjoy the day to day irrespective of highs and lows that will help you to be happy with what you are doing. By clearly defining your values, sticking to them, not being tied to the short term and doing your best to make others successful, you have the best chance of finding something that is meaningful.