How to Lead the Way to Towering Achievements

People underestimated an up-and-coming real estate developer, and she used their disdain to her advantage—to make her mark on the New York skyline.
November 5, 2014

There was a time, decades ago, when MaryAnne Gilmartin would attend a meeting and most of her fellow participants would ignore her. Real estate development in New York City—especially large-scale, big-building, prestigious-location development—has always tended to be not only male-dominated but also dynasty-dominated, thick with scions of family-controlled companies whose founders began building apartments around the time electricity was introduced.

Gilmartin—young, book-learned and manifestly female—was a rarity, and at least in the beginning, not taken seriously. “It bothered me a little at first,” she says. “Then I realized that it was an advantage to be underestimated, especially when it came to negotiations.” Today Gilmartin, 50, is the president and chief executive officer of Forest City Ratner Cos., one of New York’s premier developers. She tends to run most of the meetings she attends. Seldom is she underestimated.

Gilmartin began her career at Forest City Ratner in 1994, after distinguishing herself by the work she did in internships with the city’s Public Development Corp. (now named Economic Development Corp.). Her principal accomplishments can be seen on the skyline: The New York Times headquarters building on Eighth Avenue, designed by world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, which opened in 2007; the tallest residential building (at 76 stories), New York by Gehry, designed by the eminent architect Frank Gehry and located in lower Manhattan near City Hall; and Barclays Center, the state-of-the-art sports and entertainment venue that is not merely the centerpiece of a 22-acre mixed-use development called Pacific Park Brooklyn but also has asserted itself as the symbol of the revived, rejuvenated, reimagined borough of Brooklyn. To have built one of these would have been an achievement; to have built three, steering the last two through the troubled economic waters of the last several years, is extraordinary.

We spoke to Gilmartin about her approach to work, her leadership style and the power of pizza.

Q: Unlike many of your peers, you didn’t grow up in a real estate family. How did you find a career in this business?

A: Pure serendipity. In 1986 I had a fellowship to work as an intern in any department of the New York City government that I chose. I was drawn to the Economic Development Corp., in no small measure because it was summer and the agency was located in an air-conditioned building, which all agencies were not. My timing was fortunate. The EDC was a hot agency, and I was able to do real work, build some buildings and acquire some credibility for myself.

Q: What drives you and your company to pursue these large, complex, iconic projects that you specialize in?

A: Simply put, it’s exciting. Good design pays off in what it contributes to the spirit of a city, and it’s worth working tirelessly to figure out how to bring it into existence. Developing buildings and communities is complex, requiring fluency in design, engineering, finance, zoning, the environment, marketing and so much more. Once you figure out how to do it and you do it well, you’ve joined a small, elite group that does this work. After that, asking why you do it is like asking an NBA player why he plays basketball.

Q: What does it take to be a good leader?

A: Leading by example. Don’t ask of others what you don’t demand of yourself. I’m very passionate about my work, and I push myself hard. When others see that, they dig as deeply.

Q: When did you know you were a leader?

A: I never really thought of myself as one. I just worked as hard as I could, and little by little, people would ask, “Can I work on your team?” I’ve concluded that, fundamentally, many people want to be led, and they’ll follow if you give them a reason.

Q: Are there hidden pitfalls in being a leader?

A: Many! One that you have to watch for is what I call “The Blue Paint Problem.” If I’m in a meeting and happen to say “I like that color blue,” then pretty soon, all I’m going to see is that shade of blue. People will tell you what they think you want to hear. That’s bad. You want your people to challenge you; friction creates light. You have to learn how to elicit opinions before offering your own—or even better, to keep your opinions to yourself until you’ve heard everyone else.

You also have to learn to accept different styles. Coming up, I passionately went after every issue. I became known as a dragon slayer, which earned me accolades. The problem is, dragon slayers need dragons, and I started to look for them. It tended to suck all the oxygen out of the room. If you assign a person responsibility, you have to trust his or her approach.

Q: Is there anything you have learned since becoming CEO?

A: I’ve learned more about handling mistakes. When I was coming up, I learned to take responsibility for the mistakes I made and for ones made by my team. As CEO, that’s even more important.

In our business, we sometimes need to take big risks. They don’t always work out as planned. We made a decision on one of our projects to employ modular construction—where units are built offsite and are then shipped to the site and erected there. The early ramp-up has been challenging, and as a result, the project has been delayed for a year and we’ve lost money. I was the executive driving the decision, and I have to bear the responsibility for the setbacks that occurred. Part of that entailed appearing before the board of directors of our parent company and explaining what went wrong. I was at least mildly terrified. But before I began speaking, the CEO of the parent company addressed the board. “I just want to remind the board how we got here,” he said. “We made this decision together. Now MaryAnne is going to explain what we can do about it.” I thought, That’s great leadership. I  felt greatly empowered to have that kind of support, and I felt even more inspired to resolve the problem. And I now try to extend that loyalty to the people who work for me. People are going to make mistakes. As CEO, your job is to help solve the problem, not just assign blame.

Q: Any other lessons for CEOs and other leaders?

A: Don’t underestimate the power of pizza. Once in a while, order a pizza, bring in a handful of people and chow down. You’ll be surprised at what you learn—about work conditions, about your projects, about yourself and the way you’re perceived. Once a month, I invite a small group of workers from throughout the company to have lunch. We get sandwiches from the deli. There’s never an agenda, but I always learn something. Once I found out that there were people in the company who had never been to any of our projects—people from human resources or accounting who had never been to one of the work sites. I thought that was unfortunate. You want your workers to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves, and here we’ve built the largest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, and some of them had never seen the view! We’re fixing that.

Q: You live near Barclays Center, which you built and is where you work. Do you get to make use of the arena much?

A: I guess I average about an event a week. The very best perk of the job is that my son is a ball boy for the Brooklyn Nets. There is nothing better than being at a game, looking across the court and seeing my son living the dream.

Did you know meetings matter even more for women? Learn 5 ways to reach peak performance on the corporate stage, also known as a meeting.

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