Ciaran Bird played flanker for London Irish for ten years, three of them as a professional at the start of the new era. Talking to him however, is not so much a case of chatting with a rugby player made good in the commercial world, as a business leader who spent ten years of his career doubling up as a first class rugby player.
Rugby’s flanks have produced some redoubtable leaders over the years; All Blacks McGraw and Kirkpatrick, France’s Jean-Pierre Rives, World Cup winner Francois Piennar and Scotland and the Lions’ Finlay Calder to name but some.
Flankers are an interesting bunch. They bolt on to the side of the scrum but keep an eye to the open field. They ruck and maul like prop forwards but tackle like inside centres. They’re versatile; fast and agile like a back-liner on the one hand, cauliflower ears, pumping knees and part of the pack on the other.
The team Bird now binds onto and leads is thousands strong. CBRE is the biggest pack in real estate. Founded over a century ago, it generates over $20 billion in revenues per year over its nearly 500 offices worldwide. But more than that it’s a company genuinely driven by values. In CBRE’s case specifically, RISE – Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence. It’s the first thing you see on their website and also underpins last year Fortune naming them the Most Admired real estate company for the second year in a row; its eighth time on the list and The Lipsey Company naming them the World’s Most Ethical Company for the seventh year in a row ranking CBRE the top real estate brand for 19 consecutive years.
As Divisional President, Advisory Services, CEO UK & Ireland, Bird is responsible for 3000 staff, a UK & Ireland operation and a vertically integrated real estate services and investment firm. But, ever the flanker, it’s not the size and scale of CBRE that appeals, rather its dexterity and flexibility. A company that can appear a behemoth on the one hand but be light footed and nimble on the other.
“When I was at Dalgleish,” he explains, “I did for my clients. In that respect we were leaders in the industry. Because of its size and scale I thought CBRE would tell me what to do and not support the entrepreneurial way we did things. Our clients were our partners and friends. We understood and empathised everything about them from their operational performance to their needs, their margins, even what they could afford to pay.
“ CBRE said they wouldn’t change us but rather give us a structure that could help us. Through a genuine integrated service offering (and they are rare), I was able to introduce my clients to the best teams in the world. I was instantly able to offer something that my competitors couldn’t. One team. The best of the best. Integrated. Global connectivity.”
Bird is a breathing advocate of his company. As a former winger in the backline I’d sort of expect that loyalty and advocacy from someone who bashed heads for ten years as a back row for the same team. But it’s way more than that. Bird is a man underpinned by values and so is CBRE. It’s a very good match.
“For me it’s about TEAMSHIP,” says Bird. “We’re double the size of our next competitor but we’re able to genuinely share best practice. We lead the UK industry in diversity. Through the pandemic we’ve provided support, structure, safety and we’re in a very strong, healthy position.
“I talk to our people every day. I ask our clients how can we be better. We interview them every quarter and assess ourselves on a regular basis. We set rules for ourselves and if we break them then we’re disrespecting each other and our clients – it’s as simple as that.”
The concept of Teamship is famously espoused by another maniF3sto headliner, Sir Clive Woodward, and it was to his former coach Bird turned when he was offered the CBRE opportunity. “At Dalgleish I was passionate about building the best business,” he explains, “so I spoke to Clive and asked him could I do it with an extra 2000 people. He said I could.”
Bringing Woodward onto his team and then creating a team based philosophy has underpinned Bird’s own leadership at CBRE.
“Famous for the World Cup win, I think Clive’s even greater achievement was spreading that same ethos across 26 different teams in his role at London 2012. It was that approach that I wanted to bring to my role at CBRE. Clive presented Teamship. We workshopped with senior execs. We extended that out to 42 staff workshops in six months.
“Leaders don’t tell people how to behave. In conjunction, we signed off every service line rules and then company rules. We integrated health, well-being, ESG, data, intelligence and digital. Then we created a culture where we reboot every 6-12 months. The best teams need to constantly refresh.”
So what would constitute his biggest impact so far? “Undoubtedly bringing Teamship to how we operate in conjunction with RISE. We bring the best of CBRE to our clients: the best service, the best results and the best platform – and all this is delivered by our people.”
With things looking good at CBRE that does leave the small problems of a global pandemic and the real estate industry at large…
“Our industry does face some challenges and Covid has certainly enhanced them.” He adds.
“ We’re in an industry that is definitely here to stay. It’s a great industry but it’s unknown at school or college level. Young people don’t understand it as being a career option but it’s one of the few industries that offers something to everyone from regenerating inner cities to building shopping centres, acquiring, fitting, designing and selling.”
There’s no doubt that real estate does suffer from an image and diversity issue, something Bird feels passionately about, “Like any industry we need to change. Other industries with similar issues such as finance and law have embraced positive change but we have taken too long.
“That said, there’s a huge amount of disruption out there and that’s a good thing. We’re constantly addressing what our clients need. A market leading corporate finance business? So we brought in the best talent and started one. We ask are we adding value? Are we responding to needs? What do we need to change? Key parts of that are skill-base and resource.”
These factors are what see Bird and CBRE extensively reaching out to the next generation and addressing many of the problems faced by this one.
“We have introduced an apprenticeship programme and take it into over 50 schools a year. There’s a big opening in our industry for different skills and diverse backgrounds. It’s a fabulous industry. We need to engage our young people more to become a part of it. Diversity and our commitments to ESG are paramount in that.”
Engaging people in the current pandemic sees Bird talking to all 3000 of his staff every two weeks via zoom.
“I’ve introduced ‘The Knowledge’ a pitch to all staff where we talk about learning on the job, creativity, business development and innovation. I do believe however, when we do get back to work in a physical environment we’ll also realise how important that is.”
To that end the working environment which CBRE will have a hand in leading could well be very different.
“We’re creating a new space for ourselves as I think the workplace of the future will be very different. I envisage flexibility and communal and client areas. Creative environments, pitch rooms and show rooms.”
“Ultimately, health and our people are our number one assets. Our future will be to look after those and live by the values of the business.”