20 minute read 17 May 2023

Heitman’s Mary Ludgin on her winding path to leadership

Mary Ludgin, director of global investment research for Heitman, makes the case for lateral moves, role models, and redefining the criteria for a good hire

Tanya Ott

Tanya Ott

United States

Deloitte’s Center for Financial Services launched the Within Reach series in 2019 to evaluate the progress financial services institutions had made toward achieving gender equity in leadership roles, and to discover the practices that could spur measurable growth in the number of women leaders. That involves both deep dives into data and sharing the voices of individual women who have reached the upper ranks of their organizations.

Mary Ludgin, senior managing director and director of global investment research for the real estate investment advisor Heitman, took the road less traveled on her way to leadership. From teaching kindergarten to a PhD program, from the city-planning department to investment research, Ludgin was willing to seize opportunities without knowing exactly where they would lead: “It's been a marvelous career, but there has never been a line of sight as to what was coming next.”

We sat down the Ludgin to discuss why liberal arts majors are welcome in her office, how the business world may be overlooking talent if they make hiring decisions based on firm handshakes, and why a touch of humor is sometimes necessary to make change happen.

Someone helpfully finished my sentence and I paused and said, “Oh, that was so kind of you to try to finish my sentence for me. Sadly, I was going a different direction.” I have found humor and waiting for my moments to be valuable, rather than constantly having my dukes up ready for a fight.

Q: I’m Tanya Ott. Welcome to the Press Room from Deloitte Insights. If you’re a woman—and especially a woman in a male-dominated field—the experience of my guest today may sound familiar. Mary Ludgin is senior managing director and director of global investment research for Heitman, a real estate investment advisor. Her team helps clients figure out what they should be buying, what they should be selling, and what long-term trends­—such as climate change and demographic shifts—they should be preparing for.

But Mary came to this work in a pretty nonlinear way. When we sat down to chat recently, I started our conversation by asking whether she even knew this kind of work existed when she was younger.

A: Oh, I had no idea. I am the fortunate third generation to go to college. My family tried to talk me out of being a political science major, but their idea of something practical was maybe I’d be an economics major. I had a great luxury of studying what I wanted to study without knowledge of what would happen once I graduated. And I can’t tell you those initial years after graduation were at all pleasant ones. I was trying to figure my path forward. And along the way, I collected a bunch of academic degrees. I have a master’s [degree] in teaching. I taught five-year-olds. I tell my partners that that was the best preparation for dealing with them … learning how to manage five-year-olds. It’s been wildly relevant in my life, even though it’s dropped off of many resumes along the way.

Toward the end of that degree, I wrote a paper for a professor who called to me at the beginning of class and said, “I need to talk to you after class.” I spent two hours worried that I’d done something wrong in the course of my paper. After the class ended and the other students left, he said, “Who are you? My students don’t usually write this way.” That led to him receiving a grant from the government that had some money in it that paid for a graduate student.

All of a sudden, I was no longer going off to be a teacher, but instead I was going to get a PhD in the topic area of my choice. Just a remarkable twist of fate. I had no idea where a PhD in political science was going to take me, but I figured I could figure it out. And that indeed is what’s happened. It’s been a marvelous career, but there has never been a line of sight as to what was coming next.

Q: You finished the PhD in political science, and then what happened?

A: My firm is a real estate investor, and real estate became a component of my career starting even when I was an academic. My areas of focus in political science were urban politics and public policy at a time when cities were dealing with outmigration, loss of businesses and people to the suburbs. The people guiding policy were trying to figure out how to stimulate economic development in center cities. This was the late ’70s, early ’80s, and it turns out that real-estate development and real-estate investment were a big part of the focus of these policymakers. So, I’ve been intersecting with real estate since my days in academia.

My first real job in that realm came [while] I still had an unfinished dissertation, boxes of research sitting in my studio in Lincoln Park, when I went to work for the City Department of Planning. As a political scientist, I got to go inside and watch how politics operated in effecting policy.

Q: So you’ve got this nontraditional path where you’re moving in and out of academia, you’re majoring in this, you’re majoring in that. How did that influence the way that you work and the way that you lead your organization today?

A: I got exactly the career I was hoping for, and therefore, I tried to make my leadership as helpful for similar types of people to have the opportunity to investigate areas that have pertinence to what my firm does. We try to hire the smartest, most intellectually curious people possible and then give them room to run. Long before working from home, that included recognizing that some members of my team were really better if they were allowed to wander in at 9:30 and they would still be there at 8:30 at night. I just needed to give them the room in which they could be—what’s the cliché—their best selves. I’ve always tried to create a space in which people can do their best work. We have the pleasure of each other’s company in trying to think through complicated circumstances.

Q: There are industries, there are companies within industries, that tend to be much more formula-based in terms of the way they think about, well, you have to have this degree, you have to have done this path in order to slot into a position. It sounds to me like you were blowing that concept up and were, I guess, a company that was okay with that.

A: Yes, the company was okay with it so long as we came up with investable ideas or it enhanced our interaction with clients. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some fields of study that are most relevant to real estate research. I have a bunch of people with master's [degrees] in urban planning that are part of the group, but there’s a religion major in there. He got a master’s [degree] in urban planning after that. There are several English majors. I’m always looking for people that can write and communicate, so in many instances, coming from the true liberal arts is a great beginning. Then often that’s complemented by some sort of advanced degree, or they get an advanced degree while they’re working with us.

Q: You have had, as we said, a nontraditional path and you’ve navigated this nonlinear career path as well, which involves a lot of lateral moves. I’d love for you to talk about that and what you get from that.

A: I didn’t realize at the time that they were lateral moves. One of my jobs early on [was] I sited grocery stores for a large grocery store chain, now defunct, in Chicago. I am not the reason they failed. 

I loved the job. It gave me intense insight into a segment of real estate, but I was more interested long-term in multiple property types. I was interested in being in a downtown rather than in a suburban office setting. So I took what might have looked on paper like a lateral move, but it allowed me to work in a setting that was more conducive. It allowed me to expand my field of study and look not just at retail but at apartments and office and industrial and other property types. So lateral on paper, but it allowed for deepening of my skill sets and a broadening of what it is I got to do.

Q: Those moves that you made, and the way that you thought about that, was that just Mary’s internal dialog or were there other people that you were surrounded by that may have been mentors or sponsors who helped you think through those kinds of steps that you took?

A: I’ve had a great array of mentors. Immensely valuable. Almost all of them men, I should note. But there was no one giving me a great deal of guidance in some of those career moves. [Those moves were] mostly opportunities [that] came my way.

In one instance, I turned them down and said, “Go away. I love the current job I have.” They’ve done everything I’ve asked for, but “come back in a couple of years because I might be interested in making a move.” And indeed that happenedr. Even then, I took my time in saying, yes; literally negotiating, even though I’m not a very good negotiator, because I was trying to be true to myself.

But no, I didn’t have any really great career guidance here. My brother’s a lawyer, my mom was a teacher, my dad was an advertising guy. None of them did anything that was particularly pertinent to what I was doing. I was just using some sort of inner compass. There’s a lot of serendipity in this. It has worked out really well. That inner compass got me to great places.

Q: You mentioned that you did have mentors along the way, and they were all men. And when you entered the field, I would imagine you might have been the only woman in some of the rooms that you were in.

A: Virtually every room, I was the only woman. And that, I guess because it was just so such standard practice, I might have noticed it, but it ... it was what it was. It was the framework in which I got to operate. It certainly was a framework I wanted to change. I remember there was some cheek pinching and I recall being called a pert little self-starter, and I realized it was best if I saw them not as demeaning, but as well-intentioned people, even if they were doing things I wasn’t crazy about. That ability to let certain things go has been immensely valuable in my career.

There were periods when I was finally in a place where I could start commenting. I recall a colleague of mine in a partners meeting describing someone as a lady lawyer, and I said, “Do we really need to modify the word lawyer?” And another moment, someone helpfully finished my sentence and I paused and said, “Oh, that was so kind of you to try to finish my sentence for me. Sadly, I was going a different direction.” I have found humor and waiting for my moments to be valuable rather than constantly having my dukes up ready for a fight.

Q: Obviously, gender equity in the industry is really important to you both personally, but also for the industry, for what you want it to be and what you wanted to accomplish.

A: Absolutely. Many of our clients are much more diverse than we are. They have more women represented, as one element of diversity, many more women represented. I recall going to see a prospective client [with] three women on my team. We walked into a room that was largely women and the person that was making the decision on who to allocate money to said, “Oh, thank God you got some women.” So it’s been helpful that my team is as diverse as it is. It’s been essential to how we function, that we’re a team of diversity.

Q: What's the biggest challenge on that front right now?

A: Well, the biggest is when we’re trying to hire a midlevel person, the diversity may not be there for us to choose from. We’re trying to be purposeful as a firm. Internships, for example. These are people that are coming to us as sophomores or juniors in college. We developed a program where we pick diverse candidates for that internship, the plan being if they start between sophomore and junior year, we’ll bring them back, if it works, the next year and then offer them a full-time job, so they come knowing a lot about the culture, and we go to them early on with this career path for them, that at minimum they have an entry-level position in a firm that that they know. That’s one element of how we’re trying to build diversity.

Another element relates to making certain that we are looking for diverse candidates when we have an opening. We’ve done a lot of soul searching related to unconscious bias and other factors that tend to make the people that are hired in a firm look a great deal like who’s already there. We’re trying to break that down. But it is definitely a challenging element of the job. We try to make certain we’ve considered all of our options.

Q: It’s a challenge right now. I would love to have you talk a little bit about the sorts of roles that women who are in the industry are often in and how that affects their path up in leadership, into the C-suite, for example.

A: Certainly if you go to a real estate industry event, where you’ll see the most women is in the marketing and client service roles. But you’ll also see a lot of researchers who are women. 

Many of the early pioneers in my industry, people that made it to the C-suite, happened to have my background. We’re pretty content-rich. We’re not selling. We’re talking about investment trends, and we often are good communicators, and we can do it both in the room of a thousand people and in the written word. So that’s been a pretty powerful combo. It’s certainly a part, I think, of how I’ve succeeded. And my few role models in the industry, women that were blazing ahead of me early on, they tended to be researchers, some of whom then founded their own companies, ended up in the C-suites. It’s a great path, but they’re not that many of us. So, it’s by no means the only path.

Q: As you’re looking forward, what do you hope the conversation’s going to be like around gender equity in the industry in 10, 20, [or] 30 years?

A: Wouldn’t that be great if it were not a topic any longer because we had done such a good job in creating a path for people, in recognizing people of all genders, that we can help them pivot where they need to pivot as life unfolds, as children enter the picture, as illness enters the picture. We need to be ready to allow people to speak up and say, I need help here, rather than feeling that that can be held against them.

COVID, for all of its horrors, helped to expose the vulnerabilities that the people that work for us experience across the spectrum, across their roles. I hope it’s helped us think through how do we make certain we’re priming people to be able to live the best life they can outside of work and the best life they can inside of work.

Q: If you were to identify one thing and change that you would make to make a difference in gender equity in the industry, what would it be?

A: What comes to mind comes from the world of music, where a long time ago, decades ago, orchestras, when they were trying to fill a vacancy, realized that it was essential that the finalists be behind a partition, so it wasn’t clear who they were. Only their sound was audible. I don’t know the moral equivalent of that in our in our jobs, in trying to diversify an industry.

I love, in the questions that you developed, you wanted to talk about a lot of measures of diversity, including neurodiversity, which is an area near and dear to my heart. I realized that one of our measures of people is often the firm handshake, and [whether] they look us in the eye. [But] that’s not a measure of a person. We need to understand that how we measure people may be different than how we thought, the metrics we thought.

I do hope that there’s a lot of soul searching going on and trying to figure out how to create a diverse environment and how to maintain that diversity. Many firms [are] running into hiring people that are then gone two years later because we didn’t create the cohorts for them or we didn’t integrate them in some way. The goal would be that this is a nonissue and that we recognize the value of difference on our teams, because what we're dealing with is such complexity, having an array of perspectives is essential to coming up with the best outcome.

As I was thinking back on my mentors and my role models. I had a pivotal boss along the way—Elizabeth Hollander. She was commissioner of planning. She did not have time to mentor me, but she was a role model for me, and I got to watch. I wrote speeches for her. I wrote speeches for the mayor. And I got to watch what she did with my bullet points as she brought them alive and made them hers. And I got to watch how she conducted herself in meetings.

There was part of me at the time that would love for her to have said, “Hey, Mary, let’s go to lunch.” That never happened. She was just way too busy. But probably what I got was even more relevant, which was how did she conduct herself and how could I do the Mary equivalent of Elizabeth Hollander. Mentorships may not always be available but pick some role models and watch how they conduct their lives would be my guidance to the people listening to this.

Q: That is a great place to end it. I love that.

Mary Ludgin is senior managing director and director of global investment research for Heitman, a real estate investment management firm.

Our conversation today is part of a larger series we call Within Reach, about women leaders navigating the financial services industry and career building in general. We’ve heard so many interesting stories about overcoming the confidence gap, how lessons from the softball field translate into the boardroom, how to create trust in uncertain times.

You can find those conversations and more at deloitte.com/insights.

The Press Room podcast is available where you get your podcasts, online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @deloitteinsight (no “S”). I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott, and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.

Cover image by: Natalie Pfaff

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services

The Deloitte Center for Financial Services, which supports the organization's US Financial Services practice, provides insight and research to assist senior-level decision-makers within banks, capital markets firms, investment managers, insurance carriers, and real estate organizations. The center is staffed by a group of professionals with a wide array of in-depth industry experiences as well as cutting-edge research and analytical skills. Through our research, roundtables, and other forms of engagement, we seek to be a trusted source for relevant, timely, and reliable insights.


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