Leanne Pilkington: Smart, strategic, and not to be underestimated

Leanne Pilkington didn't set out to win big awards. Starting as the Sunday receptionist at her father’s real estate agency in Sydney’s growing Hills District when she was just 12, Leanne was just happy to be working hard and quietly paving her own path. Now, after 35 years in the industry full-time, her hard work and dedication have seen her take out the Gold AREA award as the Most Influential Woman in the Property Market.

While Leanne says she is honoured to have received the award, she is – by her own admission – a somewhat disbelieving face of the women’s real estate movement.

“The only special thing about me is my willingness to work hard,” she reflects. “That’s really what has got me to where I am, bloody hard work.”

It’s that tireless work ethic that has seen Leanne launch the Real Women in Real Estate network and become only the second female president of the Real Estate Institute of NSW in more than a century.

She is also on the Real Estate Institute of Australia board. The Laing + Simmons Managing Director has used her position as REINSW President to influence a drastic overhaul of training, development and ethical conduct standards for the industry, with wide-reaching legislation changes coming into effect in NSW last month.

It’s one of Leanne’s proudest career achievements.

But her fully-fledged real estate career nearly didn’t take flight. Despite working for her dad, Peter, as a youngster, when Leanne finished high school in 1980 she planned to go to university and become a teacher.

When she ran out of cash at schoolies, Peter agreed to send Leanne some more money, but only if she came and worked for him until university started.

“So I worked and I decided not to go to uni,” Leanne says.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing working for her father, with Leanne admitting she was a typical teenager.

“Dad used to fire me every Friday,” Leanne recalls.

“Looking back at it now, did Dad handle the situation as well as he could have? Probably not, but I was definitely out of line.”

Despite their father-daughter hiccups, Leanne says she wouldn’t be where she is today without her dad and her mother, Neryl, instilling in her a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic.

“I still remember being about 14 and my best friend having a birthday party at Luna Park, but it was on a Sunday and I wasn’t allowed to go because I had to go to work,” Leanne says.

It’s a work ethic that stood Leanne in good stead given when she started selling real estate she was one of only a handful of women in the area doing so.

“I got into sales very early and very young, and it was at a time when my mum was the only other female salesperson around, certainly in the Hills district,” she recalls.

One of the reasons Leanne decided to undertake a gruelling property valuation course was to set herself apart from her fellow, male, sales counterparts.

Three nights a week for four years she’d finish work and drive from Castle Hill to the Sydney CBD to take the course.

“It was a lot of work and most didn’t actually finish it,” Leanne remembers.

“When I was going up against other salespeople they would always say ‘You’ve had Leanne in, have you? She’s a pretty little thing but …’

“So I did the valuation course to prove to myself and to everybody else that I was more than that.

“I was smart, I was strategic, and I wasn’t to be underestimated.”

By the time 1987 rolled around, Leanne was ready for a change and with three months worth of leave owing, she resigned and went to Europe for a break.

She did temp work for a while and later became a recruitment consultant.

She won recruiter of the year in her first year but found the job too repetitive.

Stints as a shopping centre manager and a role with a property developer followed, before a friend, who was the Laing + Simmons general manager at the time, asked her to return to the real estate fold.

The year was 1995 and Leanne came in as the marketing manager before moving into the general manager’s role about 18 months later.

“The thing with real estate is that I understand it really well and, more importantly, I understand the people.

“I understand the struggles of small business ownership and I understand the struggles of being the number one income producer in a business but still being the business owner and having all of those responsibilities as well.”

Leanne says one of the biggest lessons she learnt during her tenure as the shopping centre manager was the importance of creating a harmonious environment between those in leadership and those in the trenches.

When she got to Laing + Simmons, she discovered the franchisees didn’t like each other or head office.

When Robert Farrell and Tony Anderson bought the business, they all embraced the need to change the culture.

“I often joke that I’m a big believer in the bonding ability of beer,”

Leanne laughs.

“So we had more events because I knew the franchisees were really good people and if they got to know each other they would like each other.”

They introduced an annual conference, awards, a business leaders forum and more education and training for agents and staff.

“People say to me ‘you’re so lucky at Laing + Simmons, it’s a great culture’,” Leanne says.

“It didn’t happen by luck. It was strategic.

“It happened by design and we invested time and money into changing that culture.”

Leanne says one of her proudest career achievements has been the development of reforms which dictate stricter standards of training, development and ethical conduct.

She says over the years the NSW Government had lowered the barriers to enter the industry to boost competition and reduce the fees consumers had to pay, but the offset was a drop in competency.

“When I became a licensed real estate agent it was three years’ part-time and I had to have two years’ experience before I could open a business,” Leanne says.

“It got to the stage that you could do your license in maybe a month and you didn’t have to have any real estate experience, and you could go out and open an office.

“I decided that instead of complaining about it, I would get onto the board of the REINSW as I saw that as the most effective way of facilitating change.”

One of the key changes is the issuing of a one-off Certificate of Registration for four years, during which the certificate holder is required to complete a study course to qualify to apply for a class 2 licence.

If they don’t obtain that licence within four years, the certificate will expire and the holder won’t be able to re-apply for a certificate for another year.

Some in the industry fear such licensing requirements will see many part-timers, particularly women, leave the industry.

But Leanne says the requirement is not overly onerous.

“You’ve got four years to transition to a license and while you’re a certificate holder you do not have to do the continuing professional development that the rest of the industry has to do and that the licensed people have to do,” she says.

Another important contribution Leanne has made to women in the real estate industry is founding the Real Women in Real Estate network in October 2015.

She says up until that point she’d “actively avoided” women’s events, but after a couple of years of women continuously calling for her to tap into her network and to organise events, she said yes.

The group now has more than 2,000 members across the country and held its 50th event in June last year.

“I think on reflection I felt I spent so much time trying to fit in that I just didn’t want to be seen as a poster child for the women’s movement,” Leanne reflects.

“I had a lot of women working for me at Laing + Simmons at the time saying, ‘Leanne you’ve got such a great network. There’s so many of us that would really value being exposed to that’.”

At the first event in Sydney, 65 women attended, and there were swift calls for events in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Last year events were also held in Darwin and Tasmania for the first time.

Leanne attributes the success of the network to women looking for connection within the industry.

“Women connect and communicate differently when men are not in the room,” she says.

“They want to hear from people whose stories are like theirs, that are real and that are about the struggles they are facing.

“The women that are attracted to the network are the ones that want the tribe, that want connection, and that want to be in an environment where they don’t feel judged. “In return they don’t judge others.”

Leanne says the relationships and friendships that have formed as a result of the network have been amazing.

“Some of the people I am closest to in this industry, I have met through the network. It’s such a beautiful feeling. I love it.”

In 2018, the REINSW also held its first Women on Boards breakfast with the aim of helping women develop the confidence and know-how to further their careers with positions on boards.

When it comes to offering advice to young women entering real estate, Leanne takes a simple approach – learn as much as you can from as many great operators as you can.

She also recommends being clear on your goals and what you’re trying to achieve.

Leanne believes there are many forms of leaders and that they don’t only come in the form of business owners.

“There are lots of different ways of working and of being a leader,” she says.

“You don’t have to be the boss to be a leader, because there’s leadership at lots of different levels.

“I think you have to accept that there are times in your life where your focus needs to be firmly on your career, and there are other times in your life where the focus needs to be firmly on your family.

“You need to make the decision about what’s right for you.

“Don’t judge people for their choices and don’t let other people judge you for yours.”

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Kylie Dulhunty

Kylie Dulhunty is the Editor at Elite Agent.