The Capstone Propcast: Leading Teams to Success with Denis Mavrokefalos


Welcome to the podcast, Denis Mavrokefalos- It's really good to see you. What we want to do today is explore the stories and insights of various people in the real estate and construction sector, across the UK, Europe and the US. I know that you've had legs in both camps over the last five or six years, which is brilliant.

The purpose of today’s podcast is to uncover how you found your way into the industry and the major influences and influencers in your career, as well as to get your insights on future changes across the real estate and construction sector. So let's start by you introducing yourself and tell us about what you do, how we know each other and what you're doing now.


Okay! I’m Denis Mavrokefalos and I'm currently the PMO lead for EMEA for JLL. I have been in the industry for 20 plus years, originally trained in South Africa and then moved over to the UK. I know Capstone very well because we've worked together as a candidate, as well as a client. I've always had a need for recruitment agencies within the UK market and we're finding that need is spreading.

As the labour markets change, we're finding that we need that hiring support elsewhere and that's how we’ve come to partner and work together. It's been a very, very good journey together for many, many years.


Yes, it certainly has. I think you've worked with most people across the business, which is always really, really good. Obviously, you and I have thrown ourselves off a building, abseiling together, which I had completely forgotten about by the way.


I’ve still got the photo. It was 30 something floors. I found that the walk up the stairs was more stressful than climbing down - I think you had the opposite experience. But it was really nice and I had a lovely lady supporting me. She was really chatty and we had a good chat coming down the building.


So, tell us a bit about you, Dennis. This is all about you, your thoughts and your background. But tell us about your background? How did you get into the real estate sector? Because, you were at the University of South Africa, weren’t you?


That's correct. So, it's a bit of an interesting journey. I was 14 or 15 and at some point, in school, we had to make decisions on what courses we wanted to do. As probably most kids of that age, I had no idea. I went in for a few aptitude tests and the general feedback from my teachers was, “likes numbers, doesn't like words”. So that halved the industry options and I've always opted for the more technical side of things. I picked a bunch of courses, in terms of school subjects, that would facilitate more of the science side of life.

Then I finished school, I went to a design college for interior design, because at the time I was good at drawing. So, I really got into the design aspects of it and loved it, but what I realised very quickly was that I just wasn't a designer. I was good at technical drawing and good at solving problems, but the design aspect, you know, without stereotyping, I wasn't the flamboyant person who would walk into the room and own the design. That just wasn't my personality.


You mean from a creative perspective? 


Yes, as a personality, I'm more just sit behind the scenes and get the job done. I wasn't the person who had this vision and was going to build something, that just wasn't me. So, I felt very early on that there were people on the course, colleagues and friends, that were much better at that, and it just wasn't for me. I had to follow my heart. I built on what I knew, and I had a few friends who had done a construction management course and loved their stories. So I went, did a bit more investigation and I signed up for that.

I did a four-year construction management BSc Hons and I loved the course because we moved campuses. So, when we did accounting, tax, and chemistry, we did it with those departments. We ended up, pretty much, studying with every department, apart from medical. The law was with the lawyers and accounts was with the accounting team, so I really got a massive flavour of what the bigger world looks like through that course.

When I finished, I went into project management, and I did that for a few years. My first job was massive. It was a large casino in South Africa, and I got the taste and I got hooked. I liked being in a room with 20 people, solving problems that no one knew the answers to, but we got there. I enjoyed that for a while. Then me and my girlfriend, now wife, made the decision to go to London. We were both EU citizens at the time, this is pre-Brexit so a long time ago. So, we could just land and plug and play and the market was buoyant.

I landed on the Sunday, and I was working by the Wednesday. I think one of the reflection points for me was I didn't have any family in the industry. It was difficult in the beginning because of the network. You know, I didn't have an uncle who could open a door or worked at a developer or whatever. Everything we did was through agencies because that was my way of getting into the market. I moved around a little in the beginning because we were still getting settled in London. The plan was to stay for two years. This was in 2002/2003 and we stayed there for 15 years. That's the short story.

During that time, MRICS which is a very, very, very valuable course. I wasn't a very good student when I was at school, I never really understood why I needed to do it. But once I grew up, I realised the benefits. So, I put everything into the MRICS program and I came out feeling like a professional. I really felt like I'd grown up and it was a good thing. But it's what you put in things. For me, that was one point of, you put it all in and you get something out.

Then using that, I started understanding more about the market and the roles and responsibilities of what we could do, and I shifted more into the QA side of things. So, cost management, and again, that opens up your doors in terms of different clients, where you are at the table etc. I did that for a while and then I was very fortunate in 2007 to go work for Goldman Sachs as a client. It was the EMIR portfolio, it was expanding. Up till that point, it was very much South Africa, and let's say, local land and projects. Now, I was exposed to all of Europe and I loved it. I delivered 17 countries while I was there for six years, and I changed roles two or three times.

When I reflect back, that was probably one of the, without insulting any of my previous bosses or employees, it was one of the most influential places to work. The basics, the principles, the way they ran an organisation, the culture was very hard, but there were some amazing lessons. I walked away in 2013, very tired, but happy. That's when I joined JLL, and I've been here for nine years. Within JLL, I've swapped roles. I started in an occupier costs manager side. Within JLL when I joined, there was a big gap in that we weren't doing any work outside of London, in the UK from a cost management perspective. So, I started doing a lot more portfolio work.

Rolling all the way back to my college days, understanding all the different disciplines, now I call them stakeholders, then going to Goldman's and understanding and living with those stakeholders, those people I went for lunch every day, and now becoming a consultant it all started finishing the loop. Once I was in any city and talking to a client, I got it quite quickly, just because of my experience and maybe my openness to diversity. I don't hear accents and I don't worry about languages; I just get on with it and it seemed to pay off. Then we left London in 2017 and moved with JLL to California to help grow the cost management discipline in country and I was privileged to work on some amazing projects.

One of the highlights was the Lucas Museum. I worked on this big $1.3 billion scheme from the beginning. That hasn't finished yet and I haven't seen the end yet. But when it does, I'll definitely make sure I get to go out. I got to meet Mr. Lucas himself so that was amazing. I got to sign the steel that went in when they were building the friars. So, there were some real memorable moments there, but I worked in 11 states including Hawaii and it was one of my goals in life to build a hotel in Hawaii, I'm not sure why. I managed to work on a project there so I’m very, very, very blessed.

Then for family reasons, the west coast, as awesome as it was, was just too far. So, we moved and that's where this role came up, I took it over from a good friend, Karen, she was running it within the business, and was privileged to be able to pick where to work from. We picked Lisbon as my wife is Portuguese and we are now based in Lisbon doing programme management across the globe. It's been a bumper journey with lots of lessons and lots of stories.


That's amazing. So, it's really interesting, because you've got the programme management, cost management, client side, and the consultancy side covered. You've worked in the UK and the US, and now you're based in in Lisbon.

Given that you've worked across client side and consultancy side and all of these regions, you must have been able to draw on many different people and different leadership styles. You're now in a leadership position yourself, so what have you learned? Whether it be cultural differences that you've drawn from and apply to your own style, or not as the case may be? 

I'm really keen to understand all the lessons that you've learned around leadership and which bits you’ve taken as part of your style? Because we're all sponges as we’re developing through our careers and learning what our innate style is and then maybe building on some strengths that other people have that don't come as naturally. So, what would you say have been your main influences, whether geographical or from a sector perspective, on your current leadership style and positioning?


I think, the simple answer is I've learned from all of it. I think each sector runs differently, but I'll give you an example. We did work for Sky and everything they do is urgent, and everything is go, go, go. Having to adapt and work to their pace was a lesson. Once you've done that two or three times, which I've done now, when I meet a client, I always ask myself, where are you on that scale of who you are and what's important to you? So, I think listening and trying to adapt and be responsive to your audience was probably a very, very important lesson.

In terms of geography, all the places I've worked in are different, all the places have pros and cons. So, without damning or having HR get called because of my views of the politics, I would say I've got a blend now with an international flavour and it's a little bit of everything. I like the American go-getter attitude. I like the fact that when you ask for something it comes within a day. I love the fact that in Europe it takes two weeks to answer, because there's lifestyle and other things involved. There's a balance. But I think it's that responsiveness, it’s that attention to detail and care. When someone asks you something, I think just acknowledging that they've asked even if you may or may not know the answer.

I think network is really, really important and sharing your network. I don't see it as a little secret black book. I just see it as lots of folks that I know and if anyone I know can help someone else, I would hope we would all just pay it forward and just share. For me, that's an important thing. If it takes five minutes of my day and saves you two days of work, then I've done a good job. One day, maybe that will come back to me. But I do it because I love it and I care. You know, I don't do it for the outcome. Maybe that's not a good thing, I don't know, but I do it for what I think are the right reasons. You know, we get to have fun, we only get one chance at it, so we might as well enjoy it and do the best we can.

I think from a corporate environment perspective I’ve also learned a lot. I’ve worked with British organisations, I’ve worked with international businesses, as well as US-led companies and they've all got very different ways of working. My personality is very optimistic, so I think I just ignore the things I don't like and just move on to what I do like, and that's really become part of me.

 For me, authenticity is important and being honest and open. We're not here to play games. If there's a deal to be done, let's talk about it and if it's not going to work out, say thank you, shake hands and move on. If we make mistakes, we put our hands up, we say sorry, but then more importantly, we learn from it and we fix it. Whatever we've done wrong, let's acknowledge it, let’s own it and let's take it forward. I think the people that I've worked with the best are the ones that gave me their time. Don't just email me and say your work’s not so good. Tell me, spend time with me and invest. That's where I've learned the most and I try and do that a lot with the people that I work with. I'm also flat and open with the way I work. I don't fit in well with that hierarchical structure because I think we are all equal. I don't care if you've got one day of experience or 100, I think we've all got something valid to add and it's just about bringing that together. So, there are lots of lessons there.

Then from each sector, hospitality and the way they run their business, to the way a casino runs it, to the way a bank runs it. All of those are very important. I think, be adaptable, and get the message right but be true to yourself. It may be a good summary.


I mean that's certainly been our experience of working with you. You've always been extremely generous with your network and introductions and bringing us together into conversations. That's definitely been the case. I really heard you when you were talking about giving people time when people gave you time and how that really impacted you positively.

How do you balance that in your role now, when you’ve got an EMIR wide role and I assume you've got lots of liaison across multiple cities in Europe, and you're based in Lisbon? I imagine that there's also lots of travel, but talk to me about how you manage your teams and your stakeholders when there's a remote aspect or geographical remoteness associated with things?


Good question and I'm still working on that. I think that's a current thing from a society perspective also. I think COVID really helped push that agenda forward and I think we are all still learning a lot about it. When I was in California, we had a neighbour who had been working with Dell for 15 years remotely. So clearly, he's mastered it. But there's not many people like that, that I know of. Most of the firms really want to see people and want to be present.

I think for me, it's about building the relationships very quickly, understanding who that person is, what they need and getting to the point quickly. It's easily done over a lunch, dinner, or a drink but it's a little bit harder on a virtual call. I think that's about acting with intent. You know, you've reached out, you need help but what do you really need? How can I help you get to the point quickly? When I travel, I make a point of meeting up with folk while I'm there. So, when I go to a city, I'll meet up with three, four or five people that I know. Maybe there's nothing to get out of it, it's just to say hello and build and maintain those relationships. That's something I do struggle with, and it takes a lot of time.

The remoteness has also got an element of out of sight, out of mind. So, it's always important that you make yourself available. If someone's going through a bad day and they’re making decisions based on that, it'll be nice that they reached out to you first, before they make a decision or maybe you could help them make a better decision? So always being available helps. What I try and do is block out time in my mornings, so I always have a slot in the day. I block out Fridays, so I don't try and book any meetings on Fridays. That's my emergency day. Whatever happens, we can deal with it on Friday, worst case.

Time zones are a challenge. I think you need to be hard. I've been respectful for other people's time zones and been a bit more flexible, but also be selfish with your time. If you're not, you could work 24/7. The world just keeps on going. I don't feel I need to be apologetic about having a life and having things to do but be professional about it and always offer a solution. In terms of motivating people, that’s also difficult because managing people you've never met is hard. So again, it goes back to what is the motivation and how do we build a relationship beyond the transaction? You work for me, you're servicing client X, you're making me a revenue, but what do you really want as a person?

I think that's where JLL is very good in that we've got a big structure around it and it's about trying to be open and available. What worries me is the unknown. I don't know some of the people in the team because there's 200 plus and I don't know if some of them are unhappy. So, what I've tried to do is build a better structure. At a technical programme manager level, I've got a level between me and other accounts and I'm trying to task those individuals who I trust to build those relationships. So at least that person has a relationship with the bigger machine and it's not just if you don't know me, then you don't have any options.

We also spent all of last year building a community. We had monthly calls, introducing different topics and sharing opportunities to try and bring everyone together. With us, we have a lot of seconded roles, so what's important for me is you work for the client, but you really are still JLL. The client’s somewhere you visit and at some point, you're going to come back to the mothership and we're going to do what we do and then you'll maybe go to another client. Having that link back to the mothership is really, really important for us. So that's how we try and manage it, but it's not easy.

Having said that, I've learned so much from everybody and I ask questions. I ask cultural questions, but sometimes you’ve got to be careful, but you can learn a lot. Just understanding how that culture works sometimes is very helpful and you can get straight to the point quite quickly.


It's really interesting. One of the points that you mentioned earlier that echoes through your response to that question, and I always think this is a huge topic within real estate and construction, is about your network. Now, you've said that you've not come from a long line of surveying or project managers, which a lot of surveyors traditionally would do. But network is really important in this industry.

First of all, does building a network come naturally to you? What I find from speaking to a lot of leaders is, it seems very natural but it's really not. I think this is going to be really helpful for people watching this who are thinking about their careers and they're trying to figure out how to grow their network. How have you gone about that and how do you keep up to date with your network? And also, how do you grow it? 


I'm actually a very shy person naturally and I don't like networking. What I did was, I managed to convince myself that there were things I needed to do to work around it. I'll give you an example. If I went to a conference, it was very comfortable for me to go and listen to all these interesting speakers and learn lots of things, then at tea breaks or lunch breaks I would grab my phone and check on some important emails. One day I reflected, and I thought, what's the point in coming here? I might as well just YouTube it. There was no benefit being in the space. So, my promise to myself was to have no phone and switch it off. You’re here for the day, be selfish with your time and focus on why you want to hear their session and make a point of talking to lots of people.

My goal was 20 people a day. It didn't actually matter who it was and it didn't matter the outcomes. The first time I did it, it was hard and I sweated and I struggled. But every time I did, it just got easier and easier, and it taught me to develop a habit of breaking into a little chat with people. Some of those relationships have proved worthwhile, because three months later, I needed something, or they needed something and then they reached out. I forced myself to find a way that I could do it that I was also comfortable with. I'm not the type to follow up with every single person. If I did that, it wouldn't work and I wouldn't like it. I'd be very much out of my comfort zone for too long. The other thing that I do is share little stories with people. It lets me breaks the ice and once somewhere in my head that ice is broken, then it's not really that scary anymore. I've worked out what my tipping point is and I’ve forced myself to get over that point so now it's comfortable. In terms of maintaining the relationships, that's hard. If you just looked at LinkedIn and how many people you've connected with, there's a lot and you can't speak to every person every day, every year. I think it's just about being present and available and some people you’ll lose along the way.

I would also say at an early stage your career, you meet so many people so just absorb everything and put a bit of effort in so that they know who you are. In the beginning, you have to do more chasing and more reminding. As you get more senior, maybe more people are chasing for your time. Again, give them some time. You don't know who they know and at the end of the day it all works out. But I try not to meet people and build a network based on transactions. Just because you're the boss of something doesn't mean I need to be your friend. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I feel there has to be a chemistry. There has to be a common need, something that brought us together, either a hobby or a sport, or we lived in the same country. There has to be something, because if there's no story, then it's very transactional and it's like a yellow pages.


I think that's really helpful from a practical perspective. It does not come naturally to me whatsoever. So I have to really force myself to, first of all, put myself in that situation and then to maximise the event and just open up conversation with new people. Despite moving around every two years as a child, that doesn't matter, it still doesn't come naturally to me to open up that dialogue.

So, if we look at your career, and you touched on some of the most influential times in terms of people giving you time, is there a particularly influential person in your career past or present who has had such an impact on you? And if so, who are they what impact did they have on you and how does that affect you now?


There's been so many, but I'll give you one. Maybe another way to answer the question is every person that I've met at some point, I've learned something from them. Somebody has given me something and I remember their face, I remember that moment and I remember how they made me feel. Sometimes it was by watching them because they were doing something that had nothing to do with me, sometimes not.

The example is, I was going into Goldman Sachs really early one morning and the offices were closed. One of the meeting rooms still had a light on and it was like, 6:00am or 6:30am in the morning. So I wandered past, and it was a guy from the US who had come to work with us for a few years on a big project we were running. I knocked on the door and asked what he was doing here so early in the morning. He replied and said we're meeting with a cladding company and at that point, we were doing a big HQ for government, which was a big project. He said we've got an issue with the cladding system and he had the cladding catalogue out with little samples and was doing research.

I was like ‘you're the project director’ and he said we need to make a decision today and move this forward, otherwise the project will be delayed and over budget and I need to know more than the supplier, the contract and everybody else in that room to nail it. For me, that was a real moment of ownership and a real moment of sacrifice, because this was important to the project. But what was important was it was his job to get it over the line and he took ownership and acted with intent.

I think back to the conference point of why are you here? What do you really want to get out of that experience? What should you be getting out of it? What is your role or objective? Then act with intent and do it and ignore the world for two to three hours. That story really sticks with me. But every time I'm in a situation, a story like that comes to mind and I remember how that made me feel. It was like a movie moment.


I suppose it was more the takeaway from that that I was interested in, as opposed to the individual. I really feel that some of the actions that people unknowingly do, just through who they are and their style and maybe what they've taken from other people, is what can be the biggest influence in somebody else's career.

The final question I've got for you is around what you think some of the biggest trends, challenges, or opportunities that our sector, being real estate and construction, faces over the next few years?


That’s a big, big question. In my personal opinion, the world has gone a little bit crazy. Covid has opened up a pandora’s box of stuff and I don’t think the world, the industry and individuals were ready for it. We’ve seen a shift in working remotely starting to come back, we need people back in the office two or three days a week now. We are in 21 countries in terms of our team and where they live, and clients are becoming more particular with where those locations are, based on where they are. I think the remote working model is working less. It’s more about flexible working, not remote working, which does have a subtle difference.

Depending on what market you are in, we were in Paris a few weeks ago and they have a very aging structure. Everybody in client side does everything – they don’t outsource a lot. But those folks are now starting to retire. So it now feels like they are shifting to a more outsourced model, but culturally this is a big shift for them. It will take them a long time and the industry won’t react quickly. From my perspective, that’s exciting but we need to be patient.

The UK is going through a lot of change with IR35 now and how that space works with contractors vs. fulltime. I’m seeing more people prefer full time, but they don’t see it as a job for life anymore. There’s less job security because there’s more volatility in the world but they like what the experience gives them. Others love contracting and want to do more of it, so there’s a bit of a shift.

I think my generation and the one above, we’re at a certain point in the cycle and probably have different viewpoints and perspectives on what we want from work. I love working remotely, but we’ve got a lot of graduates who need to be in the office. If they want to grow their network, they have to be in the office. It sounds idyllic to be working somewhere remote and exotic, but when you’re in your twenties and thirties you need to be out and about, and meeting and greeting.

It's all about balance, but sometimes the balance isn’t always right. We’re seeing younger folk coming in with bigger expectations around salaries and around the lifestyle. There’s lots of funky, interesting conversations going on and I love the diversity and flexibility. Where we can, we will always accommodate but I don’t think expectations are in the box anymore.

When I was going through my RICS, it was a very well-travelled path that everyone followed and I’m not sure the path is as clear anymore. I think with folk like me working remotely, people don’t see all the work I do every day. My ability to influence and inspire or show people how not to do it is limited because people only see me when I’m on a call.

The other challenge is the client themselves. They are facing more budget constraints and limited portfolio pipelines so they’re ability to hire and spend is restricted and they’re trying to squeeze more out of people. Some sectors are doing better, some are not doing that well, but we’re not in a recession so it’s not a banking crisis.

Going back to the younger generation, they’ve not lived through a bad time economically. I believe you judge people when they’re down, not when they’re up. So now it’s a question of resilience. In my generation, we were told to get a job and get on with it. I’m not saying that was right, but everything is more emotional now.

I think the world is also becoming more diverse. One positive thing that I love is that there are more females in the industry. When I first joined, it was all men and we would often go to the pub after work and talk as guys do. In some ways that has changed and I miss the camaraderie and the social aspects of it because people don’t always have time to do that after work now. But that’s also important.

I think finally, one thing that excites me but also scares me is technology. The industry itself is not the most progressive when it comes to technology. There are hundreds of products out there that report to do really exciting things, but ultimately our industry is human-based. So how do we adapt the technology to suit our working styles and make us more powerful vs. getting the technology to do our job for us? It comes down to how much of the work we do can be taken away by technology and how much of the work could we do better because we now have more time to be humans and consult.

The shift to consulting and away from tactical, repetitive work will continue but I just don’t know where that balance is. I fear one day that I won’t have a job because of technology, but I think I have control over that to a degree. If I’m in a role that will become obsolete, now is the time to reposition, retrain and build a new network. We’ve got to always look ahead but live in the present and learn from the past.


Wow I think that’s the best ending sentence, especially for a podcast. I think there could be a real opportunity to have a roundtable to have business leaders discuss technology and whether it will be a disruptor or enabler. Obviously, it’s a huge topic but I think it’s interesting to learn from different leaders in different organisations within our sector and see how people are using technology to enable them to be more efficient. But also, the flip side of that and how they’re managing their teams and stopping people from feeling insecure about the future. I might talk to you about that in the coming months.


Quick question for you. Job applications used to be through agencies or through a HR person, but now it’s more web based. From my perspective, AI and keywords are now filtering through those job applications. Are we at risk of not being able to get to the right people because the role is about the talent, the personality and the cultural fit? Because it feels like we’re just ticking boxes. Have you seen that in your role and what you do?


I think that’s a really important question. We haven’t replaced any of our recruitment process with technology. We haven’t replaced any of our screening or engagement or CV feedback with tech. I’m sure there are people who are using it to make improvements But, we are very old school in terms of that human connection and the network and building that rapport.

What I always say is speak to people, because it’s the hesitations in their answers that you want to explore. It’s not what they say that’s important, it’s those hesitations and what they don’t want. That will make you be a better recruiter for that candidate or client because you’ll understand the nuances of human behaviour and I don’t think that can be picked up by AI.

What we are starting to use technology for the less human elements, such as advert writing and formatting CVs. The end customer experience is really important, as well as investing in technology that can help you gain insight into the customer experience. Until about a month ago, it’s all been anecdotal, but what I’ve done is invested in tech to really capture the customer experience, whether it be candidate or client, post Capstone interview or post interview with a client, once we’ve placed them or once they’ve been there for a year.

Yes, that’s not to replace the human element. I think if there’s an element of telling an anonymous system how you really feel about the service, sometimes they are going to be more honest than telling the individual that provided that service. What I’m trying to do is introduce technology to better our human interaction and to take away aspects of our team’s role that can be automated without losing the customer experience. That way they can do what they’re really good at and what they enjoy for more of the time.


I think that’s a good answer. I think the key for me in your space specifically is it’s someone’s life. They’ve put their family’s future in your hands to put them in a place where they can be safe, happy and thrive. That’s what worries me about the technology piece because it doesn’t see any of that. I think there’s a lot that it can do from a data, enabling and workflow perspective but it still doesn’t replace the human.


We don’t get it right every time and some of that is because we place so much emphasis on the human interaction. We don’t have the time to answer every email or every application and that actually keeps me up at night. That’s where I want to use tech to give people feedback so they know they’re not right and they haven’t got the opportunity. I think we can fall short if we’re trying to do all of that in person and we end up putting it off, when actually it’s an emotive time in someone’s life. You need to know whether you’re going to be suitable. It’s always a balance.

It's been brilliant to talk to you Denis. It’s been brilliant for people who are going to be watching and learning how someone like you have got to where you’ve got to and what you’ve taken from it. Thank you so much and I will speak to you again soon I’m sure.

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Sarah Davenport

1st June

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