Tak Talk Blog- Camp Takajo – Leadership Corner: Jason Lifton- April 12, 2023

By April 12, 2023 Tak Talk

Interview with Camp Takajo Alumnus Jason Lifton

Where did you grow up, and where do you currently live?
I grew up in Sands Point, NY on Long Island and now live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with my wife and three daughters.

Where did you go to college and graduate school?
I studied Political Science at George Washington University as an undergrad and then earned my MBA there, too. Fun fact – my freshman dorm at GW had six other Takajo alumni from my Okee year!
Were there any courses you took that you found to be particularly helpful in your current position?
While my political science degree doesn’t have a straight line to real estate development, I often tell people that poli sci is really the business of understanding people. A significant part of my job involves managing relationships with various stakeholders, including architects, contractors, lenders, and neighbors, and this relies heavily on what I learned in my full political science course curriculum.
In my MBA program, I had the opportunity to take classes with professionals from the real estate development industry. Learning about their experiences and how they navigated challenges gave me practical knowledge that I use daily. When choosing courses, I recommend seeking out professors who inspire you, as you’ll gain the most from educators who you find engaging and insightful.

Would you walk us through your career path?
When I graduated from college, my first ‘real job’ was working for the Senior Vice President for Student Services at GW while pursing my MBA in the evenings. The job didn’t translate directly into real estate, but I worked for an incredible team of people who taught me the soft skills of management and how to succeed as part of a much larger organization.
After my boss retired, I embarked on a new role at GW as the Chief of Staff to the Vice Provost for Military and Veterans Affairs, a recently retired Navy Admiral who was new to the University. We spent two years developing programs for the University to better support military veterans transitioning out of active duty and into higher education programs. The work was incredibly rewarding and having the opportunity to learn from so many impressive military leaders was something I will carry with me forever.
Once I finished my MBA, I knew I wanted to go into real estate, so I left my fulltime job at GW to work for a development firm in Washington, D.C. called Urban Investment Partners (UIP). During the interview process, I discovered that UIP was owned by a fellow Takajo alum, which provided a welcome sense of familiarity during the interview process. I spent three years at UIP learning the ins and outs of the development and construction process. Through my work at UIP I had the opportunity to work with an equity partner based in NYC, which was CIM Group. When my oldest daughter was born, my wife and I decided it was time to move closer to family and we started looking for jobs in NYC. I reached out to my counterpart at CIM about job opportunities on the New York team, and six weeks later we packed up with a three-month-old baby and moved to NYC.
Since joining CIM Group in 2017, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow while working on some incredible projects. I cover our NYC and Washington, D.C. markets working on projects of all scopes and scales. For example, I’m renovating a +100-year-old condominium building in Manhattan, building a 1.2 million-square-foot ground-up mixed-use project in Brooklyn, and master planning a new site in the mid-Atlantic, amongst others. CIM does incredible work and pushes me every day to be my best. I now play a leadership role in managing our New York Development organization and helping to support our growing team.

I imagine there is no “typical week,” but would you give us a glimpse into some of the types of the things that might take place over the course of your work week?
Every single day is different for me, but the most common task of my days and weeks is solving problems. Whether it’s an unforeseen condition during construction or a budget issue, it ultimately comes to me to help solve the problem. My typical day is about 80/20 at a desk and in the field. When I’m in the office, I’m reviewing new deal opportunities, meeting with my team to support the projects they’re working on, negotiating contracts, and reviewing the issues of the day. When I’m in the field, I spend my days with architects and contractors reviewing field conditions and checking the progress of work to make sure things are moving along as they’re supposed to.
Before and after my ‘workday,’ my second job is with my family where there’s a never-ending run of arts and crafts projects and spilled cups of milk. It’s always my favorite part of the day, even if it’s occasionally more stressful that my 9-5! Volunteering at my daughter’s school is a good outlet from the stresses of work. I’ve chaired the Parents’ Association and the school’s annual benefit which is rewarding and a good change of pace from a typical workday.

Who inspires you in terms of your career?
Michael Bloomberg sticks out to me as an aspirational leader. While our career fields don’t really overlap, I admire how he created a company by finding an opportunity in the market, and subsequently led that company to great success. He then successfully transitioned that success into a career in public service and philanthropy.

What are your hobbies?
These days most of my weekends are spent chasing my girls back and forth to birthday parties and kids’ activities. That said, I do love to get out on a boat whenever I can. My love for sailing started on Long Lake and there’s no place where I feel more relaxed and at peace than when I’m out on the water.

Did you have a career setback you faced that you later realized was an advantage?
I’ll never forget the morning my first boss at GW broke the news to me that he was retiring, and our office was being reorganized… I panicked. I loved my team and didn’t know where I would land. Obviously, it all worked out and I ended up moving into an exciting new position, but this was my first experience with professional uncertainty, and it was scary. I’ve carried this with me in my career – I try not to fear change. Not all change is bad, and uncertainty and transition often create opportunities. The greatest opportunities I’ve had for professional growth have come because of transition and change.

Are there any books, blogs, etc., that you would recommend to someone who is interested in building their own company?
I follow a handful of publications that help me keep up with real estate news and with world current events. I get the daily NY Times e-mail, Bisnow’s 15 Things You Should Know e-mail, the Crain’s daily e-mails and news alerts, and a miscellaneous selection of other informative emails in my inbox each morning.

What hard skills are most useful to someone in your field?
As a real estate developer, it’s important to know the basics of reading plans, understanding construction, and having a sense of the financial metrics that go into a deal. That said, most of the hard skills that I rely on are skills I’ve picked up by asking questions at work versus formal training. I’ve learned that not being afraid to ask for clarifications or guidance has taught me the ins and outs of this business. That’s why it’s essential to surround yourself with knowledgeable and intelligent people.
It’s my job to take the information that others provide and use that information to make decisions. While no one is relying on me to develop a structural foundation system, my team does rely on me to ensure that the decision in the field aligns with the business plan and that we deliver the project on schedule and within budget.

What soft skills are most useful to someone in your field?
I think that the soft skills required in this field are universal, and they revolve around building relationships and effective collaboration. As a leader within our organization, it’s crucial to know how to work with others and how to build a strong team. This team includes our company’s employees, consultants, contractors, and engineers, as well as neighborhood stakeholders, elected officials, and city staff. Bringing all these groups together to deliver the best outcome for a property requires the ability to solicit feedback, make decisions, and build consensus. These skills are essential for any leader, regardless of their industry, as they enable effective communication, collaboration, and decision-making.

What sorts of traits do you look for in a Mentor?
The best mentors I’ve had are those who have challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone. A mentor should be willing to invest the time to help you grow, and not just say “keep up the great work.” I’ve certainly had mentors or bosses who are frustrating in the moment but whom I now think about daily as I shape the type of leader that I want to become.
Participating in industry network groups has been a great way to find career mentors, but I also believe that building informal mentorship relationships with peers and colleagues is equally valuable. By observing how others conduct themselves, I can learn from their positive traits and incorporate them into my own management style. I also take note of traits I dislike and make a conscious effort to avoid them.

What years were you at camp?
I started at Takajo as a Crow in 1997 and went all the way through Senior camp in 2004. I then worked on the sailing staff from 2005 through 2010.

How has your camp experience impacted your career?
Camp taught me a strong foundation of independence. From a young age, I learned the importance of completing the simple tasks of daily life without the minute-to-minute direction of my parents looking over my shoulder. This has translated throughout the course of my career, making me a better employee and a better team leader. I have always approached my job as an independent thinker who doesn’t wait for minute-to-minute direction from my boss – I try to anticipate issues and jump on them before they become problems.

At Takajo what was your:
Favorite activity
My favorite activity at camp was sailing. As a camper, I spent hours each day on the sailing dock and eventually was lucky enough to work on the sailing dock for five summers as a Warrior and then Junior counselor. I’ve carried that love of sailing with me my whole life and really miss summers on Long Lake!

Favorite memory
My favorite memory as a camper was probably participating in the St. Croix trip during my Sub-senior year. We traveled to the northernmost border of Maine and spent seven days living out of canoes, camping, fishing, and swimming in the middle of nowhere. Putting aside the fun of the adventure, as I look back on that opportunity to disconnect from the world for seven days it is something I’ll likely never get to do again.

Alumni- Access the Career Mentorship Program at takajo.360alumni.com