When You're a Staff of One

These nine AEs from across the country share the good, the bad and the ugly on being the sole staff member at their associations.
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According to the latest National Association of REALTORS® data, more than 50% of association executives say they’re flying solo. For a staff of one, these AEs say, it’s a constant state of triage and the support of leadership and committees—when they’re willing and available—is critical. So, what does it really take to manage an association as a staff of one? These AEs tell it like it is.


What’s the hardest thing about being a staff of one?

Bowden: The hardest thing is constantly feeling like I am playing an unwinnable game of catch-up and the inability to ever go away on vacation and completely disconnect.

Brakken: For me, it’s knowing that I’m responsible for everything! And not having someone to bounce ideas off of. I don’t laugh as much as I did when I worked with others.

Collins: I learned a year or so into the gig [that] board of directors leaders and committee chairs are not your friends. I don’t mean that literally, but I do not talk to them as I would to a friend about association events, committees and so on. Talking to a member as you would to a friend is a sure way to get yourself in a lack-of-trust situation at some point. I keep many secrets, and my dog has heard them all!

Holloway: Learning to prioritize what needs to be done first when you have several things that are all high priority was very difficult for me in the beginning and sometimes still is. When I’m feeling very overwhelmed, sometimes I step away and take a walk or talk with one of my experienced board members. That helps to recenter my priorities.

Malooley: The hardest thing is trying to make everyone happy without making someone mad. I also understand the struggle to take a day off. I’ve set my office hours to Monday to Thursday, 8 to 4, so I get a day off.

Ray: I can honestly say there isn’t anything hard about being a staff of one. I’ve managed people in the past, and it’s not something I enjoy.

What’s the best thing about being a staff of one?

Holloway: Working with the members—hands down. I love that in a small association it is possible to know most of my members, and that they know my name and feel comfortable calling or texting for help. Whether I am working in the office or representing our association at meetings, that personal connection helps me remember who I am there for.

Bowden: I can listen to whatever music I want. And it’s also nice to really see the impact that I make.

Brakken: Knowing that I’m “it” gives me a great sense of pride and confidence. It’s gratifying to have the trust of so many people.

Collins: The best thing is not hearing excuses about why someone can’t get to work on time or that day. Also, I never have to worry about a miscommunication between members and staff that didn’t get communicated up the chain to me.

Stewart: My favorite thing is no office drama or jealousy!

Ray: I love that I’m responsible for my own schedule and time management.

Rose: The best thing about being a staff of one is the bond you create with members. We support one another and are there to help one another out. Even though our association is small, we are active in the community and strive to give back and put the focus back on the community as a whole.

How do you get members actively involved in service?

Holloway: Member involvement is a big challenge for a small board, especially one like ours, where we are spread out over a large geographical area. I have set a goal to visit each of our member offices personally at least once this year and twice a year in the future. Seeing their faces, shaking their hands and talking to members on a personal level is key. Otherwise “the board” or “the AE” is just someone an hour and a half away and disconnected from their day-to-day operations.

Bowden: We have an unwritten policy for all members of committees and the board to [prepare to] replace themselves. Whatever position you are in, you should be looking for someone who would be great for the role and then mentor them. This not only helps those moving up into a position but reminds those currently holding a position that they shouldn’t expect to stay there forever.

Brakken: My trick is to tell them they’ve been “nominated.” From there it’s simply explaining how fun or easy it is, how they’d fit in, and how it would benefit both them and the association. I try to spot potential service candidates and urge current leadership to do the same.

Malooley: I email surveys and hand them out at every event, asking members to participate and let us know about their talent and expertise. In October, the incoming board plans out their year and forms committees.

How do you set expectations, and how are roles and responsibilities determined with new leadership each year?

Ray: I do not get elected volunteer leadership involved in day-to-day administration. Frankly, leadership doesn’t need or want to know the minutiae of day-to-day operations—that’s the AE’s job.

Collins: I like to quote Bob Harris, cae [a nationally recognized speaker and educator on association management]: “Boards govern, staff (even a staff of one) manages.” I have this on a plaque in my office. Every year at the final board of directors meeting, we bring on the newly elected BOD members and go over expectations and goals and any “hot topics” or ongoing issues prior to their first BOD meeting.

Malooley: In November of the year, we have our local board attorney and accountant come in and speak. We also have our past presidents go over things to expect. I have an objective third-party trainer from Dynamic Directions provide leadership and committee training; I feel strongly it’s much more effective than doing it yourself. Our leadership and committee chairs are required to be at the training live; there is less distraction, and they enjoy being together. To keep the cost down, the trainer joins us virtually.

Brakken: The president proofreads the monthly e-newsletter. If I need feedback on something, I text or call the president if it’s urgent, or I email if it can wait.

Stewart: Partnering with other surrounding associations to provide quality training to leadership each year is key for a successful year. Bob Harris has provided leadership instruction twice in the last few cycles. After the instruction, I use Bob’s worksheets and conversation as reminders and reviews.

Taylor: One of the things I take responsibility for is all membership engagement, such as newsletters and event flyers. Because our president changes every year, this ensures our members have one consistent person educating them on association matters.

How do you keep up with Core Standards?

Bowden: At our committee orientation in January, I hand out the applicable section of the Core Standards to the committees. This way they understand our charge for the year and what they need to work toward. It gives the committees a deeper understanding of what their true mission is and how it applies to our charter.

Brakken: Core Standards is pretty routine now. Most of it is already built into our calendar of events. I start early and try to finish it off by September. I knock out the easy stuff first and keep a running list of what’s still needed. I’ve learned to keep it simple and not include more than what’s needed to show compliance.

Collins: After each event or something pertaining to Core Standards, I import photos into a specific folder on my computer. I carve out time each quarter to drop it into the correct spot on the Core Standards platform.

Holloway: I keep a running spreadsheet. As the end of the year approaches, we discuss the standards during our board of directors’ meetings to make sure we are all on the same page. I’m fortunate to have a great state team that checks in regularly and offers ideas and assistance.

Ray: As soon as the current year’s Core Standards are available, I check for any additions or changes to make sure our annual strategic plan includes those changes, if necessary.

Rose: I created a Core Standards checklist that is updated each year and shared in the RARE database and on the AEI Year-Round Facebook page. This has been a helpful tool for myself and others in keeping up throughout the year. For those who reach out with questions, my first statement [as the page administrator] is that if I don’t know the answer, we will learn together.

How do you stay organized?

Bowden: I asked my committee chairs and co-chairs to pick a standard meeting day, so nothing would be planned on a whim or fall by the wayside.
I usually plan out a full month of social media posts at the beginning of the month. My newsletters go out on the first and 15th of every month. I keep a lot of lists, so I don’t get overwhelmed or forget anything. Last year, I purchased a reusable notebook by Rocketbook. When I’ve completed everything on the page, I can just erase it. If I need to keep the notes, I scan the QR code and upload them to the cloud for later. I have a whiteboard for all of my big project items; it’s always full!

Brakken: I am just a severely organized person. I still use a desk calendar and a paper list of things to do!

Holloway: It is important for me to keep my email inbox as organized as possible because much of our business is done electronically. Otherwise, things can easily be missed or slip through the cracks.

Malooley: I have a folder on my desk for every function with information on the previous year’s event. I also have a giant wall calendar with the next year’s events filled in.

Ray: I get an old-school “At-a-Glance” organizer several months before the new year and set up annual events, travel and deadlines for the upcoming year, using my current organizer as a template. I do my best to be proactive and not procrastinate. If possible, I get things done ahead of time. If I wait until the last minute to complete a task, something unexpected will inevitably come up, and I’ll get stressed out. It’s important to be realistic, expect the unexpected and stay flexible.

Rose: I rely on Excel spreadsheets for membership information, and I keep all of my documents in a small spiral-bound notebook with 12 pockets. It has worked perfectly for the past few years and keeps everything in one spot.

Taylor: “Reset Friday” is my time to put things in the correct folders and clear off my desk so, come Monday, I can have a fresh start to my week.

How do you prevent personal burnout?

Rose: My husband and I drag-race on weekends, and it’s a nice distraction from the workweek. I also love photography. I’ve learned to juggle quite a bit at once, including serving on other boards, and, for now, have managed to keep it all going.

Bowden: Understand that you are one person. If you stayed at the office until all the work was done, you’d never leave. Make sure that you stick to your scheduled office hours—mostly, because who are we kidding? Unless it’s an emergency, the work will still be there tomorrow.

Brakken: I exercise regularly and try to keep “normal” office hours. I try not to dwell on the negative stuff.

Holloway: I have to be very deliberate in turning off the phone and laptop for time spent reading or in the sun or on the water. We all need downtime to give our brain and body a break.

Ray: I have learned to say no. As an AE, I like to keep my members happy and well served, but there are times when I have to say no. I regard myself as a resource for resources and don’t get involved in things that are not in my wheelhouse.

How do you use your network to help you do what you need to do?

Ray: Personal contact, even if it takes a bit more time, is so worth it. I make personal phone calls, make a point to personally greet members at continuing education classes and membership meetings, and maintain a close relationship with real estate firm admins for their assistance with dues collection, member involvement, triennial Code of Ethics training and more.

Last year, our North Carolina AE Committee chair also created a spreadsheet (AE Awesome Experienced Contacts) that we can reference. AEs add their name to specific categories indicating where they have experience and are willing to serve as a resource for others.

Bowden: The AEI Year-Round Facebook group, along with the RARE database, is an invaluable resource. I use it all the time to ask questions and poll the group. No need to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel!

Also, the knowledge I’ve gained from the NAR Leadership Summit or AE Institute is worth the time away from the office. Networking and collaborating with colleagues has given me new perspectives and new ways of doing things.

Brakken: I connect nearly daily via email with our contracted bookkeeper and our volunteer MLS Committee chair. I couldn’t do this job without them. I try to update the president on what I’m doing via email every week. The elected leaders are quite busy, so between meetings we usually only text as needed.

Rose: As chair of the AE Committee for NC REALTORS®, I am working this year within our objectives to show that “AEs R Valued.” We did T-shirts for all our North Carolina AEs to show support for one another and build a stronger bond. As AEs, we network throughout the year via Zoom networking hours, and our vice chair started a book club to continue the growth and development of our group.

What’s the best advice you can give to your fellow AEs in this same situation?

Bowden: Breathe. Use the resources you have available. Remember, your fiduciary responsibility is to your association. You’ve got this.

Brakken: Be organized, and don’t take things personally (or too seriously). Show members what a great asset you are to them.

Rose: My best advice is don’t be afraid to reach out and ask the “dumb” questions. There truly aren’t any.

Stewart: Take courses and training offered by NAR and, when you meet the requirements, obtain the RCE certification.

Taylor: Have a five-year plan so you can always make sure you are moving forward and investing in your professional career.

Malooley: Keep pushing forward. Sometimes this role is very hard and you question if it’s worth it, but at the end of the event or the year, you can look back and say, “I did it!”

Collins: Another slogan on my desk is from the Ronald Reagan Library: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Don’t get drawn into the whole “who gets the credit” debate. Take the high road and enjoy the ride!

Written by: Danielle Wong Moores is the senior editor for AExperience.

The AEs


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