Sometimes, when Ryan McLaughlin and his team at the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS® are at work, they’re actually not. That’s because McLaughlin, RCE, CAE, the association’s CEO, plans deliberate “offsites” that aren’t just for learning and strategic planning, although those are some of the objectives. They’re also an opportunity for team members to connect with each other through meals, a fun activity (recently, it was a wine and painting session) and simple, spontaneous moments. In addition to the annual offsites, he also organizes team activities, such as a mini golf night a few months ago where staff members brought their family members along, and training sessions where staff receive professional development.
“We can kind of unplug a little bit and refocus on each other and the organization,” McLaughlin says.
While navigating through all the usual challenges of association leadership and confronting the cultural and legal challenges facing the industry, it’s crucial to find time to prioritize team building at work. That’s the core of McLaughlin’s approach, he says, to the point where the acronym TEAM comprises NVAR’s corporate values: T stands for team player, E for excellence, A for ambitious and M for motivated. “We try to live that in everything that we do,” he says.
Importantly, team-building activities remove “silos that might exist or could potentially build up,” McLaughlin says, and give staff a “stronger sense of organizational ownership.” Team members know who they are as people, take initiative, understand how they fit into the bigger picture of the association and support each other’s successes.
No Association Is the Same
Terrie Suit, RCE, CAE, CEO of Virginia REALTORS®, oversees a 38-person staff that works remotely most of the time. What has worked for her is open communication—particularly cross-functional communication—through virtual means. But like McLaughlin, Suit gathers team members in person on projects, and the association organizes regular, in-person touchpoints throughout the year at set times. This includes summer cookouts, a holiday lunch and twice-yearly “staff morale events,” where staff members drive in from across the state to bond over a fun activity.
“We’ve done Topgolf,” she says. “We’ve rented out an arcade twice. We did a river cruise one year.”
John Sebree, RCE, CEO of the California Association of REALTORS®, faces a different challenge. “With 150 staff members, it is not easy to have a lot of quality one-on-one time with everyone,” he says. “But they have access to my calendar and can schedule lunches and quick meetings.”
For senior staff members, Sebree hosts a monthly offsite meeting. “We spend an entire day together,” he says. “This has really been successful as it allows us to concentrate on many issues in one day with no interruptions. And we have a good meal or two together at the same time.”
Travis Kessler, RCE, CAE, the president and CEO of Texas REALTORS®—which has a staff of 78—agrees on the value of a good meal to facilitate team building. Lunch and learns are one example, where staff members may receive training or updates from different departments at the association. But there are other activities as well, such as happy hours, regular socials and seasonal activities, to help everyone “get to know each other a little bit better,” says Kessler. “We bring in snacks, food, drinks and games that we play in groups to further enhance working together.”
Some noteworthy fun activities featured at previous events? Bowling, ring toss and, in true Texas style, riding a mechanical bull.
Roughly 50 miles northwest of Chicago, Jim Haisler, RCE, MRE, the CEO of the Heartland REALTOR® Organization, is on the other end of the size spectrum. Including himself, his association has just four staff members. He prioritizes creating an inclusive environment by “finding commonality” through activities that staff enjoy.
When it comes to selecting events, Haisler’s team members have a say. For instance, when the board of directors gave Haisler a Ticketmaster gift card for AE Appreciation Day on Sept. 28, he encouraged his staff to find a show so they could all go together.
“I really feel that’s important for us, just to recognize each other as humans,” he says. “When you work closely together and spend a lot of time together as a group, it’s always business, business, business, and sometimes you get some friction.”
Haisler also recognizes the value of giving people time and space to clear their minds. One staff member who enjoys going on walks carves out 15- to 20-minute breaks each workday. Haisler also hosts twice-a-month meditation sessions on Zoom for staff and other association executives.
Ultimately, though, an association doesn’t have “unlimited funds” for team-building activities, he says, so he finds other ways to form a work environment people want to stay in. Flexibility and the option to work remotely are two ways he does so.
“It goes a long way with people in general, that flexibility— that appreciation for who they are as a person,” Haisler says.