The Key to Stronger Associations? Team-Building

Team building, A group of coworkers enjoy an alfresco lunch

© Catherine Falls Commercial / Moment / Getty Images

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.


Building Bonds With Local Associations

In addition to supporting their staff, state association AEs also focus on supporting and building relationships with their local associations.

“We’re all independent associations, but the point of entry to all three levels is the local association,” says Suit, who, as CEO at Virginia REALTORS®, serves 28 local associations. “That’s where the members have the most engagement. So, as a state association, what we try to do is really support our local associations and help them be as successful as possible.”

Her staff regularly meets with locals to give talks and provide advice and insight, and Suit works to promote a sense of teamwork among the local AEs through biannual “peer-topeer” retreats. “Probably the most value during our retreats is the time for the AEs to all get to know each other and to develop camaraderie and relationships—really a support system of other peers,” Suit says.

In California, Sebree leads a state with many local associations— 99, to be exact. And he has made it his goal to visit every single one. He’s been in his role since February 2022, having joined after a long stint as the CEO of Missouri REALTORS®. While he hasn’t yet visited all 99, he’s well on his way.

“That means a lot of time on the road, but I think it’s important because they want to know me, and it’s the best way for me to get to know the members and the issues that are impacting them,” Sebree says.

As part of his outreach, he may help an association with strategic planning or participate on a panel. While the state association hosts an annual retreat for local AEs, Sebree hosts an additional three business meetings yearly, where he has a small dinner with several local AEs.

“It’s a great way for me to have one-on-one time with a smaller group of association executives, and it’s a different group each time,” says Sebree. A staff member ensures that each meeting includes a mix of new and seasoned AEs representing large, medium and small associations.

Kessler explains that he and other Texas leaders work together to build “a collaborative, synergy-based team.” Notably, every year, the state association holds a two-day leadership summit in Austin for local board presidents and local AEs.

For the state’s 72 local associations, the state association offers one-day strategic planning sessions at no cost. Kessler emphasizes that the offer is completely optional and done upon request. His team conducts roughly 15 to 18 local board strategic sessions annually, helping put the state and local associations on a “common path” with shared strategic plans.

“It helps us tie in the benefits of the state association, but it also gives us the opportunity to hear what the issues and trends are at the local level,” Kessler says.

Ultimately, that’s Sebree’s best advice: Listen to what local AEs have to say. “Hear what their pain points are,” he says. “If one association is having that pain, it’s likely others are having similar pain, and there may be a state solution.”

Sebree also advises AEs not to be “afraid to shake things up.” If local associations are having issues, he says, it could be because the state association needs to make an “easy tweak” to a complicated process, such as reimbursement.

Sebree’s last piece of advice is one that applies both to team building with local associations and with association staff: the importance of meeting people on their “home turf. You get to see what they’re experiencing every day,” he says.

Written by: Tina Nazerian, a writer based in Houston, whose work has appeared in various publications including Mobility, ASJA Magazine and Literacy Today.

Try Improv for a Fun Team Building Activity

team building Improv Event with Chicago Improv Associates

@ Chicago Improv Associates

Association executives looking to build stronger bonds among their staff might try comedy.

Improv comedy, specifically, is great for team building because of the spontaneity it facilitates. That spontaneity, in turn, bolsters communications skills, according to Nancy Howland Walker, the executive director of Chicago Improv Associates, a company that’s been offering improv training to businesses for more than three decades.

“It requires soft skills that are essential for any team,” she says. In addition to communication skills, that includes creativity, trust, acceptance, being present, embracing mistakes, flexibility, commitment, and the ability to give and take control. “Improv is a highly effective approach to learning these skills because it’s fun and playful, which is the best way to learn,” she says.

AEs who want to sign up their teams for improv workshops should do their due diligence, Howland Walker urges. “I highly recommend making sure that [the trainers] have been actually performing improv for at least five to 10 years,” she says.

“Improv is made up on the spot from audience suggestions,” Howland Walker explains, meaning the people involved must work together to create comedic scenes right then and there.

There are three keys to successfully leveraging improv for team building, she notes. First, team members need to learn to say, “Yes and …?”

“This simply means that they accept whatever is said or done on stage as reality and then add to it in some way,” says Howland Walker. “If you start a scene by saying, ‘Let’s build a robot!’ and I say, ‘No,’ then boom! The scene stops dead.”

Next, she says, team members must learn how to be present—if they worry about what just occurred instead of what is currently occurring, they’ll lose track of what’s going on, and ultimately, the “scene suffers.”

Finally, she stresses the importance of teaching team members to “embrace mistakes.”

“No matter what someone says or does in an improv scene, it’s a wonderful gift,” Howland Walker says. “Even the worst mistake can take you in amazing directions.”


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