Presidents’ Lessons of Change

By Julie Sturgeon & Carolyn Schwaar

Going from being a busy, successful Realtor® to being a busy, successful Realtor® elected to serve as president of a local association isn’t for the fainthearted.

Although most association presidents report that they walk into their volunteer position with eyes wide open, it still comes with its share of surprises. Here, Realtor® elected leaders share the lessons learned in their year as president and offer advice for the leaders of tomorrow.

Take the time to plan and learn

Dwight Hale, ABR, CRB, GRI, 2004 chairman, San Antonio Board of Realtors®,


Dwight Hale stepped into his leadership role with confidence because he had training. “I spent two years preparing for this and going to a lot of meetings,” he says. Hale met people, made alliances, and learned about the issues. “I concentrated on learning about the areas that I wasn’t familiar with, like land management.”

In the two years leading up to his chairmanship, Hale learned that the key to a successful and productive year was planning. “I got together with my AE and we took our time to craft a deliberate plan of action for the year and solicit input from the committees,” he says. “I wanted the plan to be as inclusive as possible.”

Hale’s presidential year kicked off with the launch of a new leadership training pro­gram, another preparatory opportunity that he credits with the success of his year.

“We took 20 people through the leadership training program, and it helped the volunteers get more excited about serving and helped them feel more prepared,” says Hale. “The greatest lesson I learned at the leadership program is that true learning and growth comes from sharing information with your fellow leaders and learning from each other.”

Hale’s leadership role also softened his “do it, do it now, do it right, and let’s move on” approach to business. “Working with volunteers means you work at their pace, listen more carefully, and draw out the places where they agree,” he says. The slower pace may mean you leave behind some of your good ideas for future leaders to implement, he adds, but the experience in gaining consensus positively impacts the rest of his real estate career, Hale says.

Know you’re not alone

Mary Sherwood, 2005 president, Bangor Association of Realtors®, Maine

When she assumed the presidency of her 500-member association, Mary Sherwood didn’t know she’d have such a huge network of support to call on.

“I went to the Maine Association of Realtors® Presidents’ Retreat in Janu­ary, and I met all the other local association presidents and realized we were all in the same boat,” she says. “We all didn’t know if we could run an effective meeting and we all didn’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of our peers.”

At the retreat, the state association also provided the new presidents with spokes-person training and a book of essential info, including a roster of all the local presidents and AEs. “The resource made a huge difference, and I still refer to it today,” says Sherwood.

Like many small boards in Maine, Bangor has only one part-time staff AE who is also a practicing Realtor®, so it relies heavily on the state association to spearhead programs and initiatives for local members. Sherwood credits her state association with a lot of her successes as president this year.

“We’re businesspeople first, and the state association really helps us serve our members as volunteer leaders while sustaining our businesses,” says Sherwood. “This year the state plans to launch a program to get the newer members more involved in the local association, which is something we really need.”

The Bangor association’s past presidents were another support group for Sherwood. “Here, past presidents stay involved,” she says. “They’re some of the most active members, and I knew I could rely on them for anything.”

Learn to channel the association’s power

Dean Cottrill, 2005 president, Anne Arundel Association of Realtors®, Md.

When Dean Cottrill took time away from his young family and his active business to serve as president of the association out of a sense of commitment, he also had a personal agenda. “An associate in my office was sued because of a water ordinance that was unclear, so I wanted to get that addressed legislatively,” he says. What he didn’t realize was the association’s power to drive change.

The association’s political pull landed Cottrill a meeting in January with a local legislator who jumped on board to clarify the water issue. “It was a big surprise how fast everything went. The legislator put together a task force, the association launched a work group, the staff worked on the issue, and before I knew it we had a bill proposed and passed.”
While seeing the leadership, volunteers, and staff pull together initially took Cottrill by surprise, he spent the rest of his year building on this early experience.

As a brokerage manager with 100 associates and six staff members, Cottrill was up to the challenge of motivating members and directing staff, although he says he wouldn’t do it again. “I highly recommend serving as president to anyone and I got a great sense of accomplishment out of it, but it takes a lot of time and energy. Luckily I had association staff and volunteers to make it look easy.”

Build on relationships

Christine Schaefer, 2004 president, Fort Wayne Association of Realtors®, Ind.

Christine Schaefer spent her year as president in 2004 doing what she says Realtors® do best: building relationships. “I wanted to be a very hands-on president,” she says, emphasizing that her personal touch made all the difference when working with lawmakers, community groups, and volunteers.

“We launched a campaign of face-to-face meetings to establish the association as a resource for the city when it came to anything to do with real estate,” Schaefer says. The main goal of her presidency was to make sure Realtors® had a voice in the economic redevelopment of the Fort Wayne downtown area. “The city spent thousands of dollars on a study of homeownership and never even called us. We had to make sure that didn’t happen again.”

Schaefer used her considerable interpersonal skills—and relied on the connections of her AE—to get a wide coalition of city officials to accept the association as a partner in redevelopment. Several projects are in the works and Schaefer continues to maintain the relationships she built, even though the new president is focusing on a different issue this year.
“I spent too much time building relationships to let them go now,” she says. “I volunteered for this job because I wanted a say in what happens. This is my livelihood and my commitment doesn’t stop after I leave office.”

You can’t move forward without a plan

Franki Halloran, 2005 president, Coastal Mendocino Association of Realtors®, Calif.

Franki Halloran stepped into her role seven months earlier than scheduled when her predecessor walked off the job. Halloran expected to build on that person’s focus, only “it turned out there wasn’t any focus at all,” she says.

To get the ball rolling, Halloran needed a plan. She sat down with her AE to wade through everything on the association’s docket, sorting the important from the menial and prioritizing tasks. Next, they delegated high-priority tasks to active members and enlisted new volunteers to take on some mundane office tasks, which freed the AE to follow up on all the wheels in motion.

Halloran, a successful Realtor® who was used to juggling the multiple tasks of her own business, says her experience as president gave her a new appreciation for thorough planning.

With a road map for the year set, Halloran focused her attention on boosting the association’s community presence, which ultimately brought on more challenges. When she convinced her small, politically inactive board to get involved in local economic development conferences and to take a leadership role in the local housing coalition, she was surprised to learn that her stand on growth management was unpopular with the association’s big brokers and developers. “The politics caught me unawares,” she says. “But if you want to be a leader, you need the courage to pursue the right course even if it’s not popular,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of making someone angry.”

Find a work-life balance

Kirk Sempsrott, 2005 president, Greater Lansing Association of Realtors®, Mich.

At 34, Kirk Sempsrott is the youngest president in his association’s history, a true vote of confidence from his board. As the parents of two children ages 6 and 10, he and his wife thought long and hard about whether he could (and should) juggle the presidency, a company, and family.

“It hasn’t been perfect,” Sempsrott notes, “but I realized that as busy Realtors® we need vacations, we need to turn off the phone, and we need to attend our kids’ soccer games.” Sempsrott took a cue from the National Association of Realtors®’ Family Time program, which encourages busy professionals to take an inventory of their time and responsibilities and prioritize them effectively.

Even with a renewed emphasis on de­voting time to family and self, Sempsrott felt equally impassioned about devoting time to his Realtor® family and to give back, he says.


AEs behind the scenes

Adapting to a new president every 12 months garners sympathy for AEs around the country. Here’s what current presidents say worked to smooth the rough spots in their partnerships:

Maggie Pollich, abr, Bucks County Association of Realtors®: Her AE nipped Pollich’s tendency to micromanage in the bud. “Before I started, we had a conversation about honesty and openness. She wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, Maggie, it’s OK. We’ve got this,’ without stepping on eggshells,” Pollich says.

Kirk Sempsrott, Greater Lansing Association of Realtors®: His AE functions as a personal coach, e-mailing him six months before an event to detail what he needs to do to prepare that week. “If I don’t respond, she’s good about not bugging me but saying, ‘I just want to remind you that you have a week to find a speaker or you’ll be behind,’” he says.

Mike Travaglini, St. Louis Association of Realtors®: Travaglini loves the fact that his AE handles association politics. “Not that it doesn’t rear its ugly head once in a while, but Jack is an expert in keeping that away for me unless it’s absolutely necessary I have to deal with it,” he explains.

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