Coaxing the Best From Volunteer Leaders

Fox Valley (Ill.) CEO is developing strong committee and board members with a new Foundations series.

Chris Studebaker CEO of the REALTOR® Association of the Fox Valley, Ill.

Midway through his 20-year career in association management, Chris Studebaker, CEO of the REALTOR® Association of the Fox Valley, Ill., decided to go back to school. Earning an MBA from Aurora University with a concentration in leadership would be a way to up his game as an executive director, but more important, he could better guide volunteers to become more effective leaders.

“Throughout my career, I’ve worked with exceptional leaders, and unfortunately, many more who were marginal or poor,” he says. “I went back to school to equip myself with the tools to help those leaders become better and pursue my passion for organizational and leadership development.”

Studebaker applied his leadership development expertise at the American Massage Therapy Association, the Finishing Contractors Association of Illinois, the Northern Illinois Painting and Drywall Institute, the REALTOR® Association of Southwestern Illinois, and the National Association of Home Builders. Through it all, he found that issues related to managing volunteers and leadership are universal. “If I had to boil it down to a couple key ways to improve leadership development,” he says, “it would be planning and solid communication.”

Volunteer leaders need direction

Consistent communication between the AE and the executive leadership team is how Studebaker establishes trust and mutual respect.

“Although there are certainly other keys to successful volunteer-staff relationships, clearly communicating roles, responsibilities, and expectations ensures that everyone stays in their own lane,” he says. “Trust breaks down when volunteers feel like they must take on other roles because someone has not followed through or lived up to expectations.”

When a volunteer leader interferes with a staff person’s job or assumes control over a committee, task force, or project, it’s often because of the leader’s inability to delegate to committees and work groups and hold them accountable to budgets, deadlines, and success yardsticks, says Studebaker.

“Absent direction or accountability from leadership, volunteers will fill their allotted meeting time with nonstrategic or trivial priorities,” he says. “If your committees are spending time deciding the color of the napkins at the annual dinner, it is possible that you’ve veered away from your strategic plan.”

Sticking to a thoughtful, detailed, consensus-driven strategic plan with clear objectives and measurable outcomes isn’t just a method for effective leadership, it’s also a way to sell change, Studebaker has found.

When he joined the REALTOR® Association of the Fox Valley in 2014, naturally there were some long-established norms he sought to change.

“We used the strategic planning process to challenge the status quo and gave the committees and work groups permission to take risks,” he says. This gave volunteers the opportunity to reimagine a wide range of association programs and services.

Improving the new member orientation program was an early priority. Armed with a mandate to be creative and deliver results, the committee made innovative changes that have been well received. In fact, the orientation’s committee trade show is the main way RAFV has increased member signup for association committees.

Building better leaders

In addition to having Studebaker as a model of leadership, the association ramped up its formal volunteer leadership training with the Foundations in Leadership program. The 10-session series, now in its second year, invites members to “ignite the fire within, embrace change, get out of their comfort zone,” and learn strategies to become better leaders at work and in the community.

“Using committees or committee chairs as the leadership farm team is not sufficient anymore,” says Studebaker. “As associations evolve to meet the demands of new generations, traditional routes of developing organizational leaders had to change. We saw a need for leadership skill development and built a program to fill it.”

The Foundations in Leadership program is an investment, says Studebaker, but already it is paying off. The inaugural class of 2018 produced four first-time Board of Directors members and five new RPAC Major Investors.

One characteristic of AEs who elicit excellence from their volunteers is a willingness to volunteer themselves. Studebaker has served on National Association of REALTORS® AE committee work groups and commercial advisory board.

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