Encouraging Diversity in Leadership

Technology enables us to capture enormous amounts of data about who members are and what they want. However, data is no substitute for having members who represent diverse groups on your board of directors or in your volunteer committees.

For example, your data may indicate that there's a growing segment of young, tech-savvy, resort-home specialists in your area, but if none of them participates in the association, then your carefully targeted programs and services will have a hard time reaching them.

To be most effective, an association's board of directors should reflect its diverse membership as much as possible, with regard to ethnicity, gender, age, business focus, and other relevant measures. Lack of diversity represents a missed opportunity to bring in new thinking, insights, experiences, and knowledge about different markets, consumers, and practices. Worse yet, you may appear out of touch with members' needs and less than transparent.

Assembling a board of directors that accurately represents your membership makeup can unlock fresh perspectives, innovation, and organizational creativity.

Diversity is also key to political and legislative success. How can an association claim to represent the needs of home owners in a community when its leadership does not? How can an association achieve the goal of higher professionalism among REALTORS® and abiding by Fair Housing laws when its leadership is not inclusive?

Associations should care about inclusion because it makes good business sense, says Fred Underwood, NAR's director of diversity and community outreach programs. "Inclusion of diversity helps you achieve what you want to achieve, but it isn't an end in itself. Diversity in leadership is a process, not something you turn on one day and say you're inclusive. It's all a matter of strategic planning."

Seeki​ng out diversity

The Southland Regional Association of REALTORS® in Van Nuys, Calif., specifically seeks out members of different backgrounds and areas of expertise to run for the board, says association CEO James Link, CAE.

Link says the initiative has two primary goals: to assemble a board that represents the diversity (geographic location, race, age, and other aspects) of its membership and find leaders who represent varied business functions, including residential sales, commercial sales, and property management. "This is going to result in a more diverse and active board of directors," he says.

Yet the association is careful not to invite members into leadership solely based on their ethnicity or age, for example. Leaders need to bring insight into the needs of a particular segment of home owners and home buyers in the local market. Just because a member has a particular background doesn't necessarily mean he or she can knowledgeably represent that market segment.

Southland Regional will welcome a new Armenian-American president in 2016 who also graduated from the association's Leadership Institute. (The largest population of Armenian-Americans in the country is within Southland Regional's territory.) "There's proof that what we're doing is working," says Link.

At the Seattle-King County Association of REALTORS®, CEO Russell Hokanson says he has achieved a pretty good balance by making a "conscious effort" to get new faces on its board via a number of outreach initiatives.

"Those efforts go on all the time, so they're institutionalized in the sense that our leaders know to be on the lookout for that," says Hokanson. "I do think we've all acknowledged that we're better off by having a board that represents all facets of our membership."

How to ensure a diverse board

Although putting out the word for applicants for our leadership institute attracted some interest, Link says, "to really get to those individuals we were targeting, we had to come right out and ask them. We just got belly to belly with them and encouraged them to participate."

To increase diversity, elevate board recruitment to a program the association is dedicated to, not simply the routine annual process of accepting applications.

The first step toward inclusion is to identify your market segments, says Underwood. For example, is there a growing community of Hispanic immigrants or veterans or gays and lesbians in your area? Which REALTORS® are serving those communities? Next, he says, "once you've found those members, look for a way to get them involved, first on a committee that interests them. Then, when you have an active group of members representing diverse market segments, begin to build a culture for them to enter leadership and involve them in your political activities and other core association functions."

If you don't ask...

In Seattle, Hokanson's best success attracting new volunteers is with what he calls the "peer-to-peer asking" process. "One of the objectives we have for our board members is to go out and identify your successor, whomever that might be," Hokanson says. "Their job is to bring someone else into the organization to help us." As part of that process, he says, members have made conscious efforts to reach out to certain geographic areas within the association's membership, as well as those potential candidates of specific ethnicities and age groups.

The members you're seeking may be active in other area organizations specific to their demographic, such as the Asian-­American Chamber of Commerce or the Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals.

To associations looking for help in achieving balance on their boards, all it takes is for the president of the board to open discussions about potential leadership opportunities with REALTORS® of underrepresented membership segments, says Roger Turcotte, a New Hampshire–based ­REALTOR® who provides leadership and strategic planning help to REALTOR® associations nationwide. "In most cases, when associations are running as a clique," he says, "it's because no one is reaching out and encouraging leadership transitions."

Turcotte sees the Core Standards strategic planning process as a new tool for association executives to institute diversity awareness. As an approved facilitator for the new planning process, Turcotte worked closely with a number of associations and says the majority of the strategic plans created addressed the issue of future leadership development and the related training programs, mentoring, and recruiting.

"You want a board that has the ability to look inward at the entire organization when making decisions and presenting new initiatives," says Turcotte. "The best way to do this is by developing leaders who truly represent the makeup of your entire membership."

There's clearly a need for associations to do more to be inclusionary, says Underwood, "Diversity needs to be a strategic imperative at every association."

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