In Every Dark Cloud

While the challenges of the last year were substantial, many AEs found unexpected silver linings.

Sometimes adversity is what you need to face in order to become successful. —Zig Ziglar

When you face adversity, you have two choices: You either embrace it or hide from it. It is often up to us, as leaders, to adapt and remain positive so that our members and organizations can be successful. When the challenges of 2020 hit, many of our colleagues jumped in feet first, meeting members and staff in the moment, and found silver linings amid the upheaval. These are a few of their stories.

It’s OK to Be Human

Wyndi Austin, CEO of the Ventura County Coastal Association of REALTORS® in California, realized by the end of 2020 that COVID-19 had transformed her more than she expected. “This pandemic allowed us to be more emotional and real,” she says. “It brought a wall down for me. I don’t have to be this strict professional—I can be human. I am more casual now—casual, more open, and honest.”

Pre-pandemic, Austin says, she was working toward a certain image every day: the consummate professional who says the right things and projects the proper appearance. She never imagined that the year would help her shift her mindset and allow her to break down those walls. “I had staff comment, ‘You just seem so much more relaxed.’ How could you not be?” she says. “ The other side of that just would not work. I can still be a really good leader without being so rigid.”

Making Connections Through the Chaos

As the world shut down, many association executives sought connection as best we could—often in a virtual setting. Debbie Ashbrook, CEO of the Central Panhandle Association of REALTORS® in Florida, did just that. “I formed an extremely tight bond with four CEOs I would not have had before,” she says. “It has been the biggest thing for me.”

Weekly calls blossomed into meetings where they shared a wide range of experiences and tackled a variety of topics. After a few months, Ashbrook approached the Florida REALTORS® about the possibility of doing a weekly call for AEs, and Anne Cockayne, director of local association services, took on the task.

Connecting with colleagues is the best way to help us feel less alone, in good times or bad. “The most important takeaway from Florida’s weekly Zoom gathering is the opportunity for our AE family to connect face to face,” Cockayne says. “During a time of isolation and uncertainty, camaraderie with one’s peers can be a real stabilizer. Our sessions have morphed into an AE think tank of sorts where ideas flow freely—are sought—and problems are solved.”

Expanding One’s Comfort Zone

Monica Peña, CEO of the Greater McAllen Association of REALTORS® in Texas, was hesitant to get in front of the camera. She had some insecurities about her voice and presentation. “I was not really eager to do it,” she says. “Then, COVID happened. There was so much information coming to us. I knew members would watch it and listen, where they may not read it. I thought ‘I’m just going to have to go live.’”

Peña and her leadership team started Membership Mondays, a live, weekly video series. To build her level of comfort, she watched YouTube videos on communicating effectively on video and the tools needed for good production. “The biggest silver lining was the connection that people made,” Peña says. “Members got to know me better and see my personality.”

Having bridged the gap between the personal and professional and getting plenty of positive feedback from members, GMAR continues to do videos every two weeks. “This is going to be the primary way to communicate information to our brokers and members over at least the next six months,” Peña says.
Communication Is More Than a Buzzword

Year after year, future leaders told the Broward, Palm Beaches & St. Lucie REALTORS® Association in Florida that the No. 1 thing the association should improve upon was communication. CEO Dionna Hall worked with her staff and leadership teams to ramp up the association’s communications during the pandemic, incorporating enhanced video with staff specialists, social media, email, text messages, and virtual town halls. “Members saw us as not asking for something, but giving something,” she says.

Hall and her team devised a plan to call all designated REALTORS® along with the 1,300 new members it had recently acquired in a merger. It proved to be a key opportunity to walk through all of the association’s available resources with members and offer help, but the team found that most members were just thankful to have the interaction. “Honestly, many members appreciated hearing a friendly voice on the other end,” she says. “Our members were very lonely.”

The association then expanded its outreach further. “Individual touches with our members really worked,” Hall says. “We determined what the additional pain points were. From there, we increased training on specific topics and created programs around our members’ long-term and short-term needs. We repurposed our outreach team to do personalized Zoom meetings with offices that directly addressed specific broker pain points. Offices felt they were getting very individualized attention from their association.”

Meeting People in Place

CEO Ryan McLaughlin and the leadership team at the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS® made it clear from the beginning of the pandemic that the association would remain open for business—at least in a virtual environment—despite areawide shutdowns. The team looked at the membership engagement experience at every level and incorporated new tools to meet members and staff where they were.

“I have wanted to build the member experience stronger ever since I got here,” McLaughlin says. “We were able to empower staff to think outside the box and not fear failure. Now, we are looking at things that are going to be put into action permanently—a full reorganization based on new ways of delivering services. It’s forced us to be more nimble and flexible.”

COVID-19 provided the association with an opportunity to make changes—from contactless lockbox and supply pickup outside its headquarters building to rethinking its office space—that it might have otherwise taken more time to complete.

Adversity often forces change within organizations, and 2020 was proof of that. As AEs proceed through 2021, we should keep these stories in mind as evidence that whatever challenges the months and years ahead might hold, we can learn something from them and adapt. Every moment holds a lesson, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at the time.

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