My Job as an AE, 30 Years Later

The more things change, the more they stay the same for association executives.

As the real estate industry has changed in the last 30 years, so has the role that REALTOR® association executives play. There are new expectations, new skills required, and new challenges. And yet, some decades-old hurdles remain.

For an informed perspective on how your job has changed over the years and what might be next, RAE turned to Cindy Butts, RCE, CAE, CEO of the Connecticut Association of REALTORS® and a 30-year veteran of national, state, and local associations and MLSs. Butts, a William R. Magle Award winner, has chaired the AE Committee, served on countless workgroups and committees, and also often teaches the AE Institute boot camp course for new AEs.

Here are her perspectives on what has and what hasn’t changed for AEs.

cindy butts

The angst over dues increases hasn’t changed.

Why is a $5 to $25 dues increase, even if it happens 10 years after the last one, still seen as a sign of fiscal irresponsibility, a lack of sympathy for members’ financial situation, or the one thing that will drive the entire membership to another association? Somehow there’s still the notion that dues are supposed to never increase while every other cost increases. AEs are expected to deliver simultaneously innovative and preferably free services by a top-notch staff year after year. When there is an increase, we feel so guilty about it that a lengthy apology letter is sent explaining it. This angst is the single biggest factor that can lead to understaffed associations, salary stagnation, and even limit essential benefits, such as health insurance.

Members still want professionalism, and yet they still don’t want to file Code of Ethics complaints.

Despite all the training and services to increase professionalism, members’ failure to police their fellow members’ conduct is still at the heart of the issue. NAR has taken many steps to try to make it faster and easier to file or get resolution to Code of Ethics complaints, yet the bulk of members still won’t file them.

Many still hate change even though there’s so much more of it.

The one thing I don’t need to explain to any AE is members’ fear of doing anything differently than they have done for years. Little changes that would otherwise seem insignificant at other businesses can be big obstacles at REALTOR® associations. The change-haters are not just our members or leadership, but can also, unfortunately, be our own association staff.

Our professionalism and status have grown.

Thirty years ago, many AEs had the title “executive secretary” because their roles were largely administrative. Like our members, most AEs have had other careers before this one. There are a lot of former teachers and military, and those wanting just a part-time job coming from virtually any industry. But in the past 10 years there are more association CEOs with advanced degrees and business, legal, or government affairs backgrounds. We’ve needed this change because our industry is far more litigious and more extensively engaged in advocacy. A decades-old treatise called “The Role of the Executive Officer” ends with: “You need to steer the ship but don’t get caught with your hand on the tiller.” I believe the role of association CEOs has changed, in many cases, into true partnerships with our officers, in which we are part of the team and trusted to openly have our hand on the tiller. Forward looking AEs cannot underestimate the value of professional development to strengthen this partnership.

Our practical skill set has changed.

Do you remember carbon paper, typewriters with correction tapes, paper maps, MLS books, and index cards with member payment history? I do. Although AEs have always been expected to have dozens of diverse skills, we’ve changed from being high on administrative skills and interpersonal relationships—because so much work was done in person and on the phone—to high on every type of technology, communication, management, marketing, and leadership skill. We must keep up not only with the pace of innovation needed to run effective associations, but also with innovation in the real estate industry to provide members with the services and programs they need to grow their businesses.

Everyone doesn’t run an MLS anymore.

There has been a lot of regionalism of MLSs over the decades and there will continue to be more. Our associations are inventing their own value propositions to replace reliance on the MLS. Whether it’s education, business tools and services, data, technology, or information, associations without MLSs are redefining their relevance.

Our work and personal life has become more intertwined.

Before the internet, working late meant being physically at the office to do it. Before cell phones, no one in leadership would call you at home unless it was an emergency. Now we can work and be found anywhere, which is both great and terrible. Our members befriend us on social media and engage in more than our work life. Love it or hate it, this social connection enables us to more effectively reach and serve members and become part of their everyday conversations, which ultimately boosts our relevance in their lives.

We still lobby for many of the same issues.

Political and legislative advocacy is more a part of our job today because real estate is faced with more constant threats at the state, local, and federal level. Thirty years later we’re still fighting against transfer taxes, working to champion private property rights, and preserve the independent contractor status. Hundreds of thousands of REALTORS® can now instantly and simultaneously voice their opinions instantly and electronically on legislation and it make a significant impact.

Competition and cooperation among AEs has shifted.

Back when local board membership was based solely on office location, AEs shared everything with each other. Then in 1994, when Board of Choice came around, we put up walls and started to compete fiercely for each other’s members. Now we’ve come nearly full circle, realizing that we must work together to prevail over the tremendous outside forces impacting the industry. There is far more camaraderie and partnership happening among AEs than a decade ago, which is a great thing. The most valuable resource is your REALTOR® association community—for support, education, and even lifelong friendships. Today, you can reach out not only at the AE Institute, but also through the Facebook group (, where more than 700 REALTOR® association professionals share ideas and ask for guidance. Many NAR staff have been around 30-plus years as well. The term “REALTOR® family” is real, and that’s something that will never change.

One final thought

Thirty plus years later, it’s still a great gig, with huge opportunities to make a difference.

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