By Masha Zager
Just as the real estate market started to shift in 2008, Marc Lebowitz, the executive officer at the Ada County Association of REALTORS® in Idaho, made an unconventional strategic move.
Instead of cutting back and focusing on core services, he contracted to place 64 million messages on digital roadside billboards. Although an unusual move on the face of it (especially in the tough economic times), this decision meant that as soon as the tax credit for first-time homebuyers was enacted, the association was poised to get the message out swiftly, broadly, and effectively to potential buyers. The move paid off in home sales and positive public awareness.
What empowers talented AEs to take risks and make unconventional moves? Trust.
“An organization that trusts its board and staff is able to focus much more of its energy and resources on its mission,” Lebowitz explains. Association executives without the same level of trust may not have the flexibility to act quickly and take necessary risks.
Openness breeds trust
One reason for the association’s trust in Lebowitz and his staff is his policy of openness. Lebowitz eliminated password-controlled access to the association’s Web site and started keeping two years’ worth of meeting minutes and financial information at the ready. Even members who disagree with a particular decision can testify to the transparency of the process.
Social contact builds trust
Lebowitz says other actions, originally designed as team-building and ice-breaking activities, also build a sense of trust within the organization. For example, a home-build allows members to get to know him personally, cultivating a sense of familiarity. Similarly, the association’s biannual retreats -featuring team-building exercises, such as white-water rafting and book discussions, promote a culture of trust.
Jeanette Newton, CEO of the Dulles Area Association of REALTORS®, Va., agrees with Lebowitz about the dual benefits of such activities. She finds that both her annual trip to Chicago for the NAR Leadership Summit with the incoming president and her yearly December breakfast for the incoming leadership foster the understanding and trust necessary for a good working relationship.
Ultimately, it all comes down to expertise, according to Newton. “Knowledge is trust,” she says. An association executive who knows the ins and outs of her job—and whose board knows that she knows—is in a position to gain the board’s trust. Newton says she won the trust of her board and membership many years ago by making sure she was thoroughly versed in any issue she presented. Before recommending a course of action, she would check to see what other associations were doing, verify her information, and try to gather enough details that the board wouldn’t send her back to do more research.
“It took a couple of years in the beginning,” she recalls. “Trust is doled out by the teaspoonful.” But always having the facts at her fingertips paid off, as did the success of some of her early proposals, such as starting an education program. Today, the board is agreeable to nearly all her proposals and trusts her to make day-to-day decisions on her own. If she has any doubt about the board’s likely reaction, Newton first talks through the issue with her staff or selected board leaders. “If you do that upfront, it will save you a lot of face when you go to the full board,” she says.
Building trust takes time
Newton advises new executives to be patient and to tolerate a certain amount of micromanagement, especially in smaller associations. Rather than demanding trust at the outset, executives must win the board over gradually by taking care never to blindside board members —which can cause instant mistrust—and by always protecting the board’s integrity. “They should feel you’re looking out for their reputation,” she says.
Diplomacy fosters trust
Executives can win trust by showing they understand the leadership’s goals and projects. “Make sure you understand their priorities, their strategic vision, and where they want to see the organization go,” explains Jim Haisler, CEO of the McHenry County Association of REALTORS®, Ill. It is also essential, he adds, to be flexible. These priorities and strategic visions are far from fixed, and a leader who is prepared for shifts in the association’s needs and in the board’s priorities demonstrates a higher level of proficiency.
Along with understanding the substantive (and often changing) issues, he adds, executives should accommodate leaders’ communication styles. Some officers may prefer phone contact, while others prefer e-mail; approaching each person in the way that makes him or her most comfortable helps to build trust.
Maintain neutrality and
Confidentiality and neutrality are critical qualities for executives hoping to build trust, says Dennis McClelland, CEO of the Missouri Association of REALTORS®. Association executives may find themselves caught in squabbles between large and small companies, or between two individuals fighting for a committee chairmanship. “Don’t play politics,” McClelland warns. “It’s okay to have a position on a side of an issue, but not on the side of particular people.”
Confidential information presents another minefield for executives. “Stay away from repeating stories about people,” McClelland cautions. “You might hear so-and-so is going out of business or moving out of town—it’s all rumors. It’ll always get you in trouble. . . . People need to trust that when they’re talking, you listen, and whatever they tell you in confidence stays that way.”
Keeping confidences is especially tricky when information is intended to be passed on anonymously. McClelland says board members sometimes approach him with unpopular but necessary proposals, such as dues increases, and leave it to him to raise the idea with the full board. In these instances, it may be necessary to broach the issue in question and take the political heat along the way.
Association executives must also be tactful about their role, according to McClelland. On the one hand, board members expect executives to be proactive and confident about their expertise. On the other hand, board members don’t want a know-it-all executive, or one who appears to promote his own priorities above the board’s. To keep the board’s trust, executives must walk a fine line between too much staff involvement and too much volunteer -involvement. “They’re involved because they want to be involved, but they want to know you’re doing the work,” McClelland explains.
Responsibility invites trust
Although association executives inspire trust by displaying confidence, McClelland says, that confidence must be well founded. “If you’re wrong or you find a staff mistake, admit it. Don’t perpetuate that mistake. Recognize it, go to the leadership, and own up to it. . . . It takes a pretty big person to admit they made a mistake.” Once you’ve admitted a mistake, correct it publicly so that others don’t go on repeating misinformation you have provided. “If we have our facts straight, people will believe in us.”
How a New AE Can Rebuild Lost Trust
By Amy DuBose, AE San Marcos Area Board of REALTORS®, Texas
When entering into a new organization, you often may have trouble gauging how the actions of past association executives will directly affect you. You may want to step back and say, “The past has nothing to do with me; why should I focus on it?” But the reality is that the past can weigh heavily on your new position and steal your steam.
From major financial matters to minor personality issues, a variety of past circumstances can impede your progress. “There are two major areas where allegations of mistrust seem to arise: finance and elections,” says Judith Lindenau, association management consultant and former REALTOR® AE. “When it comes to helping an association move past old issues, transparency is the key.”
For example, members should be able to see budgets and financial reports whenever they want, Lindenau advises. “Being open and responsive to members’ requests is a huge part of moving forward.” Also make sure that your internal controls and office procedures adhere to your state’s open records act, not what’s “always been done” at the association.
Ed Carlton, CEO of the West Georgia Board of REALTORS®, says he follows the financial advice he learned at the Association Executives Institute, including requiring two signatures on checks, balancing bank statements monthly, and looking at every check. “I used this information to develop a financial policy at my association,” he says.
When it comes to transparent elections, ensure that the exact procedure for elections is outlined specifically in your NAR-approved bylaws and adhere to a zero--tolerance policy for straying from the document. Training your staff and volunteer leaders on these procedures is a great way to get everyone on the same page. Your members will feel secure in the processes taken and your association will be covered in case of questions.
Past personality conflicts between staff and leadership can leave a powerful, lingering effect on your organization. I’ve found that adding a personal touch to all you do with your members can help distance you from a past executive in the minds of your members. For my organization, I go to our local property tours and office meetings on a regular basis and members tell me they appreciate that I’m there. It is also a great place to address issues since agents feel more comfortable when they are surrounded by their office colleagues rather than association staff.
Past personality conflicts between staff and leadership can leave a powerful, lingering effect on your organization.
Lastly, when you start to work through past issues that haunt your association, trust in yourself. Whatever the looming issue, making your own way—rather than following in your predecessor’s footsteps—is key.