Set Your Limits and Soar

An important first-year goal should be updating your policies with well-defined boundaries in mind.

By Elizabeth S. Breen

When you were a new association executive, you probably spent your first several months on the job trying to define your duties and your role in the organization. No doubt, your leadership, volunteers, members, and affiliates all had thoughts on the matter.

In my first year as AE of the Santa Ynez Valley Association of REALTORS® in California, I aimed to provide outstanding customer service in everything I did. I spent a lot time juggling the many hats I had to wear and came across a strategy that helped me better define my responsibilities.

I found it essential to define what my duties were not and draw a clear boundary line between my role and what others thought my role should be. This isn’t a one-time exercise. I continue to establish with new leaders and new members, and under new circumstances, what is and is not my job. In my experience, setting clear boundaries is the best way to ensure that you’ll be successful.

One of my go-to books on this topic is Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge, by Henry Cloud. Cloud describes boundaries this way: “Boundaries are made up of two essential things: what you create and what you allow. A boundary is a property line. It defines where your property begins and ends. If you think about your home, on your property, you can define what is going to happen there and what is not. You are ‘ridiculously in charge’ of the vision.”

So, how do you apply this vision to your REALTOR® association?

Articulating boundaries is an important step. Back up your written documents by verbally confirming the policy. For example, when I recently had a REALTOR® call me to help her with renewing her real estate license, I said, “I would love to help you, but, since I am not a licensed agent, I would hate to advise you incorrectly. You really should reach out to your office manager or broker.” She thanked me for my response. Yes, I could have taken 15 or 20 minutes to outline the steps she needed to take, but I found that if I ignore or overstep my own boundaries, it will cause more work and stress in the long run. What other questions and issues might this member come to me with next?

Establish boundaries for members

There’s no end to the things that members want you to fix for them. Many of these things have nothing to do with your association. Learn where to draw the line. If a member calls to complain about another member’s property signage, for example, don’t get in the middle. Direct the member to where he or she can find the relevant sign ordinance and suggest contacting the other agent. You are not the sign police, but you can offer resources.

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Find Resources for Setting Boundaries

Establish boundaries for affiliates

Affiliates and sponsors are valuable parts of the association ecosystem, but they need clear limits. I’ve seen AEs and their staff become burdened with organizing affiliates’ “lunch and learn” events for members when the affiliates themselves should be taking on the bulk of the work. Taking on every detail will pull you away from other priorities and place the blame squarely on you if things don’t go as planned. Detail exactly what you will and won’t do, and let your affiliates take ownership of their own events.

Establish boundaries for volunteers

Committees are essential to running your organization, and here is a place to set boundaries and let others take ownership. For example, my association is starting a Young Professionals Network. I assembled a group of interested members to brainstorm and advised them on the formation process, but I firmly established my role as one of mentorship and encouragement. The YPN members will identify their leaders and goals.

Establish boundaries for leadership

From one year to the next, AEs can find themselves either encouraging leaders to step up and take the reins or discouraging them from overstepping their positions. Establishing clear duties in written documents and building a culture of defined roles at your association can stem the wide swings in leadership behavior and curb power struggles. If a board member, for example, asks you for details on employee pay or benefits (information that is clearly out of bounds), written restrictions on disclosing sensitive information will ensure that you are protected legally. Updated written policies in your employee handbook, job descriptions, and committee and board descriptions will provide you with the backup to a verbal conversation about the role of leadership at your association.

Boundaries are not a wall you build once; they are adaptable but still need to be firm. For a new AE, setting limits early on will be key to the long-term success of your organization. Find resources for setting boundaries, such as the “President/Chief Staff Executive Task List,” at

Elizabeth S. Breen is the AE at the Santa Ynez Valley Association of REALTORS®, Calif. Contact her at 805-688-7744 or