Nothing can derail the steady progress of managing an association like losing a staff member. Whether a worker leaves or has to be let go, personnel changes affect the entire organization. Rest assured, though, you can make these transitions quick and less painful.
Rob Guilloz, director of information services at the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors®, Mich., recently became familiar with the pains of transition when his association lost three members of its staff in succession, starting with the executive officer.
“First there’s that shock wave that goes through you,” says Guilloz, who had enjoyed a long stretch of staff stability. “It’s painful because the members don’t stop calling. They don’t stop needing what they need when we lose a staff person.”
Then there was the tension of getting a new boss. “We didn’t know what type of person would be coming in or what would change in the organization.”
Luckily, the association staff and its leadership took some necessary steps to make these transitions work, but they still learned valuable lessons along the way.
First, the association’s executive search committee kept the staff informed of their progress in the CEO search. This relieved some tension in the office.
During the period in which there was no CEO, the three senior staff directors of the organization had the authority to keep the association’s wheels in motion. This move gave the other staffers a sense of security because they didn’t have to adjust to an interim EO or a member of the elected leadership stepping in to make day-to-day decisions, says Guilloz.
When the search committee chose Nancy Jo Merdzinski, rce, a 14-year veteran of the Michigan Association of Realtors®, to be the new CEO, the staff breathed a collective sigh of relief. “We knew she wasn’t a hatchet person and wasn’t going to upend the association,” says Guilloz. “She came in and immediately told the staff that she wanted to continue with the good work we were already doing and [said that] there’d be no staff changes. She had a great sense of humor, and it put us at ease.”
With a staff of 10, any turnover is heartache, says Guilloz. Down one, Guilloz and his staff were about to lose another. While things could’ve fallen apart when the member services coordinator left to start her own home-staging business, the staff pulled together. “We do a lot of cross-training, and we encourage a team culture here, so we picked up the slack out of habit,” says Guilloz.
To top off the summer, Ann Arbor’s MLS assistant left after some time of unhappiness. Through the association exit interview, Guilloz and his fellow directors learned what they’d been doing right, what they’d been doing wrong, and how they could work better with staff in the future.
Although the staff change could have been worse, Guilloz says the association will tighten its procedures. “We’re going to do more checklists and progress reports, and make sure all our procedures are in writing,” he says. “This will help us pick up the ball when someone leaves and it will help us train the new person.”
Don’t hesitate to change
Sudden staff change can be chaotic, but a long, drawn-out change can be worse. Just ask Carol Van Gorp of the Columbia Board of Realtors®, Mo. As the newly hired EO of the board, she quickly realized that the special projects coordinator wasn’t going to be able to meet the higher performance standards Van Gorp was setting for the association. A change was imminent. “But I waited,” she says. “I wanted to give her every chance to get up to speed. She was very popular with the affiliates and I didn’t want to seem like the ‘bad guy.’”
But Van Gorp found that keeping her around created obvious tension in the staff. “In a small office you know when your staff is depressed, and since our jobs are so intertwined, other staff had to continuously pick up the slack.”
Unfortunately, when Van Gorp finally was ready to make her move, another member of the six-person staff was diagnosed with a serious illness. So she postponed the inevitable. “The staff began to be resentful and wondered why I was letting her get away with her poor performance,” Van Gorp explains.
Then, like a gift, Van Gorp’s ill staffer recovered and the difficult coordinator resigned gracefully.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” Van Gorp says. “When you know it’s time to make a staff change, you have to do it right there and then. Trust your instincts and you’ll be better off in the long run.”
Change according to the law
Although going with your instincts is good advice, consulting with a human resources attorney is also wise when it’s time to implement staff changes.
When Dennis Gano was hired in January as the CEO for the McHenry County Association of Realtors®, Ill., one of the first things his board of directors asked him to do was to analyze staff positions. “When I studied the tasks we needed to accomplish and the resources we had, there was one position that clearly needed to be dissolved,” says Gano. Unfortunately, that staff person had recently suffered a brain aneurysm and was on medical leave.
It was a tough decision on many levels, says Gano, but the staff and directors understood that the decision had nothing to do with the medical situation and was necessary to keep the association moving forward. “Our association attorney referred me to someone who specialized in HR law, because we wanted to make sure we were doing everything properly and would be fair to the employee.” The staffer was let go legally and the board voted to extend her medical coverage.
In the end, your staff is the most valuable asset your association has, says Gano. Although letting go may be hard, it’s a little easier when you are prepared, transparent with your decisions, and communicating well.
Tips for Thriving Through Staff Change
Require project updates with details so, if need be, anyone could step in and understand the basics of a project as well as its status and goals.
Assign a password administrator to keep a master file of all employees’ log-in IDs and passwords to association or MLS hardware and software.
Don’t keep other employees in the dark about staff changes. Although minute details
are unnecessary, it’s comforting to other employees to know why a person has left.
Develop a succession plan for manager-level workers. Establish an environment that encourages individuals at any level to potentially reach the management tier.
Conduct exit interviews to gauge the staff’s satisfaction level and what you could do better to retain your best workers.