Two award-winning veteran AEs ended successful careers this past December spanning a combined 68 years, seven REALTOR® associations, and four MLSs. RAE spoke to Diane Ruggiero and Christine Todd about what it takes to build a long and successful AE career, when to know it’s time to move on, and how to turn over the reins gracefully.
When Diane Ruggiero, RCE, CAE, took the stage at the 2015 REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Diego in November to accept the William R. Magel Award of Excellence in association management, it was the fitting end to an accomplished AE career.
Ruggiero joined the REALTOR® family in the early 1980s as education director for the Cleveland Area Board of REALTORS®, and soon advanced to her first executive role with the Burlington County Board of REALTORS® in New Jersey. She served as the top executive for the Washington D.C. Association of REALTORS®, and ran the Kansas City Regional Association of REALTORS® from 2001 to 2016. She began leading the Heartland MLS in 2007 and is credited with helping implement one of the largest MLS mergers in the country to form what is now MRIS, which serves more than 40,000 members in the mid-Atlantic region.
Her achievements are many and there’s still “plenty of gas left in the tank,” she says. So why leave?
“I always thought I would just work and work because I loved the AE career,” says Ruggiero. “It was fabulous. But then I started to notice a change in myself. When a new challenge came up, instead of thinking ‘I can’t wait to dig in,’ I wasn’t excited about it.”
At first she thought a vacation would recharge her batteries. But it didn’t. “Especially when there was another board meeting or another inauguration or any other repeat event; after 35 years, it just wasn’t exciting anymore. I realized that it might be time for me to turn the reins over to someone who would be excited for every challenge.”
Coincidentally, Christine Todd, RCE, CAE, at the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS®, was feeling the same.
“I started to think that this work is becoming too repetitive for me,” says Todd. “So much of what associations do—installations, election of officers, annual budget, strategy plans—is done over and over again, and after decades, my association was running on autopilot.”
Todd started her REALTOR® association career in 1978 at the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. She later joined the Greater Salem Board of REALTORS® and then the Northern Virginia Association of REALTORS® as CEO until her departure Dec. 31. She served on the board of directors of the International Real Property Foundation and conducted dozens of seminars throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, and Peru on how to run real estate associations. She is one of the founding forces behind the REALTORS® Federal Credit Union and has served on countless NAR committees and work groups. She won the Magel award in 1997.
“I felt that I achieved everything I could. I’ve won every award you can win. I’m at the top of my game. I thought to myself, ‘When I leave, I want to do it at the top like Derek Jeter running around the bases with a smile on my face, waving to the crowd, and on to the next thing,’” says Todd.
That next thing for Todd is part-time consulting on association management. “I still feel good about my profession and I want to try a few more things,” she says.
Likewise, Ruggiero says she still loves the industry and the people, and wants to do something with all of her accumulated expertise. “I’m not ready to just retire and play on my boat,” she says. “I realized I just needed a different outlet for my energy, so that’s why I decided to go into consulting.”
Neither chose to establish her own business, opting instead to join successful operations. Todd joined Adorna Carroll at Dynamic Directions and Ruggiero will work with Ann Bailey at Pranix.
Todd and Ruggiero gave their associations a one-year notice before leaving.
“I knew for the first two months they’d be in shock and denial,” says Todd, “then they’d get serious about looking for someone new, and that would take a while, and then we’d need a transition period of a few months.”
“Chris and the entire staff made the transition seamless,” says Ryan T. Conrad, RCE, CAE, who succeeded Todd. “She has been one of my biggest champions, which helped with earning staff, board, and membership buy-in. Chris and our staff took the time to bring me up to speed on major priorities and how the organization operates, and shared the different cultural norms that are perhaps most important to understand heading into a new association.”
Choosing a successor
AEs should not be involved in the search for their replacement, asserts Ruggiero, yet she did suggest her board look within the REALTOR® industry. “I believe we are truly at some important crossroads in our business in both the MLS world and the association world,” she says. “Because we’re at the cusp of change, I felt having a person who already had all of that background would save a year in terms of getting up to speed.”
Ruggiero’s board hired Kipp Cooper, RCE (formerly of the Huntsville Area Association of REALTORS® and North Alabama MLS) this past fall giving her a few months to guide his initiation. “Most of the time I spent with Kipp was going over historical perspective, why we did things in a certain way. But I told him my feelings won’t be hurt if he changed things. That’s what should happen,” says Ruggiero.
With their associations safely in the hands of new CEOs, Todd and Ruggiero have some parting advice for younger AEs just getting started.
“To be successful, long term, you have to truly love the profession and have tremendous respect for your members and what they do,” says Todd. “I truly believe that helping people achieve the American dream of home ownership or live in a decent, affordable rental unit is a very lofty goal. I really admire my members.”
Ruggiero cultivated expert people skills, which she says has been critical for success. Sometimes she’d consult for free with boards that needed help with consensus building and forming better relationships between volunteer leaders and staff.
Todd also credits much of her success to her people skills. “You have to have very good instincts about people,” she says. “I always tell my staff that we adjust to the leadership team every year; they don’t adjust to us.”
If you don’t have people skills instinctively, Todd says, there’s still hope. “I urge my colleagues to go to the AEI courses. They are invaluable, but also seek out and supplement them with some business courses that train you to think critically and analyze information and communicate it effectively to people who have to make business decisions on your advice.”
Both Todd and Ruggiero say it’s important to be involved in NAR committees, work groups, and task forces to gain industry insights, learn from peers, and effect change, yet they caution that this level of involvement can backfire.
“It’s very important for AEs to understand that when you get involved nationally, your leadership back home can be resentful and jealous,” says Todd. “So whenever I go to a national meeting, I try to have my leadership with me. I always introduce them; I try to get my leadership on NAR committees, and I tell them how they can become a director. I always show them that my giving to NAR always has a benefit for them.”
In addition to committee work, Todd would take on consulting and speaking jobs at other associations, but always asked her leaders for their consent. “I always made sure that my board gave me approval. They viewed my involvement as not only good for me but also a credit to them. It reflected positively on the association that somebody would want their CEO to come in.”
Fortunately for the AE community, Todd’s and Ruggiero’s vast expertise is just a phone call away, although now, perhaps not for free. Contact Diane Ruggiero at email@example.com and Christine Todd at CMTcae4@gmail.com.
Checklist for Retiring AEs
Check the terms of your employment contract, if you have one, to ensure that your preferred retirement date coincides with the date your contract expires. If you don’t have an employment contract, have a conversation with your leadership to develop a written agreement that specifies your retirement intentions.
Confirm with your leadership that if there is a discrepancy between the retirement benefits stipulated in your employment contract and those outlined in the association’s personnel policies, your contract supersedes the personnel policies.
Have a conversation with your leadership to determine if they want you to help transition your replacement or if they want you to leave before the replacement starts. Establish an end date that is specified in writing.
If you are interested in working as a consultant for your association upon retirement, talk with your leadership about serving in this capacity.
Don’t Wait, Plan Now: Succession Planning for REALTOR® Associations
NAR’s AE Committee has developed a variety of detailed guides and checklists to help you prepare your association for your departure, even if you have no plans to leave any time soon. These guides (available here on nar.realtor) outline steps associations should take to ensure the process, whenever it happens, runs smoothly.
One key resource is the sample succession plan. A succession plan policy is a document approved by your board of directors. It includes a checklist of procedures your association will follow when the planned or unplanned departure of the executive officer is announced.
Among other things, this policy is a commitment by staff and leadership to make an orderly transition in the best interest of the membership. It details who and how to select an interim executive, what essential skills any new EO should have (a basic job description), the process for searching for a permanent replacement (establish a search committee or use the board of directors?), and a “turnover” book, which includes all passwords and key procedures needed to run the association—to be used in the event that the AE is unavailable due to accident, illness, or other unexpected event. A succession plan should also include a budget to cover the hiring process, salary range, benefits, legal advice, outside assistance, and other expenses.