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Building the Best Leaders

August 20, 2012

REALTOR® association leadership trainers share their expertise and experience in teaching others to how to lead.

The national REALTOR® Leadership Program, launched just a year ago, has already produced dozens of dedicated, motivated, and prepared volunteer leaders. The leadership experts chosen (and trained) to conduct the program at state and local associations and national meetings have learned a lot, too. Here they share their views on what it takes to be a great volunteer leader today and what types of leaders are needed to guide the REALTOR® organization into the future.

The most important leadership quality: vision

“I believe that leadership qualities, such as empathy, fairness, and flexibility, are absolutely essential for leaders, but by far the most important is vision. These qualities, in my opinion, make up about 80 percent of what’s needed to be a good leader. Certainly knowing what to do and understanding structure, roles, etc., are important, but these things can be learned. That’s why people study leadership through training, courses, and books, so that they can learn the skills needed to be leaders. But it’s awfully hard to learn (and teach) vision, empathy, and flexibility. My best leaders over 31 years in association management have been those who have a vision but are flexible enough to change when needed, and they treat others with kindness, fairness, and empathy—they are mentors.” —Diane Ruggiero

Why people will follow you

“A soldier doesn’t want to follow a leader who can’t read a map, but the hard skills aren’t enough. If they were, West Point would simply teach strategy and tactics, not leadership. There should be a rough balance, but in my view, the ‘softer’ skills are more important in a volunteer leader. If the ‘practical’ side strongly dominates, it can lead to micromanagement and burnout if the leaders feel they have to know and do everything. So, although a volunteer leader should have at least a basic understanding of relationships within the organization, the structure, and the issues, that’s not why people will follow. They will follow you because they believe in you. Truly great leaders don’t just understand the process, they understand people.” —Steve Francks

Today’s leaders must be bold

“The key qualities volunteers need to fulfill the expectations of the REALTOR® organization in 2012 and beyond are different than in the past. Years ago, organized real estate was like a social club. Members volunteered because they could network and interact with their REALTOR® friends. Big decisions were not controversial or life-changing for the members. Today, that’s not the case. Associations make huge strategic decisions every day that can affect members’ businesses, so leaders have to have the courage to make them. And the pace of the decision-making process has changed dramatically. For example, if a key political issue comes up, an association may have hours to act. There’s no time for work groups or extensive committee research. Today, it’s all about empowerment. Leaders and staff need to be empowered to act and act quickly if necessary.” —Keith Holm

Listening as a leadership style

“I once had a leadership course participant who was very quiet and subdued. I wasn’t sure if he was bored or just uninvolved. After a few hours giving no real response, he finally offered some input on a question of how to solve a problem that was brewing in another participant’s association. His suggestion was absolutely astounding and spot on. After class I thanked him for his input and I asked, ‘Why were you so quiet throughout most of the class?’ He responded, ‘Well, I guess my style is to listen to others, and if I don’t have anything new to add, or anything to add that’s going to change the course of the conversation, I just save my breath.’ I loved that response and I love those quiet leaders who don’t feel they have to respond to every comment that’s made in a meeting. When those types of leaders finally do speak up, everyone takes notice and listens. I find that’s a wonderful leadership quality.” —Diane Ruggiero

Leaders born, and made

“Training volunteer leaders is the best way to both accomplish significant strategic goals, and also to foster more leaders. We can learn a lot from the for-profit sector where 85 percent of the top 20 companies in the U.S. engage their leaders and directors in leadership training. Volunteers with opportunities to hone their business, communications, and interactive skills are the ones who will benefit their association, as well as work on their professional development in their own business.” —Melynn Sight

Learn to delegate

“Most leaders either don’t know how to delegate or don’t understand the need for doing so. This leads to members refusing to volunteer because it becomes apparent that the leadership team wants to control the decision-making authority.” —Roger Turcotte

If it ain’t broke . . .

“Many leaders come to their position wanting to ‘fix’ what they perceive is broken rather than working with the other members of the leadership team to allocate available resources in a way that ensures that members receive the support that they need to provide their clients with high-quality service.” —Roger Turcotte

Leading with the heart and the head

“Outstanding leaders are a combination of skills and qualities where all essential components and aspects are balanced. These leaders are people who rise to the occasion in times of adversity and mobilize their team toward a common envisioned goal, working in concert with their CEO. When the skills and qualities are skewed or out of balance, so are the leadership outcomes. For example, a leader with confidence and enthusiasm but no understanding of structure or roles can quickly lose the respect of the rest of a team that possesses an understanding of the mechanics.” —Adorna Carroll

First, you have to believe

“Today leaders need flexibility and the desire to help others look good, but mostly a strong belief that organized real estate offers real benefits to our members. A good leader today will also need to find ways to get people excited to volunteer for a specific event or task, not just serve on a committee.” —Suzanne Yost

The most important leadership quality: ability to listen

“Leadership qualities and skills are far more important overall than understanding the association structural issues, such as job-defining duties, roles, and responsibilities. A key quality for effective leaders is the ability to listen. Members feel a lot better about decisions made when they feel their opinion was heard and appreciated.” —Keith Holm

Pick what’s important and make it happen

“Today’s leaders, who are far more time-challenged than leaders 20 or more years ago, must be more focused and amenable to change. They must be willing to see options and adjust because so many more options are available today. And the time factor makes priorities ever changing. Today’s leaders must be ready to pick what’s important quickly and be ready to do what’s necessary to reach their goals on a much more accelerated pace than in the past. Yet, most REALTOR® associations are still doing things the way they used to, which means slowly.” —Alice and Don Martin

Vision but no crystal ball required

“Today, REALTOR® leaders must focus on the mission of their organization and study the environment in which their members work. Defining future opportunities, as well as possible threats that will affect their members, and determining how best to respond to these factors, is a critical part of a leader’s job. This is an extremely difficult challenge for a volunteer leader because he or she must have the skills to define the change that is required, develop a plan to implement the change, and influence members to accept and benefit from the change.” —Roger Turcotte

Successful practitioners make successful volunteers

“The key quality today’s volunteers need is the ability to understand technology and its impact on their business, on the association and the MLS; and, most important, on consumers. The best leaders are successful in their business and can bring those business leadership skills to the table for our organizations.” —Diane Ruggiero

Self-defeating traits of REALTOR® volunteer leadership

“The fear of change is the largest stumbling block to effective leadership. Leaders have to be open to new ideas and new ways to get things done. They need to have a great partnership between volunteer leaders and professional staff. And both volunteers and staff need to be on the same page when key decisions are made. A little historical perspective on a committee or on the board of directors is a good thing. But when an organization refuses to move forward out of fear of change, it’s time to look for new leadership. And don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Not everything will work out as planned, but that’s okay. Members have a much higher respect for organizations that are looking out for their interests and are willing to take some risk now and then.” —Keith Holm

It’s not about your legacy

“The biggest mistake I see in aspiring leaders is when they think they need to leave a legacy or ‘their mark’ on the organizations they lead. Great leaders naturally leave their mark; they don’t have to have a special project, service, or program in mind as they come up through the leadership ranks. If they think it’s about what they will leave behind instead of what’s good for the entire organization and its members, then it’s a recipe for disaster at worst and failure at best.” —Diane Ruggiero

Eureka, he’s got it!

“A young leader shared with me that he had always admired a particular person in his association who had been a REALTOR® leader for many years at all levels of the organization. After attending the RLP course, however, he realized that what he admired was the importance of the positions that this individual had held rather than the person’s ability to lead. The young leader said, ‘What I have learned today is that it’s really about how much my members get and not so much about what I get.’” —Roger Turcotte

With great power comes great responsibility

“Volunteer leaders fail when they try to change too much about an organization, because most associations need only small changes that can make a big difference to the membership. I also see problems when volunteers don’t value the staff or think they have more ‘control’ over staff than they are entitled to.” —Suzanne Yost

The most important leadership quality: courage

“Today’s leaders require more than just vision, outside perspective, and the mechanics of how to lead. What they require most is the courage to lead a group toward a horizon line where the industry landscape may be not only dramatically different but also outside the comfort zone of most volunteers because it challenges perceptions of what they have always done before. Reinvention, adaptability, and fluid decision-making are essential, and many groups are not configured to meet that challenge.” —Adorna Carroll

Mastering technology is a must

“The REALTOR® organization and the industry have become more complex than ever, with new technology, new programs and initiatives, and more regulation at every level of government. With so much going on, there’s always a new bright, shiny object coming along that can distract the organization from its priorities. So I think great REALTOR® leaders today must have the ability to focus their personal attention on a few key issues and to move them forward. Basically, you have to keep your eyes on the prize.” —Steve Francks

The incomplete leader

“Unfortunately, many leaders do not understand the role of a leader. Leaders can move in the wrong direction, but do so with incredible confidence that they are doing the right thing. I often encounter a leader doing what he or she thinks is best for an organization without paying attention to the strategic plan or without getting appropriate input from the members. On the other hand, it’s very common to see a leader who understands his or her role but lacks one or more of the leadership qualities (such as empathy or backbone) that are required for a volunteer leader to be effective.” —Roger Turcotte

Contributing Leadership Trainers

Adorna Carroll is broker-owner of Realty3 of Connecticut and president of Dynamic Directions, an international sales training consulting firm.

Steve Francks, RCE, CAE, is CEO of the Washington Association of REALTORS®.

Keith Holm, RCE, served as CEO of the St. Paul Area Association of REALTORS®, Minnesota for more than 30 years.

Alice and Don Martin are REALTOR® association leadership and strategic planning consultants (Martinconsultingsolutions.org). Alice is the former vice president of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ Association Leadership Development department. Don is a real estate broker and past REALTOR® association president.

Diane Ruggiero, RCE, CAE, has been CEO of the Kansas City Regional Association of REALTORS® for ten years and has spent 30 years managing REALTOR® associations.

Roger Turcotte, GRI, is an author and speaker on real estate education and leadership. He has been recognized as Educator of the Year by the New Hampshire Association of REALTORS®.

Melynn Sight is founder and president of nSight Marketing in Kansas City. She works with associations and their members in all aspects of communications.

Suzanne Yost has been a REALTOR® for 31 years and is the 2012 president of the Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS®, Calif.