This is “something that has kind of been talked about in the shadows and in the closet for a long time,” one attendee of the Realtors Conference & Expo said Saturday.

SAN FRANCISCO — Realtor associations run on volunteer leaders and paid staff — a combination that can work out when everyone gets along, but can also end up rife with conflict.

As association executives descended on San Francisco this past week to attend the National Association of Realtors’ annual conference, the Realtors Conference & Expo, some asked for NAR leaders to step in and protect them from volunteer leaders, who generally serve in their positions for one year.

Dr. Dawn Kennedy, CEO of the Birmingham Association of Realtors, spoke up at the event’s AE Forum Friday.

“When I was doing my dissertation on CEOs in Realtor associations, I heard just horror stories about some of us just being dragged through the mud wrongly by a group of volunteer leadership that for whatever reason didn’t like you,” Kennedy told forum attendees.

“I always felt it was kind of unfair because they come and go after a year, but yet can totally mess with our careers for a lifetime.”

She asked that NAR, perhaps through a work group on human resources in associations, put in place an association code of ethics that requires volunteer leaders to go through a training program with “a test that they have to pass, something that would make them qualified to actually lead.”

And if they’re not qualified, that wouldn’t mean they couldn’t get elected to their position, but NAR should require them to do some coursework, she said.

“I remember one time I was sitting at the NAR Leadership Summit with my president, and she was sitting next to the commercial [association] president, and there was just invaluable information going on,” Kennedy said.

“[But] they completely talked through the whole thing. They ignored it. Because they didn’t want to hear it.”

NAR offers a code of ethics on how Realtors should treat their peers and the public, but not on how to treat association staff, according to Kennedy.

“I think if NAR is, if we’re ever going to be completely professional, that needs to be done,” she said.

Another attendee thanked Kennedy for her comments.

“We appreciate you getting it on the radar, and talking about something that has kind of been talked about in the shadows and in the closet for a long time and it needs to be front and center,” he said.

“Association executives are a heartbeat of the association,” he added, lamenting how some had been treated by “overzealous … chest-beating leaders that have no idea what leadership is all about.”

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John Sebree, the forum’s vice chair, said, “We do have focus groups on that very issue at these meetings but then that will probably grow into something beyond that” after the conference.

“It could be part of this HR advisory board group or it could be its own spin-off,” Sebree said.

Immediately after the forum, during the Association Executives Committee meeting, committee member Cliff Long, CEO of the Orlando Regional Realtor Association, remarked that his “career was birthed in conflict” between volunteers and association staff and “the events that catapulted me to become an AE were birthed in the exit of the previous AE. And I think there are a lot of people in this room who have come through similar avenues into leadership.”

He observed that many of the colleagues who started in association work with him were no longer in the industry, “simply because for one reason or another, they just could not take it at their boards.”

“To get here we’ve had to deal with a lot of difficult members, a lot of difficult volunteers, and unfairness across the board,” he added.

He urged his fellow committee members to explore how to help volunteer leaders understand what AEs do.

“I want this body to take the utmost interest in ensuring that something comes forward that protects what we do for a living,” Long said.

“It is incumbent upon us to look out not just for ourselves as AEs, but for our staff. Because sometimes the people that we serve, don’t quite understand what it takes to do what we do.”

He suggested that perhaps they should draft a “Staff Bill of Rights” to help everyone understand that staff is not the “enemy.”

“I want us all to work together in the spirit of love and servitude for the association. But this is the challenge that’s coming before this body, it is our great challenge,” Long said.

“It is our moment to step up as leadership and do something on behalf of the people that work for us and that work with us and those that we serve.”

Duncan MacKenzie, the committee’s chair, said he had met with the NAR leadership team on the issue.

“I can guarantee you they’re committed to understanding what this issue is, what the consequences are and what the possible solutions can be,” MacKenzie said.

“There’s an open mind, there’s a willingness to learn and there’s a willingness to address it.”

Long declined to elaborate on his comments after the meeting.

Email Andrea V. Brambila.
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