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Aug. 23, 2013 - Red Flags and ADA Requirements: Are You Up to Date?

Terry Penza

Terry Penza, RCE, CAE

 

Editor's Note to AE's: I've asked NAR's Magel Award Winner Terry Penza to guest post to "Off Stage"--she's been sitting around asking provocative and thought provoking questions of AEs, and I thought it was time she spoke up!  In this article she calls our attention to two areas of concern for associations: the new Red Flag rule, and additions to ADA claims which will affect all of us.  Enjoy--and thanks, Terry, for your contributions!  Judith

Thanks Judith for allowing me to be a guest author on your blog!

In our type of jobs as association managers, it is easy for new laws and policies slip through our fingers.  I mean really, we are governed by every local, state and federal government agency (or at least that is what it seems to be).  I try to keep up by reading a variety of e-news and e-bulletins: I gave up on paper.  Recently, while reading the e-bulletin from Howe and Hutton, a law firm in Illinois who works with associations and is my personal attorney, I found the following posting which  Jonathan Howe gave me permission to share  with you.

ARE YOU COMPLYING WITH FTC’S REINSTATED RED FLAGS RULE? — The Federal Trade Commission is now preparing to implement the "Red Flags Rule" after a dust-up with Congress that forced a narrowing of the definition of "creditors" covered by the Rule.  Congress had required the FTC and several banking regulators to develop regulations requiring that financial institutions and' creditors"‖implement written identity theft protection programs. Under the current iteration of the Rule, a covered "creditor" is anyone who, in the ordinary course of business, regularly obtains and uses consumer reports in connection with a credit transaction; furnishes information to consumer reporting agencies in connection with such a transaction; or advances funds to or on behalf of someone, except for expenses incidental to a service provided to that person. Covered persons must develop and implement programs that (1) identify and detect "red flags"‖signaling possible identity theft in their operations, and (2) detail appropriate responses to any red flags detected in order to prevent and mitigate identity theft. Such programs must also provide that they will be updated periodically to reflect changes in risks from identity theft. Many nonprofits accept credit card payments or otherwise extend credit (for meetings, conferences, trade shows, publications, etc.). Therefore, they may be required to comply with the Rule. Obtain competent advice in determining whether the Rule applies to your operations and implementing the required program. (Reprinted by permission, The Howe & Hutton Report, VOLUME 2013 ISSUE 8)

NAR has suggested guidelines for writing a plan:  http://www.realtor.org/law-and-ethics/complying-with-federal-regulations/best-practices-for-protecting-members-private-information

Anyone written a plan yet?  Would you want to share?

 

On another note.  Since I have permission to post articles from Jonathan I found this interesting.  As a weight challenged person it caught my eye...

WILL THIS BECOME ANOTHER BASIS FOR ADA CLAIMS? — The American Medical Association earlier this summer concluded that obesity is a disease, not a condition. One potential consequence is that employers may face Americans with Disability Act ("ADA") claims for rejecting overweight applicants, or not entering into discussions with employees claiming they need accommodations due to their obesity to perform their jobs. If an applicant or employee is diagnosed as obese, does this constitute a disease under the ADA? While there is little prior law on this favoring employees, that was before the AMA concluded obesity is a disease. So far, plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys are speculating what the courts (and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) will decide. If obesity is defined as a body mass index (“BMI”) of 30 or more, how is an employer supposed to know the applicant’s or employee’s BMI score? An employer’s Mark 1 Eyeball may not be accurate at determining BMI scores. It is probably premature to speculate how this will turn out, but this might become a source of claims down the road. (Reprinted by permission, The Howe & Hutton Report, VOLUME 2013 ISSUE 8)

This also begs to ask...how are you treating your members who are weight challenged?  I purchased only four extra wide chairs for the classroom and try to put them to the side for those who "need" to use them.  Unfortunately I always walk into class and find some 90 pound weakling sitting in them.  I finally realized they used the chairs because they were the only ones that had padded seats.  Who knew someone without a weight problem would have any problems?  I mean, hasn't the media told me if I lose weight my life will be perfect?

Terese (Terry) Penza, RCE. CAE

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Jul. 14, 2013 - What’s your 20 Second Public Relations Strategy?

     There are many lessons to be learned from the airlines these days, including the bad press resulting from treating your customers like mindless livestock to angering them with a nickel-and dime approach to charging for services.  As frequent travelers, association execs fully understand what lasting damage poorly conceived customer service can do.

     But there’s another lesson to be learned from the airline industry in these last two weeks: let’s turn to the San Francisco crash of Asiana Flight 214.  As I write this article, there aftermath of the tragedy still whirls around us in the form of rumor, innuendo, and Asiana’s plummeting stock value (6.2% in one day).  And what is clear?  In this world of instant communication, organizations—whether business entities, non-profit groups, or trade associations—need to have a 20 Second PR Crisis Strategy in place.

     Twenty Seconds? you say.  Isn’t that a little ridiculous?

     No, I respond.  Consider this: within 30 seconds of the crash of Flight 214, Krista Seiden, a Google employee boarding a nearby flight, had posted a photo of the crash on Twitter and within 24 hours, Krista and her photo had been cited in over 2400 news media publications.  Within 18 minutes after the crash, a passenger who walked away from the crash of Asiana 214 had posted a photo of the burning wreckage. And within the next few hours, the National Transportation Safety Board and the San Francisco Airport had begun posting news updates and other pertinent messages to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

     But here’s the kicker: Asiana Airlines did not issue any kind of public release or status update for over eight hours following the crash.  The world found this behavior unacceptable. “Either they don’t know what to say or they are hiding something,” said one Twitter user, and her post seemed to sum up the general public opinion.  And of course, there’s the other side of this story: through its inability to produce useful, cogent information about the crash, the Asiana lost out on a golden opportunity to increase its respect and reliability in the eyes of its current and potential customers.

     This story gives a new meaning to the term ‘crisis management’.  It’s a sign of the technology of the times that every organization needs to have a new, more aggressive and proactive approach to their crisis communications program than ever before, and that that program needs careful preparation on the part of staff and leadership.

     What are the components of a PR strategy for your organization when it goes into a crisis management mode?  Here are some suggestions:

1.       Plan ahead for your mitigation actions.  Identify who will be on the crisis management team and let members and staff know who will act as spokespersons. Larger organizations may consider setting up a dormant website which can be quickly utilized in a crisis situation, or may have a toll free number in reserve for call-in information in crisis situations.  Designate someone on the crisis team whose job it is to monitor and respond to social media.  Identify members and others (affiliate members and partner organizations like the Chamber of Commerce or the Homebuilders) who can act as your advocates, perhaps making supportive statements to the media and posting on behalf your association’s position.

2.       Train yourself and the members of your management team to recognize an impending crisis when they see one.  How often have smoldering situations become full-blown conflagrations because nobody recognized the problem in time to mitigate the damage?  A colleague of mine once fired a staff member who was affiliated with a racial minority group: the next thing he knew, some members were picketing the association headquarters claiming discriminatory hiring practices and he found himself the headline topic on the evening news.

3.       Act in a timely fashion.  As Asiana learned, the first media release came within 30 seconds of the event, and an 8-hour response time was not acceptable: the airline was tainted in public opinion and judged either incompetent or with something to hide.  Also, this case illustrates a new normal in news reporting: no longer are news gatherers waiting for a reporter to fax in a story.  Eyewitness reports are available in real time, as events are happening.

4.       Be transparent and proactive.  Clearly present relevant facts and advocate your association’s position.  Be aware that your public relations program won’t be able to control information that’s being presented from all sources, but you will be able to position your organization as credible and reliable.

5.       Don’t get sidetracked into off-target controversies.  A week after the crash, Asiana Airlines appears to be spending more resources into positioning itself as the injured party in a joke-gone-wild using bogus names of pilots by threatening a lawsuit over what it calls ‘racially offensive fake pilot names’ , than it is in polishing its tarnished and tardy public image.

Crisis management is not an issue of size, by the way—in case you’re saying to yourself that your organization is too small to matter.  A crisis can happen no matt how large or small the association, and it can affect everyone associated with it.  In addition, having a crisis management strategy session with your leadership and staff is a healthy dialogue to have, one that will encourage everyone to become more aware of the need for cooperation and shared vision in all our efforts.

(Author’s Note: Background information from PhoCusWright airline industry publication)

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Apr. 21, 2013 - Six Steps to Increased Participation in your Organization.

All too often, members of an organization raise the familiar whine “members (meaning, everyone but me) are apathetic. Nobody participates”. Similarly, when asked ‘what would you like to change most in your organization’, leaders say “Increase participation.”

Here are some steps to take to do just that:

1.       Change your definition of ‘participation’. Your members certainly have done this, even if you haven’t. If your meaning of the word ‘participation’ is limited to committees sitting with bodies firmly planted in seats at a location of your choice, get over it. Members no longer participate this way with any regularity. Develop other methods of involvement: online forums, special interest groups, social media experiences,  computer learning, and online surveys are just a few of the options available to modern organizations.

2.       Develop a mission statement that every member can repeat and understand. The new normal is one sentence, which will act as a guideline for decision making on programs and general operations. Then, put it everywhere—meeting agendas, posters, nametags, signature lines, web pages. Focus your resources on that mission and unite behind it.( Leave the ‘how’ out of the statement . For instance, one organization I recently worked with said “we are going to contribute to our members’ success through education, enforcing the Code of Ethics, and protecting private property rights, and yada yada yada….” I advised, “Let’s just contribute to the business success of our members. The goals will address the issue of HOW. Keep your mission statement simple and meaningful to those you serve.”)

3.       Adopt a conversational approach to communication. Never send out a communication without an invitation to respond for further conversation. Ask, “do you have an opinion on this? If so, click here and email your thoughts.” Always end a communication with an invitation to respond. (One organization I know has a link in every email signature that goes out from the group. The link takes the recipient to a Survey Monkey mini-survey of 4 questions which asks, ‘how are we doing, and how can we better serve you.’)

4.       When you ask for volunteers, be clear on what results you are asking for: “We would like to raise $500 at this event”, or “Our goal is for a representative from every committee to attend this training session.” Then, celebrate your successes and thank the contributors. (A recent example: a client wanted more participation on committees, so at a meeting they handed out a list of all its committee job descriptions.  The response was zilch. Why? Because they never ask anyone how to sign up, and because they made no move to reach out to the 80% of the members who weren’t at the meeting.)

5.       Begin with the results you desire. Too often organizations begin with the existing structure and find work for it to do. It’s more effective to clearly define the jobs, and develop a team of the best workers to complete the task. Start with what needs to get done (new bylaws, or a social function for instance) and appoint committee workers to do that job and then disband. Don’t waste resources on committees which have no important work to do at a particular point in time.

6.       Don’t build an elaborate governance structure. Today’s world moves much more rapidly than in the past, and if your group can’t make decisions in a timely and efficient manner, it will be left in the dust of change. At a minimum, make sure your board can make decisions via email and conference calls, and that new ideas don’t get bogged down in layers of approval. Also remember, the more elaborate the structure, the more (staff) resources you will have to allocate to monitoring and guiding it.

 
Two ‘best practice’ ideas:
 

a.       Use the ‘toe in the water’ approach to involve new members. Know what it is that new members can do to join in and develop a level of comfort with the organization before giving them a job with too much responsibility. Working on a social function, or program committees is a good way to get acquainted—working on a bylaws  or nominating committee is not. Have a policy about what are good entry-level experiences for new members, and be understanding of the fact that they will need to find their niche in your organization. 

 

b.      Train your members in leadership skills. Teach them how to run a results-oriented meeting, how to read a financial statement, what resources are available to them to help them do a good job, and how to work within the structure of your organization to achieve the best results.

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Feb. 26, 2013 - Can I borrow your stuff?

 

I’ve recently noticed that on a couple of association management forums contributors have asked, “Does anybody have a member satisfaction survey they are willing to share?”

Now I know that question is arises because associations don’t want to spend money on marketing (which includes consumer satisfaction surveys), but such a request always sets my teeth on edge—for a couple of reasons.  First, the assumption seems to be that any old bunch of questions will do, and, second, the request presumes that a member satisfaction survey is a good indicator of—well, member satisfaction.

These are two hot button issues with me.  First, in the Realtor organization we are all too fond of blindly copying each other’s mistakes.  We gather together in forums (bored forums?) and describe our practices (without considering whether or not these are ‘best practices’ in contributing to the success of our mission).   And secondly, we assume that an annual survey which asks ‘how do you like us?’ will bring constructive direction to our future efforts.

Humbug!  I recently read an article on association management titled “Asking the Right Questions”, written by Canadian consultant Meagan Rockett, who observes that associations can spend a great deal of money and other resources constructing surveys which support the conclusions the leadership wants to hear.  “It all depends on the questions you ask,” she says.

Knowing how to ask the right questions is a job for the professionals, as is interpreting the results of any survey you issue.  Rockett suggests the following tips for obtaining helpful results from your survey:

1.       Use a professional pollster to conduct the survey, or, if you want to do the survey in house,

2.       Ask a professional to review the questions before you launch the survey.

3.       Ask two or three team members to examine and discuss the results with you when they come back, and

4.       Ask one or two independent observers to review and interpret the results as well.

In addition, I’d add that assessing member satisfaction ought to be an ongoing process, not just an annual survey.  After each interaction with a member, ask “how are we doing?” and “were you satisfied with this transaction with us?”  You can easily attach a link to a survey in your staff signature line, or print inexpensive return postcards to go out to members with all products and mailings.

But here’s my second objection to the "Can I use your survey?" question: member satisfaction surveys are all too often used as a guide to strategic planning sessions or annual work plans.  “What do the members want?” we ask, and hope for directives from members who are not particularly involved with the association, and often don’t fully understand what an organization DOES offer them. 

And when a suggestion with some merit  comes back to us, it’s all too easy to jump on our horses and ride off into the sunset, tilting at windmills along the way.

The danger here is two-fold: first, in this era of limited resources any new association programs need a business plan and careful study.  New ideas must be subjected to a strategy screen: are these suggestions contributing to our association mission and goals?  Is it appropriate for our group to undertake them or could they be better accomplished through a partnership or by a third party that is better equipped to do the job than is our organization?

But even more importantly, if a member satisfaction response is your only guide to evaluating your success as an association, then your group resources will be directed toward the short term band-aid of producing products and services (many of which are not sustainable) rather than increasing the organization's long-term capacity to better achieve its original goals.

Here’s an example: The Greybeard Association of Realtors has long thought that one of its key member services would be to provide education to its members.  Accordingly, the association budgeted for significant income from these classes, and invested in a facility with lots of classroom space.  A medium-sized association, it held as many as 8-10 classes per week for its members.

“Ah,” the leadership said, “this is what members want. We’ve asked them and they said “We want Continuing Education. And, of course, NAR says we need to have Orientation and Code of Ethics training. So see?  Look at the number of classes we offer!  We’re doing those things everybody says we should.”  And they preened and buffed their fingernails against their lapels.

Of course, at the same time, the Greybeards were $20,000 under annual budget for education income. Members simply weren't showing up to take the association offerings. Great numbers of programs were being offered, but the capacity to build and market competitive products simply wasn’t there.  People weren’t selecting the association education offerings; they were taking classes online, at the brokerages, or from convenient third party schools.   Inexpensive classes held across town at the association castle and accompanied by free doughnuts weren’t a value proposition for members; convenience and quality were.  The Greybeard Association was concentrating on appearance and not on quality and marketing.

Member satisfaction dialogues and needs surveys are very important, and should be a part of the ongoing process of an association.  But equally, if not more, important is the internal examination of an organization’s capacity to meet its mission effectively and efficiently. A strategy session which excludes a Capacity Audit is neglecting a major component of the group's development and growth. 

A Capacity Audit means asking the hard questions, and taking an objective and critical look at the answers.  Some questions which I include in my Capacity Audit are “Do we hold well-planned, purposeful board meetings?” and “What is the quality of communication between our Board of Directors and the members?”

Once the organization clearly evaluates the strength of the component parts of its  infrastructure, it can then develop a plan to build the association’s capacity to develop meaningful programs for members and for  the mission of the group.

 

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Feb. 6, 2013 - Interim AE, Part 2

 

More now than ever, I’m convinced that an Interim AE position really can work for associations—and more than that, Interim Management can be a real winning tactic to refresh and re-invigorate an organization. 

I recently completed a three month assignment as the Interim AE for an influential East Coast association, one that had been searching for a successful permanent executive for some time.  Because there had been no consistent professional management in recent months, there were some significant upheavals—member distrust in the leadership,  financial disrepair,  and some crumbling infrastructure in the form of outdated policy and neglected bylaws.

Tempers were often heated to the boiling point and significant issues had been put on hold. Much of the volunteer energy seemed to be diverted into personal attacks on other members and in the meantime, the association was losing members and funds.

No, this wasn’t YOUR association—but it easily could be.  Realtor organizations are filled with members who are concerned with the success of the organization: their professional livelihood depends on its services. (Of course in most instances, that service is the MLS/lockboxes, which is a long way from being the ‘voice for real estate’ or the ‘defender of private property rights’.  But hey, you can’t have everything!)

But back to my narrative: the association went to NAR’s Human Resources Department which suggested that an interim position might be helpful until a permanent executive could be employed, and so I found myself temporarily relocated to a city where I’d never been before, working with people I hadn’t met previously. 

Those of you who know me understand that I firmly believe that many good answers can be found by looking outside the Realtor family to shed a fresh light on problem solving.  Interim management in churches and other non-profits is a fairly common practice: in the case of a long-term relationship between an organization and its employee, an interim solution is often mandated by the parent organization.    Here’s why:

1.       An interim management provides a cushion between the previous employee and a successor.  In the case of a well-loved (or even well-hated) manager, distance can be a healing factor.  It’s a time to put a distance between the past and the future.

2.       An interim manager with no commitment to longevity with that association can identify issues and effect solutions that may be difficult politically.  I made no effort to conceal that position: “I’ve already fired myself, “ I would say.  “You don’t have to like me or my solutions.  I am just committed to solving the problem and doing a good job for you.”

3.       The Interim AE can concentrate on the tasks at hand.  The slogan “Get a life” really didn’t apply to me: I was positioned to do a job, and that WAS my life for a short time. I had few distractions outside of some sightseeing and visits with nearby friends; my thoughts were consistently centered on my employer .

4.       An interim manager has the luxury of time, which a consultant doesn’t have.  I’ve done lots of strategic plans and leadership training for organizations with which I had no previous familiarity—I came in for a day, did my thing, and left.  In this case, I was with the association daily for two months before we even began the strategic planning process, and when we did finally get to it, we could proceed with a pretty good awareness of what the strengths and weaknesses REALLY were.

5.       The selection process for a new CEO went smoothly, and a candidate was chosen whose skill set was an exceptionally good match for the organizational values and environment.  

6.       During this transition time, member service was not interrupted—in fact, member communication increased, vendors were paid, and existing contracts were evaluated and negotiated.  This could happen because the energy of volunteers and staff alike was directed to the most efficient use of resources and away from the distractions of past mistakes and petty quarrels.

Of course there are limitation for both the Interim AE and the employing association, and being an ‘Interim’ is not a job for everyone.  However, hiring an Interim AE can indeed be a good solution on many occasions, and is one which needs to be examined carefully as an option to a hastily negotiated hiring decision.

 

 

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Jan. 4, 2013 - Six Lessons as an Interim AE

 Yes, it’s been a while since I posted to Off Stage.  At least three months--and that’s because I’ve been ‘on stage’, working as an interim AE for a Realtor association on the East coast.

Being an interim AE was a good experience for me and, I hope, for the association which hired me. It was a perfect solution for the organization: it needed a full-time AE and a thorough job search, it could benefit from some remedial work in its underlying structure, and some internal unrest needed calming.

“Can you do all this?” the Committee asked. 

“I think so,” I replied.  “It’s what I’ve done for 30 years.  Even more importantly, I’ve already fired myself—I don’t have to worry about job security and whether or not anybody likes me: I can just do what needs to be done.”

That, of course, is the saving grace of the interim position.  Even the most unpleasant tasks can be approached with a clarity that can’t be quite so direct and efficient  under a more permanent employment arrangement:

                ME: Uh, guys, you lost about $10,000 on your education fundraiser last month.

                LEADERSHIP TEAM: Whatever do you mean?  There were lots of people there!

                ME: Have a look at this income statement.  Here’s what this event cost you, including overhead and staff time.  The cocktail snacks and open bar was more than the admission you charged the attendees.  The attendance was down 30% from last year, your vendor tables were under budget, and the complimentary admissions were up.  Plus, 40% of the people there were affiliate members on salary—only a small percentage of members came (and they were pretty well huddled in the food and bar area). 

                LT: Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

                ME: No need to shoot messengers, please! Just decide if the return on investment makes this worth the effort next year.  And if it is, let’s plan ahead fix the leaks.

In the tradition of the “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in….” genre, here’s what I learned when I re-entered the Realtor Association Management as an Interim AE:

1.       It’s not ‘them or us’.  The association with which I worked was filled with passionate, energetic people who wanted to do the best thing for the organization.  They just differed on how to go about it. The AEs job is to clarify what that ‘best thing’ is (according to the members), and implement it.

2.       It’s also the AE’s job to provide perspective.  When an organization micromanages, or is torn apart by petty concerns (“there are too many blond  women/ bald men on the Board of Directors!”) it’s because the big picture questions are missing.  Why are we worrying about hair color when the  Mortgage Interest Deduction is under threat? Get the big issues on the table.

3.       Have a good, memorable (by everyone) mission statement, and keep it in front of the members.  Get rid of all the fou-fou wording about voice for real estate and private property rights.  A trade association has a job of representing members’ professional interests.  Say so, be proud of that, and keep reminding everybody that’s what the organization does. 

4.       Only spend money on things that enable the mission statement (see # 3). Be brutal about eliminating the programs and services which don’t serve the members. One heads up trick is to divide the total expense of a program or service by the number of real, live members who actually paid money to get it.  If (see the example above) the education fair has only 10% of the total members attending, and if the total cost divided by members equals more than they paid to get it, the question becomes, “should we keep doing this?”  If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then the next question is, ‘why’, if members aren’t attending?

5.       Get the association’s governing docs together.  At best, the association needs up-to-date bylaws and policy manuals (operations and personnel), a transition plan and ‘bus’ (emergency) book, a strategic plan or vision, and a written business model. No matter what the size of the group, these are essential tools to make good business decisions and avoid infighting and reinventing trivia.

6.       Teach leadership skills.  The only way to get good leaders is to teach ‘em.  Unfortunately, most “Leadership Conferences” don’t teach the practical aspects of leadership—they only impart the party line and maybe a little inspirational message by a football coach.  The techniques of managing meetings, setting work goals, forming communities—those essential skills are often neglected and volunteers are left untrained and uninformed.

These are the most obvious lessons for any AE, I think—the ones that AEs with long-term jobs need to think about and implement.  The other thing I learned—well, I always knew it, but my understanding deepened during my interim AE experience—was what a wealth of knowledge and support Realtor AEs are to each other.  My job was enhanced by the AEs around me, the state association staff, and the regional MLS exec.  Also, there was more helpful information on Realtor.org than I remembered (even though I sat on the work groups and task forces that wrote much of it).

Good thing I kept my NRDS number scratched on my laptop case……

 

 

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Aug. 1, 2012 - Overlooking the obvious....

 Well, I can't say things any more succinctly and clearly than my favorite technology specialist, Matt Cohen.  If you manage an association office or MLS site (or anywhere else which needs a minimum of security for that matter), read Matt's latest blog!

 

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Jul. 12, 2012 - Finding the Right Board Chair

  

 

It’s the time of year when organizations are (hopefully) beginning to think about elections and determining who will lead the group in the coming year.  I am using the word ‘hopefully’ advisedly, however: the truth of the matter is that many associations aren’t thinking about it at all—they’re caught up in perennial hope that the heavens will part and a qualified president will miraculously appear. 

Or often, if a president-elect system does exist in an organization, it’s usually a poorly defined position—the president-elect steps into the role of president should the chief elected leader not be able to attend to her vaguely mentioned duties, a sort of ‘let’s-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it-and-hopefully-we-never-will’ fallback position.

Pity the poor victim recruited into this governance swamp. He will spend countless resources slogging toward goals which may or may not relate to the organizational mission and—because there is no common perspective, he will please no one after 365 days in office.  And the annual Leadership Big Game Hunt will begin again.

But lest you think that writing a complete and precise job description is what’s needed, think again: a job description is merely the beginning.  After you’re written a good one, and the Board of Directors has approved it and inserted it in the policy manual (not the bylaws, because expectations will change frequently), the Board needs to go one step further, and think collectively about what characteristics make a good Chairman of the Board. 

First, consider that the Chairman of the Board (or elected President) needs to be able to influence four constituencies: other Board members, the association executive, the membership, and the public at large.  All four elements need constant attention, and should the President be incapable of leveraging influence on any one sector, that weakness needs to be identified and that gap purposefully filled. If the President can’t do it, somebody else needs to assume the responsibility.

Having said that, the organization needs to consider not just the job description but also the personal qualities of an effective chairman. It’s ironic that the simplest employment want ad contains terms like “self-starter” and “have people skills”, but the qualifications for an organization’s president specify the candidate “must have served on three standing committees” and “must have a real estate license”.

It’s more to the point that the leadership articulates the expectations it holds for the top elected leader.  Those might include:

1.       Relationship Competencies.  (Do we expect a President to be ‘good with people’?  Would we use terms like ‘friendly’, ‘calm’, ‘humble’, ‘non-judgmental’?)

2.       Action and Commitment Competencies. (Do we expect loyalty and the ability to dedicate time to the organization?  Do we want an action-oriented person?)

3.       Analytic Skills. (Should the ideal President be able to resolve conflict?  See the big picture and not get sidetracked by trivial details?)

4.       Flexibility and Willingness to be Creative. (These qualities imply that a leader has intelligence and confidence.)

5.       Ability to influence.  (Does the organization want a leader who represents business achievements within the membership community?  Who can serve as a representative of the organization to the public at large? )

In any organization there should a clear position description for the president (and, by extension) the leadership team.  That position description consists of two parts: (A) the duties which the candidate will perform, and (b) the leadership characteristics which the group expects.  The first part of this step is easy: the second will require some discussion and perhaps an organizational commitment to building some capacities on the part of the candidate. 

An example: one of my client organizations has a president-elect who is highly respected by everyone, but who has no skills in conducting a meeting or in public speaking.  Both she and the Board are aware of these shortcomings, and have committed to funding additional training for her in the form of a few sessions with a coach.  Rather than a year of frustration and dissatisfaction, the Board is working together to strengthen the association’s leadership capacities and conform to its values.

The next step in developing your association’s leadership pool is to establish a clear line of succession, and the third step is to install a formal, consistent evaluation procedure measure Board effectiveness.

But the first giant step of good leadership is a clear, written consensus of not only the duties, but also the personal characteristics expected in the chief elected leader.  And then to make certain that the first person to know what’s expected of her is the leader herself.

 
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Jun. 23, 2012 - Lawsuit

 

“Lawsuit alleges improper spending by former Realtor's* association executive”

 

Not long ago, a few members sued their Realtor association, its board of directors, and its long-time, recently retired executive officer.  The charges: misuse of funds and tampering with the election process.

In addition, the complainants allege that the executive in question verbally abused and discredited those who did not agree with the executive staff decisions.

Now my point in bringing this shocking event to your attention is not to point fingers or undermine anyone’s position in the matter; however, I do feel this is a case study illustrating ample reason for AEs to review their management practices—no matter what the size or sophistication of the association they serve.  Certain practices just can’t be ignored, and these can be stated as rules for which there is no exception.

AEs, listen up:

1.    Always create and leave a paper trail. Always.  Minutes need to clearly reflect the instructions from the board of directors, and instructions by a phone call from the president should always be followed up by a written note or email which records the substance of the conversation.  Then, keep records of these events in a place where they can be accessed and referred to, if needed.

2.    Take no liberties with election processes.  Even though it’s a friendly and non-contested election in a small and congenial association, the staff must treat the event with the same diligence as the most hotly fought governmental battle.  Create a process where every ballot is accounted for, and an independent entity counts the votes.  Even if the vote is a show of hands, count carefully and photograph the voters’ arms in the air.

3.    The big issue has been, and always will be, financial management.  Even if you wouldn’t dream of misplacing a penny, you can be accused of wrong doing and the burden of proof will be on you and your financial management practices.  Don’t sign checks and credit card invoices without proper written authority, and make sure at least one member reviews your expenditures.  You don’t have to have two signatures on checks, necessarily, but a member should review the check register on a regular basis.

a.     Have independent reviews.  Find a third party—an accountant or other professional—to conduct an annual review of the finances and report to the Board of Directors. You may not be able to afford a full audit on an annual basis, but at least have one every two or three years with a review on the intervening years. The Board is responsible for the protection of the association assets: make sure they have the tools to do that job, and at the same time protect yourself from criticism.

b.    Don’t ever hire a family member, and don’t do association business with one.  Sorry about your daughter who answers the phones or your Uncle Fred who sells you the association insurance policy—that looks to members like a conflict of interest.

c.     Make full reports available to members who want them—financial or otherwise.  In this age of social media, transparency is the watchword, and anyone who wants to hold information back from those who want it had better have a darned good excuse.  Figure out a way to deliver financial reports and meeting minutes to members in a way that will satisfy their requests.

I know I sound authoritarian, but that’s because these are authoritarian rules.  If you’re a small association, not having the resources to provide a third-party financial review or impeccable election practices is not an excuse.  You and the directors of your association are liable under law to provide this accountability. 

If your board can’t carry out these basic good management practices, it would be best to merge the organization with one that can.

*The headline is a direct quote.  I can’t help it if the newspaper doesn’t use good basic grammar and punctuation. jwl

 

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Jun. 13, 2012 - The NEW Internet Landscape: A Primer for Realtors and MLSs

  

The Big News

By now the news is out: earlier today the names of applicants for new top level domains (or TLD, the name that follows the dot in an internet address) was released.  Over 1900 applicants hope to gain a branded domain name where previously only 26 TLDs existed.

 

This release date was long anticipated by US Multiple Listing Services, many of whom have banded together to form the MLS Domains Association, a non-profit group which exists to make application for the .MLS domain name and restrict its use only to recognized MLS organizations. The group recruited members, collected funds, gained non-profit status, conducted a feasibility study among consumers and MLS members, and completed the application process with a partner, the  Canadian Real Estate Association.

 

Round One of the process had an application deadline of May 30 and— at long last—the names of the applicants were revealed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  The Washington Post says, “The list’s release marks the latest phase of ICANN’s long process to remake the landscape of the Internet. Companies who applied for new addresses include Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft as well as prominent firms such as Macy’s and Wal-Mart and Associations such as NAR and AARP.  Each application carried a hefty price tag of $185,000.

 

Also at issue in the domain allocation process is a segment known as the ‘community TLD’. The ICANN wiki defines this as follows: The “Community gTLD is one of the different categories of generic top level domain names (gTLDs) created by the ICANN, which is intended for cohesive, community groups that are interested in operating their own TLD Registry... A good example of community group that represents a clearly defined group of people that maybe qualified to apply for a community gTLD is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), as this group is well-established and it can demonstrate that it has a continuous relationship with its members.

 

The community TLDs is intended to identify a group which is united in a cause or commonality which extends beyond commercial branding, and which can serve as a uniting force for a shared mission. The US-based MLS Domains Association and the Canadian Real Estate Association have filed a community based TLD, and have also  filed  a second application for a standard TLD, should the strict community-based requirements not be met.

 

Obviously, the TLD process, which has been publicly ignored by the real estate community outside of MLSs, is big news in the internet and online advertising worlds. For a perspective on what the Top Level Domain applications mean to the world of online business, read this article from C/NET News: “Here Comes the Greatest Internet Land Grab in History.”

 

The Applicants

 

Now obviously you aren’t going to want to read a list of all 1930 applicants, but here are the ones relevant to real estate:

 Applied for HOME

HOME REGISTRY INC.

DotHome Inc. (http://www.radixregistry.com)

Go Daddy East, LLC (http://www.godaddy.com)

Charleston Road Registry Inc.

Lifestyle Domain Holdings, Inc.

Baxter Pike, LLC

DotHome / CGR E-Commerce Ltd http://dothome.net

Uniregistry, Corp. http://www.uniregistry.com

Merchant Law Group LLP

Dot Home LLC US

Top Level Domain Holdings Limited http://www.tldh.org

 

Applied for HOMES

DotHome, LLC

Applied for REALESTATE

New North, LLC

Uniregistry, Corp. http://www.uniregistry.com

dotRealEstate LLC

Top Level Domain Holdings Limited http://www.tldh.org

 Applied for REALTOR

 Real Estate Domains LLC

Applied for REALTY

Dash Bloom, LLC

Fegistry, LLC

 Applied for MLS

CREA (2 applications—community, and commercial)

Afilias LTD IE/EUR

Applied for PROPERTIES

Big Pass, LLC

 Applied for PROPERTY

Steel Goodbye, LLC

Uniregistry, Corp. http://www.uniregistry.com

Top Level Domain Holdings Limited http://www.tldh.org

 NAR Applications

NAR members received notice this week that their association has indeed made application for three top level domains. The press release states that “NAR, through Real Estate Domains LLC (RED), has filed with ICANN for the .REALTOR TLD. RED was created for the sole purpose of applying for and operating the .REALTOR TLD. NAR has also submitted applications for the .realestate and .home top level domains through a partnership of its wholly owned subsidiary, the REALTORS® Information Network (RIN) and DotHome, LLC.” (Press Release, 6/12/2012)

 

  “NAR has also entered into an exclusive marketing partnership with The Canadian Real Estate

Association (CREA), the exclusive licensors of the REALTOR® mark in Canada. REALTOR®

members of CREA will also be able to use the domain, making .REALTOR truly North American

in scope.”  (Press Release, 6/12/2012)

 

Multiple Applications

NAR has applied for three TLDs in partnership with CREA.  The US MLS organization (MLS Domains Association) has joined with CREA to apply for one TLD but in two different categories.

And several requested real estate-related TLDs have contenders.

 Multiple applications, by the way, aren’t unusual: several companies have announced intentions of filing for many domain names—Amazon has filed for 76 domains, and Afilias Limited (which has filed a competing request for the MLS domain), has filed 26 applications.

In the case of multiple qualified requests for names, the conflicts will be resolved either through partnerships, negotiations or bidding.

 

What’s Next?

Government Computer News summarizes the process: ICANN plans to publish the names applied for on June 13, which it is calling "Reveal Day," on its icann.org website, which will initiate a number of processes. It will open a 60-day public comment period and a seven-month period to file formal objections to a requested name. An initial review of applicants and their requested names will begin in July. If there are no formal objections, no problems with the name are found in the initial evaluation, and the applicant has the operational, technical and financial capabilities to operate a gTLD registry, the new domain could be allocated in December or January.

How successful applicants will administer their domains will vary.  

 

NARs plans for the REALTOR TLD: from the press release and Q and A on NAR’s website, one must assume that NAR plans to offer the TLDs to Realtor associations and their MLSs, the ISCs, and NAR approved licensees.  NAR says, “This opportunity to use .REALTOR will be available to 500,000 members at no charge for one year.”

 

The press release continues, “Once approved, NAR plans to distribute additional information on how and when domains in the new extensions will be made available….Domains in the new extensions would be available for registration to REALTOR® members (agents and brokers); local and state REALTOR® associations; association multiple listing services; affiliated institutes, societies and councils; and other NAR-approved licensees.

 

“NAR is currently planning to provide the first 500,000 members who register with a complimentary 1st year subscription to one domain name.  Members would be able to secure a .REALTOR domain using their name on a first come first served basis. Further details, including pricing for additional domains and other related products will be announced at a later date.”

 

If the .MLS domain is awarded to the CREA and the MLS Domains association, US MLSs who belong to the MLS Domains Association will be awarded their requested domain names.  There are three points to note, however: (1) a small group of requested names will have to be adjusted to reflect the international nature of the .MLS gTLD, (2) the MLS Domains Association effort will cover broker-owned MLSs while the NAR domains will be limited to 'NAR-approved' organizations, and (3) the duplicate application from Afilias for the .MLS gTLD must be resolved. (Afilias is the second largest domain services provider in existence today and in June of this year announced that it will be applying for a total of 305 top level domains.)

 

Disclaimer

 It’s no secret that I’ve been an advocate of the MLS Domains Association from the beginning, and that I currently serve as its Vice President.  To my mind, it doesn’t take much to see that a ‘dot MLS’ domain with usage limited to MLS operations only is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reach out to real estate industry professionals and to home buyers and sellers, and unite behind a branded product, the MLS.  There are, of course, many schemes being proposed to capitalize on the MLS as a reliable data source, but having a recognized domain name that carries with it the reputation of integrity and completeness—there can be no better marketing tool.

 

MLS organizations that haven’t joined the MLS Domains Association and reserved their space in the new internet landscape should pay an immediate visit to the MLS Domains Association website and join its efforts!

 

  


 

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Apr. 10, 2012 - Learning from Amazon

 
 
 
 
 
 
Jeff Bezos's Top 10 Leadership Lessons appears in the April 23, 2012 issue of FORBES magazine, accompanying the cover story titled “Inside Amazon’s Idea Machine.”
 
With the passing of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos is now tech’s leading philosopher-CEO.  As an advisor, though, Bezos sticks to business issues:  this article he gives his top ten list of qualities for modern leaders.  I’ve selected six of them  as particularly appropriate for association executives.
 
1. “Base your strategy on things that won’t change.”  Bezos explains that whatever you do, do it with three concerns: wider selection, lower prices, and fast, reliable delivery.  So what’s that mean for association execs?   It means, look carefully before you invest resources in a passing fad.  A particularly good example, I think is in social media: how many associations maintain Facebook pages with no insight into how the activity will benefit their association, and with no benchmarks for the success of the service?  How many have contemplated a merger of organizations without a business plan?  Or concocted an education program that had no practical application for real estate professionals? A basic of successful association management is to produce a good selection of services your members need, present those things at the lowest possible price, and be positioned to make your offerings in a timely manner.
 
 2. “Obsess over customers.”  I like the word “obsess”.  When it comes to member satisfaction, obsess over it! Let’s face it, there’s a lot of distraction standing between the association and its members and those diversions come in many forms: ‘mandates’ from the national organization, regulations from the IRS, pleas from community service organizations.  But it is the members to whom AE’s have primary  loyalty and  fiduciary relationship.  Bezos suggests that maintaining an empty chair in the conference room will remind leaders to remember the customers’ point of view—he  calls that voice ‘the crucial participant who isn’t in the room.’ (Later in his career, Bezos actually appointed a customer specialist to be present at meetings and be the voice speaking for customer experience. These representatives he named “Customer Experience Bar Raisers.” When they frown, Bezos says, vice ­presidents tremble.)
 
3. Of Amazon, Bezos says, “There are two kinds of companies: those that try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.”  Amazon has identified eight official company values (now THAT might be an exercise for the next Board of Directors meeting), one of which is “frugality”.  Bezos observes that the reward for putting up with cheap office ­furniture is a $90 billion stock market valuation and 35% revenue growth.  Certainly in an industry experiencing the financial difficulties of real estate, ostentation has no place in the trade association management profile.
 
4. “Determine what your customers need, and work backwards.” Specs for Amazon’s big new projects such as its Kindle tablets and e-book readers have been defined by customers’ desires rather than engineers’ tastes. At Amazon, if customers don’t want something it’s gone, even if that means breaking apart a once powerful department.  The parallel for a trade association is the imposition of programs which we think members ought  to want, rather than what they really do need and care about.  And if there’s  limited resources in your association bucket, what members really  want and need has got to be the deciding factor in your spending decisions (see rules #1 and #2).

5. “In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts.” Amazon’s ad budgets are surprisingly small for a retailer of its size. Bezos prefers low-key process improvements that are meant to get happy customers buzzing. One example: Amazon’s war on clamshell packaging so toys and other shipments will be easier to open. Not a huge game changer, certainly—but much appreciated when I opened my latest purchase from the company without looking for my shears and box cutters. Will I shop there again? Will I tell my friends about a good experience?  You betcha!
 
6. “Everyone has to be able to work in a call center.” Complaints can be devastating in the age of viral tweets and blogs. Bezos asks thousands of Amazon managers, including ­himself, to ­attend two days of call-center training each year. The payoff: humility and empathy for the customer.  There’s no better quality to emphasize in your own association staff.
 
There’s nothing magic about having the status of a non-profit trade association.  Members demand the same qualities of us as they do of commercial merchants and service providers: companies like Amazon are not only our competition in providing goods and services, they are also the criteria against which we are judged in areas like consumer service, price, and value.
 
Associations have much to learn from Amazon’s Idea Machine.
 
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Mar. 24, 2012 - Leadership Thoughts: Crafting the Job Description

 

“I’m surprised”, wrote someone in response to my last blog, “At an organization that doesn’t have written job descriptions for its elected leaders.”

I’m surprised, too—not only and the lack of any job descriptions, but also at the dearth of helpful and meaningful ones. One exception I discovered with the Wilmington, NC Association’s position description for association president, which reads like a pledge which might be signed by someone taking office. Most descriptions are pretty vague, however: “chairs all meetings of the Board” is the usual fallback phrase which relegates the prez to a position of gavel-wielder and offers little practical direction to the office holder.


Picture yourself in the unenviable spotlight of a nominating committee, the tank of piranhas looking for a victim to serve up to the membership as meal…er, president. “Please,” committee members ask, “help us out here by agreeing to join the leadership team. You’ll be giving back to the profession that has done so much for you.”


What are the questions you will stammer out to them? You’ll want to know ‘what’s involved’. Translate that into ‘how much time will the job take’, and ‘do I have the resources to do a credible job’? Nobody wants the honor if they are doomed to fail, so the job of the Leadership Development/Nominating Committee (and CEO) is to create an environment where candidates can be confident and understand what’s necessary to be a success.


The first step is a clear job description. As you draft it, think of writing a hiring description in the working world, and include the following:


  1.  Give a brief job description
  2.  List the specific responsibilities of the job. If, for example, the president represents the association at state or national meetings, now’s the time to say so. If the president chairs the monthly luncheon meetings, add that duty to your list. Don’t be afraid to tell people what’s expected of them: if someone can’t speak in front of an audience and meet the expectations of the members, address the issue before he or she agrees to the position—not afterwards when that shortcoming has become a public disaster.
  3.  Skills. What skill set is expected of the office? Will the successful candidate be expected to present a professional public image? Will he or she be expected to manage an efficiently run, productive meeting? Moderate contentious general membership meetings? Write a monthly blog for the association website? Be able to read and respond via email?
  4.  Be clear about the time commitment. Ask the present office holder to estimate the amount of time he or she spends on fulfilling the position. Include meeting attendance, conference calls, work that needs to be done, and travel. List the time either by weekly or monthly hours.
  5.  Define the measures of success. These will, of course, change on a regular basis, but if there are expectations that the new office holder must fulfill, say so. If the president will spearhead the new strategic plan, or the treasurer will achieve spending cuts amounting to 10% of the budget, now’s the time to define these duties.
  6. Benefits. What are the benefits to the candidate? The association will fund the cost of travel and meeting attendance? Spokesperson training is available to leadership? Leadership training will be provided in the form of education, meetings, and personal coaching? Tangible and intangible benefits might be included in this discussion.
  7. Write the description and ask the Board of Directors to endorse it. Then, make sure potential candidates have it and are clear about it before they throw their hats in the ring.


Having job descriptions written and communicated in advance of an election process will greatly strengthen an organization. Candidates understand what the position entails, and whether they are a good fit for the opening. In addition, your association can anticipate potential problems—how often have we heard an executive officer say, “What can we do with a board member who never comes to meetings/comes unprepared to meetings”? How much easier it is to answer the question in advance by saying “Officers and Directors are permitted two absences per year before they will be asked to resign” and “Members of the Board are expected to review distributed materials in advance of the meeting.”


If candidates are discouraged from participation because the requirements are too stringent, the organization might offer some capacity-building programs for those who need them. Often, such training is available in the community itself and organizations can partner to build a strong leadership core. And if candidates are refusing to serve because of the time commitment, perhaps some strategic thinking needs to occur. For instance, one association I know went from four-hour board meetings held twice a month to one hour meetings held once a month. The tipping factor was the imposition of more efficient meeting management and better trained participants.


In short, the organization can only be as strong as its leaders. And the leaders can be much stronger and more focused on their leadership duties if the organization has clearly stated expectations and values that are widely distributed and understood by all.

 

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Mar. 19, 2012 - Leadership Development: The Shooting at Fish Technique

 A long time ago I was president of an organization that prided itself on diversity and on membership participation in all decisions.  That sounds like a laudable goal: however, ‘diversity” and ‘agreement’ do not work well together even in the best of times.  In this particular case my job as president was to steer the group to a decision about a new facility.  At the end of my leadership term we were housed in a different building, but I was totally exhausted.  I had no more energy to give.

That was 20 years ago and while I’ve retained membership in the group, my profile has been lower than an earthworm’s.  Until last week.  
 
“Won’t you serve on the Leadership Development committee?” they asked.  “All you have to do is find candidates who will run for the offices of president and treasurer.”
 
Why, I thought, would you have a nominating committee called ‘Leadership Development’?  If the job of the committee was just to find unwitting volunteers, why the development component of the title?  Intrigued, I went to the first meeting.
 
It was as I thought.  A nominating committee by any other name is still a nominating committee.  I’ve always hated them: committee members sit around pulling names out of a hat and then selecting candidates through the use of low level, uninformed gossip.  “Well, she is certainly good about keeping minutes, even if she never says a word during the meeting.  She’d be ok as President.”  
 
“Yes, but I heard her husband has a broken leg. She might be very busy taking care of him and the children.”
 
“That’s true.  Let’s think about somebody else.”
 
The second part of the Nominating Committee’s work is, of course, to strong arm the unfortunate candidate into accepting.  “The Committee thinks you’re the perfect person for the job.  You’ve never had a leadership role before, and it’s time you gave back.  Besides, it’s only for one year.”  (Common persuasive tactics, with heavy emphasis on guilt.)
 
In some organizations, the bylaws require two candidates for every open position.  It was that way in our state Realtor association for years.  The unspoken nominating committee dialogue went something like: “Well, we’ve got our candidate.  Now we need to get somebody to run against him—somebody disposable, because that person probably won’t win, and will be so discouraged he’ll never be heard from again.”
 
So what’s the answer?  In the case of the Leadership Development Committee on which I agreed to serve, the answer got a little complicated and the job became more than a  candidate selection process limited  to a single meeting (I am sure they are sorry they asked me to serve….).  To my mind following actions are necessary to solve a leadership black hole in any organization:
 
1.Write clear and complete job descriptions for each office (elected and appointed).  Specify the amount of time the successful candidate will be required to donate to the group.
 
2. Then describe the competencies the ideal candidate should have.  If the job as president requires a public persona, then include that in the skill set needed for the job. (As an aside, the association for which I worked once considered a candidate who left every membership meeting with her pockets stuffed full of food—rolls, butter, anything moveable and edible.  Not a desirable presidential image for a professional trade organization.)
 
3.Insist on a president-elect position with automatic succession.  The president will assume the leadership role with a year of experience and understanding, and the board and staff will be familiar with the president’s style, values, and issues. Also, have a clear set of operational policies which transcend leadership change, and a strategic plan with which everyone is familiar.
 
4.Make sure candidates for leadership positions know the roles and expectations BEFORE they accept the position.  I’ve known organizations that ask the candidate to sign a letter of understanding which articulates the expected duties and behaviors—a kind of pre-nup for elected leaders.
 
5.Create a climate of leadership management throughout the organization.  This last item is extremely important and is most often neglected by organizations.   Leadership skills are not delivered to a select few who stand on the mountaintops and receive stone tablets: leadership skills are teachable and applicable to all members at all levels of the organization.  And these skills are not handed down in a half-day ‘leadership retreat’, either—they are the result of a consistent program of training and awareness within the organization.
 
Here are some ideas for establishing a leadership training program:
 
1.Have a budget for Leadership Development.  The organization needs to put some financial resources into leadership sustainability.  In one association, the Leadership Development budget includes not only education programs and a leadership retreat, but also travel to state and national meetings by elected officers.  It’s important to call this item “Leadership Development”, by the way—that title indicates the priorities of the organization extend beyond martinis in the bar at the end of the day.
 
2.Set up a clear and consistent leadership training program for all members.  Most organizations want members to represent them in the community at large as well as within the organization.  They want members to help effect change, carry the association’s mission to the public, and enhance the group’s image. Leadership training not only brings a skillset to the internal leadership of the group, it gives members the training and confidence to become community leaders as well.  Be the leadership hub for all of your members in their various roles.
 
3.Hold regular leadership trainings on how to run a meeting, how to read financial statements, how to use technology, how to manage volunteers.  Many of these skills are common to all leadership roles—you may develop training partners such as the Chamber of Commerce, a local non-profit network, or the community college in your area.
 
4.Make it a practice to separate leadership training from group issues and politics.  Many organizations hold leadership training sessions which are puffy presentations about membership benefits or current challenges within the group.  That’s part of leadership training, of course, but only a small part.  Groups are often held back because leaders don’t know how to place a Skype conference call, set up an email list, or use Google groups.  
 
The take-away lesson is this: An organization will advance its mission  by concentrating on two things—minimizing the changeover between one leader and another, and developing a membership base of skilled and confident leadership
craftsmen.  
 
Sure beats the heck out of the leadership development technique used by many nominating committees—called ‘shooting fish in a barrel.’
 
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Mar. 7, 2012 - Seven Snowy Lessons in Association Management

 

 

Picture this:  by Friday at 5 PM the snow is falling—huge, wet, sodden glops of it.  It’s the kind of snow that happens in the spring when the weather is warming up, the ground has thawed, and folks see snowdrops budding at the corners of their yards.  Then the temperature begins to drop and the sky responds with a half-frozen thunderstorm which quickly ices roads, clings to tree limbs, and coats power lines with thick, glistening coats of frozen white. 

It might have been easy driving when people started home from work, but by the time they reached home they knew Northern Michigan was in for a long weekend.

By 10 PM the lights went off and the TV was silent. Early bedtime at my house, a night interrupted by the crack of tree limbs breaking under the weight of the snow and ice.

By morning, the house was cold and there was no coffee.  The bagels were icy and the butter hard.  The driveway was buried under a foot and a half of heavy, wet snow.   Lucy the Wheaten Terrier didn’t get far from the house—she couldn’t even make the 25 yards to her favorite tree trunk. 

It was a long weekend: the driveway wasn’t cleared for two days and the electricity wasn’t restored until a day after that.  Time to do a lot of thinking, eat a lot of peanut butter, and quickly learn to sacrifice style for practicality.  But the association manager in me never is quiet.

Well, I thought, before my cell phone dies, I’d better call the power company in case they don’t know I have no electricity.  Using my handy dandy cell phone browser I went to the electric company website and found—ta da! The ‘Outage Emergency Line’ information is buried deep in pages of text about how responsive Cherryland Electric is in the case of an emergency. There’s the number!  Down at the bottom of page 2!

Lesson 1: Prioritize your website design around what the user will want and need, and not about what you want to tell them.  (Sorta reminded me of the websites I’ve visited that give all kinds of information about the organization’s Code of Ethics without telling the reader how to find a remedy for an immediate problem.)

Anyway, I found the number and called.  Of course the line was busy.  What good is one phone number to service 35,000 irate customers

Lesson 2: Maintain adequate resources to provide effective services.

So I thought, “Well, this is the age of social media.  I’ll visit the company Facebook page and  Twitter sites.”  Found those, despite a rapidly dying battery, only to read the messages from the 35,000 customers: “Please update your outage reports”, and “When can we expect heat, our house is very cold?”, and “My mother is on oxygen, please help.”

 Lesson 3: Social Media means communication in real time.  The new technologies are worthless if used incorrectly. If you host a social media application, keep it current.

Then my cell phone said, “No signal.”  No heat, no lights, no phone, no internet, no driveway.

In the bottom of the storage closet I found a battery-operated radio and it still worked.  But where the heck could I find news about the storm?  Interestingly enough, nowhere.  News, I found, is relegated to a only few minutes, and no station had the capacity to provide in-depth local information.  I did find that there were several community shelters available if I needed them—and if I could get out of my driveway and/or phone for snowmobile rescue

Lesson 4: Plan for a disaster, because one will someday happen.  Have a central information point.  Make sure that everyone knows where to go for information when it’s needed, especially in an emergency.  Technology makes it possible to provide prompt information services…so make sure you incorporate communication programs into your regular operations.

 And Lesson 5: Make sure your support services are what the consumer/member really needs.  Shelters don’t do much good if I can’t get down my driveway (just as education and other opportunities in a trade association need to be relevant to the member’s business success).

My rescue procedures began after two days of isolation: at 5 AM Sunday morning I realized that I could see lights shining on my frozen front lawn.  “Either the electricity is back on, or the moon is very bright,” I thought.

Not so!  These were the headlamps of the snowplow stuck in my driveway as he tried to remove two days of heavy accumulation.  Too little, too late, and foolishly applied in the early morning dark.  He was joined by another snowplow and, some hours later by a front-end loader.  Soon, they were all stuck in my driveway and I was still a prisoner.

 Lesson 6: Apply solutions quickly, using adequate resources to get the job done.  (I know, I know: this is especially difficult in an organization run by a committee.  It’s always more comfortable for volunteers to have another meeting, a survey, or a vote and further study. “Everybody needs to be on the same page” Is the common excuse for inaction.)

And of course, the faulty execution of a solution leads to the inevitable:

 Lesson 7: Maintain reserves.  Emergency measures will always be more costly than anticipated. Take the case of my snowplow guy: his initial timing mistake lead to three vehicles embedded in my front lawn, increased expenses for him, and—I’m assuming—a similarly inflated invoice to me.  Whether or not I protest his extra charges isn’t the point: somebody has to bear unexpected costs.  It’s just good business to be prepared.

Well, this weather disaster all over now—the ice is melting; the lavender and yellow snowdrops have re-emerged; and my driveway is passable, even if it’s a soggy, rutted, muddy mess. I’ve stocked up again on batteries and peanut butter, because what we know in Northern Michigan is this: weather emergencies can yet happen.

 It’s still early in March.

 

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Dec. 29, 2011 - Pessimism and Predictions: Comments on the Commentators

 

 

 

  It’s that time of year: everybody stops and takes note of last year’s trends and next year’s predictions.  I was noticing this morning that the secret of writing end-of-year blogs is to include a number in the title, and predict the worst.  “Ten reasons why the economy will fail in 2012”, and “Seven signs of impending disaster in real estate”—titles like these are almost clichés.

I slog through these blog bytes, thinking about what many of the predictions will mean for real estate associations and MLSs in the coming year.  How can we as organizations survive and be healthy if these predictions come true?

Bill Rovillo, of IMAPP, voiced some particularly challenging thoughts that association and MLS staff and leadership need to consider and place on the strategy section of their organizational agenda. 

 

 

In several of his forecasts Rovillo sees significant actions being taken by big brokers.  He predicts that “frustrated with the expenses and politics associated with being a member of NAR, some Brokers will decide go it alone.”  And later he says “Big Brokers will gobble up more RE businesses- creating a “who needs syndication?” atmosphere when they have 30+% of the market share of listings.”

 

 

Now I’m not going to be too surprised if this prediction comes true.  Over 30 years ago, at the very first meeting of the Board of Directors after I took my job as the Association Exec for a Realtor association, the largest broker in town said, “Lower those MLS fees or we’re outta here.”  Of course we didn’t, and neither did he, but the threat was pretty much an annual event that had us quaking in our boots each year at dues renewal time. Our organizations have tried a lot of tactics to appease big brokers: representations on decision-making bodies, inclusion in planning activities, and so on.  But brokers remain committed first to their company financial success, as well they should, and intolerant of ‘leveling the playing field’ for smaller brokers.

 

Now, of course, things have changed for MLS positioning: there are viable alternatives on the horizon.  If MLSs won’t provide public information, the public will go to 3rd party sites (can you say “Zillow” and “Yahoo”?) which are information-filled and user-welcoming.  And if Realtors know that the public is going to those sites in advance of showing up on a broker’s doorstep, guess where the salespeople will go to be armed with the same information.  And when the real estate salespeople find that there is indeed a place where their listings can be seen by consumers FOR FREE and without a labyrinth of MLS rules and penalties---well, the results are inevitable. 

 

(I know, I know: there’s data integrity, and ethics and all the other pluses of an MLS database, but there’s also a growing disenchantment with those high ideals and the expense and punitive atmosphere associated with them.)

 

 

 

Rovillo also predicts that “Large MLS’s will take more control- of their data, both MLS and Public Record, and create their own revenue stream.”

 

 

That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?  Look at MRIS, and Minneapolis—shining examples (among many) of how to develop revenue in adjunctive ways, using the strengths inherent in the MLS system itself.  Let’s face reality: as the real estate practitioner population declines, so does the income that’s based on dues and user fees. In an organization where over half of the users do not make a living income from real estate sales, the opportunity to raise fees is limited.  MLSs (and associations) must look for independent sources of income.  One of those clear sources is data repurpose and repackaging, and another is sales activity to our target market.  Still another is increasing a membership base, and developing new product lines for an expanded audience.

 

Rovillo identifies two other interesting trends: a free MLS, and association mergers.

 

 

 

The no-cost MLS is not a new idea, either.  Rovillo says “ A Free (or nearly free) MLS system will emerge- the only way to stave off big MLS vendors from monopolizing the business in a down economy.”  Actually, I’d disagree with him there: a free MLS will emerge because there isn’t a lot of money to be made in the legacy business propositions for an MLS.  There are reasons why Google and Microsoft haven’t entered the MLS biz: there’s relatively no money there. The technology is certainly available, but the ROI is not.  However, it won’t be long before somebody will figure out how to generate new money by providing real estate data , money I suspect it won’t come from the nickel and dimes MLSs charge for user and listing fees.  Nor will the new MLS vendor business model include the significant expenses of marketing, customizing, installing, and supporting systems for a plethora of demanding, impatient, and technically challenged users.  Think about it.

 

 

Finally, this merger thing.  It’s really taken up a significant amount of association resources.  Thinking back again to my initial year on the job as an AE, one of the first regional Realtor meetings I ever attended was a highly contentious confrontation in which a gathering of small boards almost resorted to fisticuffs to defend association boundaries which no longer conformed to market areas. Today those boards are still having that same meeting.

 

Only now associations can’t afford to maintain their independence and reinvent governance every 30 or so miles.  And again, there are alternatives: association boundaries need no longer be defined by how far a horse and buggy can travel in a day.  I’m not a big fan of mergers because I think well-developed market areas are important to a healthy cooperative business, but I am a supporter of concentrating on the priorities that matter. As another real estate commentator, Rob Hahn, observed in his 2012 predictions: “The vast majority of companies, brokers, agents, Associations, MLS, tech vendors, and others will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There will be much effort spent focusing on ancillary issues. . .while the entire infrastructure of contemporary real estate crumbles around them."

 
Now THERE’S gloom and doom for you.
 

Optimist that I am, I think there are things real estate organizations can do to build capacity and respond to adversity.  Among them:

A.    Schedule time on each meeting of the board of directors of the organization to have frank discussions on emerging trends.  Awareness, priorities, strategies—these are the watchwords of any effective group of decision makers.

B.    Downplay the restrictive, punitive features of the organization/MLS and encourage member service and support.  Make user satisfaction a priority.

C.    Involve buyers and sellers and members of the business community in your organization.  Develop the idea that the organization is a place where people come together to conduct business successfully.  Information can’t be contained by building walls around it any longer.

D.    Look for new business products and income sources.  Constantly work to minimize dependence on user fees and dues and diversify your income stream.

E.    Streamline your operations.  Eliminate burdensome governance such as elaborate geographical representation or non-productive committees. Reduce the percentage of your expenses spent on non-essential meetings or travel.  Develop effective leaders instead.

And most of all, think like a business start-up.  Because that’s what our organizations are: the real estate world is being re-invented around us, and every day presents new and inventive opportunities to support our members and their customers.

 

 

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Dec. 19, 2011 - From Policy Hysteria to Best Practice:Recognizing AE Influence

 

Last week, Inman News released its annual list of 100 of the Most Influential Real Estate Leaders of 2011.  This is a pretty prestigious list in the industry, as befits a significant real estate voice and commentary.

I think AEs should fully recognize and celebrate the names of our peers in Realtor association management who are on the list*:

  • Mark Allen, CEO, Minneapolis Association of Realtors,  and 10k Marketing
  • Bob Bemis, CEO, ARMLS and MLS Domains Association
  • Russ Bergeron, CEO, MRED, Ltd.
  • Art Carter, CEO, CRMLS, Inc.
  • Dave Charron, CEO and President, MRIS
  • Merri Jo Cowen, CEO, MFRMLS and Chairperson of CMLS
  • Bob Hale, President and CEO, HAR
  • Rebecca Jensen, CEO and chair, UtahRealEstate.com MLS

That these names are included is important to all AEs: it means that the larger industry recognizes the importance of the work we do as association MLSs and the contributions those associations make to the industry.  I know I can look at each one of these people and respect their individual contributions to the success of our members.  They are, in the eyes of the world, some of the practitioners of Best Practices of real estate trade association management. As commentator Bill Fowler recently observed in his blog article “MLS in 2012”,Creating something vital to REALTORS in MLS technology requires leadership in our organizations.” 

Inman has recognized many of these leaders.

However, without detracting one bit from the applause due these individuals, I’d also like to kick the Inman group in their collective kneecaps.  Why?  Because the MLS isn’t the only area of successful performance by association execs: there are other areas of management leadership and influence besides MLS and its derivative products, the only criteria seems to Inman recognize.  Other programs are equally influential in the world of organized real estate: let’s salute the AEs involved in the RAMCO development work and the successful implementation of some of the great Game Changer programs.  Let’s look at a collection of stunning association professional education innovations, international real estate outreach programs, cooperative infrastructure efforts between associations to produce better services and efficiency, and some outstandingly innovative state association programs—all influential real estate accomplishments in 2011.

Perhaps Realtor AEs need to do a better job of recognizing our own innovators and leaders.  How about an annual collection of best practices? An AE Innovator recognition program?  Another Game Changer program?

And for the benefit of all, let’s make our judgments not only on the program or product, but also highlight answers to the following questions as key learning opportunities for all association managers:

  • ·         How did you foster overall management focus on results?
  • ·         How did you create a governance structure to move your organization forward?
  • ·         What techniques did you use to back your programs with strong, accountable, transparent financial management?
  • ·         How did you motivate and structure available human resources?
  • ·         What communications program and technology did you employ?
  • ·         How did you manage resource development and fundraising to support the project?

Congratulations to the Inman honorees.  You’ve moved beyond IDX policy hysteria to develop practical programs for real estate professionals.  My hope for real estate in 2012 is that AEs continue to recognize skillful leadership and expand our opportunities learn from each other.

 

 

*Note, I didn’t include the NAR or ISC staff—they are also well represented on the Inman list.

 

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Dec. 10, 2011 - Making Lemonade: Building capacity in changing times

Well, this is interesting: the ever-optimistic NAR economist Lawrence Yun recently observed that 2012 won't see a robust recovery in the housing market. In fact, Yun says that as rents climb in the multi-family housing market and as the stigma of renting is disappearing, it will be the commercial real estate sector which will see the greatest increase in activity.

And noted economic commentator Barry Ritholtz states that the slow motion crash in housing will continue for another 5-10 years and predicts that the US are only in the 5th inning of a 9 inning game in which values may continue to drop. Additionally he says that"following a debt crisis, consumers spend a decade or more deleveraging, and tend to downgrade purchases that involve taking on more credit - like a mortgage."

What does this predicted trend indicate for real estate association managers? It's an uncomplicated answer: it simply means that our more aggressive members will go where the money is. And in turn, that means the association needs to provide those members with adequate support services to get them there.

Even the smallest real estate associations need to sit up and take note: if we are to remain relevant as trade organizations, we must understand that our membership no longer consists of 90% used home salespersons. In order to make a living in the real estate market, members need to respond to consumer trends-and according to the observations of Yun and Ritholtz, the markets are trending toward commercial real estate. That's where the action will be.

So how must real estate associations react? Most Realtors won't become full-fledged commercial specialists flashing their CCIM designations-a majority of US real estate market areas simply won't support many exclusively commercial specialists. What members will want to do is gain the skills and the tools to support an increase in their commercial activities, particularly in the rental property market for multi-family housing. And fortunately, there are some pretty robust existing programs that associations can use to build capacity to support these emerging member needs. Here are some suggestions for the association executive:

1. Encourage members to participate in a commercial overlay board. Many existing support services are already in place in these organizations-- you don't have to reinvent them and spend down your association resources. Becoming a secondary member in a commercial overlay board is a good answer for many Realtors who don't want to exclusively specialize but do want additional education and marketing networks.

2. Form a commercial marketing group in your own board. It could begin as an informal 'haves and wants' meeting over coffee and doughnuts. If the need is there, it will grow on its own-with the association acting the incubator.

3. Examine NAR's Commercial Services Accreditation program for local associations. While your association may not wish to pursue the actual accreditation (which may seem unnecessarily elaborate for your immediate purposes), this program does offer some very useful ideas on how to develop association support capacity in the commercial services area. Think about

a. A dedicated commercial page on your association website. It might feature member's commercial listings, statistics, and useful information about topics of interest-even some data from the local economic development organizations.

b. A website link to NAR's commercial home page, its commercial advocacy page, and the commercial education page. And don't forget NAR's commercial blog, "The Source.", as well as the Commercial Research department--members need easy access to this information.

4. Ask your commercial marketing group what kind of education programs its members need and develop an education series using local or regional experts-commercial developers, economic development corporation representatives, taxing authorities, and others. Again, remember that your target member market is probably not interested in becoming specialists in commercial real estate-but they do want information which will help them expand some specific skills in new areas. (There's a difference.)

a. Offering a regular (monthly?) commercial education program followed by an informal marketing session is one of the best ways to develop member awareness in the commercial area, assuming your association doesn't have the audience for anything more elaborate.

b. This activity might be one which could be shared with neighboring associations as well. Commercial real estate practitioners aren't always productively confined to geographical boundaries-a commercial program will possibly be more successful if your board can partner with other associations in this effort.

The take-away point here is that the changing real estate market is influencing member needs-and our associations must respond, even if only in a modest way. Most Realtors don't want the Commercial Member Golf Outing, or even a commercial ethics process or trade show (as the NAR Commercial Services certification application suggests). Reinventing the association model with the word "Commercial" attached to it is not what most of our members need or even care about-nor is that something that probably two-thirds of local Realtor associations have the resources to provide.

What members do want is practical, efficient access to the skills sets and useful information which the changing real estate marketplace is demanding. It's our job as AEs to start with what the member needs, and set about providing those tools.

(PS: How do you fund this stuff? Try charging the members to showcase their commercial listings on the association website, soliciting underwriting from developers of rental income properties, advertising sales, commercial affiliate member programs, to name a few ideas.…The opportunities are endless.)

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Nov. 4, 2011 - Creating Communities: the Future of the Real Estate Association


 

Associations have a primary purpose: to create a community. In a real estate association, the primary purpose is to create a business community centered on the business of property ownership and transfers. It’s really that simple.

Let’s examine that word ‘community’. In many Realtor associations, the community is really quite limited: it consists of brokers and salespeople involved in the transfer of pre-existing homes. Oh, I know: lip service is often given to other groups—commercial specialists, appraisers, property managers, and a small number of affiliated business interests—but by and large the emphasis is on license-holding real estate practitioners. (Of course it goes without saying that the community is further limited by geographical restrictions, in many cases.)

Realtor associations build most of their programs and services around that limitation: licensed salesperson or broker, located in an assigned geography.

Frankly, there’s a problem here: in reality the real estate community is much more extensive and the desire to be a part of that business community much more far-reaching than the current operating definition would have us believe.   In addition, our existing membership is becoming specialized in other areas besides used-home sales: members are finding business in the rental and rehab market and personal investments for themselves and their clients. They are becoming more conversant in online marketing techniques, technology tools, foreign transactions, and finance.

The real estate community is also expanding well beyond the current limits of license holders, with a second tier of bankers, mortgage companies, and title companies. As members expand their interests and activities, they are partnering with an array of business interests never before included in real estate circles—marketing specialists, technology experts, website designers, foreclosure experts, and economic and development analysts.  

It’s easy to say “Not MY members—they just want to make sales. And, the  Realtors I know don’t read, anyway.” That’s a familiar litany, of course. And of course, in many cases it’s true: statistics show that well over half of current members don’t make a living at real estate. They are dilettantes, retirees, and folks who also have a ‘real job’ and just want to make a little extra income on the side.

The caution here is in thinking that these are the sum total of members, that this is the real estate community our association must serve. If we as trade associations fall into that trap, we are contributing to the erosion of our industry as surely as if we ourselves were the lions coming over the hill (“We have seen the enemy, and they are…).

Certainly this class of member is real and currently accounts for over half of our association dues income. “Ah,” you say, “doesn’t that make the non-productive majority our association’s target market? They are a majority of the association members. If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t exist. So let’s continue producing remedial level education programs, keep our dues and costs low, and direct our collective energies and resources at servicing these members.

I think there’s another answer: if the members in your community by and large don’t make a sustainable income from real estate activity, enlarge the community. Think about it: if your association is to become ‘The Voice for Real Estate’, for whom would they speak? Professionally, your organization would speak for all your industry partners—builders, remodelers, community planners, environmentalists, financial partners, attorneys, estate planners, and property owners. These are some of the areas of the real estate business community who share an interest in the business climate relating to real property.

There are many opportunities to enlarge a reasonably small and circumscribed audience and build a powerful community voice. These doors don’t necessarily depend on an MLS presence, either—they open onto a larger world of business interests, shared knowledge, and valuable networks and coalitions. It’s here that the real estate organization will find its future direction, I believe. There’s not a lot of reason to waste much more effort in locking the barn door after the MLS horse has gone elsewhere, but there is much to be gained by thinking about the kind of community that can be built through a real estate organization which is inclusive rather than exclusive, and which involves using technology tools and other resources to transcend the current limited organizational structure.

It also means assuming that the target market for a real estate association is based on skilled practitioners with skill and commitment to the many facets of the real estate business.

 

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Oct. 19, 2011 - MLS Questions? Who has the answers?

 

 

     Sometimes I feel like I'm standing in an empty room and all I hear is the echo of my own voice. This is one of those days.

     Two MLS-related news stories are bouncing around the internet this morning-one is about the NAR IDX policy proposed changes, and the other is about FSBOs.

     (Well, let's face it; they're pretty much about the same thing…)

     In a nutshell, the NAR IDX issue is this: "The big news, as many have already heard, is that the Franchise IDX policy will be repealed in its entirety. The overall thrust of the proposal appears to be one aimed at restoring the status quo ante." The quotation is taken from this morning's blog post by one of my regularly-read industry voices, The Notorious Rob. Rob proceeds to examine what this proposed policy change will mean, and then asks the question, "just what percentage of the Directors of NAR, who will be voting on this proposal on Monday in Anaheim, understand the issue? How many will have studied the issue? How many will have thought about it at all?.... Could someone explain to me how hundreds of NAR Directors are not in violation of their fiduciary duty as a director of nonprofit organization?"

     The other topic has to do with what's happening in the world that exists outside of the pre-meeting hysteria of an NAR convention. In this case I'm referring to Zillow's recent announcement that it has added 45,000 'for sale by owner' listings to its database of existing FSBO web and mobile real estate shopping , allowing independent home sellers to distribute their listings free of charge. Zillow obtains these listings through individual home sellers as well as listing feeds from ForSaleByOwner.com™, HomesByOwner.com®, owners.com® and Postlets® . The latter is a Zillow company, by the way, which allows home sellers, real estate agents and landlords to generate one listing and dispense it to Zillow's more than 24 million monthly unique web and mobile users, as well as 13 other sites including Yahoo!® Real Estate and craigslist®.

     We're not talking peanuts here--Yahoo Real Estate is a formidable challenger to realtor.com. But what really set me back was the association manager who, upon hearing of the Zillow announcement, shrugged and said (somewhat disdainfully), "I don't keep track of Zillow."

     Holy leaping ostriches! How can you disregard the competition with such insouciance? Oh, wait-I know! It's because you're busy word-smithing the following NAR proposal:

 

 
 

Associations of REALTORS® and their multiple listing services must enable MLS participants to display aggregated MLS listing information by electronic means. Electronic display subject to this policy includes display on participants' public websites, displays controlled by participants on other websites, display on social media sites used by participants, RSS subscription, and applications for mobile devices. All electronic display of IDX information conducted pursuant to this policy must comply with state law and regulations, and MLS rules. Any display of IDX information must be controlled by the participant, including the ability to comply with this policy and applicable MLS rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

     And I bet you're thinking: "Now how am I gonna enforce THIS on a budget that has been shrinking as members are dropping away?"

     Well, don't worry about real estate buyers and sellers: they may be looking elsewhere. As Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff says, "Our integrated approach to marketing all types of real estate listings, creates the most comprehensive and data-rich shopping experience for web and mobile."

     Oh, and don't worry about the MLS subscribers either. They want to be where the consumer goes. That's where the money is.

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Oct. 15, 2011 - CMLS Conference Conversation

 

 

As you may be aware, I serve on the Board of Directors for the MLS Domains association—because it’s a cause I believe in (well, ok, I have several causes…and I’m not very quiet about my enthusiasms). But as an association exec I was always frustrated by the ‘MLS thing’: the public appreciated an MLS but couldn’t define the term, and our members were equally confused—and thought every collection of housing information was ‘the MLS’. Whatever an MLS was, everybody knew they wanted one, including all the folks who weren’t an MLS but appropriated our name—like ‘FSBO MLS’ or ‘luxury home MLS’.

The 2012 opportunity to introduce new top level domains into the world wide web seem to me to be an ideal method to define the term ‘MLS’  and to control who can use it. If the MLS Domains Association is  granted the exclusive use of .mls by its members only, we will have come a long way to stabilizing the use of the term and protecting our organizations’ investment in being the source of the most accurate and timely data available in the US housing market.

Dot MLS (as I fondly call it) is an idea whose time has come—but not necessarily because the organized real estate is ready for it. The urgency was introduced by outside events: the international internet naming association has set January 2012 as the date that applications for new top level domains (TLDs) will be considered, “Big corporations, nonprofits, and governments are expected to scramble to claim the new TLDs,” says the Washington Business Journal. 

The MLS Domains Association will be standing at the head of the line, application and check in hand. 

But getting there is a bit of a battle. The biggest problem is that top level domains aren’t on everybody’s radar screen—and by the time the opportunity becomes  clear, it may be too late to be considered by the great domain naming authority in the sky (ICANN). The second TLD round may not be available for several years—opportunity lost!

The point of this long introduction is to set the stage for my comments on the recent Council of MLS conference held in Tucson. The conference itself was outstanding in its speakers, its format, and its opportunity to meet vendors and have meaningful hallway (and lobby bar) discussions. To my delight, the issue of ‘MLS branding’ was center stage during many sessions and informal conversations..

“What’s ‘branding’ mean?” my friend JoAnn asked me. “I’m an MLS financial person—I don’t know these things.” 

The clearest answer is in this quotation: “…understand that branding is not about getting your target market to choose you over the competition, but it is about getting your prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.” To that point, it was clear at the conference that in a world where real estate information is everywhere, the MLS brand is increasingly important as a way to tell our audience (members and the public) that our information source is timely, accurate, and as trustworthy as they’ll find anywhere.

If the CMLS agenda is any indication, the topic of branding is under consideration of MLS leaders across the country. They are asking, “How will we help the public understand that housing information from the MLS is the most reliable source? How can we motivate our members (who are the collectors of the data) to do the best job possible in conveying accurate data to the MLS in a timely manner? How can we repackage our data products so that they are valuable to the real estate community and their clients and customers?”

These questions formed much of the substance of the conversations at CMLS—and the work of the MLS Domains Association was often cited as one of the obvious solutions. 

To explore this topic further, CMLS is hosting a half day session on branding on November 9 at the NAR Annual Conference in Anaheim. MLS CEOs and decision-makers should make every effort to attend this important education event.

You can be sure the efforts of MLS Domains Association will be on the agenda.

 


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