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Concerning Courage, A Few Thoughts

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Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to the Georgia Association of REALTORS at their annual Inaugural Meeting. It was one of my favorite experiences so far, partly because I was addressing a roomful of Association and MLS leaders throughout the state of Georgia.

At the start of my presentation, I half-joked that I commended GAR for their act of courage in inviting me to speak, given that my topics and conclusions are not exactly the most popular in the real estate industry at the moment. I then outlined all the doom & gloom scenarios I worry about, and finished with a couple of recommendations on what Associations needed to do not just to retain their relevance in this Brave New World of ours, but to set the stage for effectiveness and leadership for the next phase.

Afterwards, more than a few people came up to me and were very kind in their comments. But almost all of them said something along the lines of, “You know, you’re exactly right, but if I took these recommendations back to my Board, I’d be strung up on a lamppost.”

Follow that exchange up with a few private conversations I’ve had with influential people, all of them off the record, and what becomes clear is that the industry doesn’t need any more innovation, doesn’t need any new smart thinking, doesn’t need any more insights. It needs more courage.

People Know What To Do

Fact is, people in real estate know what to do. They have known for years what needs to be done. Most of them, however, have been unwilling to do those things, because of risks both personal and professional.

Let me give you an example. There are today 850 MLS’s in the country. No one with any degree of knowledge or understanding thinks that’s too few. Nobody believes that consumers, agents, brokers, technology companies, vendors, or even Associations are well-served by this situation. Speak to people in confidence and they will all tell you that consolidation needs to happen, and has been needing to happen for decades. Most people believe that in the absence of action, a third party will end up rolling everybody up in some sort of a national play, and just like how the real estate industry lost control over the consumer web, it will lose control over the B2B data, the lifeblood of the industry.

And yet, few people will actually push it forward. It’s too hot a topic. It’s considered far too political. No one really wants to talk publicly about bloated payrolls, inefficiencies, terrible technology, and substandard customer service. And the general consensus is that no matter how necessary change may be, none of them can actually push it through, because of local politics, because of self-interested parties, because of toil and trouble and woe, and who needs that anyhow? What’s the point in pushing something, only to end up losing one’s job?

Another example: quite a few people in leadership and executive positions in Associations realize that there are far too many REALTORS(R). No one in real estate is ever surprised when they hear horror stories of misconduct, of breaches of fiduciary duty, of plain stupidity and laziness on the part of some REALTOR or another in their market. In fact, many of them even know who the bad actors are. Almost everything would be better if the number of REALTORS were cut by half, or more.

They know what needs to happen; but they also realize that they probably can’t make it happen, and who needs all that trouble and arguing and bad feelings and all that anyhow? Comity, even fake, rules all.

Courage takes a backseat to wisdom.

I don’t exempt myself from the criticism. More and more, I’m finding that there are certain topics I should simply avoid, both because I realize nothing would change, and because there’s no point in hurting people’s feelings if nothing will change.

True Believers vs. Pragmatists

I actually have no problems at all with people who disagree. There are people who simply don’t agree with “what needs to be done”. There are quite a few people whom I respect who think I’m just wrong on a bunch of things. That’s okay with me. Reasonable people can and do disagree.

There may be true believers who think that the problem with Associations is that they don’t have more members. There may be people who think that 850 MLS’s is too few. They are true believers in what they believe. That’s fine.

But it’s a different deal when people actually agree on what needs to happen, and yet don’t want to stir the pot, or make trouble, or start losing battles. That’s not a lack of belief, but a lack of nerve. (And again, I count myself amongst that number, so consider this more of a mea culpa than anything else.) Those of us who are “pragmatists” need to rethink things a bit. We’ll pragmatically not do what needs to be done right into crisis after crisis.

So I’m going to try to change. I may not succeed, because… well, I don’t need the toil and trouble and woe anymore than you do. But I’m reminded of two relevant quotes.

First from John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

And the second from Hillel the Elder:

If not now, then when.
If not us, then who?

Expect some changes on this blog over the next few months.

-rsh