So as most of my readers know, the Coronation of Bob Goldberg just happened. Sure, he’s been in the job officially since August 1, but his “coming out party” (Bob’s own words) was Tuesday at the 2017 NAR Leadership Summit. That was followed in short order with a 1-on-1 interview with Andrew Flachner, CEO of RealScout, and a friend of Notorious. And then he must have done an interview with The Real Daily, because that story (complete with many typos, suggesting hasty transcription) came out right afterwards.
I’ve watched all of the videos and read The Real Daily and Inman News stories from the day.
And then, I spent the last couple of days reaching out to dozens of people trying to scratch an important itch. What I’ve learned is a little bit tragic, but ultimately hopeful for the future of organized real estate. It also makes me believe that Bob Goldberg is absolutely the best man for the job today. He is the right person at the right critical time.
For the TL;DR crowd, the takeaway (some of you young Millennial types might want to consult Google and history books):
Bob Goldberg could be the real estate industry’s Mikhail Gorbachev: the ultimate insider who rose to power at the right time to bring about a revolution. He could bring about perestroika and glasnost to NAR and change the culture of the organization at a time when it so desperately needs to change.
For the rest of you, who don’t mind thousands of words, let’s go on this journey together, shall we?
The Oddness of Tuesday
Let’s begin in media res, like any good epic poem, with the Coronation on Tuesday. By now, most of you have already seen the video; hell, many of you were there in person. Some of you were likely on stage (*wave* Hi Bob!)
I thought Bob’s speech was very good and his panel participation even better. And his interview with Andrew was wonderful; that particular format brings out Bob’s humanity, genuineness, self-effacing humor, intelligence, and plain old down-to-earthness really well.
And plenty of others have already reported on the specific things he said and specific ideas he brought up, so go read those. Inman has an excellent run-down of the news. We’ll have opportunities to talk about specific programs and ideas in the future.
What I came away with, however, was puzzlement. So much of what he said didn’t make sense when it was he who was saying them. And so much of what was implied or not said flat out made me scratch my head.
Where Was Dale?
Maybe there was a reason why Chris Polychron, 2015 NAR President, introduced Bob at the Leadership Summit instead of Dale Stinton. Maybe there was a reason why Dale wasn’t even present during the speech. (I’ve heard Dale was there on Monday to lead a session.) But it makes me scratch my head.
After all, it isn’t as if Dale Stinton was fired amidst scandal. He left in a celebration of a long career of service to NAR. There is an article in Realtor Magazine titled “Dale Stinton: In Gratitude” penned by Bill Brown, 2017 President. Dale won a Visionary Award from T3 earlier this year. So where was he?
Stinton was CEO for 12 years, and NAR’s CFO for years before that, and with NAR for 36 years. There is no doubt that Dale was an incredibly important and significant leader. Every single person in that room at the NAR Leadership Summit became a leader during Dale’s reign as CEO. So where was he?
Plus, it isn’t as if Dale Stinton did not want Bob as his successor; it was widely whispered that Bob was Dale’s handpicked choice. In The Real Daily article, Bob says that he had a great relationship with Dale. So where was he?
I would have expected to see Dale Stinton give a little speech about his time, then introduce Bob as the new CEO, shower him with praise, talk about how he’s leaving NAR in great hands, blah, blah, blah, and then exit stage left to applause. Then I would have expected Bob to talk about how wonderful Dale is, how great the legacy is, and how difficult it will be for him to fill Dale’s shoes but he’ll try, yadda yadda, and talk about how he’s going to maintain all the wonderful things that Dale has done but take it further.
That’s what you normally get when you have an insider taking over.
Instead, we got Chris Polychron handing a guitar to Bob, then Bob launching right into praise for Realtors and Realtor leadership. I listened very carefully. Bob thanked Chris, the search committee, the leadership team, support from the Realtor community, then talked about utmost respect for what Realtors do day in and day out. And then he went right into threats, the need for change, and his vision for the future.
That’s right, he did not thank Dale Stinton. He didn’t spend any time talking about the wonderful legacy that Stinton left him.
All of that is very odd. It is odd that Dale was completely absent from the festivities. It is odd that Bob didn’t even mention his name during his speech. How in the world did Dale Stinton, who was the most important and most powerful person in organized real estate a few months ago, become Voldemort, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?
It’s what you might expect from an outsider, who came in with some kind of mandate to undo all the wrongs of the past and turn NAR upside down. It is completely bizarre coming from the ultimate insider who spent two decades at NAR, much of it as a powerful senior executive.
The Things Not Said and Implied
Then you have Bob distancing himself in subtle and not-so-subtle ways from his predecessor.
For example, Bob talked about how some perceive NAR as living in an Ivory Tower. Sure, he said that was a complete misperception. But in the next breath, he said he will take “a sledgehammer and knock down the Ivory Tower facade of NAR.” He said “the pyramid will be turned upside down with NAR looking up at our members at the top.” He stressed over and over again the need to “improve listening skills” at NAR.
Look, none of that sledgehammering or flipping pyramids or improving listening skills is necessary if the whole thing is just a misperception. They’re only necessary if the Ivory Tower thing is real. They’re only necessary if NAR has been a top-down, inwardly focused, dysfunctional organization riven with fear, secrecy, and omerta.
He also stressed the importance of bringing “innovators” or “disruptors” into the NAR tent. He said, I am a big believer in the philosophy known as NIH, or Not Invented Here. He said building technology is not NAR’s core competency, and that NAR should be at the table with tech companies advising them.
What was not said but implied is that NAR has spent years denigrating and fighting innovators and disruptors. The Cold War between Zillow and NAR is not news to anybody who has been paying attention. Redfin fought a war with NAR back in mid-2000’s, and there’s congressional testimony to prove it. Widespread industry hostility to innovators — coming particularly from the MLS sector — is not news to anyone who’s worked in that space. In fact, Andrew Flachner actually brought up the issue during his 1-on-1.
I could go on and on picking through everything Bob said that distanced him from Dale, but frankly, you could do it yourself. The distancing is not hard to spot.
Back to the Beginning: The Central Problem
Keep that in mind as we go back to the start of the Bob Goldberg era. When he was announced as the pick, I wrote this:
The substantive issue is this: Where has this visionary, innovative, and future-thinking leader been for the past 22 years?
Then when Bill Brown castigated me, I responded and wrote this:
You say you were blown away by Bob’s ideas and suggestions during his final presentation. Was this the first time you heard these ideas and suggestions from Bob? After all, you must have worked closely with him over the years as you ascended the leadership ranks to President; did none of these ideas get floated over the years?
If he did float those ideas over the years, what happened to them? Did Dale quash them? Did you or previous elected Leadership quash them?
If Bob did not float those ideas over the years, did you ask him why he didn’t?
Of course, after an initial foray into social media, President Brown declined to return to answer any of those questions. I guess he’s not a subscriber to Bob Goldberg’s “leadership in the sunshine” philosophy just yet.
For me, this was always the sticking point for Bob Goldberg. Everyone I spoke to said he was a great guy, a very smart and capable executive, and a wonderful leader. But how does such a great guy and a wonderful leader spend two decades at an organization, then comes out with a list of ideas and initiatives as if they’re brand new? Why didn’t he bring those ideas — and some are incredibly important — to his boss with whom he supposedly had a great relationship?
After all, the “Ivory Tower” thing has been the perception for years now. The alienation between NAR and not just its membership but the actual leaders of state and local Associations which supposedly make up NAR is not news. The need to embrace innovators and disruptors hasn’t been news since… oh… 2007 or so?
So why not bring them up to Dale? If the issue is important, and you’re a SVP of an organization, why not press the issue?
So, I asked Bob that very question via email. In fact, here’s the exact question I asked him:
In all cases, you were an extremely powerful executive at NAR, whom most of us perceived as Dale’s #2 man. I have to imagine you were talking to him regularly, and took part in whatever strategic sessions NAR. So the fact that none of these things saw the light of day means there are only three possibilities:
1. You brought them up to Dale, and they were squashed either by Dale or by Leadership.
2. You never brought them up to Dale.
3. You thought of these ideas when you applied for the CEO job.
Which is it?
In particular, if it’s #2 — that you never brought them up to Dale — then I’d like to understand why not.
He responded at length, and with great care. To me. A guy named Notorious who… ah… went toe to toe with his sitting President. That alone tells me everything I need to know about Bob as a leader and as a man. It’s difficult to overstate how much I admired that response.
In any event, here is the relevant part of his response to my question:
Thanks for reaching out. I appreciate your thoughts and insights about the industry. Some of your questions seem to assume an “us versus them” mentality, or more specifically, Bob vs. Dale. Different times demand different leadership skills and traits. It is a very different time than when Dale became CEO in 2005. What I’ve shared in recent weeks is my own vision for the future of the organization, which does look different from Dale Stinton’s vision, but the industry looks very different today than it did a decade ago. Dale worked with NAR’s leadership toward success on a number of fronts: developing and growing the influence of the Realtor® Party, building Second Century Ventures and REach – which was just named a top accelerator in the country – and implementing core standards for Realtor® associations and boards to raise the bar on member services and resources, just to name a few. While our approaches may be different, our mission is the same: to advocate for Realtors®’ interests and support their business success.
As one of 10 SVPs at NAR, of course I communicated and shared ideas to achieve the association’s goals, but my charge at this organization was brand and strategic marketing and growing non-dues revenue, and that has been my major focus for the past two decades. Ask any internally hired CEO and he or she will tell you, it’s not easy to formulate a vision until you’re sitting in the CEO office. The CEO position provides a very unique vantage point that even a senior executive is not fully aware of. So at this point, I’m only looking ahead and am ready to work with leadership and staff to make decisions that are in the best interest for our members. [Emphasis mine]
First of all, I did not really expect Bob to criticize his predecessor — especially when he’s still sort of around. It’s not like Dale retired to Cambodia and cut all his ties with the Realtor world.
But second, what the answer implies is that Bob didn’t bring any of these ideas up to Dale, either because he didn’t have them until he was sitting in the CEO office, or because of some other reason.
I doubt he hadn’t thought of something like “improve listening skills” once during this 22 years at NAR. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that a man of Bob’s intelligence, perceptiveness, and respect for members would not have thought of that years ago, many times.
The “it was a different time” thing is a patently PC response. Dale might have become CEO ten years ago, but he was still the CEO ten weeks ago. Nobody knew that Dale was going to retire a few years ago, and many of the problems of NAR today were problems of NAR back then. So that’s not a real answer.
The real answer is, “some other reason.” You will never get Bob Goldberg to say so. You won’t get most of the NAR staff and leadership to admit it. But their actions speak louder than words.
The Other Reason
That other reason, simply put, is that Bob worked for an organization whose institutional culture is rather similar to the old Soviet Union. Loyalty to the Party and to the Great Leader is essential to survival.
In that sort of an environment, you simply did not step out of line or speak your mind or rock the boat in any sort of way. You kept your mouth shut, kept your head down, and did what you were told. And you made sure that you were not the first person to stop clapping.
I have spoken with over a dozen people in a position to know on this very issue over the last few days. I wish I could say more than “they were people in a position to know” but every single person asked me to protect their identity as if they were in the Mafia and talking to the FBI. Yeah, that says “healthy culture” now doesn’t it?
As this is a serious issue, let me be as fair and transparent as possible while protecting my sources.
First of all, I have nothing against Dale Stinton; in fact, I rather respect the man. I’ve met him a number of times over the years, including some lengthy conversations about the industry and about NAR, and even had a working meeting with him. I have always found him to be tough but fair, smart as a whip, and more of a radical than people might have thought. I thought he loved NAR, that he cared about the members, and wanted to do the right thing by them as he saw it.
Second, by the accounts of people who have been in the industry long enough to remember, the institutional culture of NAR predates Dale. One person said that Terry McDermott, the CEO before Dale, acted as if he were “above the masses”. Dale himself, coming up through NAR, would have been groomed in that authoritarian culture.
Third, a number of people I spoke with praised Dale as a wonderful leader, a great mentor, and someone who was genuinely concerned about the well-being of the membership and of NAR. They talked about his major accomplishments, from navigating NAR through the worst housing crisis in history to rebuilding the Realtor Party to RPR and Second Century Ventures. They flat out disputed characterizing him in any sort of a negative way. They also disagreed that the institutional culture of NAR was repressive… but still refused to go on the record.
Even Dale’s fans acknowledged, however, that he could be “direct” and “tough” — as I have. But they saw that as a positive character trait in a leader. All agreed that Dale had a commanding presence, rather than a comfortable one, but they did not agree with the view that Dale was intimidating.
But others painted a rather different picture.
One person described Dale as “demanding, unyielding, and inconsiderate with staff and others when he needed to get his way.” More than one person called him “a bully” who would “get very angry if someone ever disagreed with him or tried to challenge him.” One person said that Dale would “play games with people” to screw with them and that Dale did not take suggestions from underlings: he told them what to do and expected them to do it without question or pushback. One person complained that you never knew where you stood with Dale, which made it very easy to be paranoid.
Tellingly, one NAR executive used to keep a statue of Stalin on the desk as a stand-in for Dale Stinton. (That story is the inspiration for the title of this post.)
If that was the institutional culture of the organization, no wonder that Bob Goldberg kept his head down, did his job in his area of business development, and didn’t say boo about anything else. And it must have been the culture given how all of my sources have reacted: with fear, paranoia, and request for secrecy.
And if that was the culture of NAR, it is no wonder that NAR staff need to improve their listening skills. In a dictatorship, you only listen to the Great Man and others within The Party to make sure you’re not rocking the boat. Survival requires it.
If that was the culture of NAR, then yes, it really was a top-down pyramid that needs to be flipped upside down. It might take some time, but maybe NAR staff can look upwards towards the membership because they won’t have to spend all their time looking over their backs.
If that was the culture of NAR, then so much of what Bob stressed during his speech and his interviews make all kinds of sense. Just one example: Bob talked about a joint Broker’s Edge event with NYSAR. It was a blah-blah report. What stood out for me though was when he stressed “respectful collaboration” as critical. Maybe locals and state Associations are not used to such respect coming out of NAR. (I know firsthand that many a local Association leader isn’t used to NAR talking about respectful collaboration.)
No wonder that the staff of NAR greeted the news of Bob Goldberg’s selection with joy. I’ve spoken to a number of them, and to a man and woman, they’re absolutely effusive in their praise of Bob. More than one person said that Bob is the reason why they stayed at NAR — you can hear the implication right there, can’t you? (To be sure, maybe they’re still stuck back in the ancien regime and praising the Secretary General of the Supreme Soviet is second-nature… but I don’t think so. I think the people I spoke to were genuinely thrilled to have Bob as their leader.)
One day, the legacy of Dale Stinton will need to be evaluated. Like the record of most consequential leaders, I expect that it will have its ups and downs, and perhaps a fuller picture will emerge. All that we can fairly conclude today is that Dale did not change the institutional culture of NAR.
And that may be Goldberg’s biggest opportunity.
Glasnost Comes to NAR?
First of all, I would counsel patience for concrete results. Some people, including Andrew during his 1-on-1, have asked Bob about the “First 100 Days”. That strikes me as the wrong analogy, as it comes from the American Presidency. Gorbachev took three years after becoming the leader of the Soviet Union to introduce glasnost. This reform is going to take some time.
Second, I don’t believe that any of the ideas that Bob floated are all that critical for his legacy. Sure, they’re interesting and useful and potentially valuable, but those are not the real challenges and the real reforms he could and should bring to NAR. The true reform he can bring about is a change of culture. Glasnost means “openness” and that is something NAR desperately needs more of. Thankfully, it sounds a whole lot like Bob Goldberg’s “leadership in the sunshine” philosophy that he laid out.
As I said above, NAR staff can be looking upwards to the membership if they don’t have to spend all their time looking over their backs. Bob Goldberg can make that reality, not necessarily with any particular program requiring that people go out into the field, but simply by removing the element of fear and paranoia at NAR. Given what I have seen of his personality and his leadership beliefs, I think he will do just that.
Third, with his emphasis on bringing outsiders into the Realtor tent — in particular by dropping the war against innovators and disruptors, which includes Zillow — Bob could start to change the “Us vs. Them” culture that is so prevalent in real estate. With his background in business, especially in making business deals, Bob should be far more comfortable with the idea of “win-win” scenarios.
Gorbachev realized that the challenges of the late 20th century required relaxing the Communist Party’s iron grip on the Soviet economy and government. Perhaps Bob realizes that the challenges of the 21st century for the real estate industry requires relaxing NAR’s old ways of doing things. That could be what “fearless leaders taking on fearless ideas” means for us.
Fourth, and most tantalizing, is the possibility that Bob Goldberg could change the culture not just within the bureaucracy of NAR but within the larger organized real estate space. Volunteer leadership does not work for Bob; in fact, he works for them. But they do work with him, and it isn’t crazy to think that he could have enormous influence on them — particularly the rising up-and-comers. Whether by personal example or by persuasion, Bob might be able to change the culture of the Realtor leadership to something more positive.
Because today, that culture ain’t all that great either. There are numerous stories from the Realtor leadership ranks of being punished for speaking out or pushing back. Say something wrong and suddenly, you don’t get Committee assignments. Push back on the “old boys club” and bam! you’re banished to the hinterlands. Those stories are especially common amongst the younger YPN ranks; many have been told to wait your turn and pay your dues and toe the party line.
Within the volunteer ranks as well, nobody wants to be the first to stop clapping.
I personally have been told time and again that I am courting NAR’s wrath and vengeance for some of what I have written and said. I know for a fact that I’ve been blacklisted from possible assignments because someone somewhere took offense at what he saw as disloyalty or disrespect. People routinely email or text me privately to comment on a post because they can’t say what they want to say publicly without facing punishment. These are not misperceptions. These things happen. They are very real.
All of this has to change, because none of the concrete reforms and initiatives Bob Goldberg laid out has a chance to be really meaningful if the culture of organized real estate does not become far more positive, far more welcoming of new ideas, far more democratic, and far more encouraging of the youth movement within Realtor ranks.
For this particular challenge, Bob Goldberg may be the very best person to lead NAR. Because he really does know, as he said during his speech, the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. He should know where the skeletons are buried. He should know who needs to come and who needs to go if he’s to change the totalitarian culture of fear. He should know how to navigate the tricky politics necessary. He should already have a legion of fans among the staff ranks who know and trust him.
An outsider, even a leader as accomplished and respected as Alex Perriello, would have needed to spend quite a bit of time earning that trust from an organization so long dominated by a dictatorial strongman. An outsider would have needed to build up the political capital and the trust from the volunteer leadership that Bob has spent two decades building up.
So I am very hopeful indeed.
He’s Going to Need Support
Gorbachev did not institute perestroika and glasnost all by his lonesome. He needed the Communist Party to support him. He needed allies who backed his unthinkable-once-upon-a-time ideas. The same goes for Bob.
Even if he is the right man at the right time, he is still a staffperson who answers to the volunteer Leadership Team. They are going to have to support his cultural reform efforts and help drive those changes throughout the entire Realtor universe.
In particular, the next few Presidents and their Leadership Teams are critical. If Bob can change the culture of NAR over the next 2-3 years, he will have accomplished something wonderful and have set NAR up for even more success down the line. If he can’t, then little else will actually stick. Lord knows we have had programs and task forces and initiatives to improve things in years past — as 2018 President Elizabeth Mendenhall said on stage — but none of them have stuck.
In a real way, the burden will have to fall on Elizabeth Mendenhall, John Smaby, and Vince Malta — the next three Presidents of NAR. This new #OwnIt campaign can’t just be a hashtag and vague posturing that Association junkies celebrate amongst themselves. It has to translate into support for a reform agenda that has as its core the transformation of the culture of organized real estate. Thankfully, I have it on pretty good authority that those three Presidents in particular are doing some unprecedented things — such as keeping the same theme and agenda over their terms — and could maybe be counted on to support real change.
But the Leadership is only a few people as well. Fact is, ultimately, the membership of NAR, the true Realtors who are part of the Movement, who give a damn and take the Code of Ethics as something more than a bunch of words you had to read to get MLS access, are going to have to support the change in culture. In particular, y’all are gonna have to pick the right Leaders.
Every Association Executive in the country understands that all the hard work over multiple Presidencies can be swiftly undone if one self-serving egomaniacal bastard comes into power. Bob is in the exact same shoes now.
Time will tell whether the promise of these early days actually bear fruit.
For myself, I am far more hopeful today than I was on Tuesday. In a bizarre way, learning that the institutional culture of NAR was akin to a reign of terror gives me a great deal more comfort about the Goldberg Era. It explains his silence over two decades, and it explains why the Leadership Team may have chosen him. It also lets me not sweat the details, like whether a strategic think tank is going to change the future of NAR.
Because the word that Bob Goldberg’s admirers most often use about him is that he is nice — he’s a great guy, warm, caring, a real mensch, and so on. Oftentimes, “nice” is a backhanded compliment, but not in this case. In this case, when our greatest need is a change of culture, nice might be exactly what is needed most.
That’s a change I can support. Can you?