Q&A with Michelle Mills Clement | Chicago Association of REALTORS®

In mid-April, the Chicago Association of REALTORS® welcomed our new Chief Executive Officer Michelle Mills Clement, CAE. Michelle joins us after five years in Seattle, first as the executive director of NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate & Development Association, and then as president and CEO of the Commercial Brokers Association. As an association executive, she’s won numerous awards, including being named as a 2014 Forty Under 40 by Association Forum of Chicagoland and a Woman of Excellence in Male-Dominated Careers by the Women of Color Empowered and Northwest Asian Weekly. A native Chicagoan, Michelle shares how her diverse professional experiences will help shape our association moving forward.

CR: How do members describe you, and what do they like about working with you?

MMC: Members feel like they are part of my team. My goal is to help increase productivity and make things easier for them to do their work. I’ve been told I’m a big picture thinker, very collaborative, organized, driven and efficient. If I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll do the research and get myself up to speed.

They also think I’m funny! I’m pretty laid back and I joke around a lot. I connected well with members in Seattle because they could stop by and see me. I’m not formal and I’m not untouchable.

CR: What has been most instrumental to your professional success? 

MMC: I’m a listener. I like to listen to the needs of staff and members – you learn more from listening than you do from talking.

I also have good instincts. I’m good at elevating strengths as well as complementing weaknesses. I like to create an equal playing field – working with everyone from the board of directors and executive team, to the front-line staff. I see great value in what different people and viewpoints can bring to the table.

CR: How did you know association management was what you wanted to do?

MMC: I was working at a TV station as an associate producer in college at Bradley University in Peoria. I remember walking out of the station and another producer’s car was smoking in the parking lot. As he slammed the hood of the car down, he said, “If you stay in tv, this is what you’re looking forward to!” I was like, “I definitely don’t want that. I need to find another job!”

I enjoyed event planning and working for nonprofit organizations in college, so I looked for a job that had that. I ended up at the Boy Scouts of America doing fundraising, volunteer management, training and working with the board. It was all encompassing, which I loved. From there, I took on another fundraising and volunteer management position with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. My commitment to association management came when I went to work with the world’s largest association management company, SmithBucklin. SmithBucklin manages more than  200 different associations, and they train you to be as effective and valuable as possible for those association clients. It’s basically a crash-course in board governance, volunteer management, member relations and leadership training at a fast pace – and I loved it. To have my career focus on helping people be the best they can be, and have the best resources and experience they can have in their professions, means a lot to me, so I made a strategic decision to stay in that realm.

I am not the person that likes to sit behind a computer all day – I’m a people person, and associations give you that opportunity to meet with members and engage one-on-one. My mom still doesn’t entirely understand what I do [laughs] but she recognizes the REALTOR® brand.

CR: What drew you to real estate?

MMC: When I moved to Seattle, association management wasn’t viewed as a career the way it is here in Chicago and in Washington, D.C. So, I got a certificate in commercial real estate from the University of Washington, which solidified my interest in the industry.

I started at NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate & Development Association, working with developers. I’d walk around my Seattle neighborhood and identify new projects that were going up. Seattle is booming in commercial real estate, and we watched the Amazon campus grow up around us. It underscored the importance of the real estate industry to everyone’s lives.

Then, when I switched over to working with brokers and was introduced to the MLS system, that was intriguing. I had been on the consumer end, in going through the homebuying process, and I’ve seen real estate from the developer perspective and the commercial broker perspective. Real estate touches so many people, and I love being able to continue to educate people on the industry and its importance. It came out the blue, but it’s been such a good fit.

This role at CAR– I wasn’t looking for it. I was content in Seattle. But, CAR is an organization that is so well respected – not just in real estate but throughout the association world. I love what CAR represents in being the Voice of Real Estate in Chicago – and Chicago’s such a major market. It’s a real honor.

CR: What opportunities do you see for CAR to expand our influence and better provide resources and services for our members?

MMC: I’m excited to be back in my hometown and learn more about what’s coming down the pipeline in real estate. It’s exciting to see how the city is poised to transform and how the market could react to that, good and bad. Being born and raised here, I have a different appreciation for what Chicago’s been and what it is – to have a hand in shaping our city’s future through our work at CAR is incredible.

The REALTOR® organization is the largest trade organization with an outsized lobbying influence. In Chicago, the political machine, tying the REALTOR® brand to that is very impactful – we can have a positive influence on the issues that can negatively impact the community.

Our government affairs directors are good at looking at, “What’s the impact of this ordinance on REALTORS® as well as the community?” I want CAR to be at the forefront of working to educate the community on these issues and how it can affect them. Homeownership in general is a win-win for everyone. So, how can we put our resources and membership to work for the community? I want the community to know that if they work with a REALTOR®, they’ll be taken care of and have all the information they need.

As I learn more about our members and their involvement in our 77 different communities, I’m very interested in ensuring our services and resources are accessible to our entire member base. I have a strong interest in ensuring all areas of our membership are represented and provided for, regardless of their geographic location – including education. CE and education is at the core of keeping your license – we must ensure our education offerings are accessible to all.

I’m interested in continuing to build our commercial presence and involvement. That’s where a lot of my background is, so I can be a huge asset to our CommercialForum members. Commercial-specific CE and education is important to me; I’d like to continue to grow that, too.

I also want to make sure I’m visible. I want to be out in the field and visit offices of all sizes – that’s how I can better understand our members’ day to day and provide for their needs.

We have an incredibly diverse leadership team and staff – I’d like to further grow our volunteer base and leadership development opportunities so that members can climb the ranks, not only in the REALTOR® organization, but also in their own companies.

And then helping our Board of Directors push forth their agenda and mission. I’ve worked with many boards, and this is one of the most diverse and innovative groups I’ve had the opportunity to work with and that speaks to the caliber of the organization.

CR: What have you learned in the past couple years that will influence you moving forward?

MMC: Not to move too fast. Stop and listen. Appreciate what’s established. Appreciate the history of the organization and what works, what doesn’t. I’ve learned to take my time and understand the whole puzzle and the pieces that make it up, before you start to build your own. Taking the time to make informed decisions and not reactive ones.

Listening is vital. You can hear one message from one segment of the membership, then another from another segment – they’re all right. When you listen, you can find the commonalities. My job is to pull it all together so that it meets the greatest need.


CR: What do you see as one of our greatest challenges going forward?

MMC: The issue of segregation in some of our communities here in Chicago previously established via political and/or lending policies still haunts us today, and keeps me up at night, honestly. Ensuring equal access to housing and fair lending practices in all 77 neighborhoods we serve will always be a priority. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, it’s important for us to keep a pulse on how far we’ve come, and what more we still have to do.  I’m proud that our association is a leader in supporting Fair Housing.


CR: What about in your free time – are you involved in any philanthropy work?

MMC: I get a lot of satisfaction out of volunteer work and I do most of my philanthropy through two organizations. The first is my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a non-profit public service organization. We do a lot of work around our five-point programmatic thrust, including education, economic development, physical and mental health, political awareness and involvement, and international awareness and involvement. I push a lot of volunteerism around that.

I’m also active in the Junior League, first in Seattle and now as a new member of Chicago’s. I enjoy volunteering with children and child advocacy work. Back in Seattle I was a regular volunteer with the Boys and Girls Clubs and the local K-8 school in my neighborhood. I love helping kids channel energy through activity and the outdoors.

CR: What other hobbies and interests do you have?

MMC: Brunch. I love to brunch, and I’m excited to be back in Chicago and the vibrant food scene here.

I have a strong interest in wine, having spent the last few years in Washington which is the second largest wine country in the US next to Napa. I have a pretty good collection started. When I was pregnant and didn’t drink, I would still go and smell wines. After I had my son, it was fun to then taste them and expand my notes. It helped me develop my palette even further.

I also really enjoy politics and political campaigning. I do a lot of volunteer work on federal campaigns and just love election season.

And I love traveling with my family, my husband Brace and our son, Broyce. Broyce has flown to more places in his first year of life than I think I have the last five years! He travels well and he’s a really happy, social baby. We hope we can keep that spirit in him. He’s a people person, too!