A condominium, cooperative or homeowners’ association thrives or falters based on how all of the various stakeholders involved can come together in effort to achieve a common goal: the maintenance of a successful and stable residential community. Excluding the buildings and associations that are self-managed, this means creating cohesion between owners/shareholders, their elected board, and their hired management company. That board/management relationship is especially important, as those two bodies are the ones who shoulder the majority of the burden of running things day-to-day. Thus, how board and management deal with each other is crucial to maintaining both harmony and property value. And given that it is the vendor in this transaction, it really behooves management to make sure that things are consistently amicable.
Open and frequent communication is paramount in order for board and management to establish the professional dynamic necessary for an association to thrive. With various personalities at play, everyone involved must be aware of how best to deal with one another in effort to minimize conflict.
Alex K. Kuffel, President of Pride Property Management in New York City, urges managers to get to know each individual board member, assess their respective contributions, and find out what they expect from management. “Board members volunteer their time without pay,” Kuffel notes. “Thus, it’s on management to do all that they can to assist in a timely manner, and to try and be as proactive as possible, rather than acting passively and always requiring direction and guidance for routine, common-sense things.”
For the sake of accountability, it’s always in management’s best interests to keep a board in the loop for even the most minor of decisions. “We blind-copy the board on almost all of our emails, and we never take it upon ourselves to make a decision on a property, whether it be change-of-vendor, staff, or repairs,” says Jackie Monzon, Co-Founder of New York City-based Crystal Real Estate Management, Inc. “I have encountered some management companies that believe the property is theirs once a contract is signed. We believe otherwise. We work for you, and all decisions should be group decisions. Management is there to advise and facilitate.”
Management should be in arm’s reach of a board at all times, according to Richard E. Stern, President of Sutton Management in North Andover, Massachusetts. “The board needs to be able to contact a manager without limitations when a crucial issue presents itself,” he says. “Whether it’s a broken pipe or collection issue, management needs to be ready to respond with a quick email. And at bare minimum, boards and management of large properties should hold monthly meetings. Smaller properties can get away with holding them quarterly. These meetings should be used for review of all financial reports, delinquencies and contracts that need be signed, along with any resident issues and violations.”
And of course, professionalism always wins the day. “Conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times,” urges Scott Dalley, Executive Vice President and COO of Access Property Management, which has offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Be prepared and listen before you respond. A regular line of communication is critical to a good relationship, but you should defer to the preferred method of the board. ‘Regular’ here means ‘on a consistent basis,’ but how often is necessary depends on what’s going on in the community.”
Although management ostensibly makes its entire living taking care of associations’ needs, that doesn’t mean that it will always be in the right, or that they shouldn’t be steadily learning. And even long-serving board members can find themselves veering down the wrong path from time to time. A willingness to be corrected and to evolve from there is imperative in order to run an association.
“Never think that you have all the answers,” advises Monzon. “It doesn’t hurt for a novice manager to admit to a board member when they’re not familiar with something. The manager can explain that they will quickly find out what needs be done, and then return with the necessary information. Humility and honesty are key when someone is new to something.”
While bringing one’s prior experience into a new environment can be helpful, all boards are created differently. Thus a manager must be ready to adjust on the fly, as they are, after all, in service of the association, and not vice versa.
“Whether it be a weekly email update of pertinent issues, or a regular call to the board, management should establish whatever line of communication works best for the board,” says Dalley. “Make sure to listen and to understand what is important to the board and community. Do your homework, be prepared, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. A manager’s relationship with the board is just as important as the actual work they do for the community.”
Management can benefit by designating a specific board member as its primary liaison, notes Stern, who assigns a single trustee on the board with the role of communicating direction—as designated by the rest of the board—to his company.
“There should never be any mystery,” urges Kuffel. “I find daily emails from management to board members, as things happen, to be the most expedient. If nothing in particular or of urgency has gone down, then a once-weekly update for informational purposes is helpful.”
Of course, harmony is never more than temporary, and conflict will inevitably arise. The true testament to a board/management relationship, however, is how quickly that conflict can be handled.
“Without being unresponsive, a good manager resolves issues before they turn into a real conflict,” suggests Dalley. “But should you find yourself in a conflict with the board, make sure that you communicate clearly and listen. Most conflict comes from miscommunication. Address any issues punctually, and don’t be afraid to admit a mistake, should you have made one. No one is perfect; mistakes are part of being human. How you respond to mistakes will show the board what kind of person or organization you are. Most boards will accept an occasional mistake if you own it and then resolve it.”
Stern notes that when conflicts occur, it’s often because board members or trustees let their personal agendas take precedence over the needs of the association at large. “I always go back to the master deed and trust,” he says. “The management company has to point out that, even if the board does not like how the condominium documents address certain issues, their job is not to interject personal opinion into the interpretation of the documents.”
“Always avoid showing bias or favoritism, or doing private personal favors for a resident or board member that the board in total would not approve or like,” Kuffel urges managers. “Remain professional and businesslike; do not unload any personal issues onto the board. Never talk against another board member or resident, no matter how unpopular he or she is with the board or within the community. Never put in writing something you would not want published for others to read. And, if asked for your opinion about someone or something, be mindful of what you say and how you say it, so that it’s polite, accurate, and cannot be misinterpreted.”
And Monzon recommends that management never take anything personally. “There will always be disagreements with some members of a board,” she says. “The key approach is to talk it out and listen to what someone is expressing. Note their concerns, and discuss what they want. Learn to compromise, but explain why a different approach may benefit them, if the situation warrants.”
Should management, board or both find themselves at a loss as to how best engage with the other, there are resources that can help them navigate turbulent waters.
“Policy Governance (www.carvergovernance.com) is an excellent source for both managers and boards,” suggests Dalley.
“In Florida, the state requires board members to take a course in order to have some basic competency and understanding,” adds Stern. “They also have a licensing requirement for managers. Unfortunately, there are no requirements like this in the Northeast. But I would love to see board members take that course, which could better help to define board and management roles.”
In a similar vein, Kuffel recommends keeping an ear and an eye out for local seminars that may prove relevant. “Personal experience is often the best resource,” he adds. “Talk to seasoned or senior managers for tips and guidance based on their many years in the business. And staff meetings are always useful for brainstorming and problem solving, especially in the case where there’s a sensitive issue between board and management.”
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter with New England Condominium.