Working in groups can be a challenge. Working in groups when people’s homes—and possibly their life savings—are involved can be a far greater challenge. It’s one faced every day by those brave souls who volunteer to serve on their co-op or condo board. While there is no sure-fire recipe for building a board that is 100 percent successful day in and day out, there are definitely traits and tactics that the most well-run and effective boards share.
Don’t Get Personal
One of the biggest components to success is ensuring that those individuals who are elected to the board do not come to their new duties with a personal mission. It’s important to make sure that no one looking to join in saying, “‘If I can get on that board I am going to change whatever that one little thing is,’ or that thorn in your personal side,” says Jane Beddall, president of Dovetail Resolutions, a mediation and consulting firm based in New Haven, Connecticut. Beddall, who also presides over the New England chapter of the Association for Conflict Resolution, says other bad motivations for joining a board include, “it looks good on your resume, or you’re trying to impress your neighbors or your friends.”
Board-member aspirants need to keep in mind that the job is to serve the building—and act in the interest of the association as a whole. Criterion No. 1 should be that “you have a genuine interest in whatever it is the board does, the mission of that organization,” says Beddall. Aspiring board members also need to have a clear picture of what the job really entails. She adds, “You have to be clear in your mind that you can honor the commitment that you make.” The best board members are the ones who prioritize fair thinking and who remember to put the needs of the building community as a whole above their own preferences.
It’s also very important to have a proper understanding of what a board wants from you as a member. Whether it’s your legal expertise, your deep pockets, or your time, “if you don't know what the expectation is before you say yes, then you’re not honoring the commitment because you don’t know what your committing to,” says Beddall.
Problems can also arise when board members have issues with not getting their own way. If you are a member of a five-person board and three people vote opposite of you, it’s important that you respect the decision. Otherwise, the board may not operate with trust and mutual respect—which is to say, the board is dysfunctional and potentially headed for trouble.
It can be tempting to stock your board with experts, especially for a building or association with a trove of distinguished residents. To have a board member with, say, financial or legal acumen can be a potential cost saver. Also, a board that has a makeup of diverse backgrounds and experiences can be a plus. But if your board is seeking out a new candidate for a particular reason, it’s important to be upfront about it with the candidate. “Be clear about what you want from them,” says Beddall.
If your association self-manages its property, a board with a range of professional experience can be a great asset. On the other side of the spectrum, if your building hires professional help, you may not want to seek people out simply for their expertise. For example—let’s say you're looking for an attorney to join your board for free legal advice. “If you also have paid legal counsel, you’re just setting yourself up for trouble, because it’s very difficult for those people to understand their roles,” says Beddall.
For most owners and shareholders, the dynamic of their board is not something they give too much time or thought to, unless a problem arises or rumors of dissent begin circulating. The way a board gets along and functions, though, can be a key component in the health and well-being of the building or community.
Common sense would probably say, the more experienced board member the better, but individuals with a hard work ethic and a new perspective can be just as valuable. “I think there is a freshness that comes with people who have not had a lot of experience [on a board],” says Beddall. “They tend to be less jaded, maybe a little less discouraged.” But Beddall also stresses balance. “By the same token, if everyone is brand new, that would be difficult. There would be no institutional memory, which can be very helpful.”
Whether your board is stacked with a group of veterans—or a bunch of rookies, every member should value competence and hard work. That means a willingness to devote time not just to meetings and events, but also to understanding the bylaws and responsibilities that comes with board membership. Boards that don’t take the time to review their own rules end up making decisions that do not comply with their organization’s declaration or bylaws. They were not doing these things out of malice, but rather because of a lack of knowledge. Board members need to have a strong understanding of their jobs. “It’s essential that boards be careful about structural issues of leadership and governance,” says Beddall.
Finding the Right Path
The most successful boards also find a way to avoid getting comfortable with the status quo. If a routine develops over time, boards can get complacent and lose sight of what they’re approving for the property. A likely example comes from those yearly service contracts or insurance premiums. After a while, it may be tempting to simply rubber stamp all those contracts that come in each year. “You should make sure you don’t get complacent, and just pay the same fees with the increases year after year without shopping it around,” says Carl Gore of Empire Condominium Professionals in Leominster, Massachusetts. Make sure the services you receive remain competitive—especially when it comes to property management firms.
Gore stresses that you should make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for. If your management company is just contracted for a few tasks, the board should still keep tabs on its performance. If the property manager does more, the role of the board becomes much more supervisory. “If the management company is full service, and the contract is full service, the management company should be doing everything, and reporting everything to the trustees, and the trustees should really be doing nothing except meeting on a periodic basis just to review the finances, and keep the lines of communication open,” says Gore.
That ability to work well with management is another key component of success. Gore finds that board members with management backgrounds tend be the easiest to work with. “[They] are not apt to micromanage the management company. If the board will allow the management company to do their job under the guidelines of their contract, they will get a lot more out of their management,” says Gore. Boards can debilitate property managers’ ability to do their jobs if management decisions are constantly second-guessed and interrupted, he says.
Being responsive to the needs of the building or community is also imperative, says Beddall. “Good leadership is one that is timely in the sense that they’re dealing with issues in the appropriate fashion. If it’s an emergency, it's dealt with like an emergency, and it gets done right away,” she says.
Boards also need to have an eye for the future. If boards do not rotate personnel on a regular basis, or become too reliant on just a few players, they will be prone to lapses in leadership and accountability. “It’s essential that a board be careful about structural issues related to governance. In some instances it means absolutely having term limits. In other instances, it's just being aware of that,” says Beddall.
Lack of member rotation can also lead to missed opportunities for growth and learning within both the living community and the association, adds Lynne Kelly, president of Kelly Property Management in Burlington, Massachusetts. “I think [rotating board members] is extremely important,” says Kelly. “It lets people who are in a community learn about what an association is. It’s a great learning tool for everybody—not only can the board learn from the manager, but the manager can learn from the board. It lets all unit owners know what it takes to live in a community and what every trustee that’s been on the board has put forward to get items taken care of.”
Beddall agrees and says it’s important to have new board members trained to take up the torch. In that way, the board maintains a continuity of leadership and consistency, she says.
Making it Better
What if a board is facing some difficulties and realizes that the way they work is not working well? There is hope. To help board members become more efficient and effective leaders, there are consultants that can help a leadership team get back on track. Some firms will conduct a full review of the HOA or co-op and examine the declaration, bylaws, minutes, budget and any other documents that help tell the story of the building or community. Then, after a three- or four-week analysis, the review can come back to the board with details about what they can do improve their effectiveness.
Also, for buildings that self-manage, an outside consulting firm can provide guidance on building processes that will make the board function more smoothly and with less pain on the part of everyone involved. Adhering to those processes can become second nature for the board, allowing them to move on to tackling bigger and more involved issues in the long-term.
Board members also can turn to each other for help. Getting focused and working towards a common goal can help refresh a tired board or motivate a new board that perhaps feels overwhelmed by the magnitude of their charge.
Gore emphasizes there are many resources available to boards that can sharpen their abilities and save them money as well. “Read the trade publications; attend the trade shows. Join CAI (Community Associations Institute). The information’s there, you just have to be willing to go get it,” says Gore. “You can go to seminars, as well as expos, and listen to $400-an-hour attorneys give you free advice all day long.”
No matter what the circumstance, boards can improve on their own performance and, in turn, improve the performance and function of their condo association or co-op, making things better not only for themselves but for their friends and neighbors as well.
With effort, training, education, commitment and good relationships with management, owners and shareholders, a board can make its own very heavy burden lighter and turn the experience of leading their community into a rewarding one, both for themselves and those they serve. And soon, a good board will be on its way to becoming a great board.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Editorial Assistants Tom Lisi and Enjolie Esteve also contributed to this article.