Improving Meeting Effectiveness A Meeting of Minds

Improving Meeting Effectiveness

Maybe it was a bad day at work, the dog had an accident on the carpet or a disgruntled call was received from the school principal; whatever the reason, there are times when the last thing a condo board member, trustees or resident wants to do is attend a board meeting. Lack of enthusiasm doesn’t make these meetings any less crucial and necessary, however, nor does it mean that community members who halfheartedly drag themselves to the common room to conduct association business won’t find the energy to squabble, hurl insults, and derail the proceedings once they get there. 

That being the case, it often falls to the property manager to keep things civil and the proceedings moving forward. Here are a few ideas to help make meetings as painless and productive as possible. 

What Are We Doing Here? 

A big first step toward maintaining order and giving structure to any meeting, whether it’s a board-only session or an annual gathering of everyone in the building, is to put the meeting’s goals and objectives in writing. 

“When information goes out to the board and owners, and you follow the specified agenda, it makes the meeting run more smoothly,” says Robert Degirolamo, portfolio manager at G&G Management in Newton, Massachusetts. “But when you stray off the agenda, things start to fall apart.”

If board members and residents aren’t adequately prepared for the meeting and/or they use the gathering as an opportunity to grumble over a personal issue, it’s only a matter of time before tempers grow short, progress stalls, and the meeting founders. If that happens, it’s up to the manager to mediate, restore order, and guide the proceedings back on track. 

“If all the board members have been given the agenda ahead of time, they all should be prepared to discuss the things that are on it,” Degirolamo says.  But, he notes, “You can never anticipate everything.” If an owner brings up a question that does not relate to any of the agenda items, it’s possible that the board and manager won’t be prepared at a moment’s notice to answer it. “At that point,” he says, “the best answer is, ‘I’ll get the information and get back to you after the meeting.’ If you can’t get a resolution right away, you can always table something to the following meeting and re-address it then.”

The Ombudsman 

Whether a meeting only has a few hiccups or one member takes it upon himself to hijack the whole operation and filibuster endlessly about some trivial issue, the one person that can and should bring peace and uniformity back to the proceedings is the property manager.  

“It doesn’t happen often, but if the discussion goes on for 30 minutes on a topic, I’ll jot a note to the chairman, sitting next to me, that maybe it’s time to move on, or table the discussion to another time,” says Mitchell Johanson, on-site manager with G&G Management for a large property in Westford, Massachusetts. “We want to hear from owners … but I act as a kind of timekeeper” to keep the meeting moving.

An effective way to keep the meeting running fluidly is to create timed agendas. When the president calls the meeting to order, he or she can explain that the board is on a schedule and that the meeting will continue per the agenda—and then work at sticking to that timetable.

Since it is human nature to disagree, there have been protocols in place to structure meetings and keep proceedings on-track. For example, Robert’s Rules of Order dates back to the 1800s. The slim volume—and more recently, the Robert’s Rules website—“provides common rules and procedures for deliberation and debate in order to place the whole membership on the same footing and speaking the same language.” The goal is to provide for “constructive and democratic meetings, to help, not hinder, the business of the assembly. Under no circumstances should ‘undue strictness’ be allowed to intimidate members or limit full participation.”

But while used by many deliberative bodies, the familiar tome may not work well in the condominium setting. “Personally, I do not recommend Robert’s Rules to my association boards,” says attorney Gary M. Daddario of the law firm of Winer & Bennett in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.  “I believe that there is an excessive amount of formality to Robert’s Rules.  Unless people are already familiar with them, it presents a lot for people to learn and, at times, Robert’s Rules can cause some confusion.  

“In fact, arguments and disagreement pertaining to Robert’s Rules are precisely what takes some meetings off track,” he adds.  “An association meeting is one of neighbors in a community, led by volunteers.  I believe that some basic rules for organization and courtesy are sufficient under such circumstances and I consistently have success with that type of informal system.  I generally make a brief statement at the outset of the meeting providing all with the basic ground rules.”

Formality, Length, and Purpose 

When it comes to the administration of a condo or homeowners association, the word ‘meeting’ can have many meanings. For example, there are differences between a board meeting, a committee meeting, and an annual owner, or in the case of a co-op, a shareholder meeting. 

A shareholder meeting generally has a tighter agenda, detailed reporting and all questions and answers are held to the end of the meeting. A board meeting has issues/motions to be decided; time limits need to be set for decisions; and opinions are elicited from the board. A committee meeting is usually called to work on a very specific task (redecorating the lobby, for example, or deciding what to plant in the flowerbeds) and is generally less formal than either an annual or board meeting. 

With regard to how long a meeting should last, Degirolamo suggests keeping an eye on the clock. “Board meetings should last no more than one hour, depending upon the agenda. If the agenda is sent to all board members prior to the meeting, they all will be prepared to address the issues to be discussed,” he says. But, again, the time required for a meeting can depend largely on the property, or issues involved. Johanson says at his large, resort-type property, meetings often run to two hours or more because of the material that needs to be covered. “Given the size of our property and its uniqueness, sometimes it just calls for more time; it depends on the situation and what is being discussed,” he says.

Whatever time is allowed, following the agenda is key, Degirolamo agrees. “There should be time limits on each item to be discussed. If they can’t be resolved, items should be tabled to next board meeting to keep the agenda on track.”

No matter the size of the building or the type of meeting, experts says that it is imperative that board members and residents are presented defined agenda, handouts and spreadsheets in a timely fashion so that a proper decision can be rendered. And, professionals note, it is important that when the time comes for questions, equal time is allotted. 

Johanson recommends that all meetings have an “open forum” for unit owner input as an agenda item. While owners may come to a meeting with questions in mind, it often works out that as the board goes through its agenda items, the questions will be answered anyway.  “Nine times out of ten, it turns out that the topics (on owners’ minds) will be covered in the other agenda items. By the time we get to the open forum, most questions or issues have already been addressed.”

“I recommend a brief announcement at the start of the question period that each owner may speak only for a pre-determined allotment of time and that the board need not receive the same comment or questions from multiple owners. These simple rules tend to keep the meeting productive,” Daddario adds.

While it doesn’t happen often, “Sometimes disgruntled unit owners will make an effort designed to send a meeting off track,” Daddario notes.  “In such instances, it is acceptable for the board to insist that the meeting discussion be limited to items on the agenda.  To the extent that the board receive comments/questions on extraneous items, the board can note that the information is being taken under advisement and an appropriate response will issue at a later date.  Again, such techniques typically succeed in moving the meeting along to accomplish the intended purpose(s) of the meeting.” 

And not all questions need to be brought up out the blue at a formal meeting, Daddario adds. “Different boards, particularly in different states, will have a variety of meeting schedules.  However, I believe that it is important for boards to address unit owner questions in a timely fashion.  Therefore, I suggest that associations provide multiple options for unit owners to submit questions,” he says. “I have a preference for written formats because they allow both sides to maintain records documenting the ‘discussion.’  Written questions may be submitted to the property management or to the board, depending on the association involved.  They may be submitted by mail, email, an association website or even a ‘comment’ box on the property.  So, there is flexibility to this approach.”

Johanson says he likes to have agendas prepared at least a week in advance, along with any supporting materials needed, so that the board and entire community can be prepared before gathering for the meeting. Agendas are sent out electronically via email, and made available at the management office and, at the general store at the property he manages. “The more communication, the better,” he states.

In the end, the goal of both a board and a manager is to have the most efficient and expedient meeting possible.            

WB King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Associate editor Pat Gale contributed to this article.

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