Dear current board members and management team,
As a newly seated board member I wanted to let you know that I am a little unclear as to what my role and specific responsibilities involve. Having never served on a condo board I do not fully understand how meetings are run or how the governing process works. I will be honest; I am even reluctant to ask any questions until I feel a bit more comfortable with the group and the inner workings of the board. Can anyone help me transition?
Thank you in advance,
The new member of the board
This is the letter that will never be sent, but every new board member wants read. It is never easy being the new kid on the block, or, for that matter, being responsible for welcoming and getting the new kid up to speed. But one thing is for certain: there will always be new board members transitioning onto condo boards – and unless boards have mechanisms in place to assist and guide new members, these rookies will sink long before they swim.
So how can veteran board members and property managers assist in welcoming, advising and transitioning individuals into their roles and responsibilities as new board members? Are there personality traits that will make one individual better at the learning curve than another? What assessmentsare in place to gauge the progress and competency of new board members? The answers are both simple and multifaceted.
Every Board and Member is Unique
No two boards are alike, just as no two board members are similar, and aside from an individual’s resume or previous committee work, there is no assessment that can be made to predetermine what kind of a board member the individual will become or is becoming. “Resumes can give some insight as far as an individual’s prior board experience and professional competence. It will at best give an expectation as to what their skill sets might be,” states Pat Brawley PCAM, CMCA, managing partner with Community Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in strategic management and property audits in Needham, Massachusetts. Brawley adds that “sometimes it does not play out as well as it looks on paper.” Likewise, aside from a willingness to work with others, there are no personality traits that makeone board member easier to transition than another. Everyone will work at their own speed and comfort level.
However, veteran board members can do much in the way of making rookie members feel welcome and kick-start the learning curve. Veterans can, for example, make clear what the responsibilities of the board and boardmembers involve.
It may be stating the obvious, but no one is capable of successfully fulfilling their responsibilities as a new board member without knowing what those responsibilities entail and what the objectives and responsibilities of the board at large demand. Be it one-on-one, in a group setting or even through reading a book, all rookie board members want to know what they are supposed to be doing! This is the most welcoming act any veteran board member can perform.
A Handy Tool: The Handbook
To this end, experts advise associations to create an introductory board member handbook. The handbook or manual would include: meeting minutes, financial information, governing documents, contracts and contact lists.
The purpose of the handbook is to give a big picture view of the board’s history and objectives, as well as a more day-to-day view of board member’s role and helpful tools to assist them. “Every board should have a handbook that outlines the ‘afraid to ask’ questions,” states Dr. Jasmine Martirossian, author of the best-selling book “Decision Making in Communities: Why Groups of Smart People Sometimes Make Bad Decisions.” “This will also give transparency to the proper governanceprocess, the strategic planning and objectives of the board.”
Julie Adamen, president of Adamen Inc., a property management consulting firm located in Poulsbo, Washington, admits that most associations lack such a useful tool, but she agrees on the merits and benefits of taking the time to put a handbook together. “The best introduction is to spell it all out,” Adamen advises. “Then a board member should review the content and make themselves available for questions.” This individual could also serve as a mentor to the new board member, she says.
Mentoring, in theory, is an ideal process in which to transition and welcome new board members into the fold. It can be especially useful if a handbook does not exist and is not likely to be created. The mentor would act as the “go-to contact” for any issues and questions new board members might have.
One-to-one conversations and guidance being an easier avenue for most people, would make mentoring an obvious option. However, every option comes with its own set of issues. As Adamen points out, “You can guide people but most new board members have served on other boards or are professionals and would not appreciatea mentor. It can potentially become a problem.” What new members might find most useful is an assigned board member that questions can be asked when needed.
An additionally useful introductory tool is for boards to conduct post-meeting reviews. This review serves to benefit not only new members but is a great check and balance to veteran members as well.
Post-meeting reviews entail reviewing and analyzing the productivity of meetings. Typically the board president would mediate the five-minute discussion which would cover a list of ten standard questions (see sidebar). Unlike one-on-one critiques, post-meeting reviews encourage and serve as a teaching tool on methods the board can utilize to foster consensus. “Criticism doesn’t work well in corporate settings; in non-paid position it can get even trickier,” states Martirossian. “Post-meeting reviews work well to identify what went right and what can be improved upon.”
Baptism by Fire
One tried and true way current board members and management teams can help transition new board members is simply having them “jump in” to the business at hand. Be it committees, task forces or encouraging them to be a voice at monthly meetings, new members need to engulf themselves in the process. “Totally immerse them early on,” states Adamen.“If you don’t, you run the risk of having the individual feel excluded.” Throwing new board members into the mix early on allows them to meet all the players, learn the process and feel initiated into the broader board plan.
Brawley agrees that including new members early on “is a great idea. It allows them to see the important process that has to be followed and that sometimes the process is a long one.” But Brawley cautions that new membersshould observe and learn the ropes first before taking a full leadership role on any committees or task forces.
Any committee or task force will provide a fertile starting point. “I can’t think of a bad committee to place new members on, but you need to think more in terms of people’s strengths and weaknesses. If finance is a strength, then by all means place them on that specific committee,” states Martirossian. However, new members will need to feel the desire to take on more responsibilities in the form of committee work. Current board members and management teams would be wise to let new members steer the proper course for what will work best for them.
Most boards have the best intentions in mind for welcoming and transitioning new members, but more times than not boards fall short of their duties in this area. One reason is that board members have limited time and energy to welcome new board members to the table. In addition, most association boards do not have the mechanisms or protocols in place to assist and welcome new members. If boards are finding it hard to add one more thing to their ‘to do’ list they might look to assist new members withclasses, lectures or books specializing in educating new board members.
The Community Associations Institute (CAI) offers a class specifically tailored for new board members. Previously known as the “ABCs,” “The Essentials of Community Association Volunteer Leadership” is offered through most CAI chapters. The class, which takes a day to complete, is taught by a panel of experts and covers such things as finance, problem solving and maintenance. “It is a great opportunityto become clear on your role within the management team and as an individual,” states Brawley, who has participated in teaching the Essentials class since 1996. “It allows people to realize they are not out there alone. They begin to understand what they can and can’t do.”
The classes are reasonably priced and most associations will foot the bill but Adamen believes even if cash strapped associations find it hard to pay, individualsmight think about going it alone. “In an ideal world yes the association should pay but if they won’t board members should think about paying for it themselves. There is real benefit to the course,” states Adamen.
If new board members cannot attend the course the workbook is available through the CAI. Additionally, Brawley suggests other books such as “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, and “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. “Roberts Rules of Order” – a much-consulted guide to parliamentary procedure – can also come in handy, although local chapters of the CAI can provide a pamphlet of parliamentary procedure in summary. The pamphlet may prove an easier and less time consuming read. CAI also offers a “Board Member Basics” packet of documents including a model code of ethics, in the form of free downloadable materials that provide a brief introduction to association governance. The Basics information is available at www.caionline.org.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how long the learning curve will take for newly seated board members. Feeling welcome, confident with their role and meshed with the board is a tall order, even for the most capable of individuals. “The first year is a wash because everyone is scared to ask questions. People learn over time with their own timetable,” explains Martirossian. “However, within a year they should be up to speed. If they are taking longer, then you might want to ask if they are fully invested in the position or do they not have a clear understanding of their role.”
No board is perfect and every board operates differently. More times than not the board’s personality can and does dictate the tone and pace at which new board membersare introduced to their roles and responsibilities. However, a proactive and truly welcoming board will make every effort to ease a new member’s transition through open communication of roles and responsibilitiesand assistance when needed.
Hillary Pember is freelance author and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.