It’s an oft-repeated refrain that condo and HOA boards are groups of unique individuals with their own perspective and opinions, so no two boards are ever the same. That being said, there are certain overall organizational characteristics that can unify a board and help its members run their building smoothly and efficiently.
Diversity is Key
One of the leading characteristics that makes a board successful is having members who come from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. Another key is working together and not going against the grain, says Jory J. Carrick, the president of Williamson Management, Inc., in Bensenville, Illinois.
“My definition of success would be every board member understands their role, works as a great team, and really works for the betterment of the association in the short and long term. They also must have an historical understanding of where the association is, and they have a good plan of where it needs to go, and they all work in unison in trying to get there.”
Managers agree that each person brings a unique skill set to an association board and the key is identifying how each member’s skills can mesh together for just the right mix.
A board that’s top-heavy with accountants, or engineers, or retired teachers may lack the breadth of experience—and variety of ideas—that will be found on a more well-rounded board. Since every board member brings his or her own professional and personal experiences to the job, with a wide range of backgrounds, it’s more likely that new ideas will surface. At the same time, it’s essential for those people to be willing to listen to each others' perspectives.
That leads to a second characteristic of successful boards: Openness, and being receptive to a variety of ideas.
Just the Facts
“A board has to be open-minded,” notes Jasmine Martirossian, PhD, a leading expert in group dynamics and board decision-making. “You don’t want people trying to retrofit all the facts to fit the decision they want, but you do want them to be open-minded about the decision-making process. Too often, people decide to do something, they get married to the idea, then they discard any facts that point in a contrary direction,” says Martirossian, the author of Decision Making in Communities: Why Groups of Smart People Sometimes Make Bad Decisions. Listening only to ideas that will lead to the conclusion that board members wanted in the first place, she warns, can be a shortcut to disaster.
Communication is number one, believes Carrick. “I think communication amongst one another is key, but I also think in having a genuine interest in just the overall betterment of the association is kind of key to what a board member has to fulfill on a daily basis,” he explains.
“Most board members we deal with just have a true genuine concern for the people who live there, the property they live in and the financial strength of the association. They are trying to make sure they continuously bring good value to the association in terms of products and services and general maintenance. And they just have a general affection for where they live.”
A Matter of Scale
Along with having a board that is open to discussion, Martirossian notes, it’s important for the board to be of a size that works for the building they’re trying to administer. While the number of board members may have been established at the time the building was built or converted, that composition is often open to change by a vote of the owners. “In some cases, you need to secure a certain percentage of the vote [to adjust the size of a board,]” says Martirossian. “It may sound difficult to achieve, but it’s doable.”
A case in point is her own board. With only five units in the condominium, the board was initially composed of two members. “I proposed that all five of us be board members, because it made sense,” she says. “When you’re on such a small scale, why exclude anyone?” The change, she notes, has worked out well.
Time Well Spent
That leads to yet another key characteristic of a successful board: Being willing, even eager, to devote the time and energy needed to do the job right. Beyond the regular board meetings, serving on a board can involve a significant amount of “homework”—researching solutions to problems, keeping abreast of what’s happening in the building community and surrounding neighborhood, and preparing for meetings.
"What’s important are volunteers who are willing to give the time and participate in the procedures of being on a board," advises a veteran property manager. “Board members should have a true desire to serve the building and look out for the best interests of the shareholders and unit owners."
Martirossian also makes a point to remind those who wish to serve that the board is not an island. “Good boards are tied to their community, and don’t let power go to their head. Good boards seek feedback from their communities.”
But remember, homeowners, too, have a responsibility to their community, says Carrick. “A lot of homeowners don't really truly understand the ins-and-outs of living in an association. They don't understand the rules, they don't understand the legal documents by which they're governed. There's a lot of things that they don't get, that sometimes they just come seeking answers," he says. So you can help, adds Carrick, by just being a good ear and using diplomacy when they're discussing an issue or a question. And also just being empathetic. Letting the homeowner know that the board is on their side, that they've been elected to act on their behalf. After all, whatever the board does affects everyone as they have to live in the same community, too.
Rules of the House
How that feedback is acquired varies from board to board—and sometimes, it seems, from hour to hour. Board members may be approached individually in the lobby, or through email correspondence, but the board as a whole is most likely addressed in the context of a regular meeting. The structure for how meetings are run can vary from board to board as well. Some are very loose and informal, while others follow strict parliamentary procedure. Usually, the community’s governing documents spell out how meetings should generally be conducted, but for the nuts-and-bolts items and issues particular to a given building, something like Robert’s Rules of Order can be extremely helpful in keeping meetings on track and manageable. (They are the same rules the U. S. House and Senate use when you watch them on C-SPAN.)
Volumes have been written about running effective board meetings. Then why is it that many board meetings are a source of tension and conflict? The quick answer is that meetings involve people, and people can be unpredictable, stubborn, and even hostile.
One of the best pieces of advice, according to CAI-Illinois, is to “communicate with the owners of the association. Using an association newsletter is a great way to let owners know what’s going on in the association. A board that publicizes meeting minutes and welcomes owners to board meetings may find owners to be more cooperative and understanding of the board’s actions.”
The second best practice, advises CAI-Illinois, is to take care in rules-making. “Create and consistently enforce reasonable rules and regulations. Nobody wants to be the one to tell their neighbor that they are doing something wrong. However, by not consistently enforcing the rules, boards can find themselves in sticky situations. How can the board tell John Doe that he has to pay a fine for being late on his assessment payment, when they told Jane Doe that she didn’t have to pay the fine last month because she was a good friend of a board member and nobody wanted to hurt her feelings? One of the responsibilities of being a board member is to run the association like a business, and that can mean doing what is best for the good of the association, even if it isn’t easy to do.”
The third step is engendering respect. The board and management should form a team with a common goal to run the association “effectively, responsibly, and efficiently to create a healthy community.” An adversarial relationship benefits no one. Your manager was hired to help your association, so allow them to do their job. A checks and balances system should always be in place for the protection of both parties, CAI says.
Owners should also not be shy about becoming involved. They can get a much clearer understanding of the board’s decisions if they attend meetings and read minutes, newsletters and other correspondence. Once involved, owners may join a committee, or even consider serving on the board of directors. “Your home is your largest investment—take an active interest in protecting it.”
As for the actual procedural steps to follow in running meetings, Carrick has a few thoughts. For one, be prepared for the meeting, he says. Prior to a board member showing up for their meeting, they're typically provided with a packet of information that kind of outlines the nature of the meeting at hand. And inclusive in that packet is all the information they need typically to make business decisions on behalf of the association. It’s important, he says, that each board member thoroughly review the packet and understand all the details in advance of the meeting so that they can reach a reasonable decision.
“I think that's the key. One of the key things for a board member really is to just come prepared. It's like any meeting. When you come to a meeting, be ready. And sometimes prior to the meeting, if you have questions, some of those questions can be answered by the management company or even another board member prior to the meeting.”
Board members have to understand that it’s sometimes give-and-take along with compromise to get things done. They must understand that there will be differences of opinion, Carrick says, but that the board member should try and stay professional at all times.
“I see the denigration of boards really when it starts getting personal and gritty and petty and personalities come out and just because you don't agree with me, it starts getting a little crazy. It just doesn’t bode well for a good quality productive meeting.”
Parliamentary procedure has been a time-honored way of running both formal and informal meetings, ever since Henry Martyn Robert was asked to preside over a church meeting during the 1870s, and eventually came up with a way to formalize meeting procedure.
Under Robert’s Rules, when a matter is introduced for a vote, it must be seconded, then the board will most often discuss it, and then open the discussion to residents before a vote is taken. Robert’s Rules can function as a guidebook for building boards, or you can choose to another formal set of rules. Whether they use Robert’s Rules or a similar system, the most successful boards hold to very specific rules on how discussions and motions are to be brought to the floor, and run cordial, though structured, and often businesslike meetings. At the end of the day, every co-op or condo building is first and foremost a corporation, and an observance of those formalities is important.
The setting for meetings can also be relevant. While most boards meet somewhere in the building on a monthly basis, the environment can definitely have an effect on the proceedings. While it’s not wrong to meet in someone’s living room or a neighborhood coffee shop, a more businesslike meeting place, set up in an orderly fashion, may lend itself to a more businesslike attitude among those in attendance.
Boards have enough to deal with without a strained or (worse yet) poor relationship with their property manager. A smoother and more productive relationship between board and manager can’t help but translate to better administration and management of the building community as a whole
A critical component of a successful board/management relationship is an open and honest communication channel through which the board clearly communicates their expectations, then provide follow-up and reevaluation as times and circumstances change. The board needs to evaluate the building’s operations regularly to ensure that their management is meeting the unique needs of the community.
“The role of management, first and foremost, is to be the administrative backbone of the association from everything from accounting, project management, getting bids to being the buffer, being the conduit all the information that flows through the association,” Carrick says. The job of the manager is sometimes in a consulting role, sometimes as the keeper of the information, gatherer of the information, and then the presenter of the information, he explains. “Then we have to make sure we have all the details in place, and that we are preparing our boards every month whenever they meet to have all the information they need to make good sound business decisions for the long term betterment of the community. That's really what I see our role as being most critical—is making sure that the board, as the officers of the association and as the decision-makers, have all the tools they need that when they make a decision, it's a great one. And we're there for them.”
Managers have a firm grasp on the process, making sure that board members have a clear understanding of what their role is, having a clear understanding of the legal framework on which they operate, understanding their declarations and bylaws, understanding their rules and regulations, and then coming to the table with that clarity as a board member to put personal preferences aside, to put personal opinions aside, to say what is best for the association, he says.
“You can just tell the difference between a board member that really wants to do well for the association versus one that has that hidden agenda,” Carrick says.
Efficient boards can hone their skills by becoming involved with organizations like CAI-Illinois, the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) or even homeowner groups like the Association of Condominium, Townhouse and Homeowner Associations (ACTHA), all of which provide training and education for board members and homeowners.
Courses for board members—and the managers they work with—are available throughout the year, and with the popularity of the Internet, helpful information is available at every board member’s fingertips. Even one’s own management company can be helpful, states Carrick.
“We have a lot of publications that we could provide board members with. We do provide our board members publications. There are several newspapers in the area that write articles every week about association living and they kind of go through a variety of topics that pertain to association living—rule enforcement regulations, assessment collections, reserve funding, etc. Some of the horror stories that you hear sometimes get reported on. Those are articles that we also provide to our board members and they can get a lot of information through their local newspapers.”
Professional organization like ACTHA and CAI have information at their fingertips, he says. “And they also host several seminars throughout the year that allow board members to attend these seminars on various topics. And those topics range from assessment collection to financials to reserve planning to getting proposals for projects, and just a variety of different things. Board members can pick and choose what suits them and where they feel they're lacking and attend those.
Additionally, a board’s accounting firm is also a great resource of information, along with the association attorney. Legal firms that represent associations for collections and corporate matters are great because they specialize in association law and how it relates, he says.
CAI, for one, provides a wealth of information in print and on its website. In its introductory online course, “Fundamentals of Community Volunteer Leadership," CAI notes that “the effectiveness of a board depends on the effectiveness of its individual members, so it’s important to start with competent, intelligent, mature people who are willing to work hard and make sacrifices. The association is neither a civic league nor a social club. Running it requires making hard decisions and being involved almost on a daily basis.”
That, it seems, is the definition of a successful board in a nutshell.
Debra A. Estock is managing editor of The Chicagoland Cooperator. Editorial Assistant David Chiu contributed to this article.