It’s an oft-repeated refrain that co-op and condo 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. “With all of the boards that I work with, I recognize that every board member has a unique strength,” says Kevin Kelliher, who is the chief executive officer of Lundgren Management Group based in Chelsea, Massachusetts. “Whether it’s a background in architecture or a strong understanding of the history of the association, each person brings a valuable set of skills to the group. The key is to identify everyone’s strengths and capitalize on them.”
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 other’s perspectives.
That leads to a second characteristic of successful boards: Openness, and being receptive to a variety of ideas.
Just the Facts
“The 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 what they wanted to decide, but are open-minded about their decision. 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 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.
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,” says one experienced managing agent. “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 the community, and don’t let power go to their head. Good boards seek feedback from their communities.”
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.)
Rosemary Paparo, the director of management for the Manhattan-based management company Buchbinder and Warren, LLC, knows the importance of using Robert’s Rules as a reference even during a more informal process. “They usually use them [Robert’s Rules] for annual meetings,” says Paparo. “Board meetings, I think for most buildings are more informal affairs. The difference is that there are always minutes, or should always be minutes, and there is always a motion, a second to that motion and then a formal vote with respect to actual resolutions.”
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. However, Mona Shyman, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC), believes that it is important for boards to understand that there are differences in the strict interpretation of Robert’s Rules. “I got two copies of Robert’s Rules, and they’re not the same,” she says. “One copy was in a book, the other was [a version] out of the library and there were differences between them.”
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.
“We prefer our office because if there is any information needed we have it at our fingertips,” says Paparo. “Sometimes when a board meeting is held in homes as they often are, they tend to stray into social events. If you have the managing agent, the building’s accountants and the attorney, it’s not conducive to holding a meeting.”
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.
Trusting one another is also vital. A board that doesn’t have faith that a management company will successfully follow through on its decisions will face problems. Once the board has hired a manager, it’s important to have confidence in that manager, and let him or her carry out the board’s directions in a professional manner.
According to Paparo, “The board has its fiduciary responsibilities to the building and the property manager has a fiduciary responsibility to the board. So if there is no trust there, then there’s no basis for the relationship. In most cases, this is the shareholder/unit owner’s most significant asset. If you don’t trust the firm or the company that is taking care of the asset, it’s a scary thing.”
One way for boards to work toward a “successful” title is to learn from their hired professionals. “An informed board is an efficient board,” according to Shyman. She suggests that board members should participate in the various seminars and roundtables available on topics concerning board operations or board-related issues.
“There are organizations that board members should join,” says Shyman, “and they should make themselves available to all the information that they can get from a working organization like the Federation.”
Boards can hone their skills by becoming involved with organizations like the Federation, the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums (CNYC), the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) or Community Associations Institute (CAI), or even the city’s Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) agency, 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.
In its introductory online course, “Fundamentals of Community Volunteer Leadership,” CAI, a nationwide advocacy organization, 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.
Keith Loria is a freelance writer living in Westchester County, New York. The Cooperator’s Melissa Swinea and Pat Gale, associate editor of New England Condominium, a Yale Robbins’ publication, also contributed to this article.