Welcome Aboard Helping Rookie Board Members Adjust

Serving on a co-op board or condo association certainly has its advantages. Not only does the position give shareholders a chance to have more say in how their community is run, it helps add to their knowledge and understanding of what goes into running that community.

But a new board member very likely might not know exactly what he or she is getting into. With the responsibility of helping to make the decisions that make the community go round comes some unexpected consequences. These things usually aren't so awful that they lead to new members regretting their decision to run, but it's important for rookie members to know what's expected of them, what problems they're likely to face and where to go to for help.

Making the Decision

Various factors can lead to people deciding to run for a seat on their building's board. They may want to get more involved in their community or have more of a say in how things work. There may be a particular issue that's important to them that they want to move forward.

"Some people do it because they want to protect their investment," says Steven Miller of the Plymouth Management Group in Manhattan. "There's also the feeling of being on the inside and knowing what's going on and being privy to decisions made by the board and helping to run the building."

"People will bring the skills they acquire in life outside the building to the board," says Robert Marino, vice president and former president of the Columbus Commons Condominium on the Upper West Side.

That said, it's not always easy to join a board. "In theory, you want to have people elected to three-year terms, with one third of the board changing every year," Miller continues. "That's in theory, but usually there's a core group - especially in smaller co-ops - who serve on the board, and they tend to serve for years and years."

For the most part, boards tend to run pretty smoothly, so residents may not be looking for change. The result is that openings are rare. When an opening does come up, it can be tough for a "civilian" shareholder to claim it. While some boards might be having problems finding qualified, dedicated candidates, making it easy for an average resident to run and win, often it can be a matter of who you know, not what you know.

"I've found in my experience that when there's a vacancy on a board, the board president or another member will say, "˜I've spoken with someone and they're interested in serving,'" Miller says. "If someone's an architect, an engineer, an accountant or a lawyer, those professions are always appealing to boards." The president will then nominate the person at the annual meeting and if he or she is seconded, and no one else is named, they'll just get added to the board.

Sometimes it may be surprisingly easy to win a seat. There may be someone who would like to leave the board but doesn't feel there's a qualified person to take over the spot. If someone is qualified, he or she could very well be welcomed quite easily.

"What you don't want is someone who has some sort of vendetta against a policy in the building, or one of the personnel, or the managing agent," says Robert Fisher of Nationwide Management Corp. in Manhattan. Fisher served as a board member for more than 10 years at 299 West South Street. "You want someone who is open-minded and democratic to the point that actions will be taken for the general good of the building."

Got a Minute?

So you've won election and you're thinking about how you're going to do such a great job that you know your next step will be on your town council, then mayor and before you know it, you'll be a United States senator. Then reality sets in.

Joining your board means you'll have some influence and the ability to steer things in the right direction. But it also means some hassles and dealing with sometimes mundane tasks. First off, make sure your note-taking skills are sharp, since a common task for the greenhorn board member is acting as secretary and taking the minutes of each board and shareholder meeting.

Another way boards introduce new members to the system is by putting them in charge of a committee, like groundskeeping, or lobby design. Committees are a good way to involve new board members without a lot of the pressure they might feel if they were making complicated legal or financial decisions right off the bat, says Norman Ellis, president and owner of real estate consultants Ellis Group Ltd., a management firm based in Queens. "Get people exposed for a year or two," he suggests. "It's a good way to bring people up through the ranks."

New members also find themselves getting stopped by their fellow shareholders a lot, says Miller. "They have to know that they're going to be stopped everywhere they go by tenants and shareholders with sometimes very minor questions or even vendettas."

Fisher agrees that being stopped by neighbors is a drawback that people need to be prepared for. "That's one of the unfortunate parts of being a board member," he says. "People do approach you, but it's part of the job. What you don't want is people approaching you in anger - and unfortunately some people are like that."

Settling In

One thing that helps make an effective board member is having a relationship with the community. This goes beyond getting stopped in elevators, but letting people know you're around and interested in their feedback. Most likely, the building has a bulletin board or publishes a newsletter letting residents know who their board members are and how to contact them. But talking to neighbors, not necessarily in an official capacity, can help you learn what's on their mind in regards to the community.

And not everyone will even care that you're now a board member.

"When I started in this business, I was told that buildings break down into thirds," Miller says. "A third of the people you never hear from - they go about their business and things are run well, so they're quiet. There's a third that's very responsible and helps run the building, and there's a third that can be a bit more difficult. That translates into a third of the people who don't really know who's on the board, they may know who the president is, but it's not of great interest to them."

There's also a whole world of information any new board member has to become intimately familiar with in order to be a success at his or her new post. To help with this, Marino advises board rookies to go over the building's bylaws and house rules with a keen eye, so they know them inside and out. This seems like an obvious place to start, but many board members do not take the time to properly digest the material, and wind up making poorly informed decisions later on, or feeling lost when the veteran board members discuss policy violations or amendments.

"New members should also go over past and current monthly management statements," Marino continues. "These contain all kinds of vital information about the building, including budget variances, arrears, detailed financial breakdowns, and project updates. Other materials that have been distributed to the board - like shareholder correspondence, proposals of repairs, and miscellaneous documents - shouldn't be overlooked. You should also have the managing agent, superintendent, or board member give new board members a complete walk-through of the building. This way, when people mention something about the building during the meeting, you don't sit there with a quizzical look on your face."

"There's a learning curve obviously," says Miller, "because the building's been operating for 20 or 30 years. A lot of decisions have been made beforehand and the new person may not have been privy to them or may not remember them."

To shorten the learning curve and bring new talent up to speed, some buildings conduct orientation seminars, and boards may have attorneys to fill newbies in on the legal minutiae of their job. A good place to start, however, is your managing agent. "I would imagine that new board members ask their questions of us more often then they ask them of their fellow board members because it's less embarrassing," says Miller.

"The managing agent is very knowledgeable and has not only gone through [whatever you're dealing with] in your building, but in dozens of others that they manage," says Fisher. "They have accumulated knowledge of practices and what's common and what's not."

Dealing With Reality

A new board member may be brimming with ideas, but if you envision yourself as the new sheriff and aim to clean up the town, you'll be in for a rude awakening. According to the professionals, the number-one mistake new board members make is not learning the ropes before taking action. Inexperience shows when new board members attempt to change standard operating procedures and second-guess the managing agent on even the smallest decisions.

"Some people come in and think, "˜I'm going to change everything,'" Miller says. "Generally, they realize quickly that they're not going to do that. Most boards do tend to make reasonable, sane decisions. Someone from the outside might think it's not the appropriate decision, but once you're privy to the information, you realize there's not that much of a choice."

And even if your ideas really are good, you'll probably learn that the board isn't sitting around waiting for new ideas, there are regular tasks the boards need to undertake. Finances are a big one. A board needs to concern itself with budgets, discussing major projects that need to be done that may affect a reserve fund.

A clearer understanding of shareholders' situations and desires may also make it difficult to bring about a major change, especially a costly one.

"We once toyed with the idea of having an extra doorman in the evening," Fisher says. [The budget for it] came out to be about $60,000, that's a lot of money. Some owners were fine with it and others weren't. You have to remember that the building is composed of people who just bought at the highest price ever. And there are others who live on modest means who were in on the initial conversion and they live on a fixed income, so you have to balance all those things."

"The two most important things," says Ellis, "are to not upset an apple cart if things are really functioning well, and to learn what's normal in both the building and in the industry at large."

And a big part of that, says Marino, is knowing when to sit back and let other people do their jobs. "As a board member," he says, "You're not there to micro-manage; you're there to oversee."

One bit of good news is that new members are more often than not get a very warm reception from the veteran members of their board. Not only do good boards look for new ideas and input, but the experienced members are often anxious to have someone new come and start working.

"They love the new members," Fisher says. "They want them to jump in, get their feet wet and share the burden."

Anthony Stoeckert is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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