Board Culture What Traits Make a Board Successful?

A condominium, cooperative or homeowners’ association is only as efficient as the elected board that oversees its day-to-day operations. Considering how difficult it can be to find time for family, leisure, and sleep amid work and assorted other obligations in today’s increasingly hectic world, just finding the requisite number of volunteers to make up the bare bones of a board can seem like a big task – never mind finding folks who can bring a mix of professional experience, empathy and a can-do attitude to his or her positions, and best promote the interests of their communities. 

The traits that characterize a reliable board member are similar to those that might help a person excel in local government. Vibrant communicators who are equally adept at listening and can forego the impulse to prioritize personal gains make for dream board candidates – and indeed, they help set the tone for the board itself as a governing body once they’re in position and carrying out community business.

Build a Better Board

“I think that open communication with the homeowners is essential,” says Tina Straits, vice president and general manager of Baum Property Management in Aurora, Illinois. “A thoughtful board listens to and considers the opinions of the homeowners. And it’s helpful if they educate the homeowners on the process that an association goes through in regard to items such as modification requests, courtesy notices, and the responsibility of the association as a whole versus that of the individual homeowner.”

It’s crucial that a board member not be jarringly impacted by any development within his or her association. “Certainly a thick skin helps,” says Frank Anastasi, manager of the Riverwood Community Association in Port Charlotte, Florida. “Also understanding that you wear multiple caps, and have to put personal feelings aside. You’re working for the common good of the entire association, so you need to do what’s right for the whole – not what’s right for you. You need to be dedicated, and willing to understand many different issues.”

Bob Keegan, vice president and managing partner of Dirigo Management Company in Portland, Maine, opines that the ideal attributes of a board include “consistency in handling items; not allowing emotions to influence decision-making; strong communication skills; and working knowledge of governing documents.” On an individual basis, Keegan says that board members should exhibit “selflessness, a sense of fair play, honesty,  a sense of humor, and a tendency to macro-manage.”

“In my opinion, the most functional and productive boards are those that are able to communicate in a professional, courteous and collaborative manner,” adds Dennis P. DePaola, executive vice president of Orsid Realty Corp. in New York City. “And the least productive are those that waste valuable energy and resources arguing and trying to prove themselves right, rather than working towards compromise.”

Size Matters

The ways in which the skills and attitudes of board members are put to use – and the amount of time a board can devote to a single resident issue are directly proportionate to the size and complexity of the community they govern. For example, in a small property with 10 or so units, spending a significant amount of time on a single resident’s issues might be an effective way to manage; not so in a sprawling community with hundreds or even thousands of units.

“In a smaller community, many board members can get bogged down in the minutia of day-to-day correspondence, staff management, and even the solicitation of proposals,” warns DePaola. “Any board with a professional management company should be able to rely on that manager for the vast majority of these tasks. This way, the valuable time of the volunteer board members can better be allocated toward educating themselves and making the executive-level decisions for the association. Management should be providing the necessary information for the board to make these decisions – and once they’re made, carrying out the directives of the board. In a larger community, the use of committees can frequently help the board by dividing the workload among larger groups that can then deliver recommendations that can help influence board decisions.”

Straits advises board members not to just assume that everything is hunky-dory in their community simply because they aren’t getting a regular earful from residents on any number of issues. Similarly, she also warns against calcification and board inertia. “I think that personalities that tend to be open to new ideas work best on a board,” she says. “It’s very difficult to work with board members who are resistant to change, simply because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ In smaller associations, it is important to have board members who understand that keeping assessments at the same level for years is not beneficial to the homeowners in the long run. While homeowners may love this, it may ultimately result in a budget crisis when large projects need to be done but funding has not been set aside.”

Finally, Keegan notes that personal dynamics can differ by the size of the association because smaller associations tend to be less diverse, which can lead to more homogeneity in regard to major decisions.

Friend or Foe?

Board members are also neighbors, both with each other and with their constituents. This can present a conflict, especially for the more gregarious types: how focused should the board be on being friendly? Should a board prioritize managerial tasks over socializing? Can having close personal relationships with residents be a boon to a board, or a detriment? Does operating at a remove drive a wedge between the board and those they represent? Can anyone truly have it all?

“My personal belief is that it is best for board members to be friendly, or at least cordial, with everyone,” says DePaola. “And all residents should be treated with the same due respect, whether they are deemed to be a ‘friend’ or ‘adversary’ of the board. Board members and their families live with the residents, and any atmosphere of hostility should be avoided. If a sterner approach is necessary, it can be communicated by the managing agent, or by other professionals associated with the association.”

It can be tough to maintain an air of pleasantness when your motives – and maybe even your character – are being questioned by a resident. But the pros agree that it’s almost universally preferable for board members to maintain their composure and remain responsive... to a point. “Many times, a homeowner does not understand specific processes, or that the board must follow a particular law, or even that the board cannot do anything in response to certain complaints, such as parking on a public street,” notes Straits. “And some issues should remain between neighbors. Educating homeowners goes a long way toward working out conflicts, and board members should be friendly in their approach. But, in some instances, patience will go unrewarded, as a stubborn homeowner simply demands to have their way, and is unconcerned with the board’s suggestions. In those cases, the board may need to take that sterner approach.”

“I’ve managed so many communities, and the first thing I notice when I take on a new assignment is the distance between the board and the residents,” says Anastasi. “It can almost become an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic. At Riverwood, I’ve been working to establish a better relationship between the board and the residents, because a board can’t operate in a vacuum and still perform its job properly.

“These are communities,” Anastasi continues. “These are your neighbors. I try to teach boards that they exist to serve at the pleasure of the community. They were elected. They need to hear resident voices. I have a few points I try to hit home with all boards. I call them civility rules: nobody can speak in a meeting until they’ve been recognized and introduced themselves; each person will treat and be treated with respect; no personal attacks, abusive or disrespectful language, or disruptive behavior; no debating and/or redundancy – i.e. nobody may speak twice until everyone else has spoken, and nobody may be able to speak X amount of minutes such that they take up the whole meeting. Everybody has bad days, but it’s not okay to take it out on somebody else. You have to work that out.”

Ultimately, the character your own board takes on will be a reflection of not only the different people on your board, but the commitment those people make to uphold the sense of community and camaraderie among themselves, residents, and staff.       

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter for The Chicagoland Cooperator. 

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