I wound up on my condo board for the usual reasons: Someone needed to do the job, the former board members were having disputes with owners and each other, and my neighbors asked (some begged).
I expected that it would take up a lot of my time and would be a pretty thankless task, and I was right. But the condominium was an important personal investment, my neighbors were an important personal investment, and I thought I could do some good, so I stuck with it for a couple of years. Here’s what I learned along the way about how to be an effective board member—and most importantly, how to make the most of both you and your fellow members’ time with the least amount of stress.
1. Follow the law, your organizing documents, and Robert’s Rules of Order
A good group process helps ensure that decisions are made with the whole condo community in mind. It also ensures that the owners will adopt, if not wholly support, the decision.
Turns out, instructions for running a condominium have already been fully laid out. There is a body of law that sets out how to run things. Your condo building has an additional set of documents, the declaration, the bylaws, and the house rules, that spells out even more details. Be sure your condominium board follows the law and rules. If your building's rules don’t work well, consider changing them.
Robert’s Rules of Order offer another system to control how meetings are run and how the group makes a decision. Sometimes, these rules—like making or seconding motions—seem cumbersome or silly, but they are not. They come from many years of government and organizational experience. These rules ensure that your board uses good governance that protects your condo corporation, your board and the individual members. Also, these rules help assure that decisions are made well. Make sure that your board is following these rules.
2. Do your job, do it well, and do no other job
Boards come together to make group decisions, and each vote is equivalent, yet members may have different titles or be on specific committees. Make sure you understand what your job is. If your title is board member (as opposed to, for example, vice president), you are responsible for attending meetings, understanding the issues, discussing them openly, respecting your fellow board members’ opinions and expertise, and voting your conscience.
If you have a title on the board or are on a committee, you’ll have additional responsibilities. A secretary, for instance, is responsible for documenting and running meetings and providing communication between the board and the owners. The law and the documents outline these responsibilities. Carry out your responsibilities between meetings and during meetings, but don’t exceed your job or do someone else’s.
That can be confusing. For example, aren’t all board members responsible for the financial health of the condo? So what does the treasurer do? The treasurer is responsible for planning, reviewing, supervising, documenting, and recommending how the board gets to financial health. The board considers the treasurer’s work and confirms it or asks for changes.
If a board member overreaches and does another member’s job or the entire board’s responsibility, or if a board member does not perform a task well, power struggles and confusion prevail. The board becomes less effective, so its primary function, operating as a group to run the condo, is impaired. Instead, take support from your fellow board members and do your job, and your job alone. Understand your fellow board members’ work, and support them as well.
3. Don’t rush decisions
A board’s responsibilities can seem urgent. They almost never are. Most decisions are best if made after a thorough process. Have discussions and take votes—on clear motions—after all members have had a chance to understand the issue and raise concerns. Recognize that a given board member’s concern often mirrors those of at least some owners and therefore requires respectful consideration.
4. Present a united front
Individual board members do not always agree. Still, a board is most effective if members stand together behind a decision. Do your part to make decisions and, however they come out, stand with your board.
5. Be transparent and clear
Make sure that your board’s decisions and process are clear to everyone. Have thorough budgets that anyone can understand. Give reports, and then give more reports. Explain the board’s thinking, simply and clearly. Make sure that owners feel connected and informed. If your board is transparent and clear, most objections from owners should dissolve.
6. Watch for old arguments
Condo buildings and boards can be like families, with eccentric uncles and angry sisters and old fights and disappointments. Each new decision can feel like restarting an old fight. For example, restoring a hallway might not be simply a maintenance problem once it becomes clear that the last time the hall was restored, a war broke out over what wallpaper to use.
Watch for those patterns and consider: How can this renovation be addressed differently? To prevent a second wallpaper debacle, look at the previous process, and try to cure it. Did someone feel disrespected? Try to incorporate that owner in the new process. Was the prior decision made too autocratically? Try to start a committee, or seek community input. Alternatively, was there too much control by owners and not enough decision-making by the board? This time, have the board provide leadership. Addressing the old wounds by acting differently allows a board not only to redo a hallway but to heal a wound.
Sometimes, no matter what the board does, the old problems keep coming back. Some fights between neighbors just don’t change. If an old problem still recurs, then understand that it is not you or your board, but the way old hurts work. Use good board process and government to at least get the hallway fixed.
7. Get out while the getting is good
Do not stay past your ability to perform your tasks with grace and talent. Similarly, if you feel overextended, whether it is from personal changes or simple exhaustion, then leave. Condo boards are difficult, delicate group environments, and it is even more challenging when a member can no longer work well.
A good way to avoid running out of steam or feeling overwhelmed is to set a task for yourself during your tenure on the board. For example, you want to improve a particular thing in the condominium or you think a particular decision in your building was wrong. Focus on the task set for yourself so that when you leave you know that you have completed your service.
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