The community looks nice, the association's financial footing is sound, and the manager who has been with the condo for the last three years has a good familiarity with the community. However, sometime after the last election, things seem to decline.
The board no longer has confidence in the manager, and the manager does not seem as interested in his job. The four new board members are appalled at the lack of responsiveness they are getting from the manager and question his competence to do the job. The returning board members are quite surprised and a little embarrassed by their earlier endorsements of the manager. They are even concerned that their neighbors who have now joined the board think they failed to adequately do their jobs in the past. Adding insult to injury, since the change in board members, there seems to be a splintering of opinions and direction as to where the board should be going. What's going on here?
Let's look at some of the typical causes of conflict:
Lack of understanding of one another's roles
Many volunteers serving on a board do not fully understand their role and responsibilities versus the role and responsibilities of the management staff. Although the board is responsible for ensuring that the management staff does their job, it should be through a system of accountability, rather than a cumbersome system of reporting or by repeatedly second-guessing the manager or other volunteer efforts.
The role of the board is first to act as one unit: a Board of Directors. Boards are obligated to make an informed decision, and having done its due diligence on a particular issue, now sets policy. That's the board's job policy making. It now becomes the responsibility of management to carry out that policy by establishing accountable processes and procedures and implementing the policies adopted by a majority decision of the board. Although the board may wish to review and comment, the board should not detail exactly how management will accomplish the directive that is the job of management execution. In a nutshell, the board sets policy, and management carries it out.
One strong personality can change the tone and feel of any group setting very quickly. The newly elected board member, who initially saw him or herself as making a contribution to the community, may not feel comfortable about what is actually expected of them in the position. Certainly, the term "board member" evokes a picture of weightiness and magnitude. Adding to that, volunteer board members often lack the specific knowledge and training for the position that one would expect to have in a place of work. And, if things don't go well at ones' "real" job, neighbors don't call or come to your house to take issue with you!
For many volunteers this is a startling realization. And coupled with their personal sense of responsibility to the community, directors sometimes take a rather critical or authoritarian approach to their new position, often before they have a good understanding of the issues or processes in place. In turn, there may be disturbance to the prior collaborative working relationship, and in fact, staff, as well as other board members, may feel somewhat intimidated.
The best way to join any new group is to roll up your sleeves and listen. The individual that joins a new firm and immediately begins to denounce or judgmentally question what has been done will most likely find that others, including staff may shy away from active interaction. Instead, learn your material with an open-mindedness and be credible about your opinions. A sense that you want and intend to work well with management will secure a positive response from the professionals you will be working with.
Unclear or Unidentified Objectives
To avoid confusion and disappointment for both volunteers and management staff, the adoption of an Annual Work Plan is critical. This is an agreed upon itemization of projects and issues to be addressed in the year, and should be accompanied by clear processes, which have been reviewed and accepted by the board, committees, and staff.
A failure to have and agree upon mutual expectations will lead to uncertainty and frustration on everyone's part. Think about your regular work environment and pretend for a moment that you are not clear as to what your priorities are, or who you take direction from. Add the element of having a number of supervisory individuals give conflicting direction or expectation for the outcome of your work. Would you be comfortable being evaluated on this foundation? Reasonably, the answer is no.
Board Meeting Practices
While there are a number of important elements to achieve a successful outcome to a meeting, there are several steps an individual board member can take that will enhance the productivity of both the board and management:
- Preparedness. Review your material prior to the meeting. It prolongs the meeting when some members are actively participating, while others are reading and then ask the very questions that have just been responded to. Managers typically work a regular day and then into the evening for meetings. Other volunteers will also appreciate a collective effort to conserve their personal time.
- Put questions forward prior to the meeting. Staff will have time to gather material you may wish to see or prepare answers to your questions. Managers want their professional presentation to be as all encompassing as you need, but not all members desire the same level of information.
- Give clear direction to management. Direction is not conveyed through discussion among members of the board for which no motion is passed, nor direction given. Do not wonder why management did not follow up give a clear directive.
- Kicking the can. Do not perpetually table action items. It is discouraging for management to prepare and re-prepare to take action for issues that are repeatedly tabled. Inevitably, action items begin to accumulate and management staff become overwhelmed.
- Conduct the association's business with a professional demeanor. The following cannot be overemphasized -- leave your ego at the door and treat everyone, including management staff, professionally, even if you do not think them deserving there are appropriate times to address performance issues and an open meeting isn't it.
Accordingly, avoid community meetings where attendees are witness to the dressing-down of an employee who did not approach the issue as the critic thought best or who may not have arrived at the same conclusion. It is detrimental to the receiving person, and uncomfortable to others who observe it. Performance issues should be handled privately. The attention should be focused instead on deciding and taking the actions most beneficial to the community.
Volunteerism is not purely altruistic. Owners often run for the board because they wish to introduce a community project idea or because a specific issue negatively affected them and they sought the opportunity to reply by more authoritarian means.
Pet projects become hidden agendas when a director feels there may be a lack of support for the idea. Management learns of it much later, after a substantial amount of general and undiagnosed discontent by the bearer. A more difficult issue to resolve concerns a member who has been offended by earlier processes or interactions with staff, such as a late fee notice or an unresolved complaint. Because these are personal in basis and emotional in nature, it is not recognized that management was simply carrying out their responsibility to a Board established rule or process.
To prevent hidden agenda issues from becoming a disruptive influence, conduct a Goals and Objectives meeting shortly after the election, in which all directors are encouraged to identify and support their goals and proposals for the year (committee members may also be included). It is not necessary to make immediate commitments. Following discussion, the items brought forward should be categorized (i.e., financial, administrative, etc.) and placed on the agenda for an open review and sincere consideration. Now the Board can determine whether they desire to go forward, delay it, request additional information from the initiator, have staff research it, or, after a fair hearing, decide not to pursue it.
Personal dissatisfaction issues can also be uncovered by including such categories as customer service procedures and policy guidelines in this or the Annual Work Plan discussion. Given an open opportunity, most volunteers welcome the chance to bring forward their issue. In turn, the Board has an opportunity to either remedy the problem or help the new member understand why the need for such a process. If it's a matter of killing the messenger -- staff who carried out the policy -- this is a good time to guide the new director toward a better understanding of the management role.
In any event, you cannot go wrong by providing a community volunteer with a fair and reasonable opportunity to present the Board with something of importance to them. It was not only significant enough for them to volunteer their time towards the objective, they have committed to give their personal time towards the objectives of others and the betterment of the community.
Clearly define who the primary liaison(s) with management will be. It cannot be all members of the board because they independently lack knowledge of which other board members may already have tasked management. Who will prioritize when conflicting or overwhelming tasking occurs? Who will address the issue of management concerns about the appropriateness of a requested task (i.e. budget ramifications)?
How often will a formal means of communication be expected? It is not uncommon for a board member to be troubled when approached by a neighbor requesting information on an issue of which the board member is unaware. Board members must understand that it is highly improbable that someone who is not actively working in the day-to-day work routine will be immediately and completely knowledgeable about all of the association's daily issues. It is management's job to know about and respond to daily concerns and the director has only to say, "Let me get more information on this and I will get right back to you."
Notwithstanding that - What are the means of communication? Who is included? What format? How often? Are there special circumstances that would modify this? By establishing a common understanding for the system of communication, management is accountable. Surprise and disappointment are avoided.
Our manager is not doing the job
Even managers who have previously been superior managers may not be the right manager for your association today. Board personalities change, the needs of the community change, expectations change, skill requirements change, the personal life of the manager may have changed, boredom may be a factor and for whatever reason and nobody's fault, your manager may simply not be a good fit.
How you handle this will depend on whose employee the manger is, either the management company or the Association.
It is relatively easy to address if the management company is the employer because there is always a higher level person within the management firm that the board can speak to. Do not be concerned about causing problems for the manager. Management companies fully understand the variables that affect whether or not the manager can successfully remain in the position or not. Particularly if the manager has been a good performer for you in the past, give the management company an opportunity to review the issues with the manager and make a recommendation to the board as to whether management believes the problems can be overcome or not. The recommendations may include operating issues of the board. If so, be open to those because whatever affected this manager will most likely affect the next as well. If not mendable, let your management company provide the board a process and reasonable timetable for replacement of the individual. Such problems may be avoided in the future through quarterly or semi-annual meetings with officers of your management company to ensure that problem issues do not build and necessary corrective action can be immediately taken.
If an association employee, work with your management company or your attorney, to develop a plan to address the issue. As a direct employer you will have liability issues to concern yourself with and would be benefited by professional guidance. Avoid having various members of the board enter into personal discussions with the individual, which can fragment the board and aid the individual significantly in a lawsuit. Of importance will be the fairness with which the Board handles this. Do not set up unreasonable expectations, and do not be overbearing. It is just as effective, and more beneficial to the association to professionally let an employee know that they are not meeting the reasonable expectations of the board or are not performing their duties adequately. Naturally, be prepared to substantiate this based upon the positive communications, clear expectations and understandable directives outlined earlier.
All of these factors contribute significantly to the healthy relationship between the board and management and ultimately, the best interest and outcome for the association.
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