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Publication Date: Winter 1996

The following article appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of CNYC's quarterly Newsletter. You must be a member of CNYC to receive the complete Newsletter, which features timely articles on issues of importance to cooperative shareholders and condominium unit owners. Click here to reach the CNYC Membership Registration Form.

Because it is impossible for anyone to attend all of the workshops and presentations at the annual Cooperative Housing Conference, CNYC offers detailed accounts of certain workshops in each issue of the Newsletter. The following is a report on a discussion session presented at the 15th annual Cooperative Housing Conference on the topic of Wielding Presidential Power.



WIELDING PRESIDENTIAL POWER

Cooperative and condominium board presidents are responsible for maintaining order and making the board come together as a productive unit. Some do so by governing with what many may perceive as an iron hand. Others use a milder, more permissive approach. Depending on their abilities, and the personalities they are dealing with on the board and in the building, either style of leadership may prove effective. To help board presidents identify and utilize their unique leadership styles, CNYC's 15th annual Cooperative Housing Conference included a new interactive discussion entitled "Wielding Presidential Power". Participants were led through discussions of many of the topics that haunt cooperative or condominium board presidents - from delegating responsibility to preventing dissension to enforcing decisions.

More than 30 board members - many of whom were presidents - attended this morning session, bringing with them an array of problems. For example, the board president of a 165-unit co-op that is installing new hallway carpeting and wallpaper wanted advice on dealing with dissent over design choices. The president of a self-managed co-op needed help motivating residents to get involved in building projects. And a board member at a 63-unit building wanted to know how to cope with a "president from hell" who intimidated other board members and brought in cronies as contractors.

Perhaps the most important point made by discussion facilitators Elizabeth Whitcomb Brown and Richard Robbins, was that no single leadership style works for every building. Indeed, their own styles couldn't be more different. Ms. Whitcomb Brown, for instance, keeps a tight reign on the goings-on at her East Side cooperative. "We have board meetings once a month at 8 AM, and those who cannot make it are dropped," she said. "We meet for an hour to an hour and a half; not longer, because people have places to go." Matters are presented and discussed "for no more than 10 minutes, then if they are not resolved, they are referred to a committee," she noted, adding that she spends about 20 hours a week on her presidential duties.

In contrast, Mr. Robbins' board meets at 8 PM and sometimes stays until 11:30 PM. The seven members come together only eight or nine times a year, and sometimes only four members show up. When the 306-unit West Side condo wanted to redo the hallways, the board opened the question to the entire building for a vote - a prospect that drew gasps from most of the board leaders at the workshop. "We have a tradition of involvement," he said. "It's messy but it's also effective for our building."

The facilitators stressed that their examples are extremes, but they clearly represent the two basic presidential styles: the "controller" and the "diffuser." The controller leaves no doubt as to who is running the show, where the diffuser spreads the work and the responsibility.

The two styles would take different approaches to similar situations. Decision-making is one example. "A good president wants consensus," said Mr. Robbins. "If decisions have to be made between meetings, I would touch base with other members to get their input before making any unilateral decisions. This protects you as president and keeps the board involved so you're not a dictator. You want to be a consensus president."

Ms. Whitcomb Brown said she might take another tack, that of a "benevolent dictator." However, she agreed with a participant who noted that making decisions in a vacuum can be harmful. "Some presidents prefer not to even sign documents without checking with the rest of the board, because there could be something slipped in there that wasn't ratified," she said. Both speakers stated that board presidents cannot be afraid to make decisions, particularly in emergencies. "You have the authority [under the bylaws] and the responsibility to act," said Mr. Robbins.

Getting the board to make decisions is another story. Ms. Whitcomb Brown noted that she has had success setting up committees, rather than trying to hash out issues at board meetings. She also requires that "all ideas must be well thought out before they will be considered. How will the project be funded? Who will be brought in as an architect or engineer? This is so that people will think before they speak. It is easy for a shareholder to pull you aside in the lobby and say, `Hey, why don't we air condition the hallways?' It's a great idea until you find out it will take half a million dollars to fund." Robbins' building also uses committees, but the procedures are not as formal. "Things can take months or years to resolve," he said. "We have 15 people on the hallways committee, and they've been going back and forth for a while. But we don't necessarily worry about it, because people are involved and they'll eventually reach a decision. No one will be able to say they didn't have a voice."

According to the speakers, many buildings run into trouble when they try to switch from one leadership style to another. "You need to see what's working and what's not working before you effect a change," said Mr. Robbins. "If you change from a dictator type of president to another type, you could lose something, like the organizational ability."

Indeed, Ms. Whitcomb Brown - the benevolent dictator - does have a well-run building. Before annual meetings, she ensures a quorum by getting at least 25 percent of shareholders to hand in their proxies. "I send out notices of the meeting with the proxies enclosed, and I make sure the proxies are a different color than the notice, so they stand out," she said. For the actual meeting, she makes sure to "prepare, prepare, prepare" by writing out the president's report and creating (and sticking to) an agenda. She said she gets between 20 and 25 percent of the shareholders to attend annual meetings. If her building were to switch to Mr. Robbins' management style, it might not fare as well. Similarly, such hard-nosed organization probably wouldn't fly at Mr. Robbins' building, where board members and unit owners alike enjoy open discussion and often stray from the agenda. "The key is to find the style that helps your building run its best, but also makes most people happy," Mr. Robbins concluded. "When you find it, you'll certainly know it."

 
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