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Conference Highlights

Publication Date: Winter 1998

CNYC held a very successful 17th annual Cooperative Housing Conference on Sunday, November 16, 1997. It featured more than 60 workshops on virtually every aspect of running a cooperative or condominium. Among the sessions were tried and true workshops on mortgage refinancing, treasurers? responsibilities, building maintenance and insurance, to name just a few. There were also several new titles, including a lively discussion led by management consultant Arthur Davis called For Presidents Only. The following is a report on the material presented during this engaging and informative workshop.


THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN:
What does it take to be
an effective board president?

A good board president can be defined as someone who creates an effective organization by getting a group of people to work cohesively together towards common goals. Yet anyone who has served as a board president, or who has watched one in action, knows that reaching one's objectives is never easily done. That, of course, is not to say that it can't be done. While there is no single secret to success, there are various tips, techniques and guiding principles that can help cooperative and condominium board presidents do their jobs well.

ALL LEADERS HAVE A VISION
According to management consultant Arthur Davis, no two board presidents possess the same mix of skills, and none arrive at their destinations by identical routes. "Leaders are always composite characters," says Mr. Davis. "They are all different and have their own ways of leading. Yet they share certain characteristics, and those are wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, authority and courage."

If there is one attribute that all successful board presidents can claim, says Mr. Davis, it is that they have a "vision" – a direction that they believe the corporation or association should take. This sets the tone for everything that the board wants to accomplish. "Having a vision may come from the belief that you can do a better job than the next guy, but that's not necessarily the core of it," says Mr. Davis, noting that a vision doesn't necessarily mean having a specific agenda, either. Instead, it's the ability to keep your eye on the larger task at hand – protecting and managing the legitimate interests of the cooperative or condominium – without allowing your ego or personal interests to stand in the way.

An example of how the president sets the tone of the board can be seen in the admissions process.Boards can either make admissions a grueling and humiliating process for prospective purchasers and sellers, or they can look at applicants as people who may eventually be their neighbors. According to Mr. Davis, co-op boards have all-too-often been described as "arrogant, ineffective, pandering, corrupt, distant, insensitive, biased, indifferent" and "steeped in the insufferability of their own self-importance." He notes, "The theme here comes from the president." On his own board, for instance, Mr. Davis makes sure that all applicants are notified of the admissions decision within 24 hours of the interview. "I've seen one board that has kept an applicant waiting for five weeks without giving them a yes or a no. That's a deplorable practice, and it's always a direction that's laid out by the president."

BE DECISIVE, AND "LISTEN TO LEARN"
Once a president has a vision, he or she can get on with leading a group of directors. The most useful leadership quality is the ability to "make decisions and to accept responsibility for those decisions, even though those decisions may sometimes be flawed," says Mr. Davis. "Don't be premature, but be decisive." This doesn't mean being autocratic, either. In fact, a good president is most often a good listener. A successful leader "shows genuine interest in what others have to say," explains Mr. Davis. "You learn to listen, and you listen to learn." He recommends listening to everyone: board members, shareholders or unit owners, your property manager, building staff, and vendors. "It's your job to find out what's right and what's wrong, and weigh the options," he says.

If the president is able to listen, give praise and foster team spirit, directors will generally be more productive. "In most cases, if people feel you genuinely care about them and what they think, they'll give more of themselves," says Mr. Davis. One way to begin is to get to know all your board members on a professional and even a personal level. "Establish a relationship with each director, and get to know their needs and problems," he says. "Between meetings, have at least one phone conversation with each member of the board. Make sure they know that they can pick up the phone and speak frankly about critical issues." Once they feel you value their opinions, they'll be more apt to support your point of view.

Mr. Davis also recommends setting a friendly, comfortable and accessible tone at board meetings. This could range from ordering in food and eating together, so that people aren't starving through the meeting, to keeping the floor open to comments throughout the meeting. "You have to give people a forum in which they feel they can make a contribution," he says. "If you don't have that forum, you end up with chest-beating by people who feel they aren't being heard."

LEADING THE BOARD VERSUS DOING EVERYTHING YOURSELF
One complaint many board presidents have is that they end up doing all the work. While handling the lion's share of the load is generally part of the president's job, a good leader knows how to find competent helpers and delegate projects to them. "One of the qualities of a leader is to find people who will and can do the work, to motivate them to do the work, and to confront them when they don't do the work," says Mr. Davis. "If people don't do the work, it's the president's job to either inspire them to complete their jobs by stressing how important their roles are to the building where they live, or, if that doesn't work, to replace them with people who will do the job."

Replacing directors is certainly easier said than done. Perhaps the hardest part is finding others who are willing and able to serve. One way to gather competent and willing people is to recruit from among new shareholders and owners. "Put out feelers," says Mr. Davis. "If you see that a new owner is bright and active, ask whether he or she would be interested in contributing time and effort to the building." Another technique for finding good people is to have all interested prospective board members serve on committees, such as a finance or building improvement committee. When a board position becomes available, the board can evaluate how prospects have performed in their committee roles, perhaps by using evaluations provided by committee members. At one large co-op, for example, this "pre-screening process" works to fill board seats with movers and shakers.

"The key is to find people who can get things done and can get along with others," says Mr. Davis. "You want people who will leave their egos at the door."

THE $64 MILLION QUESTION
Finally, there's the $64 million question: what makes a board president want to serve? "It can be a thankless, highly politicized, demanding task where you will be distrusted by others and the focus of rumor, gossip and innuendo," notes Mr. Davis. "You're rarely appreciated for your efforts, the depth of your commitment and the improvements that you and the other members of your board have effected."
So why do so many people do it? There are unusual situations, such as the one where the president of a Mitchell Lama co-op serves to give something back in return for his comfortable, affordable apartment. But more often, it's less romantic than that. "I want to protect my own investment and that of others in my building," says one board president. "And, as it stands right now, no one else is willing to accept that responsibility."

 
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