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
BE DECISIVE, AND "LISTEN
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,"
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
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."