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During my two decades as a co-op and condo attorney, I have worked with boards that range from efficient and effective to screamingly dysfunctional. The most successful boards—teams of volunteers that do the best job running their buildings and have the sole purpose of making their property and community the best it can be—have at least five distinct behaviors in common:
1. They maintain good intra-board relationships
Some of the nastiest problems I’ve encountered result from squabbles and infighting among board members. In most instances, board members have the best interests of their building in mind—they just can’t agree on what’s best.
Members of the most successful boards realize that from time to time they will not see eye to eye and understand that it’s alright to “agree to agree disagree," but will focus on working toward common ground.
They also keep disagreements professional, respectful, and inside the walls of the boardroom. They don’t air disputes publicly or wage polarizing email battles.
2. They share responsibility equitably
Some boards become dysfunctional when one member assumes or is saddled with a disproportionate amount of work. This may happen because they have more time to devote, or because other board members are not actively engaged, or because the person who assumes responsibility has “control issues."
A lopsided division of responsibility leads to burnout and potential resentment. It a also creates a lack of institutional knowledge among the remaining board members if the workhorse steps down or moves out of the building. That’s why successful boards create a “culture” where responsibilities are divided equitably.
3. They let management manage
It may seem counterintuitive, but boards that become overly involved in the minutiae of building management—doing things that should be within the province of the managing agent, such as managing the staff and their schedules and communicating directly with vendors and potential vendors—tend to hurt the building they are trying to help.
For example, if a member of the building’s staff is receiving one set of instructions from the managing agent (as it should) and another set of instructions from a board member—or even worse—multiple board members, that creates confusion and affects productivity. Also, board members are in most instances not professional managers and, as such, do not have the expertise or background to perform functions of a managing agent.
4. They avoid conflicts of interest
Actual conflicts of interest or even the appearance of conflict can sabotage a board’s effectiveness by creating distrust fellow board members and among unit owners. Three types of conflicts or potential conflicts appear over and over again.
- Board members who are renovating should not only recuse themselves from the approval process, but refrain from asking for exceptions from policies such as the payment of fees or the posting of security deposits, the installation of washers/dryers in buildings where they are otherwise prohibited and the creation of “wet over dry” space.
- Real estate agents who sit on the board and are involved in a sales transaction should recuse themselves from the application process.
- And, needless to say, board members should not be getting special treatment from staff: If there’s a policy that the doorman doesn’t unload trunks in front of the building, the board president shouldn’t be getting his trunk unloaded by the doorman upon his return from the Hamptons on Sunday night.
5. They keep unit owners informed
By far the biggest complaint I see at annual meetings—justified or not—is that unit owners are “kept in the dark” about what is happening in the building. Successful boards hold at least a couple of informational meetings during the course of a year to update residents about what’s going on. If something extraordinary occurs during the year such as an emergency repair or major change in staff or management, that also needs to be communicated, even if it’s just through an email blast.
Robert Braverman, Esq., is the managing partner of Braverman & Associates, specializing in the representation of New York City co-op and condominium boards. Read more of his legal advice in The Board Room.