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A Lesson in Successful Board Relationships

With the consistent performance of an experienced manager, that manager's success or failure with a particular community association often comes down to his/her relationship with the board of directors. The performance part of community association management is a science. However, building a strong, trusting relationship with a board is more of an art.

The first step in working with any board is to recognize who you are working with. Who are the power players, who are the followers, do they work as a team, or are they in chaos and in desperate need of (your) leadership? One way to discover "who's who" is to present the board with new items for their approval and then simply sit back and listen for who speaks first, versus who will just nod their head with each word spoken. Do they all agree with one member every time or is there a rift in their relationship already? This will tell you volumes about how each individual as well as the collective group operate and will give you the opportunities to move forward in successfully working with them in the future.

The various scenarios from this point forward are too numerous to mention for the purpose of this review. However, it is important to mention that there are some people/board members that you will simply never change, no matter how well you perform. And on the other hand, identifying those board members that you can "reach" and provide the necessary leadership to will give you the first step in establishing a successful working relationship with the entire board of directors.

In 2002, I was presented with a community that had just been terminated from their previous management company for various reasons. Yes, the previous management company terminated the contract. Looking back now, I can easily say the main reason for this change was due to the board's inability to work together and their mistrust of everyone they worked with.

The board of directors thought the former management company was stealing from them. At the same time, the association was in the final stages of a lawsuit with the community's builder. They mistrusted the former management company so much, which I felt was quite unjustified, that when I took over I was not allowed to pay contractors as had been contractually agreed. The board required me to personally deliver all checks to each board meeting for review and final approval. The directors even required that they sign each check, which was simply unnecessary since they were not proper signatories on the account. Nevertheless, they felt that this was their duty to ensure that funds were appropriately accounted for. Since I was advised to "pick my battles", I recognized this issue as a minor inconvenience and I complied with all of their requests, as ridiculous as they seemed at the time.

This particular board was comprised of an attorney, an engineer, a "Crazy Lady", and two followers. Unfortunately for me, the attorney and the engineer followed the advice of the "Crazy Lady", no matter how bad her advice was. The engineer was the President and after just a few meetings it was clear that I was not going to get anywhere with him. However, the attorney was very intelligent and did understand my role as manager - - but continued to follow "Crazy Lady's" advice for some time to come. I recognized the attorney as someone I could reach out to with sound management advice on matters and I would make sure that when I spoke to the board, I gave her direct eye contact and spoke mostly to her. The difficulty was that the attorney looked upon "Crazy Lady" as a motherly type and trusted her business advice. This was a problem that I did not dare to try and pry apart - - at least, not yet.

After a few months of four-hour, unproductive meetings, I started bringing in a team of managers with me. I brought in a seasoned manager and an assistant manager. Their role was not to help me run the meeting, but rather to give me additional eyes and ears on what was going on. We would discuss the meetings and confirm that I/we were doing what should be done for the board/community and how best to address the various situations that were presented. Their support was invaluable to the eventual success of my management of this community.

As much as the engineer and the "Crazy Lady" grew to dislike me, I did not engage in their petty attacks. This was their mess; I was there to conduct business, and it was important that the other members recognized this.

After the first annual meeting, I encouraged the attorney to seek the presidency as the lawsuit was still ongoing and her advice and leadership in that matter would be invaluable. The two followers agreed. There were no new members added to the board at that annual meeting.

Over time, the engineer and the attorney began butting heads on various matters. I made sure that any advice I gave to the board, regardless of their dissention on the subject, was in the best interest of the community. The engineer was more interested in being right on every issue, while the attorney recognized when she was wrong and appreciated my efforts for the betterment of the community. The two "followers" would tend to agree with the attorney, so if I got the attorney to agree on a particular subject, I would then have majority vote to move the ahead. This was my goal for each meeting. To support this effort, I would contact the attorney prior to each meeting to discuss each matter and brief her appropriately. This ultimately strengthened my relationship with the attorney, which would prove to be very useful for the future development of the board.

With the attorney as President, it became increasing frustrating for the engineer and he ultimately resigned from the board. My previous attention to the members' traits and characteristics had just paid off. As much as we tried, we could not get anyone else to fill this vacated seat. His absence, however, provided the board with a much better working environment. Teamwork increased and each board member began looking ahead for future successes, rather than remaining focused on the past.

I continued to struggle with monetary trust issues with the board. They continued to require me to bring checks in for them to sign, and questioned each and every one of them. Fortunately, I had the appropriate answers to their questions and, other than my own administrative difficulties, it never became a real issue.

Later that year, the "Crazy Lady" moved. Again, we had no success in filling this vacated seat and ran with a three member board until the following annual meeting.

However, with her gone, the motherly role she played with the attorney was now a non-factor and I was in a position to strengthen my relationship with the attorney (President). After some very frank private discussions with the attorney about how the board conducted its business, which later lead to discussions with the remaining members of the board, we moved past the check signing mandate and improved the board's trust in the advice and leadership I had been providing to them for the past year and a half.

In the end, and after a few annual meetings and board member transitions, I now have a board that looks to me for direction and leadership. Today, they rarely question my recommendations and when they do, I make sure that they understand that their question is a good one, one that I've already considered, and I provide the reasoning behind my ultimate recommendation. I've been able to bring in contractors whom I trust to do a quality job and am not forced to jump through needless multiple proposal processes that the previous board members required.

Recognizing who each board member was and how they influenced the other members was crucial for my success. Aligning myself with some, while not butting heads with others, was the key. This was important to do while at the same time I made sure that I did my job to the best of my abilities. Additionally, having the patience to wait for opportunities to create change, rather than trying to force my own opinion on others, was essential in this situation.

My success with this board has only come over time and through numerous failures with other boards and communities. Learning from past board relations is an invaluable lesson that every manager must go through to turn a disastrous board into one that works for the betterment of the community.

The "Crazy Lady"? Ironically, she moved into one of my other communities. Fortunately for me, I had already established my leadership role in this community and had advised the board of her presence and history with me. I knew that her character would come out and be known to all in time. She is now on that board too, however, I'm not the only one any longer that thinks of her as the "Crazy Lady" - - as the other members have also seen her ways. With the support of the other members, I am left without having to engage her yet again.

Lance Govang, CMCA®, AMS®, PCAM®, GRI®, Association Times, January 2006


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