Learning the Ropes A Look at Training New Board Members

Learning the Ropes

Co-op and condo board members are generally volunteers who live in their building and give of their time and expertise to help make sure their home is well-run, and their investment protected. In a perfect world, new board members are architecture graduate students who moonlight as attorneys and work day jobs as CPAs. Indeed, many new board members are architects, engineers, lawyers, accountants, or successful businessmen and –women.

Some board members come to their position with professional experience that makes them at least familiar with how meetings are run, how confidentiality needs to be handled, and so forth, but many don't. Often new board members enter into their positions without knowing the full scope of the responsibilities they’ll be taking on.

Much of the onus of training a new board member, of course, falls squarely on the shoulders of the new board member. He or she is the one who must acquire the knowledge and skill to get the job done effectively. But it’s also incumbent upon the incumbents to help out. What new board members bring to the table, more than any job-specific skill, are enthusiasm and optimism. Veteran board members would do well in harnessing that energy to work for the betterment of the building community.

Let’s take a look at three things new board members and existing board members can do to help with training and orientation:

What New Board Members Can Do

1. Read All About It

If you’ve been elected to a board for the first time, what you need to bring to the position, first and foremost, are your reading glasses. There are literally piles and piles of pages to be pored over.

“First,” says Michael Schenker, longtime co-op president at 666 Broadway, “would be to read minutes of the last 12 board meetings, and the management reports for the last few board meetings.”

Not unlike watching the last season of a show to prepare for the upcoming one, this will, at minimum, get you caught up on the exigent goings-on at the building. Almost everything that has demanded the attention of the board and the managing agent is in those pages.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of paper to sift through.

“They should at least know what the governing documents are,” says Irwin H. Cohen, a property manager with Manhattan-based A. Michael Tyler Realty Corp.

The governing documents include the propriety lease, the house rules, the articles of incorporation, and the bylaws. The bylaws are especially helpful, Cohen notes. “The bylaws contain exact job descriptions of the board and every officer’s responsibilities.”

Want to know what’s expected of you? “ ‘Here’s your job; it’s written down.’ ”

Another thing to brush up on: the matters of law that pertain to cooperative housing in New York, from Local Law 11 to anti-discrimination law. Managing agents are generally good at focusing your attention where it needs to be.

“Most new board members are not well-versed in the legal aspects,” Cohen explains. He gives out literature to help keep things simple. “They’re summaries. You don’t have to sit there in the Library of Congress.”

It sounds simple, and it is: a board member can’t enforce the house rules if they do not know what they are. A board member can’t intelligently discuss Local Law 11 (a New York City law requiring building facade inspections) if they do not know it even exists.

2. Use Your Resources

New board members might feel lonely in the first few days, but fortunately, their particular road has been well-traveled. There are many resources to turn to for help, starting with three organizations whose mission involves aiding co-op and condo boards.

Cohen cites three helpful organizations: the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, or CNYC; the Federation of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums, or FNYHC; and the New York Association of Realty Managers, or NYARM. Although their mission statements have some variation, all three are robust resources, providing literature, seminars, and networking opportunities useful for new board members. Mary Ann Rothman, Gregory Carlson, and Margie Russell, the respective executive directors, are all a wealth of information. The FNYHC, in particular, is expressedly devoted to educating board members.

The publication you now have in your hand is also a great source of information. Back issues of The Cooperator, with articles on every conceivable topic that might cross a new board member’s attention, are available in the archives on the website, free of charge.

3. Don’t Let It Go to Your Head

Being on a board of directors—especially serving as president, in a large co-op—can be a heady experience. It’s as close as most of us can get to running a Fortune 500 company, or an entire nation. But that doesn’t mean board members should comport themselves like flashy CEOs or Third World despots.

“One thing I’ve seen over the years: board members get elected, and the power goes to their head,” says Richard Herzbach, an attorney with Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman in East Meadow, New York. “They think they can run the building without the consent of the other board members or the community. That always creates situations.”

At the end of the day, board members are there to serve the shareholders—their friends and neighbors—not to rule over them with an iron fist. The politics of the job are almost as crucial as the business acumen.

“When you’re involved in a community association, it’s basically a mini-government,” Herzbach says. “You’re an elected official. You should listen, and get a sense of what the community is all about and what it cares about.”

Sometimes, of course, boards do have to rule against the vocal wishes of some shareholders—especially when it comes time to raise maintenance fees or conduct assessments for repair work. The key is to maintain the connection to the community.

“They are not only board members,” Herzbach says, “but residents of the building, and should know what’s going on in the community itself.”

What Incumbent Board Members Can Do

1. Assess Strengths & Weaknesses

New board members come in all proverbial shapes and sizes. Your new secretary might be a partner at one of the snazziest law firms in Manhattan, but unable to devote more than a few hours a month to the cause. Your new vice president might not have the formal skills others bring to the table, but may be a smart, dutiful recent retiree who is willing and able to spend many hours a week on co-op business. You don’t have the latter liaise with the building attorney, or the former spend all afternoon running the decoration committee.

“Try to assess what they can provide to the board,” Schenker says. “Most boards have a good mix of professional people. Finance people, attorneys, accountants. Figure out what their skill set is and how they can help the board.”

This is sound management strategy—putting newcomers in a position to succeed.

2. Think Globally, Act Globally

When President Barack Obama has to make a decision about the war in Afghanistan, he doesn’t take a plane to Kabul, tour the front, and interview soldiers on the ground. He reads reports and he listens to presentations from a variety of key people in the know, and then he makes up his mind.

Ideally, a board should function the same way.

“Boards sometimes think they should do all the work, when they should be operating on what I call a global level. It’s a misconception that it takes a great deal of effort, time, work, and energy,” says Cohen. “If the work is delegated properly and guided by the managing agent so a lot of tasks are done by the managing agent or committees, the board takes on an executive rather than administrative function.”

This might not sound like it has much to do with training the new guy, but it does. A well-run machine alters perceptions, inspires newcomers, and makes serving on a board more rewarding—all virtues.

“When the role of the board member takes the form of ‘Gee, I have to do all the work myself,’ ” Cohen says, “that’s where they become disenchanted.”

3. Establish a Mentorship Role

Who better to take a new board member under their wing than one who has already been soaring for years? Having more hands involved in the management of a community can make the work progress more smoothly, property managers say. Smart boards will delegate responsibilities, and get their fellow residents involved in the process. It helps build consensus among residents, and it helps to bring continuity on the board.

“Any board member who’s been involved for any period of time,” Herzbach says, “should take it upon himself to get involved, and take the new board member on as a mentor.”

Not only does this help ease the transition, it develops a strong working relationship between the board members involved and paves the way for future generations of board members to become the next leaders.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer, novelist, and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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