The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love Roles and Responsibilities of a Board President

The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

If you live in a co-op, you have one. It may be a woman, or a man; someone just starting their career, enjoying the fruits of retirement, or somewhere in between. They don't get paid, they put in many hours on your behalf, and chances are that nothing on their resume prepared them for this job. Sometimes, he or she even forgets why they wanted the job in the first place. This is your Board president. Part office manager, maintenance engineer, financier, diplomat, and motivational speaker, this individual has taken on the often-thankless job of making sure your building runs smoothly. Why do they do it? And how do they do it well? The answers are as different as the individuals doing the job.

In the Public Eye

The board president has a multi-faceted job, says Jim Quinn, who directs the co-op board of the North Shore Towers, a massive 1,844-unit building complex in Queens, which was built in 1972.

Quinn, a financial consultant, who has been in charge seven months, said his job is very rewarding but time-consuming as well. The president - part-manager, part-arbiter and part-spokesman - must set direction for the board at meetings and be the public face that the board presents to the community at large, Quinn explains.

"No. 1, he or she sets goals for the board and the community. No. 2, he or she prioritizes those goals. No. 3, we construct the monthly agenda. We set up committees and assign committee chairs. We are responsible for maintaining focus in the board meetings. We are responsible for initiating public meetings, and we act as board spokespersons and communicators with the community," says Quinn.

The issues may differ occasionally, but running a large building and a small building is essentially the same thing, believes Quinn. Everyone faces the same problems and pitfalls, he says. "I think you might do all these things a little less formally but you do them. I don't think it changes if you're 50 units or 500. I think everyone of these things are something that should be done whether you have large, small or in-between. There might not be many committees, there might only be one committee," Quinn says, but the responsibility must be delegated and the business of the co-op conducted in a proper manner.

East Side Story

Phyllis Bennu was a first time co-op owner when she purchased the one bedroom apartment she lives in on East 56th Street in October of 2000. The five-story walk-up is a landmark building, with many long-time tenants beginning to rub elbows with newer and younger owners. Bennu was looking forward to gardening on her apartment's prized back deck, and enjoying visits from her grandchildren. But when the board president sold his apartment a year and a half later, Bennu found herself called to serve at the request of the other tenants.

"My energy is apparent," says Bennu, "and my desire for change. I was willing to undertake what it took to make those changes."

On Board in Brooklyn

Meg Darnell takes time out of her busy massage practice to be board president of a 10-unit co-op in Brooklyn, where she has lived for twelve years. She says, "I was the treasurer, and somehow it evolved into me running things." Darnell loses track, but it "is seven or eight years that I've been board president. I care about my building, and no one else wanted it."

Darnell expresses a common sentiment among board presidents - no one else would do it. Let's face it; most kids don't say "I want to be co-op board president when I grow up." There is no financial compensation, and the hours a president needs to spend can vary from an hour a week to several days, should a crisis arise. Many presidents cite other shareholders, who drafted - or begged - them, as the reason they took on the job.

A board president's responsibilities depend on whether the building has a managing agent, and how involved other board members are. Because her building is self-managed, Darnell has many responsibilities including ensuring the cleanliness of the building, and making sure the corporation adheres to city laws and codes. In addition, Darnell's board has no treasurer, so she collects money and handles all the building finances.

Although Bennu also lives in a building that is self-managed, and has no superintendent, she considers herself fortunate to have a CPA as the board treasurer. Another board member acts as house manager "and the rest of us help," adds Bennu.

Rule by Committee in Chelsea

John Czajkowski is the board president at a 130-unit building in Chelsea on Manhattan's west side. He has a close working relationship with the building's managing agent. "I speak to him at least once a day," says Czajkowski. "I get an update on daily operations. Mostly, I handle shareholder liaison stuff, and spread other work out to committees." Czajkowski is typical; most presidents talk to their managing agents several times a week. By contrast, other members of the board generally just speak to the agent at meetings.

To illustrate the difference between self-managed buildings and ones with a property manager, when Darnell or Bennu want to take on a project, they are responsible for everything - from soliciting contractor bids, to presenting the project proposal to the board, to finding the funds to pay for it. On the other hand, Czajkowski calls his building's managing agent, monitors the process, and then ensures that the board decides the issue in a timely fashion. The managing agent handles the bidding, and oversees the contractor once the project begins.

Managing the Moment

According to Larry Vitelli, a property manager with Manhattan's Insignia Residential Group Management Company, the best presidents understand the difference between their own role and that of the managing agent. "The board president shouldn't run the building day-to-day," advises Vitelli. "When a president gets too involved in managing staff and contractors, it can cause conflicts." The board is in the business of setting policy and the managing agent implements it. To the shareholders, the president is the face of the business corporation. He is the one who screens their concerns and either passes them onto the agent, or brings the issue to the board.

The level of responsibility placed at a building president's feet can be taxing, regardless of whether there's a managing agent in the picture or not. "In a typical week I'd hear that the heat was too high or two low," says one former board president, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Maybe there was a leak from one apartment to the next, or a problem with the staff. The problem is that you give up your private life. My neighbors would give me an issue every time they saw me." In the end, this gentleman says, "I would listen at my door before I went out to see if the coast was clear."

"The president needs to get along with shareholders to work from a PR standpoint," says Vitelli. "They have to serve everyone and get consensus about the direction the co-op is going in."

In some buildings, serving everyone is a huge challenge. Bennu finds there is difference in attitude between owners who have lived in the building since its conversion versus newer tenants who purchased at market prices. "In older buildings with long-term tenants, people get used to things," Bennu notes. "The newer people are very interested in [upgrading] the building."

The ex-president recalls "a lot of bitterness in the building," and says he found the building split over how to handle the finances. One camp wanted to raise maintenance and spend it on capital improvements, while the other side thought the projects were unnecessary. "Unfortunately, my friends were all low-vote shareholders," that owned small apartments, he recalled. "My board got picked on for a lot of things."

Helming the Ship

One quality that many presidents share is a desire to actively shape their home environment. The best board presidents do the job because they care about their building. "I loved being president," says the ex-president, "but due to an unfortunate turn of events, there was a coup, and I didn't want to fight it."

"There are days when I say I wouldn't take this job for money," jokes Bennu. "The details, the outside sources that don't return phone calls, taking people to the basement, more phone calls, and listening to technical details that you don't really understand. But afterward, the gratification comes, because you've gotten something accomplished."

Quinn agrees and said a sense of accomplishment is its own reward. "Some of the satisfactions are the achievement of goals, for example, balancing a budget, a mortgage refinancing, or finally, [adopting] a bylaw amendment. Secondly, very gratifying to me is setting a positive tone in the community."

A Little TLC Goes a Long Way

Despite his love for the job, Quinn laments the thankless part of the endeavor. Serving is strictly volunteer and the co-op's bylaws prohibit any compensation for board members. "Some of the disappointments would be, one, a general lack of appreciation for the role that board members play. An example would be that many people think that the board is a complaint department. They direct complaints to us instead of to the management or the superintendent or the people that work in the complex."

Often, too, Quinn says, there is little or no acknowledgement of the role and the time and energy that is put into serving on a board. He also feels that board members are sometimes personally attacked when disagreements occur, and that is unfortunate. Another problem, he admits, is that certain residents or board members may have "hidden agendas" that hinder the efficient working of the corporation.

Organization is the Key

So how do these folks get so much accomplished, in between their busy lives filled with jobs and families? The simple answer is organization. Every president we spoke to said this was the key to being an effective administrator. A president is responsible for preparing the agenda at meetings and keeping track of all the issues that may be pending. "It is helpful for the president to be able to analyze data, review it and make decisions quickly," says Vitelli. While large decisions must go to the shareholders at large, many smaller issues can be resolved through the board alone.

Delegation is also key. "Leadership is one of the most important qualities for a board president," Vitelli continues, "They need the ability to work with a diverse group of board members and get them to be as productive as possible." Other suggestions for a successful tenure include surrounding yourself with a great team, ensuring good communication between both board members and shareholders, and being willing to let go of your personal agenda. A president who makes unilateral decisions is not going to be well liked, or as effective.

The former board president says, "You have to assemble a great team. Sometimes you are lucky and you find people's strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to be hands-on while also letting others take on whatever they are good at."

Darnell says that running her own business has been very helpful in knowing how to fulfill her presidential duties. "You run the whole show," says Darnell. "And although sometimes it gets frustrating, I know the building is in better shape because of me, and I take pride in that." Bennu has worked as a landscaper and decorator, but credits her many years running a busy household as good preparation for running the building. And Czajkowski appreciates his background as a contractor, particularly when it comes to understanding operations and capital improvements.

As outside resources that help a president, "I find The Cooperator, Habitat Magazine, and their conferences and trade shows very helpful," says Czajkowski. "They reinforce what I'm doing right and help me improve areas where I might have deficiencies."

Bennu also uses the archives of The Cooperator, and the Internet. "The superintendent next door is very resourceful and willing to help," she adds. The Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums (CNYC), as an example, holds a housing workshop where board presidents can learn about topics ranging from boilers to budgets. And The Cooperator will conduct its 16th Annual Expo March 6 where attendees can take advantage of financial and legal advice and educational seminars on topics ranging from security to building improvements.

Many presidents say that despite the extra responsibility and occasional headaches, they truly enjoy the connection to their neighbors that comes from serving on the board. They've made friends with their fellow board members, and forged a greater connection to the other tenants.

Wanted: Organized, tenacious, and diplomatic individual with leadership qualities, the ability to delegate, a keen sense of aesthetics, and appreciation for budgeting and the bottom line. No pay, occasional criticism and ingratitude, but ability to contribute to your quality of life and home offered as compensation. Interested parties may apply at your co-op's next general election. (And if this isn't you, why not find your current board president and tell them thank you?)

Rebekah Darcy Mulhare is a freelancer who lives in Westchester.

Related Articles

Yellow recycling garbage can or dumpster isolated full with plastic rubbish, wheelie trash bin flat vector illustration, waste management.

Improving Recycling Compliance

Better Communication = Better Participation

A graduated stack of wooden blocks showing different safety-related icons with a red block reading SAFETY at the top

Safety Inspections

Maintaining Safety & Security at Your Condo, Co-op, or HOA

Group Of Multi Ethnic Business Team Sitting Together At Workplace In Modern Office

Running Effective, Efficient Meetings

Some Basic Best Practices