You've heard all the complaints many times before. They drag on too long. Nothing ever gets accomplished. Everybody ends up fighting. There's nothing to eat.
Yes, even the most die-hard board member can dread the regular board meeting. After all, after a hard day at the office, spending two more hours cooped up, debating arcane details about pesky building issues with your fellow board member is not exactly a recipe for relaxation. Law & Order, a warm dinner, and quality time with the family is always preferable to budget discussions and status reports on the search for a new insurance policy.
But board meetings are necessary. They keep everyone up-to-date on what's going on, and set responsibilities and tasks for people to follow up on. But that's only if your board manages to keep meetings organized, focused, and running smoothly.
If being a board member is about teamwork, than the board meeting is show time, the moment all that teamwork comes together. If people haven't done their jobs and put in the necessary work and preparation, then everybody's productivity suffers. Preparation and follow-up are crucial to making sure your meetings go smoothly.
Boards who work with property managers typically have their meetings structured and organized by the property manager, complete with a ready-to-discuss agenda. So it's absolutely essential that self-managed boards be self-organized when it comes to meetings. That means setting a time limit, setting an agenda (and sticking to it), and making sure that minutes are properly prepared and distributed after the meeting.
Setting and sticking to an agenda is the most important rule of thumb to follow when trying to keep meetings on target. "We typically go into [the board meetings] with an agenda, we address everything on the agenda, and then we open them up to anything that wasn't on the agenda," says Patrick O'Keefe, board president at his 40-unit self-managed co-op in Inwood. Keeping meetings running smoothly is a priority for O'Keefe and his board. Since switching to self-management in January, he says his board has been meeting every two weeks, tackling a long list of complicated, ongoing projects, including roof replacement and sidewalk work.
O'Keefe's board communicates constantly via e-mail and uses it to set up the agenda items before the meeting takes place. "We do it like a round robin," he says. "We all have input into the agenda."
When setting agenda items, Steve Nardoni, the presidentl of Nardoni Realty, a Manhattan property management firm, suggests looking back at the minutes from the prior board meeting. Use those minutes as a jumping-off point to figure out which items require follow-up. And don't forget to include all the procedural agenda items that must be included at each meeting, like approving the minutes from the prior meeting. But don't try to tackle a long list of daunting topics. Better to schedule another meeting than risk having one drag on.
"Don't bite off more than you can chew at one meeting," Nardoni says. "Sometimes agendas are just way too long." Let's face it: any meeting that goes past an hour-and-a-half pushes the boundaries of the human attention span. Set a time limit for the meeting before things get started. Everyone will know the clock is running and that should pressure people to deal with agenda items quickly and decisively. Two hours should be the absolute maximum amount of time spent in a boardroom if you hope to get anything worthwhile accomplished.
With a solid agenda in place, make sure someone is entrusted with the role of facilitator, the person who keeps the discussion focused, and can guide it back on course if it begins to ramble. This person needs to be firm but accommodating, especially in a small co-op where everybody has a personal stake in the buildings' affairs. When everybody's on the board, everybody wants to be heard, which can sometimes lead to repetitious discussions.
"I think its very important for the facilitator, whether it's the board president or the secretary or whoever, to move the meeting along," says Deborah Sue Lorenzen, who just wrapped up a five-year term as board president of her eight-unit Park Slope co-op. "You want to be sensitive to everybody's interests and you want to be sure that everyone has [a] voice in the decision-making."
One way to keep things focused is to set up some social time before and after the meeting. Invite everyone to come 15 minutes before the scheduled starting time, offer coffee and some snacks, and let everybody ease into the business at hand. That way, there's a clear delineation between board business and neighborly chitchat and the two don't get tangled up. It is a natural impulse for people to want to catch up with each other, and the board meeting might be the only time when some residents have the occasion to do so. "It's always hard to find a balance between what's a meaningful discussion and when it takes a turn to a waste of time," Lorenzen says. "Especially if you live in a building with some chatty people."
What happens after the meeting ends is almost as important as the meeting itself: preparing the minutes. Minutes are a board's corporate, public record, and must accurately reflect what was discussed and what was decided on during the board meeting. Keeping proper minutes ensure that the business of each meeting is properly handled, and that the next meeting will run smoothly.
Taking good minutes is an art in and of itself (see "On the Record," Habitat, March 2003). By law, the secretary is responsible for the minutes, but the job can be delegated to someone else. One option for a self-managed board is to hire someone. Adkinson-Thorne Enterprises (http://www.atellc.com/) will prepare minutes for board and annual meetings. "In self-managed buildings, the board members generally take turns and it just doesn't work out," says Ann Miller, the firm's president. "You think you have some time to do [the minutes] and before you know it, it's the next meeting."
Adkinson-Thorne offers a few options. It can work under an annual or a prepaid contract or on a per-meeting basis. For budget-strapped boards, however, it is a luxury item: a year's worth of minutes for monthly meetings will cost your board around $4,000.
Minutes can be more than just a record. Combining them with an action list for each board member will help speed progress after a meeting is adjourned. "Our secretary is amazing and gets out minutes very quickly with 'to-dos' for everybody so that there's good follow up for the meeting," says O'Keefe. "That makes a huge amount of difference."
He says that strategy helps remind everyone of what was discussed during the meeting, and what everyone had agreed to do for follow-up. Again, O'Keefe's board uses e-mail to distribute the minutes to the meetings. Make sure that everybody gets a copy so that they're fully aware of what they need to do before the next meeting.
Every building is a different type of community and board meetings reflect those different flavors. Boards with a lot of corporate types and professionals will be more inclined towards corporate-type sessions, while others may take a more social approach. Each style has its own advantages and disadvantages, and it's up to your board to decide what works best. But, at the very least, organization and focus will help keep things manageable, and that's bound to make everybody happy.