Alan Saly, a freelance writer, reported on J-51 in the March Habitat. Tom Soter is the magazine’s editorial director.
Sophine Charles saw trouble brewing. It was 2002 and her building, the 155-unit Maple Plaza co-op in Harlem, was relatively new yet seemed to have new problems cropping up every day. Mostly construction-related, they were infuriating because this was supposed to be a luxury cooperative, one of six brand new buildings constructed between East 116th and 124th Streets that were billed as part of the “Harlem Renaissance.” It was more like a growing nightmare, however: major roof, waterproofing, structural, and plumbing deficiencies were cropping up regularly and the shareholders were growing more upset every day.
“There were many complaints,” recalls Charles, currently the president, and, at the time, a director. “We had one meeting where shareholders were enraged and expressed their concerns at not seeing the results they wanted. They felt management and the board were not responding to their complaints.”
Repairs needed to be started and decisions had to be reached, but the board was not well run. One person took on the bulk of the work, often making decisions without consulting the other directors who had essentially ceded their power to him. Matters got bottlenecked, say some observers, because this one person was micromanaging everything, thus making it difficult for management and the full board to do their jobs.
What a difference a year – and a dramatic new approach – can make: at this year’s annual shareholders’ meeting, only about half the seats were filled, and after the board’s presentation there weren’t any questions. The five percent maintenance hike the board wanted sailed through. Those who did attend may have done so mainly for the door prizes: MetroCards and building laundry cards, pre-loaded with modest amounts of cash.
“We didn’t get one complaint,” says the board secretary, Patricia Taffe. “It was the most incredible thing.” Even though shareholders knew that an increase would be on the agenda, no opposition had emerged.
“The fundamental reason for the success in Maple Plaza is a board that is committed to working with the shareholders to meet their needs,” notes Janice McLaurin, the property manager at Webb & Brooker, the co-op’s management firm. “Everything else is secondary.” Indeed, how this board turned around a deteriorating situation is a remarkable story of accountability, discipline, and determination that offers lessons for everyone.
The story starts six years ago when Maple Plaza, an eight-story hi-rise, was opened as part of the revitalization efforts in Harlem. It was one of six residential developments that had been constructed between East 116th and 124th Streets in the last decade. The co-op is a federally subsidized project sponsored by North General Hospital and built by Sparrow Construction.
Initially, the main challenge was attracting families to what had been a slightly rundown neighborhood. “Some of our shareholders, who moved here from other boroughs, had misgivings about moving to Harlem,” says Danny Bell, a current board director.
Then, the roof and window leaks began, which infuriated the board members because the Department of Housing, Preservation & Development (HPD) had signed off on the contractor’s work. Now, HPD’s own inspectors were telling the board that the work was subpar. It was so bad, in fact, that three years after construction, the roof needed to be replaced. The co-op was forced to borrow $400,000 to do that and other repair work.
On top of that, Maple Plaza – like many new co-ops – had communication and rules enforcement problems. The board, dominated by one individual, couldn’t get its act together to give and get information from the owners. As a result, problems like subletting began to increase.
Something had to be done. That’s when Sophine Charles entered the picture. A director since the co-op’s inception, she became president in 2004 and brought a different approach to the way the co-op should run. Her watchwords were accountability and discipline and her playbook was Strategic Learning Systems (SLS).
“Strategic Learning Systems is a training method used to train leaders, educators, students, and business owners on methods of organizing and running everything from a business to a classroom to dealing with clients,” explains Charles, who is the founder of the Our Kids Learning Center, a Harlem-based organization that offers parenting classes. “It outlines a protocol for personal interactions [and shows] how to be professional and not to personalize issues. It teaches you how to be affirmative and how to effectively intervene when practices or communication patterns are inappropriate or interfere with progress.”
Charles had personal experience with SLS and knew something about dealing with people, too. She is a certified Strategic Learning Systems trainer and educational consultant who holds degrees in community health education and in counseling and human relations.
The key ideas that Charles introduced to the board and management were what she calls the “corporate principles” of involvement and accountability, reinforced regularly by Charles’s disciplined approach to running the board.
The first step was to get every director more involved and interested in what was going on. To do that, Charles scheduled four meetings a month, once with the manager and the other times on their own, for about 90 minutes each session. It is a remarkable arrangement, since most co-ops meet, at best, once a month, but Charles wanted the directors to see this as a serious commitment. Those who couldn’t take that level of involvement soon left the board.
Charles says the meetings are also meant to keep the directors interested and involved. “This is just to keep the momentum going, and we want to be sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
One of the basic SLS techniques that Charles used to motivate the board was a rigorous evaluation approach of the board members by the board members. Each director presents an oral self-evaluation at a board meeting, during which he or she is asked to evaluate his or her performance and participation on the board. Members are required to discuss their performance in terms of completing assigned tasks, attendance at meetings, and the ability to maintain positive work relationships with other members. Directors are permitted to make comments about the self-evaluation of others. Comments are usually made when someone underrates or overrates himself or herself.
“We use the group as way of providing better feedback about the level of participation,” explains Charles. “For instance, if a board member is not following through on a task, the group will provide feedback. First, we point out if they are not completing the task in a timely fashion, and then we professionally communicate the importance of that task and then provide assistance if they need help in finishing that task.”
Sometimes such evaluations have led board directors to step down, because they realize they don’t have the level of commitment needed for the job. “We’ve got some really good people and we’ve got some people who are struggling on the board,” admits Charles. “We sort of pull them along or encourage them in an affirmative way. We’ve had people eliminate themselves on the basis of feedback they got from members of the board that was accurate but not very favorable to them.”
In addition, each board member is required to provide a group evaluation of the overall board performance by giving it a letter grade (A through F). Board members are asked to provide a reason for their grade and provide examples to support it. These grades are made public to the shareholders. The most recent group evaluation was held on March 23, 2005. The grade: B+.
This level of accountability is unheard of in most buildings, but Charles pushed it hard as a way to professionalize operations and take individual personalities out of the dynamic. “In past years, we observed that board membership had become a ‘spectator sport,’ in which some members were not active participants,” she says. “The inactive board members attended meetings for the purpose of getting information but were not pulling their weight or doing the work. Self-evaluations were implemented as a means of eliminating the ‘spectator.’”
The board also began using self-evaluations to set the agenda for the coming year by comparing where they are with where they hoped to be. “At the beginning of each year, we have a session where we ask members what they see as priorities and what direction we should be going in,” Charles says. “At election time, mid-year, we do a comparison and look at those items identified at the beginning of the year and evaluate what we need to do by looking at what we said we were going to do.”
The evaluations – more typically in this case – also extended to the management company, which was now to be regularly graded by the board on what it did. “We tell them what to do, how we want it done, and see that they get the resources they need to do it,” says Charles. “In previous years, our management company didn’t follow up on all outstanding items. Now, we keep a list of all ‘to do’ items, and, at least once a week, management gets a communication from me about what has and what has not been done. And I receive a timeline for the completion of all projects.”
The performance of the property manager is graded by the board in report card fashion, via a checklist, every six months. The indicators are averaged together to arrive at an overall grade. Areas on the checklist include “Attention to Detail,” “Follow-up,” “Consistency,” “Attitude Toward Doing the Job,” and “Timeliness in Getting the Job Done.” (In recent ratings, Webb & Brooker received high marks for maintenance follow-up and overall performance.)
Charles explains that the board aims to determine how well management is doing in taking the initiative and solving problems before they start. The Maple Plaza board also uses the checklist to evaluate just how well Webb & Brooker handles its relationships with outside professionals, including attorneys and accountants. Report cards are forwarded to the management company, with overall ratings averages. They are also published in the board’s bi-monthly newsletter.
“It was sort of surprising at first,” says McLaurin about the evaluation system, “but I believe that it helps you to be on your toes. I do believe it’s an effective system of checks and balances.”
We Not Me
After being burned early on by the director who refused to delegate, Charles wanted to be sure that everyone had his or her fair share of work. Delegation was the key to getting better answers more efficiently.
For example, a board member, Joseph Dean, was designated the board’s property liaison, to directly interact with Webb & Brooker. He also regularly attends co-op and condo fairs and expos to report back about the latest trends in building management. In addition, he is concerned with health and safety issues at the property. A nurse manager of infectious disease control at Beth Israel Hospital, he is a member of the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene’s Medical Reserve Corps. Currently, he is keeping an eye on the possibility that rodents could migrate to the building from a nearby construction site.
Another board member, Danny Bell, volunteered to run the security committee. “My number one concern is the safety of the building and the shareholders,” he says. Bell has made himself useful by becoming a neighborhood ambassador, attending meetings of Community Board 11, at Harlem Hospital, and at the local police precinct. Bell has also been researching ways to upgrade the technology at Maple Plaza. According to Charles, his investigation has led the board to review and consider the use of a building-wide system for computerizing management operations, tracking repairs, maintenance procedures, ordering supplies, handling vendors, monitoring contracts, and allowing shareholders electronic access to the system.
Then, there is the treasurer, Alonzo Jamison, who works for the New York City Housing Authority in its accounting department. In his post for three years, Jamison has lived at Maple Plaza since it was built. He says he hopes to see more computerization of operations, “when we can afford it. I’d like to see more efficiency – everything tied together.”
But whatever task a member takes on, Charles will always stress an important tenet of SLS: look for a “we, not me” approach. “No one individual is as important as the entire group,” she explains. “So if one person is working on a particular project they don’t ‘own’ it. Anyone can contribute or participate. The idea is to share the workload as much as possible.”
Communication Not Chaos
As is the case with many cooperatives, large and small, Maple Plaza needed to improve the level and the quality of communication.
First, the board members had to learn how to communicate with each other. Every member now knows every other member’s e-mail address – not the case before – and it is a policy that every message to any other member be copied to all. So it is just part of a normal day for a director to come home to a half-dozen e-mail messages. “When it comes to communications with our managing agent, and among ourselves, we use the hell out of our computers and e-mail,” says Harry Rivers, a manager with the New York City Housing Authority.
Then, they had to learn how to communicate with management. To do that, one SLS idea became paramount: understand different types of questioning techniques. “This means that you are sensitive about the way questions are framed and that you understand the difference between a question that comes across as an attack and one that is seen as seeking information,” notes Charles. “For instance, we’re now educating the shareholders about how to use the compactor room. You can’t leave a mattress there. It has to be taken downstairs. Instead of saying, ‘We’re tired of you not taking care of the compactor room, what are you doing?’ the question was posed to management, ‘What can you do to help us educate shareholders so you can make the maintenance staff’s job easier?’ We want to get them to do something, not become paralyzed by the complaint – to be affirmative but firm.”
The board members also had to learn how to communicate with contractors and other outsiders. That means getting everything – every decision, every order, every complaint – in writing. “If it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen,” Charles is fond of saying.
And, finally, they had to learn how to communicate with the shareholders. In this area, the board’s solution was decidedly low-tech. It was to offer a permanent ledger book, kept under the watchful eye of the security officer, in the lobby, and it may be the most important link in the chain of accountability that extends from the shareholders, through the property manager, to the board.
Every shareholder is encouraged to use the logbook to catalog any problem and any suggestion, or to make any comment on issues great and small. About 15 to 20 new entries appear in the book’s pages every week. Each comment or remark in the shareholders’ log is dealt with immediately: McLaurin, who spends at least four half-days at the apartment complex, has three days to respond to each entry with an action plan. Failure to do so will reflect negatively in her semi-annual board review.
While shareholders are encouraged to put personal and identifying details about their problems or issues in the book, they can just as easily make anonymous comments. “It gives shareholders the opportunity to express their feelings,” says the board’s Bell.
“The book lets everyone see the experiences of other shareholders,” observes the secretary, Patricia Taffe. “If they call management to make a complaint, we ask that they also document it in the book. The site manager checks the book on a daily basis. The super and staff are also required to look at it and decide if there are site issues which they can handle on their own or, if not, to call management.”
Two other methods used to foster better communication are the opening of two meetings a year to the public and a bi-monthly newsletter. The latter is intended to update shareholders on what’s going on both inside and outside the building and to allow the residents to share news. “We provide information related to shareholder concerns, such as security and maintenance, and we also explain building policies, such as no subleasing, so that shareholders understand why the policies exist in the first place,” Charles notes. “It’s much easier to get people to comply when they understand the rules.”
The newsletter – Taffe’s responsibility – is credited with helping air issues and improve communication in the building. For instance, the board explained the dangers of subletting by printing the story of a shareholder who ran into a problem with illegal subtenants who would not leave his apartment (the names were concealed to maintain privacy). The newsletter reported how a housing judge sided with the illegal subtenants, ruling that they could not be evicted even though they were living in the apartment without board knowledge or approval. The board later moved to evict the shareholder.
Spare the Rod
Through it all, Charles runs a tight ship, pushing her fellow directors to act in a professional manner, which often involves constant reminders. For example, recalls Charles, “I was speaking to a board member last night and he told me he spoke to the landscaper. He told him that we needed the trees pruned. I said, ‘Did you send a follow-up note – a memo of understanding?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Well, then it didn’t happen. If it’s not in writing it didn’t happen.’ You have to keep repeating these things.”
And even though the co-op is in better shape now than it was just a year ago, she is quick to point out that there is still a long way to go before she will be comfortable. “It’s an uphill struggle,” she notes. “We’re still dealing with construction matters that will eventually require intervention by HPD, the developer, and other entities. We had to take out a $400,000 loan to finish repairs, including putting on a new roof. We may sue the contractor. Subleasing is not a minor problem. It’s a major problem. We are dealing with landscaping, too; that’s also a problem.”
She does not want to dwell on the past, nor take credit for the turnaround. “This is about the board, not one individual,” she says. “I don’t like looking back, just forward.”
But, as even Charles would agree, the key to coping with a situation like this is to learn from the past or else you may start repeating it. The lessons the Maple Plaza board took away from its experiences are simple even if implementing them has been challenging: be accountable, be disciplined, be involved.
“We’re not perfect; and we still have some major obstacles due to the original faulty construction,” Charles admits. “However, through a business-like approach to our problems and everyday events in the building, we have been goal-oriented and we have been successful in meeting most situations that arise. Most importantly, we have engaged our shareholders, and they know that we are serious about getting the right job done for the building.”
The board learned one other lesson: don’t give up. “Regardless of the state of current conditions, participation and contribution can always turn things around,” says Charles. “The most significant thing about this building is that we work very well together. We have skirmishes about certain issues, and we work through them with the knowledge that this isn’t personal. And, in the end, we always return to the corporate mission of Maple Plaza. It is our number one agenda item.”