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The Hunger Games

You had a brouhaha at your co-op recently, didn’t you?

Here’s the story. We had a gym full of donated equipment; it was kind of a junkyard. We felt it really had to be renovated and improved; so we put out a survey, asking questions about what sort of equipment they wanted. At the annual meeting, people conflated a recent maintenance increase with the gym questions and they came to the conclusion that one was used for the other, which it wasn’t. We didn’t do a good job at communication in that case, and two board members ended up being replaced. One of the newcomers is a fiery “no new taxes” guy, so we’ll see how that works out.

How did you get on the board?

I was asked to serve as secretary, even though I had no experience taking meeting minutes or preparing agendas. I’m actually a web and social media developer and a photographer. My building is a new, 133-unit HDFC co-op in Harlem. I had to catch on quickly. The learning curve has been steep.

What was it like being the secretary?

Since we were a young board, we had to feel our way. The manager kept reminding me that minutes are not supposed to capture the meeting word for word: they’re about summarizing the discussion and recording the decision, if there is one.

After each meeting, I produced and distributed an “action list.” It is information that should be useful to shareholders. For instance, it lets them know we’re buying patio furniture for the courtyard. We don’t include discussions on the budget, or personnel discussions. The financials are revealed at the annual meeting.

After a year as secretary, you became president. What was that like?

Being president actually fit my personality; it’s what I’m better at – looking at the big picture, mapping out strategy, and making big decisions. I like to find out the costs, see what the benefit and risks would be, find a consensus among the shareholders, and move forward. I can’t really think while I’m writing, so I found detailed note-taking a challenge. We now have an excellent secretary.

You were telling me before about your theory of efficient meetings?

For months, at the midpoint of a typical two-and-a-half-hour meeting, I found we were at the mercy of hunger pangs. These manifested themselves in behavior: members became irritable or easily distracted, and sometimes there would be general discord. Some folks did offer their personal stash of mixed nuts or M&M’s, but these savory and sugared treats were the equivalent of fighting a forest fire with a squirt gun.

Most board members work full-time jobs and are hurrying back just in time to make these meetings. This meant that our board gatherings were held exactly at the time most of us would expect to have dinner, yet there we were, inadvertently skipping a basic meal in some act of sacrifice-as-proof-of-commitment that no one had asked us to make. We didn’t realize we shouldn’t skip meals – especially when we had to focus and make collaborative decisions.

When did you pinpoint the problem?

During the annual budget planning season, we anticipated the meeting would run over three hours, so we decided to bring in food. After we ate, there was a noticeable difference in our ability to stay focused and collaborate positively (and thankfully not go over three hours). No real magic was involved, but here are some other things I learned along the way:

Don’t vote on an empty stomach. Bringing in food is a small reward for the service, and it’s one way to ensure that folks are engaged.

Make food the first order of business. It’s your first decision as a group that sets the stage for how the meeting will run. Keep it team-oriented and rotate providers. Let others suggest their favorite places (and support local restaurants too). If you can agree on this step, then you’re on the way to a productive meeting.

The pizza party trap. Eating should be a shared social activity for boards, as there is mutual understanding and goodwill created by enjoying meals together. Make sure you don’t fall into the “Let’s just order pizza again” trap. Boards cannot live by pizza alone.

How have you pursued that policy?

Every time a board member is elected, we encourage him or her to join us in an annual social mixer with donated snacks and drinks. Such gatherings helped us learn about each other’s interests and communication styles. This was key in making a new board quickly become cohesive. If other boards try this approach, they’ll see why I consider each meeting’s food order a key component of a productive meeting.

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