They say no good deed goes unpunished, and that must surely apply to some board presidents.
It takes a special kind of person to serve on a co-op or condo board. It is a cliche by now to say that such service is a thankless task: boards are blamed for everything that goes wrong and only rewarded by apathy when everything goes right. And if being a board member is hard, then being board president is even harder – the ultimate in thankless positions. If you’re good, you get things done by building consensus, bringing naysayers along for the ride, and convincing those with the right skills to join the board. A true leader doesn’t bully his colleagues but has a vision of what he or she hopes to accomplish.
“The challenge is first of all trying to organize the board and unit-owners in a structure that allows for an open communication among unit-owners, the board, and the management of the building,” a condo board president said to me recently. “I adopted the posture that I wanted us to have a more open forum. So I established quarterly community meetings with unit-owners; they never did that before. My purpose was to give voice to unit-owners so they didn’t have to wait until the annual meeting. I thought if we did it across the year, it would allow them to raise issues that they thought were important, and we could try to address them as we went along.”
This is a president who obviously gave a lot of thought to his role. And he was not gung-ho to serve, as some are who look for self-aggrandizement; he only joined in 2011 at the request of the outgoing president. There had been some dissension in the building over various issues, and with matters heating up, the coolly methodical new president was just what the building needed. He prepared an ambitious ten-year plan for the building to reassure troubled unit-owners and “enhance the marketability of the condo.”
He had served on boards before, and he saw what the pitfalls were – and how to avoid them. “Boards can be accused of living in the clouds, of being out of touch. How do you offset that? The thing is to organize the board into committees, each chaired by a board member, and then allow non-board unit-owners to be members. That serves two purposes. First, it allows unit-owners more of an active voice. Secondly, it allows them to see what boards really do. It allows unit-owners to see if indeed they really want to be board members.”
He pushed for a long-range plan, feeling that it was the board’s responsibility to “look at all of our major capital equipment. Where are we today? Where are we going to be 25 years from now? That gets back to my background [in finances]. If you run a Wall Street firm, you need to do good planning, and that is numbers-oriented. So I bring that skill set [to the condo]. That’s part of it.”
This board president talked with me freely and frankly, hoping to offer advice to other buildings that might benefit from his experiences. He probably had another motive as well: demonstrating to the residents and the potential residents that this was a savvy board that was running the property well. If he made any mistake, it was that he was not being diplomatic enough, talking to me about what had been accomplished under his watch, and only mentioning the board in passing.
When his colleagues found out about the interview, they insisted on seeing it. No publicity is good publicity, the saying goes, and, although I had softened some rather mild remarks at the president’s request (we reviewed the story with him and his fellow board members as part of the fact-checking process), the board insisted, finally, that we kill it.
This was an informative story, which should have generated no controversy. Since the president was now in hot water for talking to us, we agreed to kill the story, a fairly benign piece. It was the first time I had deep-sixed a story that made a building and its president look quite good. If this happened to your board, what would you do?