As a managing agent and as a co-op shareholder for more than two decades, Michelle Schlossberg has attended more board meetings than she’d care to remember. And she has strong views about when monthly get-togethers should take place and how they should be run. “I have a personal preference,” says the manager, currently an account executive at Gumley Haft. “I like morning meetings because they are really productive. You get everything done because people have to go to work. I have a board that meets at 8 in the morning. We’re done typically by 9:30.” As for length, Schlossberg believes that 90 minutes is the ideal time (although she admits to sessions ranging from 45 minutes to four hours). In a talk with Habitat’s Tom Soter, the veteran manager discusses methods she uses to cut those lengthy sitdowns to relatively brief, but informative, get-togethers.
People who have served on co-op or condo boards for any length of time will often complain about their monthly meetings, the most frequent criticisms being that the meetings are long, chatty, and disorganized. What do you think?
There are boards I have who are very on-point and there are boards that I’ve had in the past that have been a little wandering. It’s really a matter of making sure they have what they need to stay on-point and that you, as a manager, have what you need so that meetings are productive.
Preparation and communication are key in making board meetings run smoothly. One of the most important things we do is getting packages out – including an agenda, an action list, the minutes from the prior meeting, and any backup – a week before the meeting. That gives everyone the information they need, so when they walk in, they’re not just seeing things for the first time.
Are there other steps that you can take before the meeting?
Sometimes, I’ll ask the treasurer, “Is there anything that you’d like me to include that you’re going to want to discuss, including a variance report?” With a variance report, you [compare] a set budget with how you’ve been spending money.
What about running the meeting itself?
It seems to me there are two main ways. One finds the board president taking the lead and referring to the property manager when there’s a management report to be discussed or certain projects to be discussed. Second, there is the frame of mind where a board president will say [to the manager], “You take the lead. You call the meeting to order and you can answer the questions.” The president interjects or the financial people or board members interject when they have questions. Both ways are equally good.
How can the meetings get lengthy?
Sometimes it’s for a very good reason: if you are doing a major project, and you’re halfway through and you have found an underlying condition that you didn’t know about, or you’re halfway through and you want a progress report. Sometimes it’s good to have an engineer come. Meetings will extend when you’re bringing in third-party vendors to discuss issues, problems, or what’s going on with a particular project.
What happens when people add items to the agenda at the meeting and discussions go off on a tangent?
On pretty much every agenda, there’s an “old business” section and a “new business” section. You’ve gotten through all of the agenda items and given all the information. Then, someone says, “I’d like to bring up that we need to do a new awning.” It hadn’t been on the agenda. What you do with that is you let them say their piece and then you say, “If the board’s okay with this, give us an opportunity over the next three or four weeks until the next meeting to come up with samples of fabric and prices for you.” But, generally, we do ask that if people want to add things to the agenda to please let us know before the meeting. That way we’re prepared.
Talk about the action list because without an action list things often get lost in the shuffle, don’t they?
Absolutely. The action list is key. It keeps you honest. I look at my action list. I go, “Okay, have I done A, B, C, D, E, F? Oh, I missed E. Okay, I need to go back and make sure I have that answer on the action list before I send it out a week before to the board.”
How do you decide on the best approach for running board meetings?
Building trust with a board helps. That takes a little time. You don’t walk into a first board meeting like a bull in a china shop. You want to listen and hear how the board functions and works. If you’re coming on to the building for the first time, you would want to speak to the board president, the vice president, the treasurer, and anyone else who wants to talk to you. They’ve been running their meetings for longer than you’ve been on their building. You need to at least spend the first meeting or two being prepared, being able to answer the questions you can answer, taking in information. Then you start building a relationship with that board. You have to earn it. Every time you go into a building you need to earn it. You can be the best manager in the world. They need to know you to know that.
You’re really talking about a kind of psychological profiling, trying to figure out what makes the board tick. What does that involve?
The most important thing is to listen. Going around the table, you need to understand people’s functions on the board, how much responsibility they have or take. You learn [about] the board that way. It’s the same way they learn [about] you. When you speak, they listen to you. They’re learning about you. They’re checking you out. They’re asking you questions.
Did you ever have a board where you couldn’t cut down the meeting time?
I had a board that would start a meeting at 6 or 6:30, which was fine. We’d do the first half of the agenda. Then they would take a dinner break. They would order dinner in and take a dinner break for 45 minutes. Then they’d start the meeting again for another hour or so. This is how the board did their business. It was not the optimal way to run a board meeting. But there was no way to change that culture. It had been that way for 20 years. You can do the best you can, being honest and giving the board the tools to do so, but, in the end, you cannot make every board meeting 90 minutes.