New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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Seven steps to successfully bring on new board members.
Co-op and condo boards are always on the lookout for new blood, but once a fresh recruit joins the team, they don’t always roll out the welcome mat. As often as not, boards fail to train new members and bring them up to speed, either because they’re too busy and can’t be bothered, or they suffer from plain old inertia. And since entrenched members are used to doing things their own way, they tend not to let newbies take on substantive work unless they step up with a good idea or a project they’re willing to take on. But having a system to induct new members and identify their strengths – after all, not everyone has clear-cut or obvious skills – can really pay off in the long run. Here are seven highly effective habits for boards to get the most out of their new members – and, in the bargain, take some of the load off themselves.
1. Do the prep work. The ideal newbie is one who knows what he’s getting into. To educate residents on what’s involved in becoming a board member, the board at Amalgamated Housing, a limited equity co-op in the Bronx, has an open-door policy that permits two shareholders to observe each of its regular meetings. “It gives them a taste,” says Ed Yaker, the treasurer, a retired teacher who has served on the 12-member board on and off for more than 40 years. The board also sends out weekly bulletins, a quarterly community newsletter, and an additional “highlights” communication after board meetings, which, Yaker says, serves as “a shortened version of the minutes” and apprises potential candidates on capital projects and gives them a feel for other pressing issues. Furthermore, any resident who notifies the board of his or her intention to run is invited to attend the final board meeting prior to elections.
2. Scout for the right recruits. It makes practical sense to cast about for prospective board members who have skills and experiences that dovetail with co-op or condo matters. If there’s an opening for a new treasurer, for example, it’s the perfect time to look for residents with strong financial chops and approach them about their interest in running. Case in point: The latest people to join the Linden Towers Co-op #6 board in Flushing, Queens, are an attorney and someone with a background in bookkeeping. “Those are good skills to have, especially for the task of reviewing intricate buyer applications,” says Martin Bender, the board secretary. “I’ve seen a lot of fraudulent documents, so the more eyes reviewing things, the better.” At the same time, Bender believes it’s better to not push people into running. “We want it to be their decision,” he says. “You want people who want to be there.”
3. Mentor the newbie. Even the most enthusiastic and qualified recruit needs to be brought along. “Inductees often don’t fully grasp the principles, legal responsibilities and ethical concerns they must operate under,” Bender says, which is why the board at Linden Towers offers on-the-job training regarding the basics. “Confidentiality, for one” Bender says. “We also stress that they have to be consistent, and that there’s no favoritism. And of course, good communication skills are a must.” Early in his tenure, Bender observed a fellow board member talking down to a shareholder, and he took a lesson from it. “It’s important to be sensitive to people’s needs,” he adds, especially senior citizens living on a fixed income and particularly during the pandemic, when shareholders may be struggling to stay afloat.
4. Don’t rush things. There’s typically a learning curve with new recruits, and smart boards will give them time to settle in and find their footing. That’s just what happened at Berkley Square co-op in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn, when Liz Serwin came onboard in 2017. Serwin, a still-life stylist, wasn’t sure at first what she could bring to the table, and so she spent her first year listening, absorbing board protocols and responsibilities and familiarizing herself with the flow of things. In time she realized that her organizational skills and ability to hew to budgets and deadlines – staples of her professional life – were valuable attributes that could be put to good use in her board service. The board’s patience paid off. Soon enough, Serwin was spinning out thoughtful initiatives, including installing BuildingLink software to keep track of work requests, and developing protocols to keep residents and staff safe after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Serwin, who’s now firing on all cylinders and is confident about her contributions, helped run the co-op’s first-ever virtual annual meeting on Zoom last year. “I thought it was a great success,” she says.
5. Solicit input. With new blood comes a fresh perspective, and boards should both welcome it and take advantage of it. Carl Tait, the president of the co-op board at 152 W. 58th St. in Manhattan, actively encourages new board members to speak up and make suggestions. “I tell them not to be afraid to ask questions about how things are done or offer ideas on how they could be improved,” he says. Marian Rothstein, a new board member, dove right in and did just that. An academic researcher, Rothstein spotted a typo in a standard form the co-op had been using for decades. Conscious of paper waste, she requested that management begin forwarding buyer applications in PDF files with numbered pages instead of a large sheaf of loose papers that can easily fall out of order. And when she brought up the problem of packages piling up on the floor of the lobby, another board member volunteered a bookshelf where the boxes could be stored, making things easier for the super and residents – and tidying up the building. “It was,” Tait says, “a great idea.”
6. Play to people’s strengths. Tapping expertise is a great way to maximize new members’ contributions, especially when they’re part of a group effort. At Amalgamated Houses, the board splits into subgroups to tackle projects, and it assigns new members to committees that can benefit from their skills and interests. “We have three to four people per committee, but it’s open to all,” Yaker says. For example, the co-op is currently looking into doing a geothermal energy upgrade, and a new board member, a retired construction worker with hands-on experience drilling and laying pipework, was the perfect person to join the team.
7. Work well with others. It almost goes without saying that congeniality is a positive trait to employ in a group. Not that boards want people who agree on everything, but there is a way to promote constructive criticism that doesn’t devolve into carping. “We always want new people to feel like they can work with us and feel free to disagree,” Tait says. “That way we can make good, practical plans and keep moving forward.”
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