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A Case of Closed-Mindedness

Dear Mary:

Our board president has been in his position for 15 years. He’s done a great job navigating our building through a lot of difficult times, but there’s a problem: He does not accept any suggestions from anyone else on the board. No matter what it is, he just doesn’t want to hear it. The only ideas that go anywhere are his ideas. 

This is very frustrating for the rest of us — especially the newer (and younger) members whom we finally managed to attract to the board. It’s even starting to annoy our owners. Among other things, they wonder why our building remains in the technological Stone Age. We need to improve, and it’s going to take everyone’s good ideas. How do we approach this?

— Shut Down in Sutton Place


Dear Shut Down:

I gather that you’re not looking to plan a coup. Well, maybe as a last resort! But let’s assume you’d like to continue to benefit from the president’s effective guidance while also getting ideas from board members implemented.

Below are a few techniques to try. Note that none of them assume that the president will change his personality. That’s not going to happen.

Analyze past failures. Consider failed attempts to get the president to accept ideas. What have board members actually tried in those cases? Are there some commonalities to their approaches that can help you establish what definitely doesn’t work? Can you recall the specifics of how the president responded or any reasons he may have given for “no”? Does this give you any useful insights?   

 Analyze past successes. Is it really the case 100% of the time that only the president’s ideas go anywhere? I’m guessing there might be at least a few instances where a board member managed to get an idea implemented. If so, see if you can analyze an example and determine who did what to make it happen. That may give you a partial blueprint — or at least a starting point — for more successful attempts.   

Find a ‘board president whisperer.’ Is there a particular person on the board to whom the president does listen — at least occasionally? You might want to funnel your ideas through this member. It may be a lot easier for the president to trust one member than the entire board. Just keep in mind that your goal is to get the idea implemented, and that sometimes an indirect route is the only one that works.  

Take it offline. You don’t know exactly why the president rejects everyone’s ideas. But you can make some suppositions and try tactics to address them. Maybe he has a high need to have others see him as competent and in control. If that’s the case, you’ll want to approach him privately with your ideas, not in front of board members or others. This can give you an opportunity to partner with him on an idea and present it jointly to the rest of the board. Again, remember that your goal is to get it done.

Incorporate owner input. Solicit input from owners and make it available to everyone on the board. This can give you ammunition for proposing an idea (following the techniques above). You can position it as an owner need that the president can address — now that he knows about it. 

You’re in a frustrating situation, but it’s more than that. Your building is missing out on potential improvements. Keep that thought in mind as you try these approaches to getting past your current one-man show.

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