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Co-op Board Member Eleanor Selling: "The Ideal Leadership Is Ego-less"

5 Riverside Drive, Upper West Side, Manhattan

Q&A Board Member Eleanor Selling
Jan. 2, 2014


What did you do before your recent retirement?

After I got my PhD. in anthropology at Columbia University, I went to work for Chemical Bank, which morphed into J.P. Morgan Chase. I worked there for 30 years, managing a brokerage customer service and trade-desk department.

What skills did you learn there that have proved useful in your co-op work?

To view what you are trying to do as a project. To put it together in your head almost visually, so that whatever you are trying to accomplish, you look at all aspects of it. If you make one change, you consider how it impacts another component — do you need more training, a different procedure, a different computer?

How has your doctorate in anthropology helped?

When I was on the trading floor at Chemical Bank, the director of operations said we need an anthropologist to examine primate behavior on the trading floor. So I would say that aside from knowing nothing about the business world or computers, it was a very easy transition! What you are looking for as an anthropologist is how people behave together — not psychologically, but what are the structures and what are the underlying causes of those structures? What are the patterns? What are the customs? Look at behavior, adapt to tribal customs, make the tribal customs more adaptive to the needs of the corporation.

What led you to join the renovation committee?

We noticed that a number of apartments were undergoing larger and more complex renovations than ever before. So the president asked me to be the liaison [for] the board, shareholders, architects, contractors, and managing agent. I recommended that we form a committee because we needed considerable expertise. 

Why did the board choose you for the liaison role?

I had done shareholder outreach and customer service before, and it was well-received by both the board and the shareholders. And I volunteered.

What have you learned about leadership?

The ideal leadership is ego-less, with the focus on what needs to get done. My particular style is to lead from behind – meaning quietly.

Any leadership roles when you were younger?

I was on the board of a charity that was instrumental in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

What feedback have you received about your leadership style over the years?

What I do best, or what is best received, is one-on-one: let's discuss the issues in small groups and reach some consensus, get lots of points of views.

Also, as president of the co-op [from June 2009 to June/July 2010], I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work on an all-volunteer board of people who are also neighbors.

What doesn't work?

You can't go too fast. Somebody who goes too fast runs over people, or upsets people. And I used to go too fast.

Any unexpected lessons?

When I was president of the co-op, I had been working not only in a corporate job but also 15 to 20 hours a week for the co-op on various projects. When I stepped down, my friends expected me to feel a sense of loss, but I felt a sense of great relief. Another [lesson] was learning how to continue to serve on a board in which I had been president, and how to get things done in a quiet way rather than a leadership way.

That's hard. How did you do it?

Well, after I stopped being the president, we had an exceptionally able man, who had been past president, volunteer to negotiate a restructuring of the officers of the board and to directly negotiate with people who had been disaffected by my leadership style. Honestly, the transition was his doing — and very gracefully accomplished.

If you could ask your managing agent only two questions this month, what would they be?

With respect to renovations, I would ask, "How can we further streamline the many touch points that a shareholder has to pass through before receiving permissions?" And I would ask him what role he could play on an ongoing basis to make the process work more smoothly.

What can be frustrating about serving on a co-op board?

Actually, it's the amount of time it takes to get "the right thing done." It took me a year and a half to document the leaks and to persuade the board that we needed to undergo a capital improvement project to fund it.

If you could take the pulse of your building's residents once a month, what would you look for?

I would look for ways we could improve services in the building. As a board member, I would ask if there were additional services needed — not only ones that have to be provided, but also services that people feel strongly they would use and want.


Photo by Jennifer Wu. Click to enlarge

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