Paula Chin in Board Operations on February 22, 2019
Savvy co-op and condo boards have been borrowing a page from the playbook of successful business managers: the 7 Steps to successful problem solving. The process begins with identifying the problem and then it moves, step by step, through understanding everyone’s interests, listing possible solutions, evaluating options, making a decision, and finally monitoring and evaluating the eventual solution.
At the Edgewater, a 22-story co-op on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the problem wasn’t hard to identify. There was a glaring failure to communicate.
“Nothing ever went out from the board to shareholders except on the day of the annual meeting,” says Tom Greenbaum, the board’s current president, adding that the board didn’t listen to others because there was also no system for residents to take their concerns to the board. Greenbaum, a former business consultant who headed his own company for 50 years, hoped his experience would help him improve communication.
Greenbaum joined the board as treasurer in 2013, and he immediately started brainstorming. He held quarterly 90-minute “House Committee” meetings in his apartment, where shareholders could air their grievances and suggest remedies. He got an earful: the basement laundry room closed at 8:30 P.M.; doormen often failed to open the front door or handle packages; the super, enforcing an old rule requiring workmen to wear long pants and long sleeves, wasn’t letting staff into the building if they failed to comply; groundskeepers didn’t remove plants in front of the building quickly enough when they died.
“I would write everything down and take the results to the board and give them a list of options,” Greenbaum says. That resulted in a decision to make some changes. Employees took a refresher training course. Workers were allowed to go sleeveless in summer, and the landscaping service was ordered to plant only ivy and evergreens instead of annuals. The laundry room remained open 24/7. In accordance with Step 7, the board decided to monitor and re-evaluate this last change. “We didn’t know if people would really use the laundry room at night, so we tried it out for a month, and it worked,” Greenbaum says. “After that, we put in a security camera so people would feel safe.”
Since Greenbaum became president last May, he’s been working to ensure even better communication. There’s now a suggestion box in the mailroom, and he holds monthly “Popcorn with the President” get-togethers at which shareholders can meet board members and ask questions. He also distributes a quarterly newsletter with updates on the latest developments, such as the board’s recent decision not to install a gym after it was determined the building didn’t have adequate space.
“Instead of waiting for problems to occur, this board is identifying and addressing them before they have time to fester,” says Joe Laspina, vice president/director of operations at Maxwell-Kates, who manages the Edgewater. “It’s a better system for getting things done.”
While Greenbaum believes that the 7 Steps are good business practices, he says there’s another crucial step that highly effective problem solvers should take. “With any project, there has to be one person appointed to run the show,” he says. “Otherwise, it will never get done.”
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