Michele Cardella in Board Operations on November 22, 2019
The night of my co-op’s annual meeting, pick-up basketball season in the Hudson River Park was in full swing. On any other evening, I would have been on a bench outside the court enjoying a spirited and remarkably self-regulated contest. Instead, I was seated among fellow shareholders, watching a mash-up of congeniality, cooperation, heckling, and helplessness – all of it tempered by an experienced managing agent and a judicious board of directors led by a hungry president eager to condense the agenda and get to supper.
After the meeting, I walked over to the river. As I leaned into the tall chain-link fence surrounding the basketball court, I watched players move the ball from one end to the other without rancor or referee and wondered if my co-op could have our meeting out here next year. We could learn a thing or two.
During a break in the action, I asked a player who had just sunk a basket from mid-court why there was no celebrating, no high-fiving for such great shots. “That wouldn’t be cool,” he answered. Seeing that he wasn’t getting through to this bench potato, he tried again. “It would be like bragging.”
Gloating at our annual meeting isn’t just uncool, it’s unlucky. If we pat ourselves on the back one year because there were no problems with the water tank, the next year we’re likely to be assessed for major water tank repairs. This year’s sure thing is likely to be next year’s big expense.
Players who bump into each other or walk a step or two with the ball admit to the infraction and then turn over the ball to the opposing team. No drama. No discussion of past misdeeds or the psychological reasons for the behavior. I asked a young man watching the game how this happens. “Everyone wants to win,” he said, “but they want to have a good time, too. If you argue, you spoil it for everyone.” He turned back to the game, and then back to me after summoning the words that would make his point. “It’s courtesy,” he explained, “Courtesy and good manners.”
Exercising courtesy and good manners – and empathy – could make shorter work of a lot of our common, though prickly, co-op fouls. A stroller left in the hallway might just mean that a father got busy putting a child to bed – not that he’s selfish and inconsiderate. And sometimes, wet shoes outside an apartment door are not a personal attack – they’re just wet shoes.
On the basketball court, there are players who are in the game as well as those who want to be in the next one. When the ball is in play under one basket, would-be players are taking practice shots under the other basket, eager to get into the action. The long-serving board in my building could use more shareholders eager to get into the game. It’s rare that the list of director candidates posted in the lobby before the annual meeting includes names other than those currently serving – unless someone has been cajoled into running to fill a vacancy. This year was an exception, with a shareholder writing her name on the candidate list and unseating an incumbent who was willing to continue serving while selling his apartment. New members bring new perspectives and, as on the court, new energy.
I notice that players want the ball all the time. They pass rarely and reluctantly, preferring to take their shot. At this years’ annual meeting, it was clear that some shareholders are reluctant to take a shot at solving their problems, preferring instead to pass them on to the co-op board. While that may be the easier move, it’s not always the most effective. Sometimes, we stand a better chance of scoring by taking the hard shot ourselves – by negotiating with our unreasonable neighbors, by reporting unsafe conditions to public authorities, or by taking the time to document problems so that when the board does become involved, it has a record to support its actions.
On the court there are no do-overs. Players bring their best, win or lose, and then head out into the park together before disappearing into the night. At the annual meeting, when you bring a bottle of wine for the host and then, after getting no support for your verbal lashing of fellow shareholders, take the bottle back on the way out the door, you’re not fooling anyone. We all saw. And though you left the room, you didn’t disappear into the night. We’ll see you in the elevator tomorrow.
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