People who want to be on the board of directors of a community association are well-intentioned and want to help their communities be the best that they can be. But they are still people, and we all make mistakes sometimes. Knowing about some of the most common pitfalls that board members fall into can help your community avoid them.
We asked several of FirstService Residential’s most experienced associates what they’ve seen in their collective decades of property management. Those interviewed in our roundtable discussion included:
- Ron Capitena, regional director, active adult communities
- Maureen Connolly, vice president
- Kristina Lebrevelec, regional director, HOA and garden-style
- Edwin Lugo, vice president, high-rise
- Bill Worrall, vice president
What did they have to say? A lot! Read on for some of the most common mistakes that board members make and how these mistakes can be addressed when they do happen. Avoiding or quickly correcting these mistakes will help your board operate effectively and efficiently, allowing you to fulfill your responsibility to protect, maintain and enhance your community and the lifestyles of your residents. Ignoring them can cause your board to become ineffective or even gridlocked, prohibiting you from addressing resident concerns. Over time, this will lead to a decrease in their satisfaction, which can ultimately affect everything from the community’s harmony to your property values.
Mistake 1: Not understanding their roles
The most well-intentioned volunteers can’t be effective if they don’t have the information they need. Whether it’s the history of the community, what it means to be a board member, how the board and management company work together or how polices are enforced, it’s critical that new board members have the chance to learn what’s expected of them and how to best meet those expectations.
Worrall said that the biggest problem he sees is board members who only look at the association at a surface level without digging into governing documents, operations and the realities they need to understand to be successful. “People run for the board for a reason,” Worrall explained. “They have an agenda, and that’s fine. The mistake is moving forward on that agenda without first gaining an understanding of everything that’s happened before and how the community works. Not knowing about those conversations, details and history will be frustrating for any new board member.”
“Sometimes new board members want to immediately criticize the outgoing board,” Lugo said, “and that is usually born out of a lack of understanding of why things were done the way they were.”
Solution: Education and information
“Within a week of the new board being elected, I take both the outgoing and incoming board members out to lunch together,” Capitena said. “That way, they can all talk and learn from each other. It’s important that new board members know they can communicate and connect with previous or outgoing board members who may have historic information that they don’t.”
“A good orientation will help bring board members up to speed,” Lugo said. Lugo encourages communities to conduct onsite certification courses; the state requires board members to be certified within 90 days of being elected, and having the courses in the first month makes board members most effective. New board members should also get a “behind-the-scenes” tour that lets them see all the operations they may not be familiar with.
Lebrevelec has had success educating board members by taking them to other communities’ board meetings, so that they can gain more understanding of how meetings are run and business is handled.
“I’ve seen education change the viewpoint of contentious board members. Once they know the history, gain some perspective and inside information, they often become more understanding,” Lugo explained. “Once they understand the scope of available resources and the challenges they are facing, they may realize that their concerns aren’t the priorities compared to other issues the association is facing.”
“Board members need to understand the governing documents, most recent financial statements and recent management reports before undertaking any decisions,” Connolly explained. She recommends that new board members be introduced to the association attorney, CPA, insurance agent and professional engineer so that they understand the depth of resources available to them to assist them in making the best decisions.
Mistake 2: Micromanagement
“They hire us for our knowledge and experience, yet sometimes want to micromanage what we do,” Capitena said. He works with active adult communities, in which board members tend to be more hands-on and involved with daily operations.
Lebrevelec agreed. “Board members who would never question their doctor or their accountant question their property management company.”
That’s completely understandable! Board members are invested in doing what’s best for their community, and it’s natural that they have questions and concerns about operations.
Solution: Build trust between management and board
“This usually happens with new board members,” Capitena said. “Once they learn that they can trust us, it goes away. Strong leadership from more experienced board members goes a long way toward building that trust as well. When new board members see that the more seasoned board members have faith in the management community, everything goes smoothly.”
“Education about the roles of management and the board and how they work together also helps build trust and a good working relationship,” Lebrevelec said. The “behind-the-scenes” tour mentioned above will also help build that trust by explaining what everyone does and why they do it.
Mistake 3: Making it personal
“Sometimes people get on the board and take off their business hat and make running the board personal,” Lebrevelec said. “It’s important to keep in mind that the association is a business, first and foremost. Issues tend to snowball once they become emotional.”
Worrall agreed with her. “It’s a mistake to let your emotions take over,” he said. “You can’t run a business if you’re approaching it from an emotional point of view.”
Solution: Peer-led intervention and organization
Board members can work together to become more professional and efficient. When a board member sees a colleague becoming emotional about an issue, that board member should feel comfortable in asking for a break to let things cool off. It’s important to respect everyone’s right to contribute and have an opinion about an issue, but board members must also be empowered to keep discussions in check.
Connolly suggested that boards with a plan are most effective and able to maintain the professionalism necessary to act. “A board operating without a cohesive plan, approved and discussed, will be operating in the dark,” she explained. “This will help your board be more effective and will also assist future boards on where the community came from, progress made and rationale behind certain decisions.” Knowing this information can help keep emotions at bay and progress on track.
Serving as a board member is a big responsibility. It’s also an opportunity to help your community become its best. Although some pitfalls are common, they aren’t unavoidable and can be corrected when they occur. Experienced board members can assist new members in avoiding mistakes by educating them about their roles on the board, helping them build trust with association management and always maintaining professionalism. These simple steps will help your board avoid unproductive gridlock that will keep you from being able to work effectively in your community’s best interest.