We’ve all been there. Wading through hours of Board meetings where decisions that need to be made just don’t get made. Important and often surprisingly unimportant items tabled for weeks, months… Sometimes years! Pretty soon the Old Business section of the agenda has a drop-down menu of 25! Ugh! Why is that? And what can we do to help our Boards along in making decisions? I’ve put together some standard causes of Board paralysis and how we can (maybe) help them move through it for their and the community’s sake.
The major roadblocks to action
Lack of leadership. Probably our biggest issue, a lack of leadership within a Board results in one that can’t or won’t make timely decisions as there is no one with focus, purpose and vision leading them to make them. A Board without a leader is reactive, not proactive, and moves whichever way the wind blows.
Don’t understand their role. A lot of Board members don’t understand their role as trustees; defined as “an individual person or member of a Board given control or powers of administration of property’1 and fiduciaries2 that have the duty of care, duty of loyalty and the duty to act within their scope of authority. Board members can’t “administrate property” or perform their fiduciary duties by perpetually sitting on their hands.
Don’t understand the issue. Oftentimes Boards deal with complicated issues that are 100% new and news to them; and have out-sized financial and/or political ramifications. This can paralyze a Board for weeks or months as they try to absorb the matter and its effects on them and the community.
Afraid of the political results. Getting any Board to make what will inevitably be an “unpopular” decision (special assessment, raising assessments, enforcing certain rules, etc.) is always a challenge. It’s never fun to get harassed as you’re laying around the pool or heading to the mailbox. :-/.
How we can help
Help them understand their role. The role of the Board is that of trustee(s) and fiduciary(ies) (defined above), and they are charged with preserving, protecting, maintaining and enhancing the property of the community. As a manager, it’s your job to know what the role of the Board is and be able to articulate it at any time.
In addition, it’s also incumbent upon you to guide your Boards to the many resources available that explain these concepts and others as they relate to Boards and associations. If you don’t know of the resources, I’ve listed some at the bottom of this article; however, I highly recommend you involve yourself in one or more professional organizations that can get you up to speed, and as a result help your Board’s efficiency and effectiveness.
Know your Board and get in front of the issues – way in front. Managers should always know what’s coming down the road for their communities, but it you have a Board that has trouble making decisions, you’ll need to get very proactive and give them as much time as possible to evaluate, process and study it – whatever “it” is. You don’t have the luxury of reactivity with a Board that itself is reactive – and slow to act as well. This is you managing (herding) them, and it’s a part of your job.
Present complex issues in an organized, easily understandable fashion. In other words, try not to present bits and pieces of information to the Board outside of meetings so they won’t have to remember the 7 emails you sent and the 35 that resulted from their own internal discussion. Give them (if you can) all information in a Board packet or a supplemental thereto, so they all have the right information at the same time.
Present options for action. Once you’ve provided the necessary information in that very organized and easy-to-understand manner, provide the Board with options for action in order of 1) what’s been recommended by an expert or legal counsel, 2)
what like communities have done in similar situations (this means you
must be aware of what’s happening in the local or larger industry) and 3) nothing else. Try to avoid presenting inadvisable or unrealistic options that promote further vacillation by the Board.
Call in a Big Gun. Never feel as if you can’t ask your supervisor, senior manager, executive or even legal counsel to step in and help you with a Board that is continually failing in their duties. You may have been telling them the same thing any one of these folks will tell them, but nothing beats having an “authority” back up your expertise. And don’t be angry or embarrassed about it – your job is to get them there as best you can with whatever it takes.
For the experienced manager:
You may have to become the “shadow” leader, whether they realize it or
not. Sometimes we get there by working intensively with the Board
president and guiding them to decisions that need to be made; other
times, we “shadow chair” Board meetings by sitting next to the real
Chair and keeping them on task. Whatever it is, most managers who’ve
been around awhile know that at times they become the de facto leader of
the Board, sometimes overtly but usually covertly.
No decision is a decision. Other times, no matter how hard we try, a Board will simply not make a decision, preferring the comfort of inertia as opposed to the risk of a decision. For the manager, simply think of that no-decision as a decision: The Board has decided not to decide, not now or maybe ever. Document your recommendations, send them to the Board one last time (get them in the minutes if you can) and then file them. You’ve done your best, it’s time to let go and move on.
Practical help you can provide for the decision-averse Board
that you’ve read the above, here are some questions you can actually
ask your Boards as they struggle with a decision – big or small. It may
help them put their fears and phobias in to some perspective (note: you
may have to help them with answers):
1. Is the matter before the Board to preserve and/or maintain the physical elements of the community?
2. Is it about protecting the community from current/future damages or liabilities?
3. Is it required to properly maintain the community to a physical level that preserves or increases the home values?
4. Is the matter a legal requirement?
5. What funds are necessary and available?
6. What are the real political ramifications of the matter?
If you present these questions – perhaps along with your orderly, organized and easily understandable information on the issue within the Board packet… You may be able to get the Board to make a more timely decision and with a certain degree of emotional comfort (theirs). And as a great visual reminder, always include their job description (shortened version) with the questions: “To preserve, protect, maintain and enhance” the common elements (which often includes the common emotional health) of the community.
It’s my observation that most Boards who won’t make decisions or take a very long time to do so are not clear on the issue or the importance of the issue, or simply do not understand their roles and how to act as a governing body. It’s our job to ensure they are given the tools and information they need to be better at their jobs. Will our good Boards always use those tools and that information? Hardly. In fact, if you can get 50% of your Boards functioning well, you’re doing a great job. Just keep in mind that many Board members are new to the politics and pressure of community leadership, so making decisions of any kind becomes a challenge. The next thing you know, here comes annual meeting season, and it’s “like deja vu all over again!” My advice for you is for YOU to understand the role of the Board, be able to articulate it to them, as well as provide the information they need; for not only their sake, but the community’s and yours as well.
Here are just a few resources available:
CAM 101 for Boards: Online education 4 hours of information and education for Board members in a convenient online format authored by Julie Adamen.
Educational Community for Homeowners (ECHO) Although California-centric, this website has excellent educational material for all Boards. If your associations are located in California, they may wish to join.
Foundation for Community Association Research is an arm of Community Associations Institute (CAI) and is the provider of several Best Practices reports–Julie
3) Yogi Berra
Julie Adamen is the principal of Adamen Inc., a national consulting and employment firm specializing in the community management industry formed in 1997. She is a recognized expert in community management, community management compensation and association and management company operations. She is a prolific author, educator, motivational speaker and trainer for community managers and Boards of Directors. She is the author and publisher of online classes for managers, Community Association Management 101, a series of online classes for community association management professionals and volunteers.