Top 10 Board Member Mistakes to Avoid
Serving on a volunteer board of directors for a condominium or community association may seem like an easy and noble task. While true in part it can also be frustrating, difficult, and at times even maddening. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of board members. Throughout this time I have observed board members make the same common mistakes over and over again. This has caused them and their fellow board members frustration, turmoil and exhaustion. It is my sincere hope this article helps your Board avoid these ten common pitfalls.
Number 10: Prioritizing a Single Association Issue
Board decisions are made at open board meetings by majority vote of those board members present at the meeting, so long as a quorum is present. In other words, no single board member – not even the president – has authority to make an association decision on behalf of the entire community. This manner of voting is set forth in the bylaws of every association and in the applicable statute. Yet, certain individuals join a board with the sole purpose of preserving or changing a single association issue.
As an example, the association may presently permit rentals within the community. The newest board member joined because she is determined to change this policy to ban all rentals. This single issue becomes her entire focus and she devotes all her energy and time into changing the policy. Upon learning that at least two-thirds of all owners must vote in favor of making this type of policy change, she begins a grassroots effort to convince every association member to vote her way. Her fellow board members support her desire for change until it becomes apparent the community does not. Once the other board members realize not enough owners will vote to eliminate rentals, they withdraw their focus from this issue and move on to other association matters.
Because this was the only reason she joined the board, she refuses to give up and continues badgering association members and board members to change the policy through an association vote. This drives her fellow board members crazy and causes them to dislike her. A clear divide appears within the board and progress on other important association issues screech to a halt. This board member has destroyed board unity and ruined an entire year of progress. Once she realizes she is not able to eliminate rentals within the community, she resigns from the board.
Word to the wise: Do not join your board to accomplish a single issue you are passionate about.
Number 9: Underestimating Time Commitment
Getting elected to your board is exciting and validating. It serves as a reminder that your neighbors believe you can positively impact your community and view you as a leader. Once the initial excitement of being elected to the board wears off, the real work begins. Boards generally meet more than the legally mandated four times per year. In fact, boards usually meet at least twice that often throughout the year to remain current on association issues. Oftentimes these informal meetings occur inside one of the board member’s homes or condominium units. They usually occur at nighttime or on the weekends during non-business hours.
Nothing is more frustrating to a board than an individual that underestimates the time commitment of serving on the board. When this occurs, this person usually stops attending informal board meetings (commonly known as board workshops or planning sessions) and eventually stops attending formal open board meetings as well. Even worse, at times these individuals create excuses for missing important meetings and deadlines. This behavior causes frustration among other board members and ensures important association tasks are not completed. It harms the community at large, the board as a whole, and damages the individual’s reputation.
Word to the wise: Serving on the board is a significant time commitment that should not be underestimated.
Number 8: Micromanaging Other Board Members
Generally speaking most personality types offer opportunity for board improvement and productivity. However, the “micromanager” personality type always wreaks havoc on a board and destroys board unity. Some people are overeager to make an impact on their community. That or they have too much free time on their hands. Regardless, this leads them to mercilessly micromanage other board members.
For example, Jane becomes the new board secretary. At a recent board workshop Jane and the other board members design a laundry list of items to complete. The list consists of approximately fifteen items and is broken down and assigned three per person. The board agrees to reconvene in one month for another board workshop to revisit progress on each item. During this month, Jane emails each board member four times per week to verify their progress. She is relentless and grows frustrated and angry when she does not receive a response to her email within twenty-four hours. Board members begin ignoring Jane’s emails. By the time the next workshop arrives Jane has managed to upset every board member. During that workshop one board member resigns because he cannot deal with her need to micromanage.
Word to the wise: Serving on a board is a group effort; remain patient and permit other board members to complete their tasks on their own timeline.
Number 7: Exceeding Board Authority
Efficient boards operate as a team. Each member of the team understands his or her role and responsibilities and sticks to them. Inefficient and chaotic boards often have runaway board members. These board members believe serving on the board grants them unrestricted access to all association matters. These board members can be found at 6 am every Saturday walking the association streets or hallways inspecting every square inch, seemingly looking for violations to flag and warning notices to send.
They insist on attending every single meeting with association vendors and schedule additional meetings with vendors without notifying the rest of the board. Runaway board members also have a tendency to give instructions to vendors without having authority to do so. They instruct the landscaper to cut down a series of bushes without the board’s knowledge or consent. They insist on accessing the association roof alongside the roofing contractor to oversee the contractor’s work. They believe serving on the board gives them special privileges.
Word to the wise: Accept the role and responsibilities assigned to you and respect that boards make decisions as a team, not individually.
Number 6: Expecting Personal Favors
It is rare for board members to join the board for the sole purpose of receiving benefits and favors from the association. However, over time board members become more comfortable in their role on the board. They may end up serving multiple years in a row sacrificing their time and energy for the betterment of the community. Unless the association’s governing documents expressly provide for compensation, board members do not receive compensation. Thus, they sometimes develop a sense of entitlement that they deserve a minor favor here and there. After all, they have dutifully served their community for many years in a row.
The expectation of personal favors comes in many forms and sizes. I have seen board members expect late fees to be waived when late on assessment payments. Some board members expect the board to grant them permits or variances to alter their units in ways expressly prohibited by the governing documents. Board members have asked their board to turn a blind eye to ongoing violations such as pets or renters. Board members with access to association credit cards or gift cards may take certain liberties they should otherwise avoid. Associations must treat all members the same, which includes board members. Giving board members special treatment creates a potential for claims of preferential or unfair treatment and exposes the association to legal liability.
Word to the wise: Serving on a board is rewarding and fulfilling because of the positive impact it allows individuals to make for their community. It does not offer compensation or preferential treatment. Acting upon this expectation can be dangerous.
Number 5: Failing to Delegate
Overzealous board members are those individuals who believe they can single-handedly accomplish the seventeen items on the board to-do list. They take it upon themselves to spearhead each board initiative. They invest excessive amounts of time balancing the association budget, working with the designer on the lobby remodel and researching qualified contractors to replace windows throughout the building. They work tirelessly because it is the only gear they know, full speed ahead. When other board members offer assistance they politely decline to ensure “things get done and are done correctly.”
Unfortunately the overzealous board member inevitably hits a wall and burns out. That or they develop frustration and animosity towards other board members for not equally sharing in responsibility. This may cause board breakdown and disconnect.
Word to the wise: Serving on a board means being part of a team and requires allowing other board members to complete association tasks.
Number 4: Betraying Board Loyalty
Like American politics, the political environment within associations evolves over time. Because associations act by majority vote of the board, it only takes the banding together of a few board members to effectively control all board decisions. A board of five is typically controlled by any three individuals that consistently vote together, much like the divide witnessed by Justices on the US Supreme Court. On occasion, associations with longstanding board members experience board overhauls.
Case in point: three of five new owners are elected to serve on the board of directors. The three new board members replace three individuals that had served five years in a row. This change in board composition represents a major overhaul. Sometimes this can be welcome and needed for the community, other times not so much. New waves of board members would benefit from remembering their loyalty lies with the board, not the unit owners. They are elected to serve on behalf of the unit owners and always in their best interest, but their loyalty is to the board.
Word to the wise: Bring fresh new ideas to the board to improve the association but respect the integrity of serving on the board and be mindful of board loyalty.
Number 3: Losing Compassion for Owners
Association members that do not serve on the board often feel board members lack compassion. Interestingly, sometimes they become board members and lose the compassion they once complained about. This is human nature as we all struggle to remain mindful of compassion for others.
I have attended numerous violation hearings with boards threatening to levy significant fines ($500 - $1,000) against owners for violations ranging from pets, renters, parties and drugs. Rules exist for a reason and need to be enforced to ensure the association remains a clean, healthy and desirable place to live. That said, on occasion having compassion for others is the better approach.
For example, levying a $500 or $1,000 fine against an owner that threw a party one time may infuriate him and increase the likelihood of another raging party. Whereas issuing a strict reprimand but foregoing the levying of a fine may decrease the likelihood of another disruptive party. The owner may remember the compassion he received from the board and respect the rules. There is no magic book boards consult when facing association issues like the one above. Instead, they must exercise common sense and good judgment when acting as a board.
Word to the wise: Remain mindful that compassion goes a long way towards building community rapport and preserving a safe and healthy community within which to live.
Number 2: Disclosing Confidential Board Information
Individuals that serve on association boards are exposed to confidential and sensitive information. Information such as alleged rule violators, the nature of those violations, delinquent unit owners, the nature and amount of their delinquency, pending foreclosures, bankruptcy filings, neighbor-to-neighbor disputes, long term board planning, and more. They are trusted with this information and expected to keep it confidential. This requires board members to avoid sharing such information with their husbands, wives, children, neighbors, and friends in the community.
This is easier said than done as non-board members often find confidential information interesting. Moreover, sharing such information with non-board members may cause board members to feel important and powerful. The unauthorized disclosure of confidential board information disrupts the trust shared between board members. It also threatens to embarrass other unit owners and may lead to liability concerns if it reaches the wrong person.
Word to the wise: Respect the sensitive nature of confidential board information and avoid sharing it with others. Think about whether you would want information about you shared with others.
Number 1: Assuming You Know Everything
Far and away the most damaging mindset a board member may have is Mr. Know-It-All. This individual believes because she served as CEO of her wallpaper company for thirty years and served on three separate boards during her lifetime she knows everything. She understands how to perfectly balance the budget, how to handle disruptive unit owners, lead association board meetings, fix broken mechanical components, review contracts, draft declaration amendments, serve as registered agent and much more.
Unfortunately, this is one of the most common board member mindsets. Something about serving on a board of directors of the community in which they live causes people to believe it is easy. After all, it is nothing like running a complex wallpaper business. Actually, it is.
Serving on a community association board may be more important than serving on the board of trustees of a privately held company. The reason is because decisions made by a board directly impact the safety and wellbeing of tens if not hundreds of other people. Furthermore, these people are not just employees, but neighbors and friends. The law imposes a fiduciary responsibility on board members for this very reason. The law is designed to protect the general public and, therefore, expects board members to act with common sense and good judgment at all times.
There are many pitfalls, legal and otherwise, that exist when boards make decisions of any size. If you are not an architect, mechanic, engineer, lawyer, or insurance agent then do not assume you have the knowledge and expertise to make decisions about renovations, boilers, rental amendments and liability insurance. Consult the experts before making important decisions to be sure you are informed and educated about your options. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know. Stop and think about this for a moment.
Word to the wise: Take the time to surround your board with professionals (lawyers, accountants, engineers, insurance agents, property managers) to protect yourself and your association from liability.
For more information and tips on Association topics visit www.shifrinlegal.com.