Every day, community association board members across the country are making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to solve problems and move their communities toward their goals. Making these decisions, which affect the value of homeowners’ investments and the quality of their lives, is the primary work of boards.
To make consistently wise decisions, boards must first create the right conditions. Fortunately, with help and practice, boards can achieve the conditions that will produce high-quality decisions that residents will respect. To do so, they must focus not only on what to decide, but how to make the decision. Here are five steps to help them along:
Seek input from people with varying experience, education and perspective. Reach out to all segments of the community on an ongoing basis. The board cannot develop solutions that further the community’s common interest if all views are not considered. The board should aim its antennae at those segments of the community that otherwise would not be heard. Building these links will help keep a community from becoming fragmented and may mend previous fractures.
Board and committee members should reflect the diversity of the community to the greatest extent possible. While owners ultimately decide the makeup of the board, current board members can assist. Prior to each election, they could appoint a committee to identify and encourage a broad range of candidates, each of whom would bring unique qualifications to the board. They can discourage slates of candidates with similar backgrounds and positions.
To augment the knowledge and abilities of board members themselves, boards should take advantage of the expertise of the manager, attorney and outside experts. The best boards strive to fully vet major issues at the committee level before considering them, develop standards for the conduct of committee meetings and may even provide annual training to help committee chairs to run more productive committee meetings.
Establish discussion rules that stimulate board members’ creativity and fact-finding. Most association bylaws and some states require boards to operate under some system of parliamentary procedure, such as Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. Parliamentary procedures are designed to minimize the ability of a few to hijack large assemblies, not to facilitate the process of small groups, says Lawrence E. Susskind and Jeffery L. Cruikshank, authors of Breaking Robert’s Rules: The New Way to Run Your Meeting, Build Consensus and Get Results. Fortunately, most parliamentary systems allow boards to step outside the traditional “motion-second-discussion-vote” lockstep. When operating by general, unanimous or silent consent, boards may dispense with most of the standard rules. Similarly, boards may adjourn to a “committee of the whole,” allowing boards to discuss important issues without members feeling pressured to take positions too early.
If necessary, associations can adopt simpler, group-friendly procedural rules. These rules allow the use of well-accepted meeting facilitation tools—such as a neutral meeting facilitator, a white board and brainstorming—enabling the board to engage in a more productive dialogue to address community problems and opportunities.
Board chairs might reverse the order of speaking, letting those who are uncertain and not as far in their thought process, speak first. They are more likely to ask questions and identify uncertainties. This helps prevent the group from going too far down one road, realizing later that it must back up.
As a teaching tool, a helpful practice is to ask each board member to find merit in a point offered by the previous speaker before offering another comment. One water company board used a talking stick, which is a tradition of Native American tribal councils. Only the member holding the talking stick was allowed to speak. Before the stick could be passed on, the other members had to find value in what the speaker had shared. Such techniques help combat the tendency for members to focus so hard on what they want to say that they don’t truly listen to other contributions.
Define and understand the problem before developing potential solutions. Sometimes just identifying the problem can be a major feat. For example, based on a belief that the presence of many renters was lowering property values, one board considered setting a limit on the percentage of units that could be rented. Only after being questioned by the owner of one of the rental units, did they realize that the real problem was a relatively small number of rental units that weren’t being well-maintained. Asking “why?” repeatedly helps a board drill down to the real problem.
Once the board has identified the problem, brainstorm alternative solutions. This helps open up individuals’ thinking and increases the likelihood that the board will implement a solution that truly addresses the problem at hand. Keep the community’s vision statement in mind by posting it on a wall during meetings.
Analyze options simultaneously, not sequentially. Many boards fall into the trap of discussing one proposal at a time, deciding whether to accept or reject it. Instead, wise boards recognize that decision-making is choosing between alternative courses of action. They consider the pros and cons of several alternatives simultaneously, which allows them to select the alternative that best meets the community’s interests.
Don’t allow one person to unduly influence the group. Some board members love to talk, have much they wish to share and prefer to frame the discussion by being the first to speak. Others make up their minds more slowly and usually wait to hear what others have to say before sharing their views. Both extremes pose equal risks to board success.
Make simultaneous individual decisions. One of the paradoxes of a sound group process is that, in making their individual decisions, board members should not be at all concerned about what the group decision will be. Each board member must make up his or her own mind based on all the information that has been developed and analyzed. Every board member should be willing to keep his or her mind open until the end. Before voting, the chair should ensure that the discussion has addressed the concerns of all board members.
Choose solutions that best serve the entire community’s interests. All board decisions must be consistent with prevailing law and the association’s governing documents. The governing documents should provide a framework for the board’s decision-making, not too vague and not too detailed. Within that, the board should select the course of action that its reasoned analysis and dialogue have indicated will provide the greatest benefit for the entire community over the long term. This may be what most owners want, but not always.
Most homeowners will accept and even support a decision they don’t agree with, as long as they know that their perspectives and concerns were heard and, even more importantly, considered. Help community members understand the rationale used in reaching the decision. Detail the criteria. If appropriate, make findings available to provide context for the decision.
Board members have taken on what often seems a thankless role. What they gain is an unparalleled opportunity to develop and implement high-quality decisions that can shape their community for the better for years to come.
Adapted from “Tough Choices” written by Thomas Frutchey, CMCA, AMS, Common Ground Magazine 2009