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Tips for Smooth, Productive Meetings Controlled Chaos

Condominium associations, homeowners association (HOA), and co-op boards generally hold regular board meetings to get input from residents, resolve problems within the community, develop budgets for the upcoming year and handle any issues that homeowners need to talk about.

Since most HOA boards are comprised of volunteers who may or may not be well-versed in group dynamics and effective communication methods in a group setting, sometimes board meetings can wander off course, resulting in a lot of wasted time and not much done. In order for a co-op or condo board to run smooth, productive meetings, it is important that both board members and residents hone their communication skills, show each other due respect, and not allow personal feelings to get in the way of doing what's best for their community.

I Want it My Way

"The most common meeting-related problem I have seen," says Nancy Hastings, CMCA/AMS, of MAMCO Property Management in Mt. Laurel, "is people coming to a particular board meeting with the sole intent of just getting something off their chest or righting something that they feel is wrong."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, Hastings continues, but problems can arise when those people—either board members or non-board members—over-focus and make the entire meeting about their problem. "Sometimes they don't read the materials that have been provided for them in advance," says Hastings. "All they are focusing on is that particular issue, and that can be very disruptive."

It's only natural for most people to care about their issues first, says Diane Dangler, CMCA of DHD Management in Oceanport, but it's important that they go into the meeting prepared to give equal attention to all the issues facing the board that day.

"There certainly should be an open session allowing for residents' questions and answers," says Dangler, "but deviating too much from an agenda and allowing one or two people in the audience to monopolize the meeting can become a big problem. I advise my boards to try and address an agitated member's problem, but keep [the response] to a minimum. Don't let them rehash and rehash. Respond, and then follow up the day after the meeting." It's at these times when the president of the association must take a stand and keep the meeting orderly, says Dangler.

Ask Robert

One of the best tools at a board president's disposal for running a smooth, productive board or shareholder meeting is a clearly defined agenda and a formal structure for the discourse to follow. It's the president's job to spell out the game plan at the outset of the meeting and make sure that everyone there is on the same page and ready to follow the agenda consistently and allow ample time for the board members to discuss the issues.

A simple and well-respected source for that structure is Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (2000), the set of guidelines that can be used by any organization looking to adopt parliamentary procedure in their own business dealings. According to the National Association of Parliamentarians (NAP), an organization based in Independence, Missouri, board meetings should follow some version of the outline below:

I. Call to Order

II. Opening (optional)

III. Roll Call (if customary)

IV. Reading and Approval of Minutes

V. Reports of Officers, Boards, and Standing Committees

VI. Reports of Special Committees (only if such committees are prepared or instructed to report)

VII. Special Orders (announced only if there are special orders)

VIII. Unfinished Business and General Orders

IX. New Business

X. Announcements

XI. Program (if a program or a speaker is planned for the meeting)

XII. Adjourn

By tweaking this outline to best fit the board's individual needs, meeting administrators can gently but firmly keep discussion and debate on-track and prevent things from wandering off course into time-wasting, unproductive rambling.

Common-Sense Etiquette

According to the professionals, the vast majority of the people at board and shareholder meetings are there for a reason: to actively participate in the governing of their community. In light of that, some simple courtesy is in order, says Jeffrey Garfinkel of Realty Management Concepts in Parsippany. Try to help people who are upset; arrive on time and keep to the agenda; don't talk during issues; allow people who have the floor to keep the floor."

It's also important to regulate the flow of discourse and make sure everyone gets the opportunity to voice their opinion. Of all the common-sense advice on running better meetings, however, one thing stands out above all others, says Garfinkel. "Listening to people is so very important, as is answering their questions in a polite manner. If someone shows up [to cause trouble] and things get out of control, a board may have to adjourn the meeting to stop that person in their tracks that way. They should be warned, 'If you can't behave properly, we will adjourn this meeting.'"

Another thing that boards should be cognizant of is the length of the meetings. No one wants to be sitting there hours on end—regardless of whether things are getting done or not. "A really effective policy involving meeting length is important for any board," says Hastings, and offers a piece of advice: "Don't exceed two-and-a-half hours, no matter what the situation is."

Of course, the bigger the development, the more opinions there are, and the greater the likelihood of meandering meetings that last four hours and accomplish next to nothing.

"When something like that happens, it's very important for the president of the association to call [for] order and make sure [everyone] sticks to the agenda," adds Hastings. "There's really no other way around it. There's a fine line between ample time and droning on."

Hastings warns, however, that an overzealous president can cause as much damage as an unfocused or unruly board. "Sometimes a president can take [the agenda] to the extreme," she says. "They run the meeting, and they want to stick to the agenda, but then they don't give ample time to discuss the issues raised. I think that adhering to the agenda is one of the harder things to do at the meeting, but it's also important to hear people out in order to get things resolved."

Crossing the Line

Even worse than meandering or inflexible meetings is the situation that arises on a board where no one gets along and people are at each other's throats throughout the entire meeting. It goes without saying that those meetings are usually counterproductive.

"I've had some boards like that," says Dangler, "and that's when the manager really has to step in and keep people on track and make sure there are positive discussions. People may not get along, but you can usually get a consensus at a board meeting. If they can't get along at all, then something has to be changed."

"A manager has to very politely point out that there is business at hand, decisions need to be made, and people have to be professional," says Garfinkel. "Not all boards have to be friendly to be effective—some boards hate each other."

If disruptions and confrontational exchanges at board meetings start to become the norm rather than the exception, one solution may be to bring in the property manager as mediator.

"The managers in our company act as support—[boards] will ask us to come to a meeting and assist them in getting things together when things start to get out of hand," says Hastings. "I always recommend that. Sometimes you will get a board member who just has a one-track mind, and it helps if someone outside comes in to move things along. Of course, that means that management companies sometimes don't win in the popularity polls."

Dangler thinks that a manager's help can be invaluable. "As a manager, I'd say, 'We're getting off track. Let's get through this meeting and cover the topics we need to cover.' I always talk to a board president at the beginning to familiarize myself with the agenda, and I may hear from other board members too."

The Meeting Manager

Managers need not only be consulted in times of trouble, however. Many property managers make it a habit of being on hand at meetings in order to lend expert advice and answer questions.

Prior to most board meetings, says Garfinkel, a list of the topics that will be discussed should be made available for all board members, the manager, and anyone else who comes to the meeting. One way for a president or manager to keep a board meeting running smoothly is to familiarize him or herself with the memo ahead of time.

"I feel it's really important for the manager to be prepared in advance so they can possibly preempt the questions and discussions that come up so the topics can move along," says Garfinkel. "This saves time at the meeting and allows for everything to run at a good pace."

Behind Closed Doors

"Some boards may open the floor to homeowners at the beginning and some may do it at the end," says Hastings. "Copies of the agenda should be made for everyone in attendance so everyone can follow along with the meeting."

Regardless of when homeowners are invited in to have their say, ask questions, and voice grievances, say the managers, it's important to realize that there are items on any board's agenda that are for the board's ears only. These special instances should be discussed in "executive sessions" that are not open to the general association membership.

"Executive session is where the board covers items in litigation and discuss employee disciplinary procedures," says Dangler. Other points that are nobody's business but the board include "a particular homeowner's personal issues—like non-payment of fees—or certain contract or bidding issues."

Even when the subjects at hand are not for discussion among the general association membership, managers should always present a very clear agenda so everyone present is aware of the protocol and knows what's going to happen, says Dangler. This will not only give non-board members a sense of inclusion, but will help keep things on the subjects at hand; people will more likely follow proper etiquette if things are spelled out and orderly from the get-go.

The bottom line, say the experts, is that holding effective meetings isn't something that comes naturally to most people. It takes forethought and focus to keep a group of individuals on-task and motivated while diffusing conflict and effectively addressing the issues that come up in any association. No matter what the issue or how large the association however, the most important thing in board meetings is proper communication. If a board can listen to each other and respectfully express their views without letting things get disruptive, it will make for a happier board and a happier community.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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