Maintaining a stable, successful residential community depends on how well the various stakeholders involved in that common goal come together to achieve it. Unless a building or association is self-managed, a huge part of this equation is establishing and maintaining an active collaboration between the association’s board and their hired management professionals. Boards and property managers shoulder most of the burden of running multifamily communities day-to-day—so how the two parties deal with each other is crucial to maintaining harmony and property value.
Ask any manager anywhere in the country what the most important skill in their professional toolkit is, and chances are, they’ll say the same thing: communication. Open and frequent communication between management and board is crucial to establishing the professional dynamic necessary for an association to thrive.
And, says Alex K. Kuffel, president of Pride Property Management in New York City, part of being a good communicator in this context is knowing who you’re communicating with. He urges managers to get to know board members both as unique governing bodies and as individuals, to assess their respective contributions and find out what they expect from management.
“Board members volunteer their time without pay,” Kuffel notes, “so it’s on management to do all that we can to assist in a timely manner, and to try and be as proactive as possible, rather than acting passively and always requiring direction and guidance for routine, common-sense things.”
That said, for the sake of accountability and transparency, most managers keep their client boards in the loop for anything beyond the most minor of decisions. “We blind-copy the board on almost all of our emails,” says Jackie Monzon, co-founder of New York City-based Crystal Real Estate Management, Inc., “and we never take it upon ourselves to make a major decision for a property, whether it be a change of vendor, a staffing decision, or a repair. I have encountered some management companies that believe the property is theirs once a contract is signed, but we believe otherwise. Your manager works for you, and all decisions should be group decisions. We are there to advise and facilitate.”
To that end, management should be within arm’s reach of a board at all times, according to Richard E. Stern, president of Sutton Management in North Andover, Massachusetts. “When a crucial issue presents itself, the board needs to be able to contact a manager without limitations,” he says. “Whether it’s a broken pipe or collection issue, management needs to be ready to respond with a quick email. And at bare minimum, boards and management of large properties should hold monthly meetings. Smaller properties can get away with holding them quarterly. These meetings should be used for review of all financial reports, delinquencies, and contracts that need to be signed, along with any resident issues and violations.”
All of the above is verified by Las Vegas board member and real estate investor Erica Chih. “I’m very concerned if management does not communicate, respond, or attend to requests right away, or if they are unable to at least acknowledge the board and let us know that they’ll take care of the issue at hand,” she says. “I find that in many cases, the principals and executive team within a management company are disconnected from the clients. And I would urge that at least once per month, leaders of the management company reach out to their boards and schedule some face time to ensure that services are being met.
“Typically,” Chih continues, “by the time leadership gets involved, it’s because the board is ready to change management. That’s reactive, as opposed to proactive. All of that said, a board should never rely on a community manager alone to ensure that services are being met.”
Chih urges managers to ask as many questions as necessary when working with client boards, to document things thoroughly, and to maintain professional candor. “Never lie or try to cover something up and make excuses,” she says. “As a board member, I prefer emailed communication to ensure documentation. Phone calls are sometimes necessary, when the time is appropriate. But do not call me at 6:30 p.m. to advise me that you’ve, say, contacted the security company about issues I’ve raised.”
Although managers are obviously paid to know about and handle aspects of running a building or HOA on the board’s behalf, that doesn’t mean they’re always in the right, or that even seasoned management professionals shouldn’t be steadily learning and sharpening their skill set. The same applies to boards—even long-serving board members can find themselves veering down the wrong path from time to time, and can benefit from some course correction. While it’s certainly easier said than done, a mutual willingness to consider different viewpoints, take constructive criticism, and evolve from there is imperative in order to run an association.
“Never think that you have all the answers,” advises Monzon. “It doesn’t hurt for a novice manager to admit to a board member when they’re not familiar with something. The manager can explain that they will quickly find out what needs to be done, and get back to the board promptly with the necessary information. Humility and honesty are key when someone is new to something.”
While having years of prior management experience is definitely helpful when taking on a new client community, all boards are created differently, with different temperaments, different priorities, and different levels of engagement with residents. A good manager must be ready to adjust their approach to meet client boards where they are, rather than insisting on a rigid, one-size-fits-all template for every community they work with. Stern adds that management can also benefit by designating a specific board member as the primary board/management liaison. This can help cut down on managers feeling bombarded from all directions, and reduce the chances for miscommunication. Stern says his client communities designate a single trustee on the board to relay the board’s wishes, questions, and other management-related questions to his company.
And managers shouldn’t just maintain radio silence unless some crisis arises. “There should never be any mystery,” urges Kuffel. “I find daily emails from management to board members, as things happen, to be the most expedient. If nothing in particular or of urgency has gone down, then a once-weekly update for informational purposes is helpful.”
Of course, harmony is never more than temporary, and even in otherwise peaceable communities, conflict will inevitably arise. The true measure of a board/management relationship is not whether conflict never happens—it’s how quickly and equitably that conflict can be handled when it appears.
Stern notes that when conflicts occur, it’s often because board members or trustees let their personal agendas take precedence over the needs of the association at large. “I always go back to the master deed and trust,” says Scott Dalley, a real estate management consultant based in Maine. “The management company has to point out that, even if the board does not like how the condominium documents address certain issues, their job is not to interject personal opinion into the interpretation of the documents.”
“While management needs to provide guidance, they must maintain a neutral position relative to the board members, even if some of those members are in the wrong,” says Chih. “Should management side with certain board members over others, it would create immediate ill-will, and bring management into the conflict. Instead, management could offer training, or have someone else step in to diffuse the turmoil.”
“Remain professional and business-like,” urges Kuffel. “Don’t unload any personal issues onto the board, and never speak against another board member or resident, no matter how unpopular he or she is with the board, or within the community. Never put in writing something you would not want published for others to read. And, if asked for your opinion about someone or something, be mindful of what you say and how you say it. It should be polite, accurate, and unable to be misinterpreted.”
And Monzon recommends that management never take anything personally. “There will always be disagreements with some members of a board,” she says. “The key approach is to talk it out and listen to what someone is expressing. Note their concerns, and discuss what they want. Learn to compromise, but explain why a different approach may benefit them, if the situation warrants.”
Should management, board, or both find themselves at a loss as to how best to engage with the other, there are resources that can help them navigate turbulent waters.
“In Florida, the state requires board members to take a course in order to have some basic competency and understanding,” adds Stern. “They also have a licensing requirement for managers. Unfortunately, there are no requirements like this in the Northeast. But I would love to see board members take that course, which could better help to define board and management roles.”
In a similar vein, Kuffel recommends keeping an ear and an eye out for local seminars that may prove relevant. “Personal experience is often the best resource,” he says. “Talk to seasoned or senior managers for tips and guidance based on their many years in the business. And staff meetings are always useful for brainstorming and problem solving, especially in the case where there’s a sensitive issue between board and management.”
Cooper Smith is a staff writer/reporter with CooperatorNews.
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