Fighting Apathy #1: Condo Board Get to Yes Stretch

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Building upon my first post of the year, I am going to be posting tips to combating apathy in Associations.  These will be tips for everyone – Owners, Board members, and Management, focusing on different techniques.  Let’s start off with the first exercise: The Condo Board Get to Yes stretch.  

Big bureaucracies – government is the worst offender of this – love one word:  “No.”  Can you help me?  “No.”  It’s the path of least resistance for many organizations.  It doesn’t require creative thinking, it’s often completely justifiable by the rules, and it is many times the worst possible answer.  Unsurprisingly, it is quite easy for an Association to slip into a “No” culture.  

Often “No” is the right answer, and it may not even be the easiest answer.  An Association has to look out for the whole, not individuals.  But an Association should also be trying to make life better for Owners when it can.  An Association’s Board needs to remember that even if Owners are largely apathetic towards their governance, the Board needs to look out for them, do the right thing, and be creative problem solvers.  Turning into a “No” factory breeds a culture that doesn’t look to do the right thing or solve problems.  This means that the creative muscles of the Board will atrophy, and when your Board is faced with a tough problem, you won’t have the right attitude or mindset to solve it effectively.  

Thus, the Board Member Get-to-Yes Stretch.  This is a conscious exercise where, when faced with a problem, rather than saying “No” and moving on to the next issue – you find a way to get to “Yes.”  Let me give you an example.  We had an Owner who had done some architectural modifications to their unit without permission (it was discovered during a maintenance visit).  In the process, the Owner unknowingly managed to violate in a minor way (but still violate) building codes and even intrude upon a space that was an unused common element that bordered a maintenance closet.  The Owner had spent a lot of money on the modifications.  Rather than coming in guns blazing (and trust me – many Owners do this, even when they’re wrong), the Owner was very apologetic, very humble, and indicated they would do whatever it took to allow the modifications to stay.  

Make your Board's mind as flexible as this guy in your quest for Yes. (credit - China Daily News)
Make your Board’s mind as flexible as this guy in your quest for Yes. (credit – China Daily News)

It would have been very, very easy for us to say “no” and make the Owner pay to restore things to the original state.  That would have been a completely responsible approach as a Board – the Owner violated our bylaws and rules.  But the Owner was very earnest – which goes a long wayand I volunteered to come up with a plan.  This made it my responsibility and my time, not the Board’s as a whole.  The Board was supportive (and some others helped out too) – we wanted to try to Get to Yes.  

My proposed plan, which the Board accepted, was for the Owner to to hire appropriate engineers (determined by the Association’s counsel, at Owner cost) to certify there were no impacts to the building, perform any remedial work, and sign a legal agreement (which would transfer to future Owners of the unit) that acknowledged the breach of the common area and that the Association could force a reversion if needed in the future.  At the start of the process, we made it clear to the Owner that if any of these steps proved unsolvable, the Owner would be compelled to pay to restore the unit to original condition.  The Owner was so ecstatic we were working with them as opposed to just saying “No” that they agreed to the process and happily paid all of the Associated costs.

It was a happy ending – the Owner got to keep their changes after satisfying all of our concerns.  The Association did not incur any real cost beyond a volunteer Board member’s time and a trivial amount of Management’s time.  Everything else was paid for by the Owner.  We also established a precedent we felt comfortable with – others could make similar modifications if they obtained the same approvals – preferably proactively in the future – and agreed to the same legal agreement.  

I don’t tell this story to pat myself on the back, I tell it because the answer doesn’t always have to be “No.”  But there are some principles to adhere to:

  1. The Board – or an empowered subset – needs to have the time to dedicate to the problem.  Sometimes bigger priorities will force a “no” – but oftentimes someone has bandwidth.
  2. There must be minimal or no cost to the Association.  Shifting the cost to the Owner with the need is a fair tactic, because you can see how badly he or she wants it.  Clearly this was a motivated Owner – he didn’t want to have to pay more money to revert the changes.  But this also weeds out lazy Owners who are just trying to make the Association do work.
  3. The precedent needs to be one you’d do for others.  It can’t be special treatment, and it must be legally defensible.

This is why we call it a “stretch.”  While it is a lot of work – it forces you to think outside of the box.  It forces you to do more than “check the box” as a Board member.  Efforts like this will come back in the form of good karma – it will build your reputation as a good Board and a good Association, and it will make you a smarter and better team.  Fight apathy and help your Condo Board get to yes!

 


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