I Said Order! Running Better Meetings

I Said Order!

 Ever feel like your board meetings last longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle operas?  They certainly don’t last nine hours, but even three hours can be a long time to sit in a chair,  especially when the score doesn’t include the Flight of the Valkyries, and there’s no intermission to get a soda and chips.  

 Many board and HOA members dread their monthly board meetings or the annual  meeting, reporting that their sessions often convene for hours, wasting time,  devolving into pointless shouting matches, complete with name-calling.  Dysfunctional meetings as such can be especially daunting for some,  demoralizing for others, or at the very least, frustrating to those who find  themselves thinking: we all work, we’re all busy volunteers, so let’s get this show on the road.  

 Time Consuming Factors

 According to various industry professionals, probably the single biggest hurdle  in getting people to participate in productive meetings is their own apathy. “It's the most common problem,” says one property manager. “The owners are not all that interested and have a sense of resignation. They  feel like they don’t have much say in what happens, and running the building is what they pay the  managers to do.”  

 Apathetic homeowners tend to have little interest in serving on their board—so when these individuals find themselves in an official capacity, it’s possible for a certain aloofness or listlessness to take hold on a board’s operations. Before long you'll find that the board meetings start late, members are inadequately prepared, absent or  disengaged.  

 Everybody comes with the best of intentions,” says David Baron, a principal of Metro Management, a management company in Long  Island City, New York that manages about 16,000 apartments. “The problem is that many people are coming from work, so they are tired. Often  they have not eaten. The meetings often run late, and sometimes they run off  track, meaning they deviate from the agenda, or [because] something [else]  related comes up. By the 9:30 hour, if you've started at 7:30, everybody is  hungry and tired.”  

 Preparation & Time Management

 If there's an important issue to be discussed or a presentation to be made at  your meetings, it is unreasonable to hand out reams of material on the  particular topic with the expectation of reading it and making a decision on  the spot.  

 The very best way to ensure that meetings end in a timely fashion is to be  prepared, says Baron. “We will work with a board president to prepare an agenda and list of  attachments, and then we will try to circulate it to the other board members in  advance. This way when they come to the meeting, they have read the  attachments, the proposals and the correspondence without having to use  valuable meeting time to read them aloud.”  

 Delivering an agenda, a proposal or a budget prior to addressing the topic at  large makes for better time-management and an efficient execution of the  decision-making process. People need time to read over and digest lengthy  information in order to become comfortable with the material and make an  informed judgment on it.  

 Alfred Ojejinmi, president and CEO of Presbeou Real Estate Services Worldwide, a  management company in New Brunswick, suggests a process in which the manager  collaborates with the board president to compile and organize the agenda's  information.  

 "The first thing is [the manager should] prepare agenda items him or herself,” says Ojejinmi. “There after present them to the board president for discussion, and then there  after solicit other agenda items from other members. Some of the agenda items  require further research and may require further documentation. So the rule of  thumb is give board members a board packet with the agenda and the back up  items at least one week prior to the meetings. If not a week, at least four  days,” he says.  

 In addition, Ojejinmi stress the importance of having a good working  relationship with the board president and board members. He also intervenes in  the board's preparation and discussions to maintain the appearance of order and  cooperation among the unit owners.  

 "I am of the opinion that to have an effective board meeting, you should have  workshops prior to the meeting. Get a sort of consensus on the issues so that  when you get to the board meeting, they're not debating in front of the  homeowners—they're basically just approving and explaining what they've done."  

 Incorporating Proper Procedure

 Another way to maintain order on a potentially unruly meeting is to implement  parliamentary procedure, through processes like Robert’s Rules of Order, for example.  

 “You can formally adopt written procedural rules by amending your bylaws to  specify books like Robert’s shall be your parliamentary authority,” says Jim Slaughter, an attorney, a certified professional parliamentarian and a  professional registered parliamentarian based in Greensboro, North Carolina. “This authority then governs the procedure, except [where prohibited by] higher  authorities, such as federal or state law, your governing documents or other  specially adopted rules of order. The parliamentary authority can also be  supplemented with specific rules.”  

 Tried-and-true instructions spelled out in a procedural manual like Robert’s Rulesof Order help to focus on a meeting’s objectives and ensure the meeting runs its proper course. This is not to say  that every HOA board needs to adhere to strict parliamentary procedure for  every decision made at every meeting, of course, as it can be a cumbersome way  to go about meetings which tend to be often less formal.  

 “Smaller boards and committees can—and sometimes should be—more informal,” says Slaughter. “In fact, Robert’s Rules notes that formality can actually hinder business in a meeting of fewer than a  dozen people. In smaller boards, members aren’t required to obtain the floor, and can make motions or speak while seated;  motions need not be seconded; there is no limit to the number of times a member  can speak to a question; motions to close or limit debate generally aren’t used; and the chair usually can make motions and vote on all questions.”  

 If smaller boards need to formalize their proceedings, they can always do so at  will, but in the event of larger meetings, formality can be a safeguard.  

 “Annual meetings of a community association really have be more formal due to the  number of members present. Debate must be limited to keep the meeting on time,  and formal votes help avoid legal challenges to actions that are taken, says  Slaughter.”  

 Ways to Shortcut

 Another common problem that frequently derails board meetings is the tendency to  “analyze things to death,” says Chip Hoever, founder and managing partner of Somerset Management Group LLC  in Somerset. “We sometimes make a $100,000 decision in 42 seconds, but whether or not to spend  $1.50 goes on ad nauseam.”  

 Hoever takes the direct approach in these matters, recommending that boards “keep things in perspective, make a decision and move on.” Hoever also recalls meetings during which members begin jumping around to  random items on the agenda. While it's an annoyance, Hoever says it's important  that the item-jumper doesn't feel they're being silenced.  

 Other times, a conversation may be on-item, but discussion has derailed into a  tangent. Bob Gillenberger, a property manager with RJ Development Co. in  Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, acknowledges that “it's really tough when people get upset when you cut them off. They feel they're  not being acknowledged. But you can only go so far with one issue."  

 Meetings will invariably depart into tangents, say the professionals, and even  in discussions that are devoted to specific topics, the time spent on each  agenda item can be prolonged. When this happens, someone needs to play  timekeeper.  

 “A beginning time and an ending time are both critical,” says one manager. “What happens between those times is up to the board and the person who is  running the meeting. I know that when I conduct board meetings, if everyone is  not there, I begin anyway—and I haven’t received any negative feedback about that so far.”  

 Other Factors

 Board to homeowner interactions can be greatly influenced by the size of the  building or development, which can affect the board’s meetings, says Baron. “In very small buildings, it’s more of a neighborly camaraderie, because in a 10-unit building, everyone is  on the board. It’s easier if the building is larger because they are able to be more objective.  If you're in a building with 1,250 apartments, you won’t know all your neighbors.”  

 Whether the meeting is open to the homeowners at large is another factor that  may affect the length of the meeting, especially in larger buildings, where  there is an issue that might spark a debate. If meetings run too long, everyone  who wishes to speak may not get the chance. There are also issues that may not  be prudent to discuss at an open meeting.  

 “Human nature is to be more cautious in an open meeting, an open forum,” says Baron. “You want to respect people’s confidentiality. Arrears cases, for example, are discussed in closed session.”  

 One solution is a compromise, of sorts. “Depending on the building, many buildings will have an open session, for half an  hour, for example, and then the meeting will close for an executive session,” he says.  

 If your board meetings are in need of an overhaul, consider these  recommendations from Baron: “Prepare the agenda in advance with all the attachments. Distribute them before  the meeting. Always have something to eat or to drink, chips, cookies soda. Set  time limits. If you are sitting in a room for four hours, there is something  wrong. A productive meeting should last no more than two to two and half hours.”  

 Also another tip: don’t call a meeting unless you really have to. Meetings are usually scheduled for  once a month, and there are lots times when meetings are held, and there is  really no point to them except that they are on the calendar.   

 Denton Tarver is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe New Jersey Cooperator.

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