If the police are called to break up a fight at a board meeting, most directors will recognize that a problem has been allowed to escalate overtime. Fortunately, most condo boards will never find themselves in a situation such as this. Still, many other less dramatic yet problematic situations can go unrecognized and, if not addressed, be just as devastating.
Situations that occur more frequently could include the director who constantly interrupts meetings, argues constantly, brings up pet peeves, breaks board confidentiality, or saunters forth across the condo property and holds informal meetings with owners.
Every condo needs a high-functioning board of directors that provides the best possible governance for their condominium. It does not mean that there will never be disagreements; in fact, disagreeing and debate are critical to making the best decisions.
It is easy to blame one person for being the problem. Problems and problematic people do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in the complex environment of a board of directors that is made up of people. How does a director get labelled as problematic? Is there a set of criteria that identifies them? Is it the board that votes to determine who to label as such?
No, it is much more subtle and usually starts with one director finding another to be difficult. It is not so much the person, but rather their behaviour that is problematic. Their transgression could be significant or it could be much more minor.
Most condo boards do not have a large pool of potential candidates who are willing to serve. It is all too often a case where anyone showing any interest gets elected. Good advice is always to be careful choosing directors, but when most directors are elected by acclamation, this advice becomes meaningless.
Likewise, it is often suggested that boards with problematic directors remove them. Again, this advice is not practical as removing a director is complicated and must be carried out according to provincial condo legislation and the condo’s own rules and regulations.
Removing a problematic director is worth the effort when a major transgression occurs, such as a fight or financial fraud. In other cases, it is better to address or even be proactive to prevent problematic incidents.
Set the stage and be proactive
Boards welcome new directors regularly. There is no better opportunity than immediately after an election to provide a thorough orientation on being a condo board director.
Setting the stage goes a long way in ensuring that all board members know from the beginning what is acceptable and what is not. Proactivity is always preferable to reactivity. Being proactive nips emerging problematic behaviour before it gets big enough to destroy a board.
In the orientation, be sure to include the following principles: forget about themselves; wear the right hat; agree to disagree but never in public; intervene as soon as problems start; and respect diversity.
1) Forget about themselves
Directors are required to make decisions in the best interest of the condo corporation. A board can function effectively only if its directors act in the condo’s best interests. It is highly problematic if a director allows their personal interests to override a decision. For example, when enforcing rules, no director can change a rule to suit their own interests.
This does not mean that the director with a specific cause to promote cannot bring it up for discussion, but the orientation will inform them of how to bring up their cause in a way that doesn’t result in a problematic situation.
2) Wear the right hat
The analogy of remembering to wear the right hat is a good one for board directors. It refers to the fact that directors are directors only when on official business for their condominium; thus they wear their board hat. This includes board meetings, annual meetings, special meetings or any other situation where official business is taking place. At all other times, the individual is an ordinary owner and wears their owner’s hat.
New directors often find dealing with these situations problematic. Many directors complain that owners want to talk to them about board business the minute they step outside their door. After all, the newly elected director is also an owner and knows their neighbours. Talking with their neighbours is normal, but how can the newly elected director politely steer the conversation away from board business.
Owners must understand that having a friend on the board is not a means to gaining insider information. A couple of approaches will help. Give new directors advice on how to deal with this at their first board meeting. Even better is to remind the owners at every AGM to refrain from questioning the directors and explain why every director will not answer their questions.
3) Agree to disagree but never in public
Boards make decisions by voting on motions. Once a motion is approved by a majority vote, the board collectively agrees with the decision even if some directors did not vote in favour. It is expected that debate will occur before a vote, but once the voting is over, solidarity results. A director can disagree on a decision, but it is never appropriate for the details of the disagreement to become public.
When knowing how to deal with these particular situations has been covered during the new director orientation, directors understand why board confidentiality and solidarity are essential.
4) Intervene as soon as problems start
Prevention of problematic situations is not always possible. If one director considers another director as problematic, despite an excellent board orientation, it is time to act. More frequently, the problem is allowed to continue and fester.
Directors need to work together. When problems occur, every director takes on the responsibility of finding a resolution. Even better would be a policy that directors agree to follow when issues arise.
Nothing stops a director from approaching another, outside of a board meeting, and discussing whatever the problem might be. There is also nothing stopping a director from adding an agenda item to the meeting to discuss board relations. It could be possible that the director labelled as “problematic” is not the problem at all or has no idea why others perceive them as being a problem.
5) Respecting diversity
Misunderstandings can arise for many reasons, including differences in communication styles between men and women, differences in age, race or languages used.
It could be that one director has assumed a position of leadership that is not appreciated by some of the board. It might be that one director does most of the talking and leaves others feeling unable to participate. Another director could take a disagreement personally and feel slighted or even insulted by the discussion. In the heat of an intense debate, it is easy for directors to injure feelings. Any of these situations present prime opportunities for problems to surface.
It is the collective responsibility of the board to prevent and address problematic situations as soon as they occur.
Begin with the end in mind
Condo boards need directors who can work with each other respectfully, encouraging discussion, resulting in best decisions for the condo corporation. Anything less means that the board and its directors are not fulfilling the position’s requirements for which they were elected. When a board functions cohesively, it is acting in the corporation’s best interests.
Pat Crosscombe is the past president of her condo board and the founder and CEO of BoardSpace, a company that provides board management software for condo boards and property managers.