April 30th, 2014 by David Burman

A steam locomotive is a brilliantly simple and effective machine.  Despite its simplicity, there is much that must be done to keep it moving.  On board, there are the stokers, brakemen, engineers, mechanics, and conductors.  Like much that came of age during the Industrial Revolution, from factories to hamburger stands, every specialized cog in the wheel is vitally important as a part of a larger system.  With each team member focusing on their unique role, efficiency was wildly enhanced and despite the negative effects on the individual, the world underwent an unprecedented period of growth and economic success.

But imagine a locomotive barreling down the tracks and every team member is shoveling coal, or oiling the various mechanisms, or the whole team is crowded into the conductor’s seat.  The locomotive will eventually hit the end of the tracks, another train, or the boiler will cool and the engine simply stops.  Even though he doesn’t shovel one lump of coal or oil one gear, the most important role on the locomotive is the conductor.  A community association is also a deceptively simple machine, with owners, managers, Board members, and third parties each responsible for their sheet of music within the symphony.  Just like a locomotive, the role that each individual plays is fundamental to success and community harmony.  Board members are the conductors of the community association and when they ignore their critical role by wrapping themselves up the axles of day-to-day management, the community association’s goals and objectives can be compromised.

Why is it a problem?
So why is it so bad that the Board President routinely meets with vendors or deals with even the most mundane owner phone call?   First, consider that it may not be a universally bad thing.  It can provide the Board member eye-opening insight into the difficulties a manager encounters with an unreasonable homeowner or the frustration of waiting on an itinerant vendor.  It may engender a stronger collaborative feeling among the team, something many corporation and sports teams pay millions for.  Managers should be willing to consider that a little intrusion may not always be a terrible thing.

However, among every team, the degree to which each member performs their tasks, and respects and supports the other team member’s ability to do the same, predetermines the team’s success.  Teams that have allowed these distinctions to become muddied overlook important tasks while performing other twice.  They lose sight of strategic goals.  They miss opportunities.  What was once a focused and orderly flow of events devolves into a rudderless puzzle.   For the manager this causes not only confusion and stagnancy, Board members may eventually begin to question the benefit the manager delivers.

Is it something I said?
We have all had the experience when, at a young age, we undertake a task a little beyond our experience or capability.  It is a very important part of learning.  Impatient with the process, busy parents quickly tire of the process and seize the project to do it themselves.  Because it infers you were not capable of even learning the task, it may engender sensitivities about our personal abilities.  However, the manager should avoid the automatic and perhaps natural assumption that the Board members’ excursions into management are a consequence of distrust or lack of confidence in the manager’s ability or actions.  The reasons a Board member may interject himself or herself in this way are as varied as the reasons they are on the Board in the first place.  It could be that they truly believe they are helping the manager or the community.  They may enjoy the immediate satisfaction that follows tangible day-to-day results.   Of course, there are alpha Board members who seize control of business because that is simply how they are designed.  It may not even be related to any lack of confidence in the manager.  Unable or unwilling to delegate and usually unaware of the effect they are having on the manager or the community, these Board members desire intensive contact with every facet of Association business.

What can I do?
Like all relationships, honest communication is the best starting point. Avoid politicking with, or complaining to, other Board members or owners.  Do not shrink away for the discussion that must be had.   Avoid singling out any Board member or treating the concern as one solely about a specific personality.  Doing anything that undermines trust between the manager and Board will surely be counterproductive.  Consider starting with a candid and private discussion with the Board member about not only how the perceived intrusion undermines your position but also how the muddying of the roles eventually harms the Association.  Talk through ways you can improve the segregation of duties and roles so that the Board can maintain the level of oversight he or she desires while also respecting reasonable boundaries.  Suggest regular reporting to the Board.  Suggest seminars, for the whole Board, that focus on business management such as Carver’s Servant Leadership and Policy Governance Model of Leadership.  At all times, remember that you are attempting to solve a problem that involves people, some of whom may not have any experience with a community association.  Recognize that they may only need education and direction and not complaints.

Much of these Board member/manager relationships develop and mature over time as trust increases.  But it cannot happen overnight.  Nor can getting the right people in the right positions on the locomotive, a task made doubly difficult as Board members come and go.  Community managers, despite the difficulties and sometime unreasonable expectations that are incident to their job, must strive to be a professional and stable influence in the community.  This is no time for anger or fear.  For a manager who is intolerant of intrusions into their position and a Board member who sees no other way, it may be time to consider alternative situations.  But for most situations, the combination of time, education, and experience will help keep the train securely on the tracks.