Ten Commandments for Keeping Meetings Moving
All of us have experienced the frustration of attending a seemingly endless meeting. Generally, the meetings producing this frustration are not those which simply last the longest. While the business of the Association is being carried forward, frustration is minimized, even though the number of issues is great, or discussions become lengthy. Frustration is produced by wasting time. It arises from the inability to perceive steady movement toward a goal.
In my experience, the loss of meeting efficiency can be attributed to causes which fall into categories. Expressed in positive terms, these categories can be developed into time-saving tips for improving efficiency. These are my “Ten Commandments For Keeping Meetings Moving”.
1. Arrive Prepared.
Management’s most frequent complaint is that many hours are spent preparing packets of information for Board members, who don’t pick them up before the meeting and read them. Orienting unprepared Board members to the location of documents being discussed is a time waster which can become significant.
After several minutes of discussion, the Board member finally announces that he can’t for the life of him, find the landscaping proposal being discussed, and causes a “time out” followed by a rehashing of the issues discussed to that point. I am sure I have attended over a hundred meetings at which the Board members began by sitting in silence for several minutes reading the prior month’s minutes and making corrections.
Think of the time to be saved by making additions or deletions on the draft copy and handing them to the manager right before the meeting commences. The explanation of changes to the remaining board members need only take a moment, and management does not have to continually ask Board members to repeat verbatim the additions and identify where they should be inserted.
2. Start on Time.
There should be a firm commitment to begin the meeting at the time indicated on the agenda. A quorum, not perfect attendance, is required to begin a meeting. If the President is not there, the Vice President should take over, and there should be agreed upon alternates in the event the Vice President is not available either. The notion that, “If we don’t wait for the President, we will just have to repeat everything.”, can really bog a meeting down. If the President or another officer or trustee is unavailable, he/she should trust the other members to carry on responsibly.
In terms of manners, I believe that it is rude to require the other Board members who are present on time to begin again because a member arrived late. Usually, it is not the person who arrived late who demands that the discussion be repeated. It is most often a forgiving Board member, or a guest speaker, manager or counsel, who feels compelled to start over. It should be agreed in advance that a late arrival must catch-up on his/her own. If the late arrival does not have sufficient information to vote on a subject, the proper course is to abstain.
3. Establish a Business Atmosphere.
It is amazing to me that Board members who lead professional lives by day, can arrive home, attend a business meeting of a non-profit corporation responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets, and can arrive in cut-up jeans and T-shirts, serve pizza, tell jokes, and take six hours to run through an agenda which fits neatly on one page. Many things contribute to this syndrome. Comfortable dress means a comfortable atmosphere, in which the participants may take their time. Meeting in someone’s home, sitting in a deep couch and eating a meal fit for a king are great impediments to efficiency.
It sometimes happens, that when a meeting is hosted at a Board member’s home, that Board member becomes distracted with his/her hosting obligations. From time to time I have even seen a Board member become angered during the course of a meeting and demand that everyone leave his/her home.
The establishment of a business-like atmosphere is perhaps the most important factor in efficiently processing the business of an association. Meetings should be at tables where people can spread out their papers, execute documents, and pass out objects or papers for review. Little or no food should be served. Hunger is one of the best reasons for keeping efficiency high and ending the meeting on time.
4. Set an Agenda and Stick to It.
The President controls the agenda. Those who wish to discuss certain items should advise the President and those items should be added to the agenda. If the agenda gets too long, the President should carefully dissect out the items which can wait until the following month. Once the agenda is set, failing to follow it can become a substantial time waster. No one knows when they will be able to discuss their issues, and the result is a disjointed presentation of the issues with everyone speaking at once, or vying for position.
5. Establish an Ending Time in Advance.
If for example, an ending time of 9:30 is chosen, at 8:30, having made little progress, the entire Board recognizes the obligation to get moving. Once the Board gets used to leaving at or about 9:30 p.m., Board members who are called upon to report the activities of a committee to which they are liaison will more likely answer truthfully, “Nothing to report”. No matter how minuscule, there is always “something” which might be reported about the activities of a particular committee. In the business-like setting, however, if the activities amount only to brainstorming or are not well-developed yet, the words, “Nothing to report.”, become appropriate.
6. Management Goes First.
The Board meetings I have attended at which management is not permitted to provide its report until late in the meeting, are invariably longer than if management had been able to speak immediately. This is true because if there is an issue of importance to the association and management is worth its salt, there has already been substantial research accomplished on the subject and the problem might even be resolved. The substantial discussion which occurred before management’s report was wasted. The same is true with respect to legal counsel. Lengthy discussions on the defense of a case by the landscaping contractor are hardly worthwhile if counsel has already obtained a dismissal.
7. Let People Finish.
I have never been a fan of the, “Okay, ask questions as you go” philosophy. I may be many things, including longwinded, but I am rarely less than clear. If allowed to finish explanation, I find generally that there are few if any questions. A professional anticipates questions that might be asked and answers them in the course of his/her presentation. Management may be expected to exercise the same degree of anticipation. I have taken the longest to explain things to a Board when the Board members insist upon interrupting at each sentence for clarification. While others are talking, Board members should be making notes of areas of concern so that, if not addressed by the end of the explanation, well considered questions might be asked.
8. Discuss Common Concerns Only.
Some Board members love to point out that problem areas on the common elements are near or in their own buildings. They look for opportunities to use their own units as examples of certain conditions common throughout the project. The reference to a Board member’s own unit raises the specter of a conflict of interest and sets the remainder of the Board to wondering if that Board member has a “private agenda”.
If a Board member uses his unit as an example, another Board member invariably cites to circumstances which in his/her mind make that Board member’s circumstances unique. A lengthy discussion is inevitable as to whether or not the unit owner’s unit is a good example. The discussion is fruitless, but the arguments can sometimes become intense. The discussion is personal when one’s unit is involved.
Other Board members feel obliged to attach more or less importance to the problem than they otherwise would, in light of the fact that it arises from a Board member’s personal concerns. The need to vent frustrations and tell stories, for example, about the Board member’s discussions with the developer about a construction defect in his/her unit, is hardly relevant to the general discussion of the proper method of repair for all units with the problem.
9. Delegate to Committees.
Especially in the categories of rules establishment and enforcement, architectural guidelines, and finance, the input of your unit owners may be invaluable in studying an item which would otherwise be debated at length, without accomplishing anything. An example might be the establishment of an appropriate place for pets to be sent to relieve themselves. Obviously, no one wants such a place in his/her backyard and the feasibility of establishing such a location is going to be a subject of substantial debate. It would save time to delegate this topic to an architectural or covenants committee for study. This does not mean that the subject has to become “bogged down” in committee. The committee should be assigned a three (3) month deadline, and to report back to the Board, in writing, prior to the next meeting.
10. Closure Means Compromise.
Before an agenda item is brought to the table for discussion, all Board members should have, at least tacitly, agreed that the discussion will be brief. Prepared Board members with reports from appropriate committees should state their opinions, and if cogent arguments are to be made, they should be stated concisely.
At the point at which most or all Board members have made their positions known, a bona fide effort to arrive at a resolution of the various interests should be undertaken. Simply put, the Board should see if it can accommodate everyone’s concerns in the form of creative solution.
It is not always necessary that a faction of the Board win or lose. There is great benefit in compromise. It eliminates hard feelings. It gives the minority Board members the feeling that they have been listened to, and their interests were legitimate and deserving of consideration. The minority Board members may not emerge from the discussion. The minority Board members may not emerge from the discussion happy or even satisfied, but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they had bona-fide input which meant something, and was considered adequately before a decision was made. Creativity in arriving at solutions to problems can take a substantial bite out of “arguing” time.
As you can see, my “Ten Commandments” are borne merely of common sense. Most of them are obvious, but you would be surprised at how often they are not followed. Being a Board member is a substantial commitment, but it should not be an overwhelming experience or a lesson in boredom. An association which operates efficiently generates community support, because it is personally fulfilling to be a member of a team which accomplishes something. Associations which show true staying power in terms of Board member participation are the associations which will retain their property values and fiscal soundness over the long haul.