All companies, including condo or homeowner associations have Intellectual Property (IP) that should be protected and managed. In a traditional sense, IP is made up of four classes (Patent, Trademark/™ ®, Copyright/©, and Trade Secret.) However, in associations there is another type that is just as important, but often "flies under the radar" of BoD leaders -- namely it's information, data, and records. Losing this information or allowing someone else to take control of it opens you up to a host of undesirable situations, including accidental or intentional disclosure, modification, destruction or inability to process that information. In simple terms -- it could shut your association down for a lengthy period of time and create a tremendous amount of work to restore it back to a useable condition.
Information is a vital asset for the success of an association, but most leaders do not even realize the extent of inherent risks that they are exposed to in the way that manage personal or other data critical to the operation of their association's business. They probably have not even given a second thought and only face it when there is a loss, breach, or when they try to change Management Companies. Consider these worst case scenarios:
- The association Secretary has all records, blueprints, official correspondence, deed amendments, financial transactions, etc.
- Manually filed at his/her home. A fire destroys all documents'.
- Stored on his/her computer when s/he loses a hard drive or a virus erases all data.
- Managed by a unique data management software program that s/he has familiarity with. S/He is removed from the BoD on unfriendly terms and is unwilling to train anyone on the software, making the data inaccessible.
- The association hosts a website that has personal information of its members (name, address, bank account #, driver license, etc), when someone gains access and perpetrates identity theft. The association is sued for damages.
- The association BoD wants to change the current Management Company that uses its own proprietary data management system for all association records. The MC refuses to turn over data for the term of its contract or the information is rendered useless unless you continue to use their system and services.
- The association BoD decides to "bite the bullet" and go with another on-line data management system. It now has to train, familiarize, and deal with all the start-up issues associated with its 2,000 member community that uses the system for all its daily operations.
Consider the cost of replicating the data that was lost in these situations! It is huge and can bring an association to its knees. Just ask someone whoever has lost their computer hard drive -- it only happens once, as the consequences are so severe that they put back up systems in place to protect their data from similar occurrences in the future.
So, what should an association do to get their arms around their IP?
Go electronic. If your association has not already converted its records to electronic form, do not wait any longer. There are simply too many benefits to be gained. All the association’s records should be stored in electronic form to save space and money drain and to allow you to take additional security measures to protect it. You should begin to transition to electronic transactions with members, vendors, service providers as your organization matures and technology becomes readably available. You should also transition to paperless access for all members and operate on a member "pull" system to extent possible.
Select the Method of Storing/Accessing Your Electronic Data. Determine how and where you will store your electronic data. This is an extremely important decision and you should approach it as if you are selecting a life-time provider, particularly if you use a website or on-line database storage provider. There are too many negative implications for you to fall into the start-stop-start ditch of switching between providers or method of storage. Make sure that you always own your data; you have complete control of how and where you store/access it, and NEVER outsource it or give control to someone else. To a large extent, this decision will be dependent upon the size of your association, whether you are self-managed or use a Management Company and your level of IT expertise and/or availability. Here are some of the main options you could consider:
Computer hard drive or disk. This method would likely be used by a small association to store its historical records and may involve the use of off-the-shelf programs (QuickBooks, Excel, Adobe, etc) to help manage certain aspects of the association business. The information is normally available to the person entering the data and cannot be directly accessed by association members. Data security should be provided by regular back-ups and storage in different locations.
Association website. This can be a very attractive alternative to small to medium associations and involves the on-line storage/access of data through an independent website provider. A designated person maintains the website and keeps all of the data current. Association members can assess the data on-line with the use of their computer or a hand-held device. Security is very good as the provider regularly backs up the data and stores it in multiple locations. Costs are minimal.
On-line database storage provider. This becoming a more and more attractive options for all sizes of associations, as the offerings by different providers continues to grow. They have all the advantages of a website, but can also include a multitude of features and options that go well beyond simple website storage and retrieval functionality. Things like personal data management, automatic payment, resident surveys, move-in move-out forms, amenity and facility management, discussion forums, work order requests, email accounts, contractor management, access control, for sale/rental management, package delivery and tracking, etc., to name a few. Costs are moderate and security is excellent. If you are considering a service such as this, make sure you do your homework and again approach it as you were selecting a life-time partner.
Management Company. Large associations (and some smaller ones) are likely to use the services of a Management Company to help them manage the day-to-day activities. Most MC's will have a preferred method of data management and many have their own propriety system or partnerships with other service providers. It is here that I wish to raise a BIG RED FLAG. "NEVER, EVER GIVE UP CONTROL OF HOW AND WHERE YOUR ASSOCIATION DATA IS STORED AND ACCESSED TO A MANAGEMENT COMPANY!" If you do, you could very well lock yourself into a continuation of those MC services into the future or having to reconstruct data that is not compatible or available, for a multitude of reasons. It is up to the Association BoD to select an independent data management system (or provider) and then require any Management Company or other service provider to use that system as a condition of employment. Other precautions you could take with a MC to protect your data would be to include a clause in the contract that:
Assures complete ownership and unfettered access to your data at all times
States that the association data is the property of the association and returnable upon demand
Requires the MC to provide "back up" copies of financial and other records on a CD upon request or on a regular basis.
Set up the necessary security systems. A risk management plan should be developed for the association that addresses such issues as data security (personal and association), disaster recovery, meeting any laws requiring record retention and availability, and back-up procedures.
In summary, condo and homeowner associations that do not have their own independent data management system for its processes, procedures or records leave themselves in a venerable position. They run the risk of losing their data and having to reconstruct it or becoming hostage to someone else who has taken over control of how their data is stored and accessed. A wise association BoD will recognize this and take the necessary steps to protect this data and proactively manage this very important asset called their intellectual property.
Leaders of the past almost always seem more effective than those of today. It's a perceptual bias: We long for what we don't have, and mythologize what we used to have. But even taking this bias into consideration, many of today's condo/HOA leaders don't seem to measure up to the expectations of their members. . Our parents talk about former leaders of their day that not only inspired confidence, but respect and reverence as well. They talk about Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Gandhi, and others of that generation as larger than life figures. Our generation often includes the likes of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and others. Sure they had their flaws, but they were courageous and decisive, and could communicate in ways that made it clear what they stood for.So, where have all the good leaders gone? "They're out pleading, trotting, temporizing, putting out fires, trying to avoid too much heat or legal problems, trying to please everyone, and trying to keep all of this in balance with their personal live that is impacted through this volunteer position. They're peering out a landscape of bottom lines, multiple personal preferences and expected entitlements that often put them in the category of "hired help" or "landlords" by their constituents." They resign. They burn out. They decide not to run or serve. These leaders of today have to navigate a "very slippery slope" and operate in an environment that has changed significantly over the recent years, including:
Although there are theories that say leaders are born and not made, it is my belief that everyone has the leadership potential. Leadership requires taking risks and initiative, which is discouraged by fear of failure, fear of repercussion (lawsuits, loss of job, criticism, damaged relationships, etc.). Unfortunately, the operating environment will likely only get harder; therefore it is up to the men and women who serve as association volunteers to upgrade their leadership skills if they are to meet these increased member expectations.
- First, the velocity and volume of issues that Condo/HOA leaders are confronted with today has increased substantially. This doesn't mean that the previous generations of leaders had it easy; rather they had more time between decisions than leaders have today. Now, with the advent of instantaneous communication within and across the members, leaders have very little time to think. Most of them are inundated with information and overwhelmed with meetings. They move from one issue to the next with frequent interruptions as new developments occur. Relaxed time to think, reflect, and plan is limited and fragmented. But leaders who don't find ways to carve out that quality time reduce their effectiveness.
- A second reason for the diminished confidence might be that many of today's Condo/HOA leaders are overly concerned with the reactions of their stakeholders. This may sound odd, since a key function of leadership is to tune in to the needs of the people they are leading. Listening, however, only goes so far, particularly when the many voices do not agree. At some point leaders need to declare their intentions, even if not everyone will be happy. For this reason today's Condo/HOA leaders often hesitate to do what they think is right. Instead they seem to base their policies on polling trends, or about the reactions of influential members within the association. In contrast, respected leaders drive towards a longer-term vision and find ways to handle the speed bumps along the way.
We can begin with accepting that fact that each of us can make a difference and begin by changing ourselves first. We can become an effective leader by developing and enhancing our own leadership abilities. We can begin by learning how to lead ourselves first, then by becoming an example to others.One of the most important skills and a good first place to start is improving our decision making skills. Association leaders are constantly required to evaluate alternatives and make choices regarding a wide range of issues that impact their association. Therefore, it goes without saying that successful leaders are good decision makers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they only make good decisions, but rather that they can make bold, timely decisions, and they are not afraid to make adjustments along the way, as needed. They place a high priority on being fast and not necessarily always being 100% right. Although you may think it is risky to make a quick, and possibly incorrect, decision, the reality is that timeliness is crucial in today’s ever changing and equally challenging environment for any business, including an association.
The elimination of waste is the goal of any "Lean System", which has been popularized by the very successful Toyota Production System. It defines three broad types of waste; unreasonableness, inconsistencies, and activities that do not add any customer value. A condo or homeowner association is not exempt from these forms of waste and can also benefit from their elimination.• Unreasonableness. This includes all the unreasonable work that a BoD imposes on its committees and members, such as forming a committee without a proper charter or description of the duties it is to perform, requiring a member to "jump through hoops" when satisfying a request for financial information, asking a member to investigate a project/idea, knowing that it will never be approved. Unreasonable work is almost always a cause of multiple variations.• Inconsistencies. This is the variation and inconsistency that may exist within an association, such as; the enforcement of CCR's or the collection of delinquent maintenance fees, granting an architectural variance for one member, but not another. Lean focuses on how the work design is implemented and the elimination of fluctuation at the policy formulation level.• Waste elimination. This specifies any human activity, which absorbs resources, but does not directly add value to association members such as; poorly run meetings, making a decision without sufficient factual information, continually revisiting a decision that has been made, calling a BoD member to find out the details of a past decision. These non-value-adding activities and results should be eliminated. Lean is, in its most basic form, the systematic elimination of all forms of waste. Waste elimination is discovered after the process is in place and is dealt with reactively. It is seen through variation in output. It is the role of the BoD to examine the waste in the processes and eliminate the deeper causes by considering the connections to the unreasonableness and inconsistencies of the system.
In today's customer-driven economy, businesses and associations must move to a customer-focused personalized approach. The expectation of association members is that they are the customers of a BoD. Members want to feel important and they want to know that a BoD has the necessary expertise to manage their interests. The more you demonstrate your specific understanding of their problems, concerns and aspirations, the more quickly they'll support you, often without really understanding what you are promoting or deciding.
Therefore, the highest goal of customer relationship management for a BoD is making sure they are keeping customers (members) happy, discovering and solving problems. A problem is simply the difference between what you have and what you want. It may be a matter of getting something, of getting rid of something, of avoiding something, or of getting to know what you want. In order to do this, they must build and nurture relationships with the members.
As a business professional, you should ask yourself: "What business am I in?" The answer is quite simple: if your business has anything to do with people – and ALL associations do - you are in the business of building relationships. "Some BoD's think that if they manage an association, they are in the business of making business decisions. They aren't. They are in the business of building relationships – because that's how you make decisions that are compatible with the needs and interest of association members.
In every association and business activity, influential people succeed and non-influential people don't. You cannot influence someone unless he or she likes you in some way. People are motivated for their reasons, not yours. Rapport is the key to influence. Rapport and influence start with acceptance of the other person's point of view, their state and their style of communication. To influence you have to be able to appreciate and understand the other person's standpoint. And these work both ways: I cannot influence you without being open to influence myself.
Beyond making decisions as an individual, and as every BoD member knows, the landscape gets a little more complicated when you are a leader of an organization such as a homeowner or condo association. First, you have to make decisions in a group environment. This is very different than individual-based decision making and involves a whole different set of dynamics, considerations, challenges, and opportunities. Personality traits such as emotional maturity and the ability to get alone with others take on more importance in making these types of decisions and managing an association. Rather than focusing strictly on business acumen or technical skill, associations need BoD members who can persuade as well lead, and communicate as well as command. It is a different type of skill set than the traditional command-and-control personality. It is a more subtle, sophisticated type and requires someone who is an "influencer."
But, probably the most unique dynamic is that comes into play is that a BoD is made up from members of a community in which they live. The people who elect them and who they represent are friends and neighbors. Therefore, the health of the association is fundamentally determined by the relationship the neighbors have for each other and for the BoD. Make bad decisions or untimely decisions that do not adequately represent the views of the overwhelming majority of members and you will lose their critical support. Power freak BoD members, spurred on by expensive and egotistical attorneys, attacking neighbors with nasty letters including threats of fines is not how good neighbors treat each other.
For that reason, when making decisions in an association, everything possible should be done to create and maintain open and amicable relationships. Members of the community should be encouraged to attend board meetings, to form and join committees, and to express their needs and opinions and solve mutual problems together. Although in some circumstances they do not have the right to vote on a particular topic, they certainly they have every right to be involved in the discussion pertaining to that topic. Limiting discussion to a few short minutes might be appropriate for large organizations and/or city council meetings, but they are over-control and over-kill for condo or homeowner associations. In spite of well intended advice from professional management company people to be formal, experience would suggest that informality and friendliness are far more effective. Demands are resented. Requests are honored.
Clearly, the top function of a condo or homeowner BoD is to make good decisions that are best for the association and its members. When a BoD does not make good decisions, it can alienate its members, create distractions, and build mistrust towards the BoD. Decisions won’t stick - they will be revisited again, people will implement actions not chosen, or the results of the decision will be invisible in a matter of weeks. But, what does a good decision really look like?
There are two critical components; the quality of the decision and the timeliness of the decision.
• Quality of the decision. How would you recognize a high quality decision for your association if you saw one? Many would give answers like:
o All the right people have been involved
o We had all the best information available
o Risk was considered
o A decision was made—action occurred!
o Everybody bought in to the process
o The process did not drag on and on and loop around
o We did not get bogged down in the details
o There was a clear set of choices
o We knew about the difficult trade-offs to be made
o Implementation went smoothly
These are all important considerations among a long list of others. Generally, they can be summarized into six categories:
1. Is the right question being answered?
2. Have we generated a small set of creative yet feasible alternatives (or choices)?
3. Do we have meaningful and reliable information, particularly about risk?
4. Have we identified clear preferences and trade-offs?
5. Did we exercise sound reasoning, and clear communication about complex issues?
6. Do we have a commitment to action?
• Timeliness of the decision. The second component of good decision making is its timeliness. Nothing slows down an organization more than paralysis by analysis – the inability to make even smallest decisions quickly. Unnecessarily delaying a decision or making no decision is just the same as making a decision. You have simply chosen the option of taking no action. It means you are defaulting to the status quo.
When you don't make a timely decision, there are a lot of other bad things can happen, even though the decision itself may be a sound one. It can cause delays in decision implementation which in turn, can result in a missed opportunity or make a bad situation worse. It can put the association into a "downtime" condition that brings it to a temporary standstill on the issue being examined. It allows the grapevine and rumor mill to churn, which now brings further complications that have to be addressed. But, probably one of the biggest problems that it brings is a loss of confidence in the BoD leaders. Hesitation or a reluctance to make a decision is often the sign of ineffective leadership and is a surefire way for a BoD to lose support of its members and thus its ability to lead.
When it comes to decision making, successful BoD leaders have learned that action is vital. They live with the reality of consequences and know there will always be uncertainty in their decisions. No one can see all possible ramifications; no one can predict every contingency; no one can absolutely prevent failure. Strong leaders know that failure is not final, it is a learning opportunity. The real danger surrounding decision making is not "will I make the wrong decision" but "did I make the best decision possible given the facts and circumstances in a timely manner". Good leaders will always recover from poor decisions - they learn and become wiser. But weak leaders will mess around and miss opportunities. And once they finally make a decision, chances are their decision will have no momentum, no passion and no urgency and probably too late.
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