For kids, Monkey in the Middle can be a fun game of keep away with the “monkey” jumping and reaching to get the prize. For most adults, this game loses its entertainment value, as it usually involves struggle on the part of the monkey. Unfortunately, usually without even realizing it, board members can inadvertently make their community manager the Monkey in the Middle. This can hinder smooth operation of association business and can cause unintentional headaches for the manager, the board, and homeowners.
Having a professional management company allows a board of directors to delegate their community’s day to day business to their community manager, instead of having to be involved in every little detail. For some, this delegation is tough, particularly when a previous management-board relationship hasn’t lived up to the board’s expectations. For board members, who often see each other on a daily or weekly basis and have friendships outside of board business, it is easy for a few to talk and try to get something done without the community manager being involved.
In the same regard, many owners will approach their neighbor who is a board member directly with an issue, instead of following the proper channels by contacting management or submitting a concern in writing. While this may not seem so bad, in the long run, homeowner issues may not be addressed, and the board members may also put themselves at risk of having an improper discussion outside of an open board meeting. In addition, homeowners become accustomed to going to the board directly instead of following the procedures in place, and board members lose personal time to association business and may find themselves burnt out and unwilling to serve the community any longer.
Combatting the Monkey in the Middle Problem
Once you’ve acknowledged the issue, it is time to work towards making small adjustments in day to day actions. Stop thinking like you’re playing keep away and start thinking like you are playing Barrel of Monkeys – the game where you need to get as many monkeys as possible to link arms in order to win. Just like the monkeys link together, association tasks are interrelated and overlap. Teamwork is key in implementing changes, and your entire team needs to be on the same page to achieve success.
Set Up a Process
If you don’t already have a process in place for homeowner requests or other items the board is addressing outside of board meetings, now is the time to put one in place. Make sure all board members know what the process is and start following it. For example: owner maintenance requests are called or emailed in to management; owner complaints about neighbors or violations must have a violation witness form completed and must be emailed or mailed to management. It may be a good idea to mail out magnets or postcards with management contact information so homeowners can keep the information handy.
Let Your Community Manager Manage
The manager is a professional paid to be doing work for your community. It is wonderful to have homeowners who care about their community and want to volunteer to be involved, but being a board member shouldn’t be a daily job. Your community manager should be calling vendors, following up on projects, and doing other association tasks. If the board would like an update between meetings, there should be one board member designated as the primary point of contact with management. This isn’t to say that the rest of the board shouldn’t ever talk to the manager. If there is a primary point of contact, that individual may have information that hasn’t been passed on to the rest of the board yet, and may be communicated without calling the manager. The primary contact can also group together inquires and ensure the manager isn’t inundated with calls and has time to focus on what needs to get accomplished.
Communication is Key
The manager’s duty is to let the entire board know what is being accomplished, so board members can rest assured that items of concern are being addressed. One great thing to try is a weekly email update from the manager on what’s been accomplished each week. This weekly email supplements the much more detailed board meeting report that includes backup for all the decisions that need to be made.
Good communication means the primary point of contact has less to do because everyone knows the same information. The Board’s duty is to communicate requests and expectations to the manager, such as at which meeting proposals should be ready, and what new projects the board is interested in bidding out.
The board and manger also need to communicate with homeowners in regard to processes and expected resolution time. For example: management should tell the owner calling about the grass in October that item will be placed on the inspection list for next spring, and nothing will be done at this time; don’t allow the homeowner to wait, thinking he or she will hear back next week. That’s when owners may start knocking on a board member’s door to complain.
Manage Your Expectations
This can be one of the toughest tasks for the manager to accomplish, because the default response for most when a request is made is, “Yes, I can do that.” The manager needs to be up front if the board makes requests that are unrealistic. The board needs to be accepting that sometimes this is the case; that a proposal cannot be ready in a week or that work cannot be done tomorrow.
In addition, unless you have an onsite manager that dedicates full-time hours each week to your community, your portfolio manager is spreading time across several clients. This means that the manager has to prioritize what she or he is doing for all of their communities, and while it may physically be possible for something to be done as requested, it may not practically be possible based on the manager’s workload and other demands. Even if you have an onsite manager, he or she may tell you at times that another task will need to be postponed if you want something else to be completed. This doesn’t mean that a board should expect slow or sub-par performance from the manager, but the board needs to understand the terms of the management contract or the employment agreement and know, perhaps from the manager’s supervisor, what the expectations should be.
Set Your Priorities
Just as the manager needs to set the board’s expectations, the board needs to share priorities in order for the manager to manage time. There needs to be an understanding that not everything can be done immediately. Working on an annual business calendar can help provide perspective on what is reasonable; spread out your projects and set deadlines for major items that you know need to get done first.
Expect the Unexpected
You cannot plan for every contingency, but you can have a plan in place to handle the urgent, unplanned items. Particularly in light of recent case law, the board needs to be very careful in making decisions between board meetings. A management contract normally includes a provision for management to approve spending in the case of an emergency, but there may be a scenario where a decision needs to be made that isn’t technically an emergency, but still should not wait until the next board meeting. If the board plans in advance, it’s possible to approve a contract contingent on certain information, or pass a resolution to delegate the authority for certain decisions to an individual board member or the manager, in order to allow the community to continue having day to day progress instead of constant delays or special meetings.
Part of what makes your professional community association manager so skilled is that she or he likely takes continuing education classes and makes sure to know about changing laws that can affect the community. The Board needs to learn the rules of the game, too. Take advantage of educational offerings from your local chapter of CAI and seek guidance from the professionals on your team; not just your community manager, but your attorney, auditor, insurance agent and others.
These tips for success can make your game of Monkey in the Middle into more fun than a Barrel of Monkeys. When your team members work together to achieve your community’s goals, everyone wins!