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A Question of Perspective
MINNOWS AND WHALES
There’s a scene in Dr. No (1962) where secret agent James Bond notices a wall of glass in the villain’s lair through which the two men see what appear to be giant fish swimming about.
“A unique feat of engineering, if I may say so. I designed it myself,” says Dr. No, the bad guy. “The glass is convex, ten inches thick, which accounts for the magnifying effect.”
“Minnows pretending they're whales,” quips Bond. “Just like you on this island, Dr. No.”
Dr. No pauses and then replies: “It depends upon which side of the glass you are on, Mr. Bond.”
In many ways, this pithy exchange sums up the main problem with the board-management marriage. It’s all about on which side of the glass you are on.
Case in point: the management executive who talked with me about the board-management marriage as though it were a partnership made in hell. “I’ve has given up trying to reason with the boards,” the executive said to me. “Now, I just do what I’m told – only drawing the line at illegalities.”
The situations she said she encounters are mind-blowing: she’s repped a board where the president wanted to challenge the lease of a restaurant because he didn’t like the food; another where a woman complained about not getting a tax abatement for her apartment even though she no longer lived in the building (but still served on the board); and another where a board member threatened the manager with an AK47 because he didn’t like the answer the agent gave him.
“I honestly believe that most of these actions come out of the protections offered by the Business Judgment Rule and D&O [directors and officers liability coverage,” she said. “They’d be more responsible if they couldn’t hide behind them.”
Hard to say if that’s true. Still, this veteran manager is not alone in her complaints. One longtime management exec claimed to me that many board members feel they’re doing right by the building, and don’t see the difference between their interests and building interests.
“They should try to imagine what it would be like if they weren’t on the board. Are they truly looking out for the building or are they looking out for themselves.” If they could see it through the manager’s eyes, would that make a difference?
From the board members’ perspective, it’s a different picture, of course, sort of like the Japanese film Rashomon (1950), in which four people relate the same story – but radically change the details because their views – and interpretations – of the situation are different.
“Why do I need to explain to the managing agent various building codes issues? Why do I need to remind him the elevators need to be inspected?” asks a frustrated board member on Habitat’s “Board Talk” forum.
Another blogger adds: “I've been on the board in my building for over 15 years. We're on our fourth management company. After about twenty agents, three or four were worth the money. The rest had trouble writing a decent letter, doing a weekly walkthrough of the building, staying on top of the required inspections, filings, etc.”
When managers hear such complaints, they usually throw up their hands, claiming that they are the most misunderstood profession in the world. Pressures to perform make some managers ineffective: city, state, and federal rules have been increasing; competition from low-balling, fly-by-night firms has kept management fees lower than they should be; and it is hard to get (and train) good managers in an industry that offers relatively low pay for long hours. Between visiting buildings during the day and attending board meetings at night, managers often complain that they are stretched to the breaking point.
What’s the answer? More empathy and less bellyaching would be a good place to start. It would be wonderful if board members and managers could switch places – sort of like Queen for a Day – so each could see how the other half lives. But in lieu of that, both sides should try to remember: it always depends on which side of the glass you are on.
August 7, 2013