Surfside Condo Disaster Reminds Us: When You Serve on a Board, You Hold Lives and Livelihoods In Your Hands

Sometimes you take on work for which you aren’t paid—because it matters, or because you’ve been talked into it. Perhaps you serve on the Board of a nonprofit corporation. Possibly you run for your condo association’s board of directors because you want some control over the condominium unit in which you live. Despite the zero pay, you occasionally face situations that require hard work and take every ounce of skill you possess.

Recently, I helped Sunshine Community Health Clinic’s eleven-person board of directors when they found themselves petitioned by angry former employees and upset community members. They hadn’t expected the depth of allegations against the Clinic or its top two leaders, nor to find their Clinic making media news in April and May, but they worked together to resolve the problems.

Last week, condo association board members throughout the country wondered “what have I gotten myself into and do I have the necessary skills?” The story that awakened their fears was one that shocked the nation. 145 people dead or buried under rubble. We all felt for the victims who went to sleep in a dwelling with idyllic views, only to awaken to a nightmare.

What happened? Why did the resident-led association that operated the condominium not take swift action in 2018 when an engineering firm told them their building had “major structural damage”?1 If the media accounts can be believed, the seven-member condominium board became mired in contentious debate. Five of its members resigned in 2019, leaving an unresolved situation that led to death.

If you guessed “money” and the complexity of engineering opinions, you’ve identified two culprits. But there’s more. According to a well-researched June 30th Washington Post article, “ego battles;” “undermining” of other board members; “gossip,” and “mistruths” all played a part in the board’s inability to decisively act.2

In a traditional workplace, unresolved conflict leads to turnover, low morale, lowered productivity, strained relationships, stress, and lawsuits. Despite the difficulties conflict poses, the traditional workplace’s hierarchical structure provides clear definition concerning who makes final decisions.

Condo association board members, unrelated individuals who have agreed to share responsibility for their building, face additional challenges when conflict arises. The decisions board members make impact their residence, family and finances, making the situation uniquely personal and giving individual members the feeling that the position they take should prevail. Some board members may taste power for the first time and slip into destructive behaviors.

Here’s that to understand and do, if you serve on a board mired in conflict.

Realize you need to exercise the highest level of skill you possess when those you interact with have fewer skills or feel unwilling to use them.

Make respect your rudder and honesty your compass.

Cut others, but not yourself, slack, understanding that emotions can impair others’ cognitive faculties.

Set up a time to meet, and frame the discussion as working together to achieve a shared goal. Before launching into the discussion, agree to meeting guidelines designed to keep emotions from hijacking the discussion.

Create a foundation of shared understanding. In the early days of the Pebble Mine controversy, I met with a group of Bristol Bay Native Corporation’s young leaders who spent two days hearing reports from technical experts representing varying views concerning the mine. Prior to this meeting, the leaders had held divergent passionate views concerning the mine’s development. Some saw it as economic opportunity, others viewed it an environmental disaster in the making. After this extensive factual briefing, the leaders discussed their new views based on the mutual education they had received.

As a group, decide on your common goals and identify key issues. Discuss all key issues, starting with the least controversial first.

Listen to others’ perspectives. Assume you have something to learn from those who see things differently. Try to see the situation from their perspective and to understand their rationale.

When you speak, chose neutral words. Ask questions, demonstrating your intent to understand and to dialogue. If you sense yourself becoming frustrated by others’ stubbornness, challenge your mindset and think past your blind spots. Focus on how to solve problems, rather than whom to blame. Remember that accusations lead to retaliation, and that winning at all costs means someone loses.

It will years to unravel all relevant pieces of the Surfside Condo story. Meanwhile you may choose to serve on a nonprofit or condo association board because the organization’s mission matters to you. You may find yourself engaged in conflict that takes all your skills. If so, realize the problem situation gives you a chance to act in the best interests of those you serve.  

(The theme of accountability is core to the Surfside Condo story and this post, for a full discussion of how to implement accountability, see https://smile.amazon.com/Managing-Accountability-Business-Leaders-Toolbox-ebook/dp/B092FPJ5B2/ref=sr_1_6?dchild=1&keywords=Lynne+Curry&qid=1625456013&sr=8-6

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/26/us/miami-florida-surfside-collapse.html

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/majority-of-florida-condo-board-quit-in-2019-as-squabbling-residents-dragged-out-plans-for-repairs/2021/06/30/43592282-d98e-11eb-ae62-2d07d7df83bd_story.html

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9 thoughts on “Surfside Condo Disaster Reminds Us: When You Serve on a Board, You Hold Lives and Livelihoods In Your Hands

  1. Solid advice Lynne.

    In the case of the Pebble Mine, science is continually being overrun by personal agendas of primarily outside groups exerting their influence over local participants…..which is sad to see.

  2. As a current member of at least four boards, and a past member of dozens, I find a unique parallel between boards – what they do, how they work and don’t, and what they do or do not achieve – and politics.
    Partisan Politics has Poisoned and Polluted the Political Process to the Point of Paralysis.
    If you replace the word “politics” with the word “board” in the phrase above, you describe all of the non-functional, train-wreck boards that are and have been in existence.
    At the bottom of the heap and wreckage of almost any social, political or structural disaster, you’ll likely find at least one (if not more) board that was disfunctional.
    Been there. Done that.

  3. Lynne–your comments about the board’s responsibility and liability in the Surfside, FL, condos case are a wake-up call. Or should be. Board members have a responsibility to do their best for the organization. It is not an ego contest or a chance to engage in small-town-like backbiting as a form of recreation or excitement or drama. Listening to one another, respecting their right to hold other views, looking for a way to reach common ground and agreement, all are so important!

  4. Such an important article here, Lynne. Any who’ve ever served on a board should give your advice permanent residence in mind and heart.

  5. One more shot at this one that hasn’t been mentioned yet is how good – or not, the personal liability and fiduciary responsibility clause is in the board insurance plan.
    Signing on to some boards is like signing your entire existence and future away.

    It will be very interesting to see how this situation plays out on this particular incident.
    From this side of things, I can see some potential exposure and culpability for not being more aggressive and demanding to get something done. There’s no question that some attorney’s will make a lot of money from the fight on blame and damages.

    And, with a pending death toll of over 100, this could be a landmark case on board responsibility and liability.

    1. Dan, agreed. When I help a board of directors navigate through tricky workplace situations, one of the board members’ questions always concerns liability insurance. And yes, this will be a landmark case. I’d love to know what others think.
      Dan, if you hear of anything, or if any of the attorneys who read the blog want to weigh in, I’d love to hear it. Lynne

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