Board and Management Alignment: It Takes a Powerful Alliance to Get to the Next Level

The board and management relationship at a co-op is not unlike other primary relationships we have in our lives. In order for it to work well, it has to be a relationship based on respect, trust and an agreement on your goals. Often what can stymie the board-management relationship is a shortfall in one of those areas, and as is usually the case, you cannot have one without the other two. There are ways to improve this relationship that can pave the way for co-ops to concentrate their energies on accomplishing their mission and making important and tangible contributions on behalf of their members and communities.

As food co-ops throughout the country look toward a future of greater collaboration, boards and managers are looking at how they can work together to effectively cause and support greater levels of collaboration.

A substantial number of food co-op boards have adopted Carver Policy Governance in order to establish a framework for effective communication, focusing a board’s energies on its governance role. Although many approaches can provide a structure for communication, Policy Governance has taken many boards from the quagmire of conflict toward the impressive work of visioning the future together for their co-ops.

As food co-ops throughout the country look toward a future of greater collaboration, boards and managers are looking at how they can work together to effectively cause and support greater levels of collaboration within their own organizations. For Michael Healy, board trainer for CDS, the first step is to create a clarity of roles. “Clarity goes a long way toward building alignment,” he said. Once roles have been defined you can “find ways to recognize and build on that power.”

Healy described his work with a board that had contradictory processes for making decisions. They had a process for making decisions, but they had a different one for what he called “momentous decisions.” Board members described meetings as “agonizing.” Healy introduced Policy Governance, which helped them create a written process for their work. A year afterward, people on the board reported they were happier and were actually having fun. “It made a difference in the way people saw their roles, and they were learning more too. In the past they struggled with how to sell peanut butter. Now they are ready to take on bigger issues that have an impact in the community. The results are very evident.”

Even if a co-op board has moved beyond such operational struggles with its management, are they prepared or willing to identify and take the next steps? Healy points out the importance of board-driven co-op leadership operating in conjunction with a board’s express desire for constant improvement. “The work is worth doing, so we should learn how to do it well. It’s important to learn and do training to find out how we can do it better,” he said. This includes the board adopting an attitude of taking its own role seriously enough to be willing to invest in its work.

Heather Albinger, board president at Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, Wisc., said it’s a matter of “investing in leadership.” As well as investing in board training opportunities, her co-op has taken its board’s role seriously as a job and each board member is paid a significant stipend. Outpost owners approved an increase in the board stipend from what was a nominal amount to an amount that demonstrated the value of the work being done by the board. “There’s a commitment there,” she said. “We’re not motivated by the money, but by the co-op movement and being involved in a community organization we believe in. It helps offset the grunt work you have to do.”

Pam Mehnert, general manager of Outpost, concurs that it is important for general managers to support their boards in establishing stipends as well as assisting them in accessing the resources they need to do their job. “It validates their busy lives and shows we appreciate the time they give to make the co-op work. We better be professional about our work together, otherwise can we really accomplish our ends policies?” Mehnert cited as an example one of the co-op’s ends policies: “flourishing co-op economics.” She said the co-op does this by paying employees well, giving patronage rebates to members, and by compensating the board.

However, general managers can find themselves at a loss to understand what supporting the board means. Some feel like they have to manage their store as well as manage the board. Both general manager Mehnert and board president Albinger believe the board has to recognize its own need for leadership within its ranks and tap into it if the organization is going to progress to the next level of organization.

“One of the great moments in my work was when former board president Joel Kopischke said ‘It’s time Pam stops managing us and we manage ourselves,’” said Mehnert. “Before then I felt it was my role because of board turnover, where our co-op’s historical culture was only what I and maybe one or two other board members remembered. I believe Policy Governance got us out of that place.” She also credits Kopischke’s willingness to take on the necessary leadership in his role as board president for changing the whole direction of the board’s work.

The board has to recognize its own need for leadership within its ranks and tap into it if the organization is going to progress to the next level of organization.

Now that Outpost’s board is operating with Policy Governance, they are able to spend one hour at each meeting discussing the future. When the sale of the Blooming Prairie warehouse came up for a vote last fall, the board already had a decision-making framework in place and were able to use it to work as a team through a challenging issue.

One of the benefits of Policy Governance, according to Healy, is that decisions for how to do things have been written down. “People come and go, so you need something stable, otherwise a general manager gets whipped around by the winds of capriciousness. Continuity is incredibly valuable, and it is also satisfying for board members to be able to create a legacy, to know that their energy has meant something.”

Linda Stier, a board trainer as well as chair of the Weaver Street Market board in Carrboro, N.C., said that the clarity of roles with Policy Governance and the board managing itself contributed to building trust in the board-management relationship. “What emerged over time is that the board and general manager had the experience of knowing the other party would operate within their role,” she said.

Her work with the board has also included creating a stability of leadership, an important consideration as the co-op looks to the future. “It’s important for board members to create a culture for the organization that lasts beyond their term. We’re looking to the next level at Weaver Street. We’ve expanded way beyond a retail market. We’ve taken on an image within our community that’s way bigger. So what do we need to be talking about as the details of the cooperative become more complex? We’re talking about leadership that will help keep us on track.”

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