Case Study: Outpost’s “High Five”


Outpost Natural Foods
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Year founded: 1970
Member investment: $200 class 1 share
Number of members: 18,000
Number of employees: 360
Number of locations: 3 retail stores, 2 market cafes, 4th retail ­location planned spring 2014

Given the long tenure of Outpost’s general manger and the high level of achievement the co-op has enjoyed over the years, you’d think that the organization might be tempted (even a little) to believe that they’ve figured out the keys to success. For Outpost that magic formula means they continue to look at ways to improve their operation and redouble their efforts to involve more and more people in the cooperative enterprise.

That’s why in 2012 the board and management decided to put the principles of Strategic Leadership and Alignment (developed byCDS Consulting Co-op member Art Sherwood and used by other consultants) into practice in their governance and organization. This has involved promoting alignment with many stakeholders, including the board, management team, staff and members. The purpose has been to plan for the future, specifically year 2022, and the outcome has been to bring people together in a way that has been unprecedented for Outpost.

Outpost began putting into practice Strategic Leadership and Alignment processes with Sherwood’s training and assistance. At the governance level this included taking 30–45 minutes each board meeting over the course of a year to talk about the co-op’s vision for the future. The topics were wide ranging and big picture, taking on issues like the environment, school lunches, livable wages, and local agriculture. Using the concept of “safe conversations” some of the planned discussions were personal and enlightening, and people had fun participating in them.

From that Strategic Leadership and Alignment process with the board and general manager Pam Mehnert, they developed a two-page document focused on their vision of the co-op. Mehnert took that vision to the entire staff, engaging them in meetings about it. Collectively they narrowed the co-op’s value proposition to five things, and called it High Five. Those include having:

  • Amazing places to work
  • Sustainable solutions
  • Dynamic local food systems
  • Lively neighborhood markets
  • Strong community partners

When Mehnert brought the staff’s work back to the board, they agreed that High Five was in keeping with the co-op’s Ends. “We added it to the business plan, and I’ll be working with the management team to put it in place in our three-year plans,” Mehnert said. And the alignment and engagement doesn’t stop there. “I’m going to take that plan back to the staff for their feedback and any adjustments.”

From Mehnert’s perspective, the alignment activities within Outpost at the board and staff level have helped build a high level of trust in the organization. “Trust allows people to talk freely, even if roles cross. You can’t be transparent without trust,” she said. Part of that dynamic was fostered by an attitude of “power with” versus “power over” or against. “We’ve developed an appreciation for each other’s role,” she said. “The whole process got us to focus on things that matter. The alignment ended up not just being board–GM but the whole organization. We know what we want the future to look like. The year 2022 is clearer than when I worked on 2012’s plan.” She added that seeing the end results unfolding has been “pretty amazing.”

“I have been a GM a long time and have had many fond moments regarding the direction of the co-op and what we’ve accomplished. Our planning and activities regarding strategic leadership and alignment have been one of the more amazing things that we’ve ever done for the co-op,” Mehnert said.

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