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As we continue our year-long examination of the empowerment and accountability stream in food co-ops, the point in the sequence where the rubber really hits the road is in the day-to-day functioning of the co-op’s operations. This is the stage in the cycle where the vision gets implemented in myriad ways: through customer interactions, workplace culture and operational systems development. It’s the intersection between intention and action, and involves the people who have a direct impact on sales, labor and margin goals, as well as the fulfillment of the co-op’s ends. A tall order, for sure.

That’s why it’s critical that all staff understand the co-op’s goals and how their work impacts the outcome. According to Carolee Colter, CDS CC human resources training and consulting expert, empowerment and accountability go hand-in-hand, and having clear expectations is the first step in creating a fully-functioning empowerment loop for department managers and their direct reports. “In order to hold someone accountable certain conditions have to be met,” she said, and these include:

  • Understanding and agreeing on expectations
  • Training to do the job
  • Follow up and assessment of performance
  • Ongoing feedback and consequences

For co-ops seeking growth of both its sales and mission, creating a consistent culture of accountability and empowerment is about giving people adequate information to do their jobs. “This starts with both hiring and promotions,” Colter said. It’s often easier to agree to expectations when someone is newly hired—there are usually systems in place for that. But if an employee is being promoted from line staff to supervisor, often this step is neglected (resulting in a potential lack of empowerment and muddled accountability) because there’s an assumption that the person already knows what the expectations will be. “This is especially important if you are hiring from within. You need to take the time to discuss what’s involved. As peers move into a lead or supervisor role they have to understand and agree that their new role will include a different relationship with their former peers,” she said.

Most any new role should involve some kind of training. “Giving people training, making sure the tools you are giving them work, and taking the time to find this out is important. Otherwise it’s not fair to staff if you are holding them accountable for specific tasks without giving them a means to be successful,” Colter said.

Regular check-ins with staff can be a powerful motivator, although busy department managers might be tempted to skip this step, reserving feedback for performance evaluations. Colter said this can be a misstep that could cause problems in departments. “It’s really empowering if you are hearing frequently from your manager. Being in regular contact helps each party keep the agreement of expectations at the forefront. I’d consider the annual performance review the ‘super-check-in.’ It’s not something that can stand alone,” she said.

Accountability comes with consequences as a result of poor performance, but Colter argues that it can be equally, if not more effective, if accountability results in rewards and praise for a job well-done. “If accountability is all about critique, that’s not full accountability in an organization. You also have to find what people do well and reward it.” She also noted that this appreciation should extend to those who improve on poor performance. “Notice the effort,” she said, “It makes people more motivated.”

Mark Mulcahy is a CDS CC produce department consultant who does management and staff training for grocery retails around the country. He works directly with department managers and co-op line staff to address issues of empowerment and motivation that lead to meeting department benchmarks. Like Colter, he agrees that expectations are key. Not only that, having them leads to growth and more satisfied staff. “Expectations allow managers to take things off their plate and allow others to step up. This allows managers to take on new responsibilities and give staff a greater stake in the functioning of a department,” he said.

Joe Staniszewski, produce manager at River Valley Market in Northampton, Mass., found that by developing systems and across-the-board expectations his department sales went up double digits. Additionally, the department’s culture is one that reflects pride because staff have a stake in the results. “Once our systems were in line we were able to enjoy the benefits of a more empowered and efficient staff,” he said. As an example regarding the benefits of this approach, their department has grown to stocking an 8’ value-added cooler that includes cut fruits and vegetables, veggie trays and salsa and guacamole sold at a 70 percent margin. “Improving our fundamental systems gave us time that was never there before, and we didn’t have to hire any new people to do it. By empowering employees and giving them clear expectations employees were able to take ownership and go the extra mile in making the department a success,” Staniszewski said.

One of the things Mulcahy has learned in his work is that often underperforming departments have what he calls “a culture of entitlement.” That might look like empowerment in the workplace because staff “do what they want,” but because there are no standards or accountability they tend to be the departments with high turnover or conflict. “It holds the whole store back,” he said. Resolving this issue is a combination of expectations and systems that support accountability and empowerment.

“What you want is for ‘stepping up’ to be an expectation. You want people to grow in their jobs and department managers need to look at ways for others to be promoted. As you master what you’re doing, it gives someone else an opportunity. That’s how you fuel constant growth,” he said. At River Valley Market, by instituting this cultural shift, Mulcahy said that the manager has more time to negotiate deals and keep tabs on department goals. “It creates a domino effect,” he said about a fully functioning empowerment and accountability stream in individual departments, “Everything changes in that environment. It allows people to be part of decisions and actions that affect the whole ­department.”

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