It’s hard to imagine a professional athlete or a world class musician performing well without good coaching. The same concept applies in business. No matter how much talent or natural ability someone might have on either the basketball court or in the boardroom, it would be hard to be a successful team player and leader without support and insight from someone whose role is to bolster your efforts and challenge you achieve your best performance.
The go-it-alone approach is just that—too lonely and often unrewarding. Working with a coach can help leaders build positive relationships that not only financially sustain their businesses, but enhance the morale and commitment of those people performing in their jobs. The continuum of necessary support in a food co-op includes helping new general managers understand and define their roles, and experienced GMs who want to develop strong interpersonal communication skills.
CDS Consulting Co-op’s new coaching program General Manager Success is designed to provide ongoing support for GMs wherever they are on the experience and skill spectrum. The program starts with a GM self-assessment of skills and strengths. From there the coach with the best fit is identified and the coach and the GM work together to develop goals and priorities for the coaching work. Key areas of focus may be within any area including building effective relationships, successful business operations, cooperative strategic leadership and bringing your personal best to the job. The support includes both ongoing coaching and one day on site designed to meet the needs of the specific GM.
As a new general manager and someone new to cooperatives, Dennis Hanley says his coach has assisted him in learning about co-op culture and to develop into the leader he wants to be. “Joel is a solid mentor, a resource and is making positive impact on me. His high degree of knowledge with his high energy style makes it fun!” Dennis has also used coaching to build his confidence on Policy Governance and better understanding of his role at La Montanita.
“Existing general managers want coaching because they see the need to continually improve their skills. The GM job is not the same as it was in the past,” said Jeanie Wells, a coach, mentor, organizational structure consultant, and former GM. “The brand new GM may not have worked with a board before or within a democratically-owned business. Those are different sets of relationships to understand and manage,” she said.
Wells also said that while certain expectations about roles and relationships are common to working within the food co-op sector, the new general manager may not immediately see all of the contours of their job responsibilities. Running a grocery store comes with its own set of challenges, like managing personnel and the bottom line. Layer on that the co-op’s public relations and image in the community, as well as the relationship to the board of directors and the complexities pile up. “It can be overwhelming,” Wells said. “It’s a big job and most people need help navigating the landscape.”
Wells said the experience can be like taking a long distance hike on an unfamiliar trail. You’d want a trail guide who can help you explore the terrain, explain necessary pathways, and help keep you focused on secure and satisfying travels. “People who are interested in becoming GMs need to come in with their eyes wide open,” she said. “Yet nobody comes into the job knowing everything.” Wells emphasized that all GMs need to build skills. “We need people to understand that and be comfortable saying they want to learn to do more for the jobs they are responsible for. A lot of what coaching does is help a GM face challenges and have a healthy approach to be the kind of leader they need to be.”
She thinks the most successful people in the GM role come from all walks of life and experience, but there’s one important common denominator. “Being a GM is a demanding job and people who do it well do so because they want to lead change and are committed to learning new things,” Wells said. It’s a job that offers a huge opportunity to impact a community, contribute creative solutions and be a positive influence. “One of the most valuable things that help build a framework for how to do this is to have someone who can help them focus on their skills to achieve their goals.”
Baard Webster, who was general manager of Spiral Natural Foods in Hastings, Minn. during a transitional time in its development, said that assistance with focus was instrumental. “I think the most important job of being a GM is prioritizing the truly big, important items from the clutter of day-to-day operations. My bi-weekly meetings with Jeanie helped take me out of the clutter and refocus on the important stuff. It was invaluable. And it was very, very successful,” he said.
A GM-coach relationship also puts the co-op in a stronger developmental framework as an organization. According to Jan Rasikas, general manager at Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, Wisc., said, “One of the most valuable things my coach helped me work on is to take out the emotion, but not the passion, attached to our collectively high ideals and focus myself, and thus the group, on operational impact.”
Joel Kopischke, board leadership development consultant and GM coach, said that supporting and channeling that passion—of both the general manager and the co-op’s stakeholder groups—is critical to co-op success. “If we can more efficiently get boards and general managers aligned as strategy partners and develop strong leadership teams, it’s easier to spread that message of excitement for the co-op through the organization, to owners and out into the community.”
Coaching helps the general manager stay focused on what matters: co-op owners and the Ends. “We’re often starting from that perspective,” he said. As the marketplace changes have brought more competition, he said one of a food co-op’s marketplace differentiators is a strong focus on the Ends.
Kopischke also thinks it’s important to recognize that board-management relationship needs continual building and renewal. “Turnover is built into the system and dynamics can shift. It’s important to invest in both the person and the organization to give them every tool to succeed.”
There are lots of benefits to why coaching adds value from a bottom-line perspective—a strong focus on teaming and on economic and social outcomes yields results—but perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to do it is more personal. As the general manager of a multi-location food co-op, Pam Mehnert, of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee, Wisc. said that coaching helped her continue to cultivate confidence as her co-op has grown.
Even though she’s been in the business a long time, Mehnert said, “Coaching helps with the ‘lonely at the top’ sentiment that I feel at times. It’s different than with talking to a peer. While it’s nice to have someone who has been there and done that, sometimes peers don’t say tough things to each other. I haven’t always known what the next steps are. Having someone to talk it through has helped me. I could not have gotten through some recent issues without my coach.”
“Successful people have a support system,” said Kopischke. “As a general manager, having one that’s grounded in Co-op Principles and values is not just a good idea, but inherent to the foundation of our work.”