The query posed by conventional business leaders—can empowerment and accountability coexist?—is not a question food co-op managers generally ask. That’s because it’s an expectation. Cooperatives are, by design, organizations that are based on democratic principles that assign empowerment and accountability to its participants. The ideal consideration is not to posit whether it’s even possible, but to make it happen.
Top-down management has not historically been a part of food co-op culture, and co-op general managers typically work in a much more collaborative fashion with their management teams and staff. Yet managers have a great deal of responsibility and need to be accountable for the overall results of the co-op and all the staff. General managers seeking the right balance of direction, support and leadership development know this can be challenging and important work that directly affects manifesting the co-op’s mission.
Organizational development is at the heart of the work of the general manager and the management team, and nowhere is this more apparent in the performance of day-to-day operations. The general manager is expected by the board of directors to achieve the organization’s Ends. Business planning is carried out by the management team to increase the odds of success. If the empowerment and accountability stream is functioning well, operations will show efficient progress toward accomplishing the Ends. If not, the organization might become stymied by micromanagement, or hampered by lack of accountability, potentially resulting in stagnation at many levels of the organization.
Mel Braverman, operational and financial improvement consultant, advocates a SMART goal structure for helping general managers with empowering staff and holding them accountable.SMART stands for creating goals that are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and can be produced on an agreed-upon Timeline. General managers create goals using this framework in conjunction with their department heads, allowing them the means to carry them out. “Once you have your goals,” said Braverman, “the general manager has the criteria for your performance review. By sitting down and getting regular feedback on your goals and performance, the management team member is held accountable by the general manager. Since these are things that person’s negotiated with the general manager there should be zero surprises during reviews.”
There’s also a strong peer component at work in a functional empowerment and accountability stream. He believes this can be accomplished by management team members sharing their department goals, reporting to the team what they accomplished (or didn’t), and getting feedback from other team members. The accountability that’s created is peer accountability, and they are responsible to both the general manager and their team. “There’s more power for them that way, and you’ll find there’s also more camaraderie on the team,” Braverman said. He also said that working this way strengthens the organization because it allows the expertise and skillset of the entire team to benefit each department manager.
Braverman acknowledges the challenge of “being a direct supervisor of a direct supervisor” and the temptation to micromanage or jump in to solve problems. “Just because you have the authority doesn’t mean you have the knowledge,” he said. “It’s important to recognize the difference, because otherwise it could be a destructive rather than empowering force.” Letting go can be difficult at times, but Braverman noted that general manager empowerment of staff has to be based on trust that is fostered by the mutual goal-setting process, communication, and demonstrated results. Being “hands off” coupled with strong accountability by the general manager allows for stronger emergency succession, if needed, as the team can function without the general manager to a large degree.
“What I tell general managers is that having your department managers ‘own’ their own approach to managing their departments is a big thing,” he said. Part of that is allowing people to fail occasionally, because learning how to evaluate and correct mistakes is critical to organizational development.
According to CDS Consulting Co-op consultant Jeanie Wells, included in the ability to “let go” is an understanding that a big part of the general manager’s job is effective delegation. “When you are a $1 million-a-year co-op, the GM does everything. As you grow you have to look hard at tasks and how to delegate them, and you continue to prioritize that as you grow.” Wells thinks good delegation includes a stated process for making decisions based on the values of the organization. Additionally, an agreed-upon reporting process for department heads will give the general manager confidence that the information they need to know will come back to them.
Wells thinks that it’s “sloppy process” if the general manager is the one making all the decisions. From her perspective it’s important to resist the urge to tell people what to do—to instead empower them to take leadership. “It takes a lot of strength and discipline not to tell the deli what kind of soup to make, for example. But you have to understand that there are layers of people between the general manager, the deli manager and cook, and to have respect for appropriate channels of communication. What you need to see are results. It’s ok to say ‘I want a vegetable, chunky and creamy soup every day in the deli’ but it’s not your job to decide which ones they make.”
Wells and Braverman both agree financial performance in each department is a critical part of the empowerment and accountability stream in co-ops. The projected department margin is created to meet the organization’s needs. How departments perform financially is often bottom-line proof that shows how problems in communication among management and staff can hinder growth and efficiency. If you’re not making margin, chances are that clarity about the job’s role, communication systems or common goals may be lacking.
Department heads are also responsible for communicating the values of the co-op appropriately to their staff. With clearly stated goals and objectives, each layer of the organization has a role in responding to them. “You will have tiers of management as you grow, so it’s important to getting better at enacting change in appropriate ways.” Wells said.
By fostering common goals and communication process for management and staff, the empowerment and accountability stream will reflect the organization’s vision in its operations that will create momentum for a viable future. “You cannot underestimate the power of appropriate and positive communication on the work culture. If what you have is built on trust and respectful communication focused on building the team at each level, then everyone understands where the co-op is going and how their job impacts the mission,” said Wells.