Sometimes the old sayings are right. For example, “It only takes one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch,” can ring true when the actions or behavior of one person (or a small, but vocal few) affect a whole group negatively. It is certainly something board leaders need to be mindful of in governing their co-ops. If someone gets elected to the board with a specific agenda or has a disruptive communication style, it can put undue stress on everyone participating in meetings. In some cases, a negative dynamic can extend far beyond the board room, holding the whole co-op back from doing what it really needs to do to be successful.
At GreenStar Natural Foods Market in Ithaca, N.Y., their path to governance excellence started with the painful recognition that their board (known as the Council at their co-op) had communication problems that were setting a negative tone for the entire cooperative. Back in the early to mid-2000s a few Council members were not always making decisions based on the best interests of the co-op membership as a whole, but adopting a combative or me-first stance regarding what they thought was best. Year after year their inability to work cooperatively led to people all along the empowerment stream feeling stymied in their roles. Staff and board members were disgruntled and it was hard to attract good management and recruit committed board members. The co-op’s reputation in the community was suffering.
An important shift in thinking began to occur in 2005 when certain Council members determined that what was happening on the board was the opposite of cooperative values—democracy, honesty, and openness—and it was time to get authentically aligned with them. That year, 12th Moon was appointed to the GreenStar Council, and he and other council members began the work of rebuilding the board.
They set out to stop the negative communication spiral and address dysfunction. But where to start to build the trust necessary to do that? 12th Moon recollected the first order of business was to change attitudes and expectations about their role. “We had a need for Council meetings to be a place where things were learned and that there was a place for improvement,” 12th Moon said, and this meant that Council members listened to each other, rather than arguing their points of view. “We occasionally utilized an outside facilitator and held strictly to Robert’s Rules for a while. We have recently been able to loosen the rules, having a more congenial and professional atmosphere on the board,” he said. They then began working with a board consultant who helped them with determining proper governance roles and who recommended effective meeting process.
12th Moon, along with others, is also very committed to a positive vision for the co-op and part of making that happen was guiding the governance improvement project through inevitable rough patches, especially after he became the GreenStar Council’s president. “We see the co-op’s future as being more community-oriented, with individuals working together and putting energy into community service.” In order to make this happen, the Council began to “bend over backwards to be transparent” he said. Additionally, they worked hard to repair the relationship with management, thereby building a better co-op environment for workers and shoppers. According the 12th Moon, GreenStar’s Council learned a lot about the governance improvement process, including:
- Be patient and persistent with making positive change.
- Know your policies and procedures and stick to them.
- Have board members participate in a good board orientation program, and plan for board recruitment. (Send everyone to CBL101 and the Co-op Consumer Managers Association conference).
- Foster good relationships, especially with co-op management, and most importantly within the board.
Now being on the GreenStar board is an attractive prospect because the work they are doing for the co-op and community is downright exciting. They are currently in a position to grow the co-op, including launching a potential expansion and addition of another new store. They’ve added more community events to their co-op calendar, and are working to improve a culture of inclusion. The co-op is also partnering with other community leaders sponsoring a local food summit this year and identifying community needs to work on solving collaboratively. “This is the reason why I got on the board, to help our community as a whole be more inclusive and sustainable,” 12th Moon said.
He noted that as their problems on the Council were alleviated, they were all in a position to do so much more as a cooperative. “It’s really a joy compared to the drudgery it once was,” 12th Moon said about their Council meetings. “We have a lot of work to do, but now we are accomplishing a lot, and there’s a friendly feeling when we all leave the meetings. It’s an amazing turnaround that we are extremely thankful for.”