gayle-cooley-415Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op
Roanoke, Va.

The Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op had acquired 25 acres in 2011 and in the process of deciding to expand co-op operations through a cooperative farm, it had set the co-op on a path for greater community development. Heritage Point is the largest contiguous urban farm in the U.S., and the co-op’s plans for it include planting a fruit orchard, raising honey bees, flowers and vegetables, and rearing free-range chickens for eggs. It is all part of their plan to build a sustainable economy in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia.

Now they are opening a second store in downtown Roanoke. Although all these new developments have been happening very quickly for the co-op, they’ve been poised to act on opportunities because their board, through their participation in the CBLD program, has put into practice a strategic leadership process. That has given them governance tools that help them function well to meet the needs of their ever-changing city.

Cooperative Strategic Leadership (CSL) can be defined as organizational thinking that leads to providing direction and facilitating change to create a viable future based on the co-op’s values. It includes all stakeholders in the process by engaging them in learning and understanding their role in carrying out the co-op’s vision successfully. The co-op board was already grounded in their use of Policy Governance, and CSL helps them take what they already know to the next level. Roanoke board president Gayle Cooley said it’s been a very powerful tool.

From her perspective, the most important part of CSL has been the ability to build alignment, trust and teamwork, not just with fellow board members, but also with the co-op’s management. “We had very robust conversations that everyone participated in,” Cooley said. “We asked ourselves questions about how the co-op’s work supports and enhances the ends. We had to be clear on how our projects would serve the community, the local economy, and impact health and the environment.”

CSL not only encourages a forward-looking mindset, but it also stresses accountability. Part of this discussion for the board included important oversight of co-op operations using the tools of Policy Governance. Cooley said that they could see how this area of governance could get murky and they strove to work with management on what was proper examination. “We went back to the basics, and looked to our policies to perform our governance responsibilities,” Cooley said. “To identify our process, we usedCSL to specify clear policy criteria to the general manager.” She believes this approach has enhanced team work for everyone involved.

Because they had done so much work laying the groundwork through strategic discussions, when they were approached by the city to be part of the revitalization of downtown, they were prepared to take on the opportunity. “Growth is on everyone’s mind,” Cooley said about Roanoke as well as the food co-op sector. “I believe we need to think together about what it means for the co-op to answer the question: what does intelligent growth mean in our communities?”

Cooperative Strategic Leadership by Art Sherwood, Cooperative Grocer, July-August 2011. (pdf)

The Growth Roadway, Spotlighting Board Stewardship by Art Sherwood, Cooperative Grocer, Nov-Dec 2012.

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