The quality of the board-general manager relationship is one of the most influential factors for setting the tone within a cooperative. Positive and productive rapport throughout the co-op is engendered through trust and communication with co-op leaders. By establishing and practicing Teaming, (the first of the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance) both boards and their general managers know their roles and how their ability to work well with each other benefits the cooperative.
The strength of the governance-management relationship can sometimes be tested during times of transformation at the co-op, especially when decisions result in change. One big shift, of course, is when cooperatives seek growth. While growth is necessary to sustain a dynamic organization, it can also spark fears and uncertainty. That’s why having a system for working together is so important; it gives people within the co-op a framework for participating in decision-making and holding each other accountable to accomplishing the co-op’s Ends.
At Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais, Minn. the board and manager experienced challenges in 2010 related to expansion preparation that nearly brought the co-op’s plans to a standstill.
The proposed project involved tearing down walls of the “old” co-op, moving the store to a temporary site, building a new, larger building, and then moving back into it. This project was successfully completed in 2013, and the co-op is currently profitable ahead of projections. However, the co-op’s board and manager had struggled to work together effectively in the planning process, and it is what they learned about functional teamwork that continues to inform their work today.
Barb LaVigne, the co-op’s current board president, was an at-large member of the board during the decision-making period of the co-op’s expansion. “It was a big project, and some people on the board were more risk-averse,” she said. “Some people had a lot wrapped up in the funky little place and wanted the co-op to remain so.” The co-op had done its due-diligence, consulting with planning expansion expert Bill Gessner, and demonstrated its viability through financial projections and market research that supported the project. Despite that, the board struggled reach a final decision.
“We had analysis paralysis,” said LaVigne. Part of this was due to the fact that the decision-making process was not clearly adhered to, delaying the decision to expand by months and months. As the decision hung in the balance, trust issues came to the forefront. Part of the fallout from their lack of teamwork when the decision to expand was finally made, was that two dissenting board members resigned. In a small community like Grand Marais, it felt like a painful separation. LaVigne and general manager Jennifer Stoltz began the process of putting communication and decision-making structures in place to improve their work together.
“The key thing was getting outside support,” Stoltz said, as they worked with their CBLD consultant and other experts to help them through the process. Stoltz said that an outside perspective helped them think about their co-op’s goals within the context of other food co-ops and the movement as a whole. “It can be hard because people get emotional, but when you’re working on behalf of over 2,000 owners you have to do what’s best for the majority,” she said. When the board and manager focused on the big picture, it helped build trust and ease entrenchment because they all got a greater understanding of their purpose and how their individual roles impacted that.
LaVigne also said that focus on what was best for the majority of owners was key for the board as well. She realized that democratic leadership isn’t about having 100% agreement all the time, but about agreeing to a process for working together. She said keeping the board and manager “focused on a big vision” for the future is critical to their ability to be effective team players.
4PCG Focus—Teaming: successfully working together to achieve common purpose. Each issue of Connections will focus on one pillar of the Four Pillars of Cooperative Governance. For more information about 4PCG, read the articles in theJanuary/February 2014 and March/April 2014 issues of Cooperative Grocer.