Clem Nilan, general manager at City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vt. has been to a lot of meetings and seminars in his career. For someone in his position, who hasn’t? But when he and his board attended the Leadership Development training hosted byCDS Consulting Co-op through the CBLD program, he perceived so much more possibility in how he and his board worked together. It might sound exaggerated to say that he and the board had an epiphany, but, well, they did. “It was the best training I’ve ever been to. It was more than about improvement, but a mindset change,” Nilan said.
Within the constellation of services offered by the CBLD program, the in-person sessions offering training and seminars at no extra cost have been proving to be one of the most effective tools used by boards and managers today. That’s because the sessions give participants the opportunity to interact with each other and co-op leaders from their region with a shared goal of creating strong leadership within their co-ops. The experience is designed to give leaders training that will help them incorporate more preparation into the board’s work plan, build more effective teams, and develop their boards.
For Nilan, the mindset-changing moment occurred when he learned about the concept of holding “safe” conversations. These are specified conversations where board and management can simply talk about issues and listen without the specter of judgment or expectations. Afterward, they can return to focusing on board and co-op business with a more educated perspective. For Nilan, the use of safe conversations has been a way to fill in the gap when it comes to policy governance and the board’s need to understand the business they are elected to safeguard.
Many co-ops grapple with the issue of how governance and operational oversight intersect. Theoretically, everyone has their role, but there are times when diverging from them for a conversation is beneficial to enhancing how that role is carried out. For example, the board’s role is not to direct operations, but there are times when the board can benefit from being in the loop about what’s going on operationally that falls outside the realm of a policy. Managers don’t want boards to run roughshod over their operational decisions, but they also see the advantage to the co-op in management working more in partnership with their boards.
According to Nilan what they learned at City Market/Onion River is that they can engage with a higher level of trust and ease than ever before. “This gives us the opportunity to talk about topics of vital interest to the cooperative, but have been in the taboo range previously,” he said. He thinks it helps keep the fear-factor at bay because safe conversations provide a good avenue for discussing difficult topics. Not only that, Nilan believes it addresses a fundamental need for all the people involved in leadership roles at the co-op, who often have the best of intentions, to be able to best help their community. “It helped us build a common language. We have a lot of alignment as a result,” Nilan said.