Skills for Building the Board-General Manager Relationship

There is nothing more fundamental to cooperative governance than the board-GM relationship. After all, the entire leadership of the co-op rests on how the board and the general manager work together in their respective roles, which are unique and non-redundant. The work that the board must do to lead and execute its board duties is not the same work that the general manager must do to accomplish their executive responsibilities. Yet the work must be aligned and coordinated. The ideal board-general manager relationship relies upon cultivating both the “hard” side and the “soft” side of the relationship.

The hard side is the technical knowledge required to be a great part of the leadership team. If you are a board director you must understand the board role, board processes, and the cooperative business for which you are a fiduciary. If you are a general manager, you must sufficiently understand the role of the board to know what information is needed by the fiduciaries of the organization. You must have good communication skills to convey the needed information in a way that is useful, efficient, and credible; and you must be skilled in managing yourself and others to deliver communications to the board on a highly-regimented schedule.

The soft side is all about how we work together as people who are complicated and whose feelings and perceptions ultimately drive how we understand situations and circumstances.  Often our feelings influence us, as much as, or even more profoundly, than the “hard” side of things.

Joshua Youngblood, president of Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville, Arkansas, sums it up this way:  “I think the ideal board relationship is respectful, communicative, and collaborative, in that order. The board and general manager should each fully understand not only what the role of each is in a cooperative, but act with the understanding that both (operations as represented by the general manager, and governance as represented by the board) are integral to the cooperative’s existence and do not duplicate each other’s function. That is to say, they both do essential things that make a co-op a co-op, although they have different responsibilities and different contributions to the co-op.”

Nagisa Suzuki, general manager of Mountain View Market Co+op in Las Cruces, New Mexico said, “The ideal GM-board relationship is one that is fluid, which means that both parties work together and communicate openly all the time. No matter if topics are easy, hard, constructive, destructive, you always need to be able to listen openly to each other, respect one another, and follow through on your commitments. It is a two-way street…you need to be able to foster a positive, helpful and cohesive relationship to succeed.”

The Soft Side: Working with People

As we each act within our respective roles, it may be helpful to ask ourselves a few questions and then try to find increasingly effective ways to manifest these behaviors:

  • How do I set the tone of collaboration and respect?
  • How do I model professionalism and accountability?
  • How can I stay within my right role and fully honor the role of others?
  • What would the kind and compassionate way of leading through this situation be?

Once we have reflected on our personal behavior we can expand not only to a larger group discussion, but to the question of how can each of us as individuals help to reinforce the best behavior for all members of our team.

For boards and managers that may struggle with the culture or dynamic between directors or individual directors, it may be helpful to simply spend time at a meeting discussing the code of conduct and what professional decorum means to everyone in practice.

In struggles within the board-general manager relationship, it can be helpful to incorporate a practice of directors sharing what they appreciate about the general manager, and for the general manager to share what they appreciate about the board. It is also helpful for each to imagine themselves in the role of the other, and reflect on what behaviors are occurring that we may not want to experience ourselves. A version of the golden rule comes in handy:  do not do to others what you would not want to have done to you.

A healthy board-GM relationship necessarily requires that we be able to hold ourselves and each other accountable.  The work of accountability can sometimes lead to tension, but we can surmount that tension through a deeply-rooted sense of our collaboration and the broad and noble goals that we join together to achieve.

The Hard Side: Being Great at Our Respective Jobs

A truly healthy board-GM relationship requires many hard skills that we can devote ourselves to learning. It is helpful to acknowledge this need for learning and shared understanding as integral to our leadership.  Whenever undertaking or planning new or ongoing work, a few questions that may be helpful for reflection are:

  • Why are we doing this and how does this fit into the leadership of the co-op?
  • What is our best process for accomplishing this work?
  • What information do all parties need to accomplish our shared goals?
  • What is the relative priority of this aspect of our work?
  • What is my role and responsibility in this aspect of our work?

While many of the answers to the above questions may seem rote to experienced cooperative leaders, if we don’t all have good responses to these questions it can be a sign of the disunity that leads to a poor board-general manager relationship.

One example that may help illustrate the combination of hard and soft skills is a debate that happened between the board and general manager regarding who would be leading the messaging about an upcoming expansion project. The general manager interpreted the board’s policy language to mean that this was the GM’s responsibility.  Likewise, the board interpreted its own policy responsibilities as the reason that the board should lead.

The realization that arose within this discussion was that while the board could end the debate by changing the policies to clarify that it would lead expansion communications, there was an even better conclusion—both parties could lead communications on expansion from their respective roles. They wanted the whole organization to resonate the same message from every level, including the board, the general manager, the staff, and the owners.  They didn’t want to resolve these debates through a power play.

Challenging Times

The health of the board-GM relationship is especially critical when the co-op is experiencing challenging times, whether driven by internal or external forces. In such times communication and collaboration become more important than ever.  A healthy and strong team can work together to both minimize the destructive and divisive potential of the situation, and maximize the chances of creatively charting a course through the challenges.

Mountain View general manager Nagisa Suzuki, advises that when the board and general manager (and even staff) find that they are ‘not on the same page’ it can be helpful “to simply remember that the reason we are all here is to work together to better our communities and our Co-op.” She also advises that having as much open communication as possible, coming together to find a solution, and having complete follow-through once commitments are made are key.

Ozark president, Joshua Youngblood suggests several things that directors can do:  “In times of stress, I think building the board and getting the directors involved with the work is more important than at any other time. Boards can be a great communication tool when the GM works with them on messaging about strategy and makes them part of the plan. This helps the board add value, staying engaged instead of floating outside of the process where they can potentially do more harm than good. I have found it helpful for the board to adjust (or increase) its work with consultants to mine good ideas from the broader co-op world and other sources. The board can be doing Ends or visioning work during stressful times, or learning how the governing process can help the situation and add value.”

In challenging times, we especially need to ensure that we are not making the situation harder on ourselves. One experienced GM, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested a few things not to do:

“The board can be incredibly destructive when it accepts at face value input from people about their perception of the work environment or processes and procedures without any verification or at least asking the GM for relevant details. It is also challenging to have the board hash and rehash the same decisions. Another big stressor is when the board simply does not follow up on its own work and responsibilities. Staff ends up having to pick up the dropped balls in a scramble and it erodes confidence in the board’s leadership.”

In these times of increasing internal and external stressors to our cooperatives, we need to take extra care to cultivate and protect the relationship of the board and general manager. To be in relationship with other people necessarily requires us to hone both the soft and hard skills required for effective professional interaction.

For co-ops who enjoy a great board-general manager relationship, the words of Wheatsville Co-op’s chief executive grocer, Dan Gillotte ring true: “It’s not magic, but it IS magical!”

An excellent related resource is Michael Healy’s 2015 article entitled “Building a Strong Top Leadership Team: Creating and maintaining a healthy board-GM relationship”.

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