Seward Community Co-op opened two new business units back-to-back in the late summer and early fall of 2015. Part of that opening process for the second retail location and the Co-op Creamery Cafe involved intensive community engagement as the new co-op location initially encountered resistance from a group of people concerned about its development. After the new location opened in October (a thousand people came to the new Friendship location’s ribbon-cutting), it was overwhelmingly well-received, in large part, because of careful attention to neighborhood feedback.
Long before that goal was realized, however, Seward Co-op had begun preparations for becoming a multi-location business in 2012. The board and management focused particularly on stakeholder, board and management alignment in order to facilitate the development of new systems and growth. When the co-op’s board and management were tested by activist concerns, they were able to effectively communicate that the co-op’s strong commitment to its Ends would continue at the co-op’s new location.
Leah Janus, the co-op’s board president said that everything they sought to communicate with all stakeholders through the process was filtered through the Ends. She also said that they did a lot of communicating, not just with owners and the community, but with each other. “The Ends are a useful way to frame discussions about our growth,” Janus said.
When they heard from community members concerned about the second store’s impact, Janus said that being clear about how the project fulfilled the Ends informed the way they responded to them. “The question became how do we respond in a way that’s appropriate? We want to hear from owners even if they disagree. Yet we felt strongly that we were doing the right thing,” she said. “They knew we were listening.” The board played a very visible role in the community, going to meetings and meeting people at events, as well as participating in door-knocking campaigns. “We were confident our leadership was consistent with our Ends, and the conclusion that the Friendship store growth furthered our Ends.”
Another key part of the co-op’s alignment is the way the Ends are carried through the whole organization. “As the co-op has grown, we want to make sure we are intentional and not missing key considerations of our co-op’s Ends and the board’s executive limitations policies,” said Sean Doyle, Seward’s general manager. “We are committed to stakeholder processes that involve people at the right times and in the right ways.”
For example, during day-to-day multi-store operations, co-op leaders and staff are faced with myriad considerations regarding how the co-op’s resources are allocated, or how work is going to be accomplished. Doyle was concerned that as the co-op grew, decision-making related to co-op Ends might become diluted or lost in the process if there wasn’t proper alignment on the co-op’s mission. “We’ve got 400 employees and it’s impossible for the GM to be in the room for every important decision,” he said. That’s when the co-op developed clearly delineated procedures called the Stakeholder Engagement Process Tool for making operational decisions that support the co-op’s Ends.
Doyle sees this as a direct result of good governance. “The board’s key responsibility to owners is to make sure the co-op is on track.” Doyle said good systems and process within the co-op organization help make reporting to the board easier and provides more clarity. This has also led to the creation of charters for new teams at the co-op, most recently one called Governance and Strategy. “The reality is that in a larger organization governance is as much a part of operations as the board’s role in governing the co-op. We’ve used the policy governance model in our whole organization to help managers make decisions that reflect the Ends and limitations,” he said.
At Seward, both the board and management continually communicate and work together on co-op development. “It’s important for us to have a good communication system within our board that allows us to take measured actions. It’s a joint effort between the board and co-op operations,” Janus said. “We make sure there’s an opportunity for the board to check in regarding alignment. We’re always doing that.”
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 the January/February 2014 and March/April 2014 issues of Cooperative Grocer.