It’s time to deal with the elephant in the room, herd the sacred cows, clear the air, close Pandora’s box, and let the cat out of the bag. Enough with the eye-rolling and tiptoeing, sitting in meetings wondering if the co-op board will ever accomplish anything of importance. Ask yourself instead: what would the future look like if your board, through its leadership and governance, was considered one of the most valuable assets of your food co-op?
Boards are valuable assets in the cooperative governance chain, but often the value from their contributions is difficult to see— their leadership isn’t always taken seriously, or is misplaced. Not that it’s a simple job, what with directors coming and going, leadership transition, and being accountable for decisions made every day by all those working for the cooperative—in addition to creating and providing stewardship for the organization’s purpose and assets.
To help boards govern effectively on behalf of their member owners, CDS piloted a program (CoCoBEEPP) in the Eastern Corridor in 2005 to begin a dialogue with boards and general managers about how to design, shape and invest in board development. The program was extended to co-ops in the Central Corridor for 2006 under the Cooperative Board Leadership Development program (CBLD). Results achieved so far have been exciting, and among participating co-ops there is unanimous agreement that investing in ongoing board development is a good use of co-op resources.
Thinking of board education and training in a systematic and system-wide manner has helped change the conversation about what is possible. Now that cross co-op director orientation classes exist for newly elected directors, board leaders receive ongoing support, and every participating board has an annual retreat, what are the next steps for board development? What about those directors in the middle of their terms? What specific topic areas should be developed?
“We’ve made a good start,” said CDS CBLD consultant Mark Goehring, “and we should keep this train moving. We believe—and have seen evidence to support the notion—that if we invest in governance as an underdeveloped asset, it will provide more value to the system.”
Historically, a lot of food co-op boards functioned as guiding committees, with board members involved in the co-op in hands-on ways. Today, with increasing operational support for general managers from the NCGA, CDS, and others, that approach is not only outdated, but could hinder the advancement of the co-op as a community owned enterprise. Board members still feel like they should be “doing” something, despite the fact that their co-op has sophisticated management in place. A big part of CBLD has been working on the clarification of board and general manager roles, understanding governance principles, and developing governance policies, tools and practices, all with consideration given to big picture questions: What does it take to govern effectively on behalf of our member owners? Just how does the board add value to the cooperative?
“Cooperative board leadership could be what sets us apart as a community of member-owned businesses,” Goehring said. “This is worth doing. It’s new thinking for the whole system. What support, training, and learning should boards have access to? How does this knowledge “stick” through time? What are the leverage points to the governance system that will move all co-op boards to be eye-popping assets for their cooperatives? That’s what we’re working on, and we see it as a community development issue. We’re starting the conversation and we’re looking for input.”
At the Hanover Consumer Co-op, in Hanover, New Hampshire, recent board president Michael Yacavone said that the challenge to local boards is to accept their governance role as big-picture thinkers. “We need to teach boards that cogitating is doing. Listening and providing clear thought is doing.” He noted that when you get a group of smart people together they have a tendency to want to rush into action. “Sometimes you end up with a group of self-appointed entrepreneurs, which may not be the right approach.” He found that by continually asking the question—how does this issue relate to board governance—his board could stay on track with its governance role.
Yacavone said CBLD helped him be more prepared for board meetings and gave him a sounding board to think through leadership issues. “One advantage of CBLD is that it works on the interface between board and management to bring value to the board.”
Hanover’s general manager, Terry Appleby, said that the board’s focus on creating clarity in the roles of board and management has allowed him more latitude to fulfill the co-op’s mission from an operational standpoint. “One thing that’s important to me is that there be a confluence of thinking with the board and manager. When the board speaks with one voice it is invaluable to me in moving ahead once a decision has been made.”
Appleby said his relationship with his board has always been good, but he sometimes felt hemmed in by unspoken expectations. “Once they started to write these things down, it became clearer to me my duties and expectations.
It gave me more freedom to act.” He also attributes the board’s commitment to the policy process for creating a way to deepen the level of trust between the board and manager.
Both Appleby and Yacavone feel enthusiastic about their progress the past two years, but believe that they are just scratching the surface, especially regarding strengthening member linkage. This is their board’s next big step. Yacavone said the Hanover board “got good at drafting policies and thinking about how we want the co-op to matter in the world.” Now the co-op is ready to take this internal process out to the membership. Part of the work of CBLDis to help boards reach their ultimate goal: accountability to the members.
Yacavone acknowledges the inherent difficulty in trying to connect with thousands of members, but understands its profound necessity. “Member linkage is not just a project. It’s a change in our approach. We want it to be an ongoing process,” said Yacavone.