When Thomas Edison set out to create electric light in 1878, he already knew electricity could generate light. What he didn’t have was the right material that would sustain the light without quickly burning out. Edison wanted to create a lightbulb that could survive the strength of an electric current. He forced himself to think beyond the scientific results of the day by concentrating on the outcome he wanted to create.
It often seems like the best work people do in the act of building something new occurs when they are clear about the results they want to achieve.
It is this sense of discovery, intention and value that is the driving force behind CDS’ Cooperative Board Leadership Development (CBLD) program. In 2005, 24 food co-ops in the National Co-op Grocers Association’s (NCGA) East Corridor have participated in a pilot program (called CoCoBEEPP) that offers ongoing board support with resources, guidance and feedback designed to help boards achieve excellence in governance. Since the program is in its first year, it is early to assess success, but participant food co-ops appreciate its individually tailored services and are optimistic about its long-term potential.
Dave Blackburn, NCGA’s East Development Director, said theNCGA joined forces with CDS because the East Corridor seemed a natural fit for a pilot program. The Northeast region’s boards were already getting together once a year.
The all-volunteer boards felt like they needed systems to help them address issues of board leadership, improving relationships with managers, and being accountable to their memberships. “There’s a recognition of the need for board support in the same way the CGAsystem supports general managers,” he said. About the food co-op board members participating in the pilot, Blackburn said, “Ongoing board support is pretty exciting to people.”
“ We are pleasantly surprised with the amount of resources presented to us,” Chuck Hungerford, board president at New Leaf Market in Tallahasee, Fla., said of the program. He has found CBLD’s support valuable as he’s sought to make being a board member a better experience for everyone. “I think seeing more options and alternatives for procedures or policies, hearing other ways to do things can help us do more, and more efficiently.” He said his work through CBLD has already resulted in helping his board make better and quicker decisions during their meetings.
Hungerford also noted the big picture relationship between stronger local co-op boards and the collaborative work of the food co-op sector as a whole. “I’m looking forward to increasing my knowledge and making more contacts with boards of other co-ops,” he said. “That’s something that’s extremely useful for me working with my board, and also improves the function of the network of co-ops.
Hungerford’s experience is another reason the NCGA system supports CBLD, Blackburn said. “If there’s not sustained, focused effort on board leadership it makes it harder for us to come together. Effective boards are essential.”
CDS board development consultant Marilyn Scholl said, “In some ways CBLD is modeling the CGA system in that we are creating support for continuous improvements and best practices through a connected system.”
The challenges to the board of directors are in equal measure to its important work, and CBLD has identified three key areas of board responsibility:
- Board process, systems and tools
- Board relationships
- Accountability to members
Within these major areas of board responsibility are significant tasks to do, including hiring and evaluating management, assessing its own board performance, recruiting and training new board members, and embracing the critical issues that shape the co-op’s direction and future. Significant inherent weaknesses have historically undercut the effectiveness of board work: board turnover, lack of good systems and group process tools, and inattentive members.
Scholl talked about what she called the “pineapple” effect that occurs on boards without adequate systems and tools to discuss bigger issues. They’ll get bogged down discussing a specific issue—why is the co-op stocking a certain pineapple—instead of focusing on how board values guide the decision making on what kind of pineapple the co-op should sell or promote. These are the process concerns that CBLD is helping boards address. The program has built in tools for surveying board effectiveness in the areas of systems, relationships and accountability, in order to determine what’s working well and what could improve so efforts are targeted.
“ The boards that regularly invest in their own development get better and stay better,” said Scholl. “They’re not personality-dependent and you don’t get the ups and downs, depending on who is involved. With CBLD support we can help boards create their own process, tools, and relationships so they have everything they need for accountability to their members
Program designers make it clear that CBLD is for the strategic development of boards, not for creating a certain direction for co-ops. CDS board consultant Mark Goehring said, “The vision for the co-ops is up to the individual boards. We want co-op boards to be able to do their best work.”
“ Boards hold the key to the success of all our co-ops. They could be examples in their communities of excellent governance, able to look to the future and understand the role their co-op plays in the community,” said Goehring. “CBLD is a program that works on an individual level, but also connects the co-ops with common resources.”
He added, “The directors who are passionate about co-ops, who rise to the call to serve their communities, these are the people we’re supporting. They deserve and need the ongoing support our whole system can provide.”
When Edison was searching for a way to channel electricity to create a workable lightbulb, he believed he needed a material that could sustain electricity’s energy. When Edison met with success it was because he found a material (carbon) that increased and sustained its intensity, not lessened it. When boards have the strong support they need to channel their efforts on vision and the big picture, what might they discover?