We asked food co-op general managers from coast-to-coast to tell us what they believe helps them be effective in the challenging and complex role as head of operations within the cooperative structure. Similar themes emerged as the path to problem solving and a prototype for success.
Many of the managers we spoke to noted that the job is not about specific “tasks” but about adopting a role in the organization. “A good manager is strong in human resources,” said Art Ames of Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Mass., and this includes being an active listener, fostering the ability to build teams of people working together. Alex Gyori of Brattleboro Co-op in Brattleboro, Vermont said, “It was a big lesson for me not to go out and factionalize to rally for my ideas…I needed to listen to what people were saying, not how they said it…I needed to figure out where people were coming from, not get emotionally involved. It is a core component of being able to lead.”
All of the managers we spoke to had learned more than a few leadership lessons, some were hard-won, others came in a flash of insight. They discovered the role of general manager in the co-op also comes with the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts have a legacy attached. It is that consciousness that is the weight and the glory of being a general manager.
Nobody likes to talk about it, but nearly everyone admits to having it. Fear. At least at the beginning. Some are personal fears and others are externally driven. General managers said that to get to the next level of effectiveness they had to confront certain challenges, for instance: admitting you don’t know everything or have all the answers, understanding that no matter what you do, you’ll have critics and supporters, and realizing that organizational progress is usually going to be complicated. Compound this with an organizational culture that is resistant of change, and it’s certain to cause doubts in virtually anyone, no matter how gung-ho. “I’d say we’re super risk averse in the co-op food industry,” said Len Mayer of North Coast Co-op in Arcata, Calif., “I’d say we are very careful to try not to offend our core customers in any way, and that stifles innovation and change and improvement.”
According to general managers experienced with these issues, there are things that help mitigate that trend: building the management skill base to proactively solve problems, create positive change, and build organizational confidence in the role of general manger.
Find a Mentor
Sarah Lebherz of Common Market in Frederick, Md. has been the general manager of her co-op for about a year and a half, although she worked in every single department in the store over the years prior to becoming the store manager. She believes she has very good understanding of the co-op’s operations, yet she said she had doubts about being the general manager. “My biggest challenge was knowing whether or not I was ready. I was concerned about what kind of experience it would entail,” she said. Lebherz said she “got over it” after she contacted others outside her co-op for mentorship, specifically Dave Blackburn of Co-op Grocers Association Northeast (CGANE) and Bill Gessner of CDS. She said about the experience, “I think it’s important. It’s a combination of many things helping you find your own style.”
Twenty-two years ago Alex Gyori of Brattleboro did likewise his first year on the job as general manager. “When I became GM, I realized I didn’t have the tools to manage, I felt out of my league.” He contacted Fred Stapenhorst, who was at the time consulting with the Northeast Cooperative Warehouse in Brattleboro, to mentor him. “He helped me do things that really made a difference. I was very thankful. When other managers contact me I’m always happy to share because it made such a difference for me. Mentors are important,” Gyori said.
New general managers often choose Bill Gessner of CDS as mentor; as a mentor he finds that what many managers need to hear is encouragement as well as get needed advice. He noted that boards need to be aware of this, that a manager needs to seek outside support. “A board may not be able to give all the support a general manager needs, but it does need to be aware of the importance of the general manager to seek support outside the organization.” He also sees the role of peer support as an important aspect of the mentorship function. “Part of the path for improvement and strengthening is through peer support,” he added.
Allow Teams Capacity to Lead
Art Ames sees his role at the co-op to build consensus and help teams with problem solving. Ames says this approach takes planning, and involves empowering the co-op staff to plan anything, from long-range plans to what’s going to be on sale any given week.
“My job is to help problem solve, not micromanage,” said Sarah Lebherz. Her co-op Common Market is currently going through an expansion, which is now taking up the majority of Lebherz’ time. “I have to trust the store to operate without me and know it has the capacity to do this. It makes me confident we can make it a larger store. When you step away you know whether your team has the capacity to lead.” She defines the work she’s doing with the staff and the store as a “building phase, inside and out.”
Along with allowing teams the capacity to lead, this includes hiring the right people. Bill Gessner said, “The ability to make good hires and to develop a management team is important. Look at what a good hire is worth in dollars and cents compared to a bad hire.”
“It’s easy to maintain a positive culture than change a negative one. Culture starts with management,” said Art Ames, and that’s why he sees those first few days of a new hire as golden opportunities to influence the culture. Bill Gessner concurs. “There’s a special bonding experience that happens through hiring.” Alex Gyori, manager of a large store, still makes the new hire experience a management priority as well. “I do a 15 minute interview with all new hires. I keep the door open to talk.”
Everyone admits it’s an ongoing challenge to be inspired, but it is a necessary component to effective management. Some find it within themselves, and others from outside, but it’s important from their perspective to find what keeps the ideas flowing, or feeling “juiced” as Art Ames put it. Some managers, like Alex Gyori, find that the ability to resolve co-op issues is a source of inspiration. “I always like challenges. They inspire me.” He also noted that collegiality and peer support help keep him going, “Those people are important to me.”
Others are inspired by their staff. “The staff attitude helps my own morale,” said Sarah Lebherz. “To see the sales growth and see the staff get thrilled about us and where we need to go is great,” she added. Art Ames also enjoys overseeing the development of the staff and witnessing them using the skills they’ve learned at the co-op in many different applications. “It inspires me to see people with lots of potential and watch them grow. I see that as spreading the wealth.” Being inspired by and investing in people is perhaps the best legacy a manager could leave a co-op.Add to favorites