At many food co-ops, members have expressed the desire that their co-op make a real difference in areas like community, education, sustainability, or supporting local food and economic systems. Local board of directors, accountable to the members, have taken these aspirations and created policies that guide the activities of the co-op to these ends.
How does the board know its expectations are actually being met? One critical way to account for that knowledge gap is through the general manager’s providing monitoring reports with policy interpretations and compliance data to the board. General manager monitoring reports can create a strong infrastructural alliance with the co-op’s mission, planning and activities, as well as demonstrate the results with measurable goals.
General managers are taking on the task of providing policy interpretations and data in ways that they might not have in the past. “The monitoring process has been a huge revelation,” said board consultant Mark Goehring. “The board has written expectations and delegated authority. The general manager shows how the organization is responding to the expectations via the monitoring reports.” For many managers it has sparked a new way of thinking about how planning, operations and mission are linked, and how the monitoring process helps strengthen those ties.
The reporting process is designed to specifically address whether board expectations are being met, not to keep the board “informed.” Goehring said, “It’s a much larger role. It’s about accountability to the member owners.”
Goehring said it’s in the monitoring process that managers add their own voice to the accountability chain. They can show how they’re going to organize their work around policy expectations and how their interpretations of board policies guide what’s going on at the co-op. “The monitoring process is what connects it all: The values of member-owners, board expectations expressed in policy, and the manager’s demonstration of how those values and expectations have been operationalized,” he added.
At Three Rivers Market in Knoxville, Tenn., general manager Jacki Arthur said that she found that as the board pushed itself to be clearer and stronger, she did likewise in her role.
Arthur believed part of her process was finding a good format for reporting to the board. She had a breakthrough when she determined that it wasn’t just a matter of “giving them what they want” but thinking about it from their perspective. If she were a board member, what would she expect of her manager? She believed that upped the ante on her work and raised the level of importance of monitoring for the co-op.
“I put the onus on myself to set the standard for the reports,” she said. “If the policies are relevant, the voice of the owners is channeled to you,” said Arthur. Not only that, but the process allowed her to connect the dots with operations and co-op responsibility. “You can see how the policies have a holistic relationship with business planning,” she said.
Holly Jarvis, general manager at Food Front in Portland, Ore., has also been actively focused on the interplay of mission and operations through monitoring at her co-op for several years. Like many other managers, she noted the first year of creating interpretations of policy and reporting on compliance or noncompliance with them involved a learning curve.
She said that policy governance and the monitoring process is worth it, and has made her job, if not easier, much more focused on planning member-driven outcomes.
Over the years she has continually moved the co-op’s operational activities closer to its ends policies and has involved more staff in understanding their role and purpose in the larger scheme of things. “I got my management team involved from day one,” Jarvis said, as she worked with them to help her create monitoring reports for their particular areas of responsibility.
During the start up phase of her board’s work with board policies, she also included key management staff in policy governance training. As new managers got hired, the board policies were integrated into their orientations. The policies play a role in her management team’s agendas, and the use of the ends policies are part of the work they do with staff in their own departments. “I encourage them to involve more people,” Jarvis said. “We use ends policies from the management level on down. Our department heads and buyers know the policies. So when the store sets goals, they are always tied back to how we further the ends.”
Goehring said Food Front is a positive example of the vital role monitoring reporting can play in accountability to members. Clearly, it’s much more than a make-work activity to placate the board. The process encourages managers to apply their expertise and creativity toward greater focus on helping the co-op accomplish its goals.
It also takes tremendous focus and commitment to do it, and that’s why the Cooperative Board Leadership Development program(CBLD) is committed not only to helping boards govern effectively, but giving managers the tools to demonstrate accountability. Goehring said, “As a best-practice, monitoring reports are vitally important. But they are just tools that allow general managers to operate with creativity and confidence, and that allow boards to have a clear method of being accountable for all that goes on in the co-op—including the difference owners say it should be making in the world. Imagine what kind of impact this process will have on what we can accomplish.”