Building leadership ability at our co-ops is critical to the National Cooperative Grocers Association mission: to provide the vision, leadership, and systems to catapult a virtual chain of food co-ops to a position of prominence in the natural foods industry. While members, staff, general managers, and boards all contribute to strong leadership within our co-ops, this article focuses on co-op boards.
Imagine if every co-op had an effective board, with strong leadership, healthy board– general manager relationships, unified vision, and a chain of accountability that includes all levels of the co-op. The possibilities are limitless. If we better prepare co-op boards to do their jobs and ensure they are plugged into a network of co-op boards receiving the same development opportunities, we all benefit.
Recognizing that governance is an under-developed asset was the context under which Cooperative Board Leadership Development (CBLD) was built. CBLD actually began under a different name in 2005. It was piloted in cooperation with Cooperative Development Services in the Eastern Corridor in an effort to bring general managers and boards together to discuss and shape board development. The program was extended to Central Corridor members in 2006.
Addressing an underdeveloped asset
The objective of the program has not changed: find effective ways to clarify roles, create understanding of governance principles, and develop effective governance policies, tools, and practices. CBLD provides ongoing resources, guidance and feedback to do just that. Participating co-ops receive ongoing, regular communication for the co-op’s board president, a full-day retreat for the entire board, and leadership training sessions for new directors. These services are provided by Cooperative Development Services.
Of course, with benefits come responsibilities. Co-op boards are expected to participate in activities, set goals, communicate honestly about problems and concerns, and commit to best practices in governance.
That commitment is clear to see. This year, 98 directors from 37 co-ops in the Eastern and Central corridors participated in five sessions of Cooperative Board Leadership 101, a class designed for newly elected directors. The course covers co-op values, principles, and economics; roles and responsibilities of directors; an introduction to Policy Governance; basic financial understanding; and current issues facing co-ops.
Three corridor-level board development gatherings sponsored by National Cooperative Grocers Association were also well-attended. In the Eastern Corridor, board leaders and general managers gathered in Burlington, Vermont, and Wilmington, North Carolina, for accountability conferences, and board members of Central Corridor co-ops gathered for a directors’ dialogue in conjunction with the June CCMA conference in Atlanta.
The accountability conferences put board leaders and general managers to work defining cooperative accountability. Both groups worked together on this topic at the beginning and end of the day. In between, general managers had a breakout session on accountability through monitoring, while board leaders worked on the accountability chain: owners > board > general manager > operations. In all, 58 co-op leaders (board leaders and general managers) from 31 co-ops participated in the two accountability conferences.
The Central Corridor directors’ dialogue in Atlanta put 20 board members from 14 co-ops to work creating common ground on three key questions:
- Do our co-ops share common purpose?
- What can we do, as directors, to ensure our co-ops are more relevant in five years ?
- If this is the beginning of a conversation, what might the rest of it look like?
This was the first corridor-wide gathering of directors from the Central Corridor. Based on feedback from program participants, it is not likely to be the last.
What impact has participation in cross co-op board development had for members?
At Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska, board chair Keith Dubas said that Cooperative Board Leadership Development has been a lifeline. “Many board members have limited experience serving on a board, especially one that operates by consensus and policy governance. Knowing we have an experienced consultant from the co-op world to discuss issues with is of great comfort.” He also noted that participation helps bring recognition and understanding of the common issues that all co-ops face. “Hearing how other co-ops deal with these issues allows us to have a broader understanding and yet tailor our response to our situation.”
Open Harvest’s general manager, Jean Helms, concurs. “The fact that our board chair has regularly scheduled calls with our CBLD consultant and someone to bounce ideas off of has been enormously beneficial to our progress. We have a new board chair this year, and CBLD greatly reduced the amount of time it took for him to acclimate to his position. It provides systematic, ongoing support that would otherwise not be available.”
Helms noted that the program has resulted in significant improvements to board meetings, overall process, the board–general manager relationship, and policies. “I recommend CBLD to any co-op that is seeking board development, because it creates a dynamic where boards can learn from each others’ best practices and create successful businesses.”
And that, of course, is the goal. The train is moving, and we’re all excited about the destination!
Cooperative Board Leadership Development is a calendar-year program with an open enrollment period running from September through November. Details of the 2007 program are available at www.cdsfood.coop or by contacting Mark Goehring of Cooperative Development Services: [email protected]
Kelly Smith is director of marketing and communications for the National Cooperative Grocers Association ([email protected]).