Hunting Elephants and Taking Bus Rides: Leading a Fine Co-op Forward

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From #105, March-April 2003

Hunting Elephants and Taking Bus Rides:
Leading a Fine Co-op Forward

B Y   M I C H E L L E   S C H R Y

Nearly two years ago I was given the opportunity to become the general manager of a successful, financially stable, and growing organization. This was a very new sort of experience for me. Previously I had developed a reputation for taking jobs that no one else particularly wanted: working for organizations with serious personnel problems or that were spiraling into financial ruin, or that were just too small and undercapitalized to realize much change.

Here is what I didn’t realize at the time: much of what I learned while helping these organizations find their way to new success and fiscal health would also be applicable in an environment that was stable and strong.

One of the best lessons that I have learned along the way is summarized by the first line in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Collins proclaims, "Good is the enemy of great." That single thought summarizes much of what holds back a "successful" organization striving for the next level.

For those who are general managers, your greatest task is to help the organization to envision, define, measure, and strive for greatness. Be assured, there will be resistance. It is particularly difficult in a cooperative with a history of success to suggest that greatness is something still to be attained. Most organizations have slices of greatness or have had times of greatness in their histories. But over time, market forces change, members change, and the needs of those members change.

Should you decide to join the perpetual journey toward greatness, you may find useful a few of the lessons I’ve gleaned along the way.

Change is not management centered, it is management driven.

A great boss once told me, "a good manager trains herself out of a job." This wisdom has stuck with me over the years. The more that we empower our staff to strive for greatness, the more likely they will be to achieve it. And as Schoolhouse Rock taught me in the 1970s, "Knowledge is power." Share the knowledge.

To create an organization that can sustain excellence over the long haul, change and performance cannot be centered on a single individual. If your co-op’s general manager, financial manager, grocery buyer, or front end manager should leave tomorrow, your organization must be able to sustain its current performance. Training for succession is crucial. And in preparing for succession, the crucial role of the general manager is to shepherd the process of change.

Observe, listen, assess, and prioritize.

To begin striving for greatness, an organization must do an honest (and if necessary a brutally honest) assessment of its current performance. Your customers, facility, financial performance, and the effectiveness of your board of directors are good indicators. But staff and management teams are critical in this assessment process as well.

Start out by hunting some "elephants in the room." At our store this process was once described by a management team member as "saying the things out loud that you had hoped no one else noticed." It’s likely you have elephants living in your store. Most of us do.

Why do we choose to ignore issues that we know need to be resolved? Some of the reasons I’ve bumped up against include:

  • It might hurt someone’s feelings.
  • We aren’t aware the situation can be better.
  • We don’t know how to fix the problem.
  • We don’t have the tools to fix the causes.
  • We don’t want to fix it.

In order to hunt elephants effectively, your team must be able to communicate with one another openly and honestly. We must be able to say and hear the hard things without making it personal. This is a skill that must be developed. Most staff members probably don’t arrive with this skill, so it is the responsibility of the general manager to model and train for this behavior.

It starts with our own behavior. We must be willing to allow others to question us without becoming defensive. We must be willing to examine our own motives when communicating.

One trait necessary for a GM to help develop open communications within a management team is emotional intelligence. We need to understand varying communication styles within our team and help them work together effectively with the group. We need to know when someone is holding back. We also need to know if there are people on the team who have legitimate issues but don’t have the skills to communicate appropriately.

For example, I once had a produce manager who was perceived by the management team to be a negative, bitter nay-sayer. But in actuality, this was a very committed individual whose expectations for his coworkers were so high that he was seriously discouraged when they did not live up to his expectations. By helping him communicate his underlying motivation to the rest of the team, they were able to reappraise his behavior and their own.

We also must work to foster a positive professional self-image among members of our team. Offering specific praise and recognizing the authority that must accompany responsibility go a long way toward this goal.

Face it, we need to be able to get through the garbage sometimes. I will often stop a difficult interaction between two team members and ask them, "What is it that you’re trying to accomplish with what you’re saying? Do you want to change a behavior? Or do you just want to make the other party as angry or hurt as you are feeling right now?" My advice to them is to be honest about their intentions. Trying to get someone to behave differently is often directly at odds with trying to make someone mad. Trying to change someone’s behavior probably requires a different approach.

When first working to change to a culture of greatness, over-communicate. Encourage communication at all levels: GM to management team, GM to staff, staff to management, management team to one another, department to department. This is so important because it is the only way to help create a unified vision. By learning to communicate openly and honestly, our team has been able to start working toward the extinction of elephants in the room.

Get the right people in the right seats on the bus.

A major part of creating success in an organization is having the right people in the right places. We’ve all heard the management wisdom, "Hire for attitude." Attitude is a huge component of whether someone will be successful. If we have individuals with the right attitudes, we can manage projects and progress rather than personalities. But if we stop there, we may not be able to accomplish all that we strive for. We must also hire for skill and talent.

When assessing our teams we must look honestly at skill sets. Ask the question, "How did this person become a manager?" How many people do we know that became managers because they simply outlasted everyone else? Or perhaps they became trapped in the management track? Often people who are excellent at handling product or technical aspects of a job are promoted to management positions where a majority of their work becomes "handling" people. The skills required to be successful at the former don’t always translate into the latter. We must help people get into the right roles for their interests and skill sets. Some managers have shifted roles with the understanding that they weren’t taking a step back–they were taking a step in the right direction.

Create a culture of change and empowerment.

The linchpin of greatness is the creation of clear expectations and standards within your organization. Start out by reviewing existing policy. If it’s stupid, get rid of it. Often we create policies to manage the lowest common denominator. But if we have the right people on the bus, we can move on the more important things.

Start on day one. Set the standard and stick to it. Don’t grandparent in unacceptable results. Never fail to notice and address non-compliance; but, equally important, don’t forget to offer specific praise.

Great organizations are dynamic, innovative, and flexible. They can adjust to shifting internal and external forces without losing focus on their ultimate goals and vision. Remember that inaction is also a choice, and by failing to act we can be making a choice that has long-term ramifications for our organization. Be a leader by encouraging decision making at all levels. If you have the right people in place, you won’t have to worry that they won’t make the right choice.

The linchpin of greatness is the creation of clear expectations and standards within your organization. Start out by reviewing existing policy. If it’s stupid, get rid of it.

If you are delegating responsibility, remember that you must also delegate authority to make necessary decisions. Many of us as managers protect our team members from their jobs. We hate being micro-managed by our boards, but we do it to our own staff members. If we are to truly delegate, we must also be willing to allow people to take responsibility for their failures along with their successes.

It is our job to coach and support. Don’t allow copouts. Always remember to celebrate success. And don’t forget that you can’t drive the car looking in the rear-view mirror. We can’t just look at where we’ve been, we have to look at the road ahead to be prepared for oncoming obstacles and to know when to change direction.

Create the vision of greatness.

What are your core values? What is the mission that has been set before you by the membership and the board of directors? I challenged our board to set the bar high last summer when re-writing our mission statement. People’s Food Co-op’s mission now includes the phrase, "to be the best fresh food market in the country." That may seem foolhardy to some, but it gives a clear signal of the expectations we have for our organization. I am inspired every day to strive to achieve it.

Where to start? We focused on getting the basics right. First, we demanded outstanding customer service, fueled by more intense recruiting and hiring practices. Next, an impeccably clean store was a minimum rather than a goal. The list goes on. But these standards weren’t on a list generated by the general manager; we created a plan that included crucial participation from staff, management, customers, and the board.

We made use of the 80/20 principle: 80 percent of your results comes from 20 percent of your efforts, and conversely, 80 percent of your efforts generate only 20 percent of effective results. This imbalance was examined. Where could we streamline bureaucracy? Where were we spending time that made little impact on our customers? Where were our rules getting in the way of our success? What are the areas of the store where increased attention could produce the greatest results?

We assigned roles. Once we generated a plan, everyone took ownership of a piece. We check in frequently. We regularly assess alignment with vision. We have established a clear plan for evaluation. We utilize tools available to us such as CoCoFiSt, member surveys, financial comparisons with other CGA stores, and evaluations that we conduct internally.

It is an ongoing journey, and "good" still sometimes gets in the way of "great." But the satisfaction of our members, the financial health of the co-op, and the stability of our staff all indicate that we are well on our way.


Michelle Schry is general manager at People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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