What is the President's Job?

What does the president ofa cooperative's board of directors do? Over the years, Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC) has developed its job description for the board president to support an effectively run member-owned cooperative.

We have found that the president's work is in two key areas. He or she directs the work of the board by chairing meetings, setting agendas, appointing committees and assuring their proper functioning, and supervising the board administrator. The board president also services as liaison to management, supervising the general manager or management team. In recognition of the time this takes, PCC's compensation amount for its president is twice that of the other board members.

Directing the work of the board

The board does its main work in board meetings, and it is the job of the board president to ensure that meetings run smoothly. Generally speaking, the board president remains responsible for the content of the agenda. Are you expanding your facilities? Hiring a new general manager? Whatever the topic, the president determines how and when it will be addressed by the board and makes certain each board member has adequate information for decision-making.

Because the board is legally responsible for making decisions for the co-op, the president must arrange for accurate minutes ofboard meetings, and should review these minutes before the full board approves them.

Monthly meetings and their agendas do not (should not!) take place in a vacuum; the president should initiate the setting of board goals for the coming year and beyond. These may take the form of a strategic plan for the co-op, or a simple list of goals drawn up at a yearly board retreat, or both. Board agendas, in addition to the routine items of business, should all work toward completion of the co-op's longer range goals. Closing the loop, the board should receive periodic reports on accomplished goals via a matrix or some other tool.

The president needs board members who are up to speed on the issues confronting the co-op and who have the skills and information to make good decisions.

It is the board president's job to appoint board members to committees and appoint a board chair of each committee. Committee work plans and agendas should feed into the board agenda rather than going off in other directions. To support the work of the board, board committees should review specific areas of concern to the cooperative and make recommendations to the full board on issues under consideration. Depending on the structure of your co-op, board committees may have consumers and staff serving on them as well. For example, PCC has finance, planning, cooperative affairs, and publications committees that include both staff and members, and a personnel committee that includes staff.

The board president needs board members who are up to speed on the issues confronting the co-op and have the skills and information to make good decisions. The training of board members begins with informational sessions before the board election and continues with an individual orientation upon joining the board. This initial training covers responsibilities of the board, and particularly the fiduciary responsibility for the organization, as well as an introduction to the "lay of the land" at your co-op -- who does what, the immediate challenges and long-range concerns, the resources at the board's disposal.

It is wise to have a one- to two-day board retreat once a year, and adequate time at periodic board meetings, to discuss at length strategic direction and vision. The board needs to develop as a decision-making entity. This is also the time to develop goals.

In addition, short training sessions should be scheduled on a variety of topics of particular importance to your co-op, to upgrade skills and provide the background information necessary for intelligent decisionmaking. Over the last few years, PCC has scheduled board training on meeting skills, legal issues, market and competition, labor contracts, budgeting, computer systems, and many other topics. We have also taken advantage of conferences and trade shows to gain more information and contact with representatives from other cooperatives and natural foods retailers.

It is helpful to build a list of facilitators both in and outside your co-op for retreats and other discussions, and another list of consultants familiar with cooperatives. A good source of the latter is the Center for Cooperatives at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which sponsors the Consumer Cooperative Management Association (CCMA) conference each year, or Karen Zimbelman, an independent consultant in Arcata, California.

If all of the above seems like more than a volunteer board member could handle in addition to a regular life, it is true. The board president should have, and use, adequate administrative support. At PCC that takes the form of a full-time board administrator and a part-time board assistant. At your co-op it might be a part-time position. This is the person who makes certain everything is typed, filed and processed, prepares mailouts and meeting agendas, screens inquiries, industry information, and correspondence, and makes arrangements for meetings and training. The administrator provides any needed support to the board, and with time and experience can provide a board president with recommendations and evaluative input as well. But the president always makes the judgment calls.

Characteristics of a Strong Relationship Between a General Manager and Board President

As general manager of Central Co-op in Seattle, I have found my relationship with the president of the board of trustees to be a significant factor in my effectiveness. Our board made a commitment to establishing a strong relationship with the general manager and specifically identified the president as their liaison. The following are some characteristics of my relationship with Central's board president, Mary Kirman.

* We both share a commitment to the success of the organization and are working together toward the achievement of mutually agreed upon goals. Our concern is for the store, and we don't hold on to personal agendas.

* Clear communication on a regular basis is essential to our working relationship. We value honesty and directness. I keep the President informed on issues or situations that are necessarily reportable to the board -- yet. I want her to know if something is brewing.

* I work closely with the president to set the agenda for the board's monthly meeting. Together we determine priorities and allocate time. We focus on what is critical to the success of the business, guarding against either management or the board wasting time on non-essential issues. The president depends on my knowledge and perspective of the organization.

* The president provides me with consistent support. It is clear that she feels confidence in my work. She asks me penetrating questions to help me be clear about my reasoning and priorities but doesn't second-guess my decisions.

* I don't always have to be an expert. I can ask the president to act as a sounding board for my ideas. I can think out loud and don't always have to be right. I feel comfortable asking the president for her advice or opinion, knowing that she will respect my decision or action if it differs from her suggestion.

* The president is a key person in my evaluation process. Turnover on the board can mean being evaluated by people who have little direct knowledge of my performance during my tenure as general manager. The president is a senior member on the board and provides consistency from year to year. As the person I communicate with on a regular basis, she has first hand information about the factors that have influenced my performance and affected my success. Together, the president and I set my goals for the year, and we are in an excellent position to evaluate my achievements and those of the store.

- Holly Jarvis, Central Co-op general manager


Acting as a liaison with management

The most important thing a board president can do is build a constructive, trusting relationship with the person or persons responsible for the day-to-day operations of the co-op. The board president and general manager should communicate openly and regularly, perhaps scheduling a regular lunch or dinner every week or so to discuss current issues and projects.

There should be no secrets here. If something is not going well, the board president should know. Likewise, if there are problems on the board, the general manager should know. These issues are best communicated between the president and the general manager directly; hearsay or delegation in this area leads to mistrust. If the board president has limited time to spend, this is the place to spend it.

Together with management, the board president must communicate honestly with the membership about the state of the co-op and its future direction. This communication takes place through the newsletter and at the annual meeting and various other events throughout the year. Also, through communication of governance issues addressed by trustees, the president can encourage other co-op members to step up to the important role of trustee.

Finally, continuity of leadership must be maintamed. With a well-trained and knowledgeable board, and long range goals in place, the president can "pass the baton" to an able and willing successor.

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