Avoiding Post-Expansion Burnout


You’ve been working on this project for more than two years. After overcoming every obstacle, putting up with countless delays, raising hundreds of thousands in financing, moving all your inventory, and staying up all night, you open the doors in your beautiful new store.

But some time in the next few months, the adrenaline wears off and, one by one, you and your staff hit the wall. While the big push to get the new store open may seem like the hardest work you’ve ever done, a harder job lies ahead of you—getting through the next year or even two years.

“I tell them ‘You open the doors and then the hard work really begins’,” says co-op consultant Bill Gessner. “There’s elation when you first open and that carries you for a while,” remembers Margo O’Brien, general manager of St. Peter Food Co-op. “But then you’re putting out fires, fixing all the little things that go wrong, and you’re exhausted.”

Daily crises can overwhelm managers’ ability to see the larger picture and think strategically. Measuring and monitoring systems that worked well in the old store break down, making it hard to get an accurate picture of what’s going on. Anxiety about money is constant. The new deli seems to hemorrhage dollars. Department managers are crying for more labor. Employees see the sales rolling in and can’t understand why they don’t see results in their paychecks. Some members miss the old store and complain that the new one is “sterile” or “corporate.”

Burnout has been defined by psychologist Herbert Freundenberger as “a state of fatigue brought about by devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” Co-op managers and non-management employees alike feel they are working extremely hard, and yet there seems to be no reward in sight. The reward could be achieving an indicator of financial success, a clear line of sight to pay increases, or a sense that everything is under control and we all know what we’re doing.

What can you do as a co-op leader to mitigate burnout after an expansion? This article shares the insights of four general managers: Alysen Land of Ozark Natural Foods Co-op, Briar Kolp of the [Port Townsend] Food Co-op, Margo O’Brien of St. Peter Food Co-op, and Kelly Wiseman of [Bozeman] Community Food Co-op. In addition, I drew on the observations of consultants Bill Gessner and Mel Braverman.

Practice self-care

As Braverman points out, “Burnout happens because we don’t manage ourselves well. Job number one is managing yourself. If you don’t, you won’t have good energy to manage others and you’ll set a poor example. Some general managers don’t manage themselves well and the business still does well financially, but it takes a toll on everyone emotionally.”

All the managers I interviewed advised: schedule your vacation time and take it. Some found that diet changes and supplements helped them handle stress. Gessner suggests some daily practice, whether recreation, exercise, breath work, or meditation, even if it’s just for five minutes.

Land walked a couple miles every morning before work. She also drew on the support of others outside of work. “My husband helped with his humor. I could go home and laugh and remember the world is bigger than I am.”

Kolp says now, “The hours we were working were not sustainable for managers or board members. Now we’re writing work/life balance into manager job descriptions.”

Get perspective, get help

When you’re down in the trenches, you feel you can’t take the time to climb out to some higher vantage point. Yet perspective is one of the best antidotes to burnout. Land finds participation in her co-op managers chapter to be a prime opportunity to get peer support and insight. Gessner emphasizes the value of not only using the expertise of peers who have been through an expansion but pairing up with managers going through an expansion on the same timetable.

Most co-ops use professional outside help in planning for their expansions, but afterwards some managers feel too overwhelmed with time and financial demands to call on those services again. However, those who found the resources to budget for consultations after the expansion extol the benefits. At Ozark, Land used the services of a turnaround consultant. She says of him and Ozark’s financial manager, “They were my strength. I surrounded myself with intelligence. My consultant didn’t tell me what to do, we agreed to disagree a few times, but he always supported me.”

Delis present a challenge, particularly when a co-op hasn’t had a prepared foods department before the expansion. O’Brien recalls her deli’s struggles of more than 10 years ago. “In those days there were no co-op deli consultants to help. We went by the seat of our pants. It’s imperative to build that help into your budget. You’ll lose less money in the long run if you get outside assistance. Also it’s a form of support. In the midst of the madness, you can’t always see the forest for the trees.”

Connect with your staff

It seems that typically co-ops focus more on the physical and financial aspects of their expansions than on the human side. O’Brien relates, “Our move was well planned, everything happened on time, nothing traumatic occurred, but that planning was more focused on equipment, products, and contractors than on the staff.” Kolp concurs, “It’s easy to get wrapped up in products and design and lose sight of the fact that we’re not just expanding a store, we’re growing an organization. We were closed for five days, but now I wish we’d taken another three days to meet with staff and built greater cohesion.” At Community Food Co-op, Wiseman says, “We were so focused on operations, we didn’t focus on personnel management right away. We went from 60 to 110 employees ‘overnight.’ I wish we’d had management training in personnel before our project, or immediately after.”

Once the immediate pressure of the opening fades, managers often find themselves confronted by an upwelling of employee morale issues. In response, Wiseman started meeting weekly with every manager and spent time facilitating department meetings and settling grievances. Ozark has created several staff appreciation programs including certificates of excellence, “Caught in a Good Act” posters, employee of the month, and rewards for cashiers with perfect drawers. Bill recommends Tom Peters’ idea of management by walking around. “Learn that skill,” he advises, “and don’t be holed away in your office dealing with insurmountable problems.”

If the news is bad, don’t hide it, counsels Land. When she took over as general manager six months after Ozark’s expansion, the co-op was precipitously losing money due to faulty margin systems and soaring labor costs. At a staff meeting Land explained “what we’d lost and what we owed and how much we needed to cut back.” Employees had to give up their discounts and employer-paid health insurance until the co-op could stem the losses. “People were very afraid for their jobs. I tried to reassure them and let them know I had a plan. We let people know where we were at financially at every meeting.” Between attrition and four lay-offs, staff numbers fell from 105 to 76.

Wiseman likens the impact of an expansion to post traumatic stress syndrome. “During an expansion you’re in combat mode. The other managers and I were so used to making snap decisions, that’s how we continued to manage change afterwards. From the staff perspective, these were directives from on high without their input. The energy needed to manage a construction project is exactly wrong for managing staff in a store.” As a result, co-op management had to make a conscious effort to include staff. They have instituted a workers council and a new Vision-based Inclusive Process, based on Zingerman’s Bottom-line Change model. Morale has vastly improved.

Face up to hiring mistakes

After an expansion, Gessner suggests that managers inventory their “energy drains” over the course of a month, then step back and note any patterns. A common energy drain comes from allowing poor performers to continue in their jobs. “Good hires are worth more than money,” he observes. “They help you avoid burnout when you don’t have to do the job of three or four people.”

At the time of St. Peter Food Co-op’s expansion, “We didn’t have a good functional management team,” O’Brien recalls. A strong team can do a lot to mitigate burnout. “You get support and learn to take care of each other. You notice if someone is frying around the edges.” Department managers who have faith in each other’s competence are less likely to feel overwhelmed by their own burdens.

Involve your board of directors

At the Food Co-op, Briar says “A strong board really helped with the expansion and the first year after, but then their terms were up. We started the second year after the expansion with a new board. We didn’t do strategic planning for board development. We did financial planning five years out, but nothing else.”

This became an acute issue in the second year, when core members began to protest the transformation of what had once been their “little neighborhood store.” The question facing the co-op board now is, “How do the board and general manager interface in building strong member relations?” Up until now, the co-op has not had a member relations staff position, but that will be one outcome of an upcoming board planning retreat.

From Bill’s perspective, the manager’s relationship to the board can contribute to burnout. “Part of the general manager’s job is to support development of the board. That’s hard enough to do and could normally take 25 percent of the manager’s time. But in the first year after an expansion, board members can be microscopic in monitoring or totally hands off. The board needs to show appropriate support by helping with community relations and member linkage, and by putting forth a positive supportive image.” He suggests encouraging good board members to think of a six-year commitment to see the co-op to its next level—two to three years for project planning and two to three years after the store is open.

It may not be possible to totally avoid the experience of post-expansion burnout, but its effects can be mitigated by being prepared for this often unexpected phenomenon. As Wiseman says, “I like to view our expansion as a gateway, not a finish line.” By taking care of yourself, reaching out for help, connecting with your staff, making good hires in leadership positions, and appropriately involving the board, you can lead your co-op through the long slog and come out on the other side.

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