How Visioning Becomes Real

Business planning builds a strong board–general manager relationship

Why do we continue to hear stories about boards complaining about the general manager and general managers complaining about the board? Why do we still have boards of multi-million-dollar co-ops that feel they aren’t sure what their role is within the organization? Why are there still general managers who can’t understand why their board won’t just let them do their jobs?

There are probably a lot of answers to those questions. But I think there is one thing that co-ops as a whole could do better that would alleviate many of these stresses: good, transparent planning that builds a partnership between management and the board.

As a member of the board of People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wis., I wish I could tell you that it was the board’s idea to have our general manager prepare a business plan every year.
I wish that we had figured out how to link our board planning retreat work directly to the general manager’s internal planning process in order to maximize our cooperative’s effectiveness in our community. I wish I could tell you that it was the board that pushed for more organizational accountability at every level of the organization, from the board level to operations. Of course, all of these initiatives “could” have started with the board, but in our case they didn’t. They were initiated by our general manager.

I don’t want to give the impression that our board is a group of slackers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve got a great board that has committed itself to Policy Governance, seeks out assistance when we need it, and is willing to do whatever it takes to improve our cooperative. Our board of directors has committed to LEAD: Link with members, Enact Policy, Assure performance, and Dream the future. Our board understands that unless we clearly articulate what it is we want and don’t want from our general manager, we have no way to hold her accountable.

Accordingly, the board prepared our policy manual, held our annual planning retreat, and regularly reviewed and approved monitoring reports. We understood that as our job, and we were willing to leave it at that. Our general manager was not.

Linking board and management
Five years ago Michelle Schry, then our newly hired general manager, almost surprised our board by asking us to provide her with a thumbs up or thumbs down vote on our organization’s first business plan. It linked the planning work of the board and the planning work of the entire management team in a single document.

Since that time, this document has tied the operational efforts of our cooperative directly to the vision and strategic priorities of the board. It clearly shows how the board’s visioning work will become real. In a sense, the manager uses this document to tell the board what she thinks she has heard us saying about our vision for the organization and the limitations we’ve set through policy. She summarizes industry and market trends that influence the choices she must make, then tells us specifically what she is going to do with the organization to achieve the board’s objectives.

Although on some level the manager keeps the business plan in mind all year round, she completes the final touches of it in the weeks following a board/management team retreat that focuses on our organizational priorities. The plan itself includes seven sections:

  1. an organizational history
  1. local and national trends
  1. strategic priorities
  1. operational goals
  1. departmental strategies
  1. budgets and financial projections
  1. supporting materials

We would often refer to this document as “Michelle’s plan,” but she constantly corrected us, reminding us that everyone in the organization plays a role in creating the plan—from members to the board, the management team, and even frontline stockers and cashiers. She refers to herself as the sheep dog, whose job it is to see the path ahead, nip at our heels to keep us moving in the right direction, and to watch out for impending danger.

For the board, the business plan is both an educational tool and a clear commitment to action. We know at the beginning of the year how our general manager is planning to achieve our strategic priorities and even the specific goals within every department. But in addition, it has led the board to reassess its role in planning.

The annual business plan has moved our board to take its role in guiding our cooperative even more seriously, and that has affected our performance for the better—from our participation in visioning our future to the monitoring of our own performance within the policy governance system. The planning process that was initiated by our general manager has improved our cooperative’s performance not just operationally but on the governance level as well! We often remind ourselves that it doesn’t matter who starts things, but rather how we take up our own responsibility to move things forward.

The business plan has been significant in building a strong and trusting relationship between the board and general manager. Surprises are kept to a minimum. The board has committed to speaking with one voice through our policies, and the general manager has reciprocated by condensing into a single document the multiple voices of her management team and options for progress. In addition, the plan has provided a forum for our general manager to share her assessment of weaknesses and strengths within the board’s governance process.

Sharing the planning approach
We recognize this may not be the perfect system for every cooperative. But it is clearly recognized by our board as a tool that has elevated our performance and the performance of our entire organization.

This past November, 30 general managers and board members from 18 cooperatives accepted an invitation to hear about how our general manager and board use this planning model. Our general manager described in detail how the plan she prepares on an annual basis ties directly to the board governance and visioning work and sets a clear direction for everyone in the organization.

As president of the board of directors, I emphasized the value the business plan has for the board both as an educational tool and, more important, as a synopsis of how the general manager “hears” and intends to implement the will of the board. Both Michelle and I stressed how important we believe the process of building the plan is to the overall health of the co-op.

Most people don’t relish the thought of planning. Planning can be driven by either the board of directors or the general manager, but both parties must understand and embrace the importance of their appropriate roles in the planning process. What’s been learned at People’s Food Co-op in LaCrosse is that a good planning model can build respect and trust between a board and a general manager and directly contribute towards a higher functioning organization. We all want that for our co-ops.


Bentley Lein works for CDS Consulting Co-op on board leadership development ([email protected]).

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