What a Manager Needs from the Board

A constructive, effective working relationship between a co-op's management and board of directors is a critical factor in the long-term success and survival of a co-op. Yet, this remains one of the most elusive and challenging aspects of their jobs for most co-op leaders. For her insight and experience in this important area, we turned to Mary Kirman, who has held positions both in management and on boards of co-ops for the past seventeen years.

Mary Kirman began her formal involvement with co-ops in 1977, and in 1978 became a truck driver for the Federation of Ohio River Cooperatives (FORC). In 1982, she began a series of positions at NEFCO and then Northeast Cooperatives including trucking manager, distribution manager and, for two years, General Manager. After relocating to Seattle in 1987, she was elected to the board of directors of Central Coop and served as board president from 1989 through 1993. In 1992 Mary was recognized for her leadership to regional coops when the Puget Sound Co-op Federation gave her its "Jack Cluck Inspiration Award."

Karen Zimbelman: You're in a unique position, having served, over the years, as an employee, general manager, and board president. What do you think managers most need or find most valuable from their boards of directors?

Mary Kirman: Support. Validation, recognition, direction -- all of the things good employees need from their supervisors -- but more than anything, support. I think most boards think that it's their job to "watchdog" management. This approach creates an environment where there's very little recognition, appreciation and validation. If the manager isn't supported and his/her efforts aren't recognized at the highest level of the organization -- by the daily interactions of the board president and general manager -- then it's less likely that the co-op will be the kind of employer that supports and recognizes good employees.

If support and recognition aren't at the core of the relationship between the board and management, there's no trickledown. If the manager feels that no matter what s/he does, there won't be any recognition and appreciation, it makes the job a thankless one. Without a doubt, it is the board's job to monitor, supervise and review what the general manager is doing. But it's also the board's job to motivate and support. If the board can't support the manager, then something has to change.

One of the best ways for boards to provide support is to be available as a resource to the manager. The manager's position can be a lonely and isolated one -- everyone turns to you for answers and decisions. It's very helpful for a general manager to be able to turn to directors for advice, for ideas, for help in thinking problems through. I don't think most coop managers want to shirk their responsibilities but they really value having someone they can bounce ideas around with or talk with about problems. This is especially helpful for sticky personnel situations, more than any operational matters.

KZ: As a manager, what did you like least from a board?

MK: If the board identified or discussed a problem without asking for my (the manager s) opinion or recommendation, I was insulted. The co-op manager is hired to solve problems and provide leadership in solving problems. If I wasn't viewed as the first person to turn to regarding solutions to problems, I felt the board was being disrespectful. It's important to ensure that this basic idea underlies all aspects of board/management relations -- that boards expect and allow managers to provide leadership in dealing with problems. When I became a board member, and then Central's board president, I felt that it was most important to bring that underlying approach into all of the interactions between the board and manager -- that the board expects the manager to bring ideas and supply recommendations on issues to the board.

KZ: What features do you feel best characterize an effective working relationship between a general manager and a co- op board and its president?

MK: Consistency. And, one that is biased toward preventive communications --where problems and issues are addressed before they become a crisis. When the board president and the manager have a relationship of communications, a norm of communications, it establishes the foundation for an effective working relationship. Most tangibly, I found weekly meetings between myself as president and the manager to be important. Even when there isn't anything particularly pressing or important to discuss, we have a base to work from when a more challenging sitution emerges. By having a regular forum for interchange of ideas without the pressure of actual problems, the board and manager are better prepared for whatever challenges they may face.

I see the co-op president and manager as sharing what is thought of as the "CEO" function in other corporations. This shared CEO role means that the president and manager share responsibility for providing leadership for the entire organization. In order to do this, it's critical that there be a common vision and set of assumptions, about what the organization is and what it will become -- not to just take those things for granted and assume that good intentions and hard work are enough. Whether it's about expansion and growth, profitability, what kind of employer the co-op wants to be, defining the co-op's critical services, or any issue, it's imperative that the president and manager hold the mission and values before everything the organization does.

For instance, at one point Central Co-op's manager reported to me that the management team had been working on its plans and objectives for the next year. Given their work, Holly felt that the mission statement didn't fit with the kind of organization Central was at the time or the direction it was going. In her view, we needed a new mission statement. We spent time on it together and I could see the problems they were facing. So, we agreed to focus on development of a new mission statement at our next planning session. In that situation, the impetus for change came, appropriately, from management, and by working closely together we were able to follow through in a way that helped the co-op move forward. And, as board president, it was my job to respond to management's need for a more clearly defined mission statement while making sure that the mission still reflected members' needs and interests.

KZ: As a board president, how would you define your responsibility in keeping a board focused ? How did you help the board keep focused on its responsibilities and establish a good working relationship with management?

MK: I saw that as the essence of my job as president -- as the most distinct role I had in the organization. I chose not to facilitate board meetings because I was more interested in being involved in discussions, so we had an outside meeting facilitator take care of the mechanics of our board meetings. But, I believe there's tremendous power in a meeting agenda -- that preparing the agenda and shaping it is the most important way to keep a board focused on its roles and the issues needing its attention.

"The board president and general manager need to decide together which issues need to go to the board, and to be responsible for how the board spends its time."

At Central, our agendas are distributed to all directors in advance, and every item is identified as being "for discussion" or "for a decision." We have a lot of agenda items for discussion, which helps board member understand how management is thinking about a problem and makes decision making much easier when it's needed. In addition, we have an annual board calendar that projects what major agenda items and action the board will be taking throughout the year. Then we can anticipate issues, see the flow of the year, as well as compare what we should be doing to what we're actually spending our time on. And, at the end of each meeting, we review all of the tasks and who is responsible for follow-up on those items. At the beginning of the next meeting, we review those tasks so we could keep track of follow-up.

It's important to note that there's a judgment call to be made in the development of the agenda -- to be made jointly by the board president and general manager. They need to decide together which issues need to go to the board, and to be responsible for how the board spends its time. They need to look at items, brought to them by directors, by staff, by members or by management, and decide: "Is this an item for board action or is this in management'sjurisdiction?" "Where and how does it belong on the agenda?" "Is this a good use of the board's time?" It's the president's primary responsibility to make sure that the board does the things it needs to do and keeps focused on board concerns. So, when a director is very upset about, for instance, an article in the newsletter, it's the president's job to keep the board focused on legitimate board issues -- which could be the board's role in setting editorial policy for the newsletter, but not specific content of one article.

KZ: It sounds like you're saying that the president acts as a filter.

MK: Exactly, it's the president's job to serve as the board's filter and use his/her judgment in deciding how the board should be spending its time. At Central Co-op, our board meets once a month, for about two and a half hours each time.That means we have a total of 30 hours of meeting time per year. I approached this as a budget; I was responsible for deciding how we would get our job done in 30 hours -- for deciding how we should we spend our time together, how much of that time we would spend on any specific topic, how much we would spend on listening and how much on making decisions. Not all matters need full board time and attention.

The focus needs to come from prioritizing board meeting time to the board's key functions -- those things that only the board is responsible for and that won't get done if the board doesn't do them. The key functions -- evaluation or hiring of the general manager; long-range planning; approving budgets and goals; and setting/reviewing overall policy -- need to be what the board spends the majority of its time on. And, it's important to remember that more information is not always better. Monthly financial statements aren't necessary unless the co-op is in a financial crisis. Quarterly statements are enough, especially if a board keeps its focus on key performance areas and key indicators. When key indicators are identified with management in advance, it's much easier for a board to keep focused on the important issues and not be sidetracked with each new problem.

KZ: What specific techniques did you use as a board president in developing an effective working relationship with the coop's general manager?

MK: To begin with, I met with the general manager every week. This really helped in keeping the communications open. We would sometimes meet at the co-op, sometimes offsite, usually for about one hour unless some special project or issue needed more time. Both of us would make a list of items to talk about. We'd use the time to check-in with each other, to keep up on things, and to keep each other focused on the bigger picture. We'd spend time discussing follow-up from board meetings and looking at what was coming up on the board calendar. Sometimes I'd pass along or check on rumors I'd heard, or bring in information about an upcoming training opportunity for the manager or co-op staff. When Holly left, I kept meeting once a week with the interim management team.

Another thing we do is that once a year, we have a planning retreat with all directors and the management team. Sometimes other employees attend as well -- especially those involved in communicating the mission and values of organization to members. Nothing is decided at the retreat; things have to go back to the board for approval. But everyone in attendance is a full participant in drafting and conceptualizing the direction and future of the co-op.

In addition to the yearly calendar of critical board issues and "annual" agenda items, I think agenda management is an important technique in and of itself. For instance, wherever possible, at the meeting before a major decision will be made by the board, the manager would report to the board on the progress of her research and work on the issue. This allows the board to have an interactive discussion, lead by the manager, about how the issue is being shaped -- as an opportunity for directors to provide input and advice to the manager before a recommendation is finalized. Then, when the issue comes to the board for decision making, directors' concerns are generally addressed and their input has often been incorporated into management's recommendation. Alter that, decision making is much more simple. We use this system on most major decisions; items that are more pressing tend to be within management's responsibility area.

"Celebrate your accomplishments. Recognize that doing is not the board's job. If nothing else, it is a vital and valuable achievement for the board to be a good supervisor.

And lastly, I served as the board's coordinator for the manager's annual evaluation. I would work with the manager on the format and steps we would use, we'd develop and distribute all materials, and then after the board had its discussions, I would sit down with the manager and go over it with her. I'd work with her and the board on finalizing her compensation package as well as annual goals and professional development. My job was to be the board's front line in its responsibility as the manager's supervisor, sol felt like my time was best spent being the kind of supervisor a good manager needs and can appreciate.

KZ: What advice would you offer other board presidents or directors to help build strong, responsive co-ops?

MK: Support management. Do unto managers as you would have done unto you. Co-op management can be a thankless job. One of the dynamics in co-ops is that directors want to do so much; when they can't do it all, they feel bad. It's important to take credit for and acknowledge what does get accomplished. Celebrate your accomplishments. Recognize that doing is not the board's job. If you do nothing else, it's a vital and valuable achievement for the board to be a good supervisor for the manager -- doing all the things a supervisor does such as checking in about how things are going, communicating openly, evaluating and providing regular feedback.

It's also important for co-op boards to manage their expectations -- to keep the manager's and directors' jobs manageable. Remember not to set too many goals or standards that are too ambitious; don't underestimate the importance of running a great grocery store. Running a great grocery store is a lovely end, a great accomplishment! The board plays an important role in developing a culture of accomplishment by setting reasonable goals and then, if possible, doing more than what is expected, not less. It can be a vicious trap to set sights too high.

I think a critical issue for co-op boards is retaining leadership, whether paid management or board members. For some reason, co-op boards have an overall tendency for high turnover; some times this is mandated by the bylaws but it also seems that many directors just seem to perceive their commitment to co-ops in a 1-5 year timeframe. This means that if the co-op hires and successfully retains a manager, that person is continually reporting to a new board and new people who don't have the history and background with the co-op that the manager does. This is just one of the ways that co-op boards are structurally weak -- and kept that way.

As a manager, this kind of turnover at the ultimate decision making level ofthe organization was sometimes a bit disorienting to me. Every year, officers would change. It was unsettling to not know who we'd be working with next year or next month, who would be our new link to the board. It was always unclear whether it was OK for me to encourage some member or director to step forward. I think many co-op employees find high board turnover frustrating because it does affect them so much.

In summary, I'd emphasize the importance of the president's job in keeping the lines of communication between the board and management open and functioning well at all times. And, I'd encourage boards and managers to approach their jobs as members of the same team. In that way, they support each other and their co-ops are the overall beneficiaries.

KZ: Mary, thanks a lot for your commitment and dedicated service to co-ops and for taking the time to share your experiences with us today.

Here is a response to this article from Mort Brooks:

"Expect leadership from management and board"

To the editor:

This is a very delayed response to "Do Unto Managers," an interview with Mary Kirman (CG #51, March-April).

I too have co-op credentials. In the early '70s I took an active leadership role in a couple of the "pure" co-ops which are now somewhat patronizingly referred to as "buying clubs"; and for the past twenty years I have served terms as president, vice president, chair of several committees, and currently as treasurer of Weavers Way, a uniquely successful food co-op in Philadelphia.

My experience with food co-ops, combined with almost 50 years of business management experience, leads me to question the conclusion voiced by Mary Kirman that a co-op board should limit itself to providing "support" to the co-op's manager.

Just as there is no single model for a failed co-op, there is no single model for a successful one. Concentration of power in the hands of the president and the manager, as urged by Mary Kirman, may in some instances be the most effective decision-making process. This depends on the competence and personalities of the individuals concerned, on the make-up of the board, and the character of the general membership. But it is equally possible that the president, whose position very often reflects internal political relationships and personal ambitions, may turn out to be a rubber stamp for the "professional" manager; and then the co-op may be in serious trouble as an over-centralized organizational entity.

An informed, involved board, elected by and representing the co-op's member-owner customers, may be practical as well as ideological protection against poor managerial judgment and misuse of decision-making power. I have observed this, over twenty years, to have often been the case at Weavers Way.

Is inappropriate micromanagement by the Board a potential problem? It certainly is! Should the board be overly critical of the manager or in any way dismissive of his opinions? Certainly not! A good board must be as respectful of the manager's position as of its own, and as unafraid to judge its own performance as it is to judge the manager.

The best board/manager relationshp is a complex matter, not to be resolved by punditry or simplified generalizations.

--Mort Brooks, treasurer Weavers Way Co-op

In response:

Reader comments are always welcome. And when they arrive late, they obviate the need for my last minute editorial!

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