Looking to the Cooperative Principles, it is clear that cooperatives are by design set up to be empowering organizations. From the first principle to the last, from open membership to concern for community, all aspects of the cooperative’s control of resources are to be a model of trust and transparency. This is achieved when the people involved at all levels know their roles and can act with confidence in them on behalf of the organization.
For truly dynamic organizations, enacting systems of empowerment and accountability are the way to get things done that engenders mutuality in decision making processes. Without such individual and group leadership systems, organizations will often be dysfunctional or mired in ambiguities. Neither approach is ideal in a values-based business that purports to recognize the value of the contributions from members, board, managers and staff.
The empowerment stream in cooperatives can be envisioned as something that flows through the organization from the owners, on to the board, in turn to the management and staff, flowing through customers into the community, and cycling back to the co-op’s owners. To do this well requires an attention to the fundamentals of process, systems and organizational structures of accountability.
Modeling empowerment within cooperatives and communities is what we are charged with as co-op leaders. Running a business that experiences the demands of the marketplace, as well as bears an explicit responsibility to its owners, customers and community can be, in a word, challenging. Effective empowerment and accountability require systems to work. It is the key to success within our cooperatives. If at any point in the empowerment stream there is a breakdown or weak links, organizational purpose or process will be compromised.
Initially many food co-ops floundered or stagnated because there were no clear roles, or an established process for how decisions would be made and how leaders would ensure accountability for those decisions. Yet any organization that understands the empowerment stream and works to engender it at all levels will be rewarded with a functional, inclusive and dynamic business that goes beyond lip service to real impact. This work matters, and it is truly inspirational when the empowerment stream is flowing and people are reaping the results.
Board leadership consultant Marilyn Scholl said, “Power is the ability to get things done. So for a successful thriving co-op you need people at all levels with plenty of power, getting things done.” She also believes that empowerment in organizations is a multi-faceted experience, and accountability plays a significant role in the process of engagement.
Scholl noted that if co-ops are looking for ways to be more empowering, they should start with accountability. It might sound counter-intuitive, Scholl said, but accountability is not just about accepting responsibility for your work, but the process for delivering results. Empowerment happens when we expect achievement, and accountability is when we agree that stakeholders need outcomes. She thinks that support and education is critical to creating a culture of both empowerment and accountability that will flow through the organization.
Making it concrete
On a concrete systems level, each stage of the empowerment stream has a source document that explains how power is passed and how each stakeholder group is held accountable. Members approve bylaws that empower the board to act on their behalf. The board creates policies or organizational documents that define management’s responsibilities and limitations.
Management establishes operational documents and systems that pass on power and accountability to staff. “More boards are seeing their general managers be more effective when they pass on power by having a system that clearly articulates expectations and demonstrates that the general manager is accountable for how that power is used,” she said.
Bill Gessner, expansion and relocation specialist often finds that the question of growth will bring forward any weaknesses in a co-op’s empowerment and accountability systems. Since food co-ops have had a historical mistrust of power in particular, when it comes time to make a big decision, like an expansion, the co-op may not be grounded in an empowering practice. He cites instances where the board or management feel limited in their roles, losing time, trust and efficiency, only to discover members swing between divergent poles of apathy or outrage toward the co-op’s decisions. These are times when people exhibit mistrust that manifests in gossip, backbiting or protests. “When people are argumentative and challenging, split into camps, it may give the impression that the co-op is engaging people. It looks life-like, but when you step into a store with real vitality you get a different feeling because they have a full-flowing empowerment stream that sets the stage for healthy dialogue and decision-making,” Gessner said.
Accountability at Wheatsville
At Wheatsville Co-op in Austin, Tex., board president Rose Marie Klee said that their co-op has been actively engaged in the process of setting up, and understanding, those accountability systems that enable empowerment. In addition to their work on governance policies, the board has undertaken a study of the job of governance and reinforcing their knowledge of the membership’s empowering document to the board—the bylaws.
“We realized we may not be compliant if we don’t take the time to study it. By doing a bylaw review we developed a culture of accountability to our members. It helps us connect the dots when we talk about issues in our meetings,” Klee said. The board came away with newfound respect for what the bylaws do for the co-op and underscores the board’s role in relationship to the members. “It is the document that creates the power and protection of the co-op. It has given us the context for the empowerment stream in our co-op,” she said.
The dynamic their bylaw study created has been powerful. Now Klee finds that the board is thinking much more keenly about what members want and how that is expressed through the empowerment stream. “Members expect us to be proactive,” Klee said. Because of this perspective, Klee sees how the board’s empowerment by the members has made their work more meaningful, but has also raised the stakes, in a positive way. “We are taking a leadership position in our community,” Klee said about serving on the co-op’s board.
Gessner notes that building a culture of ownership and accountability is a frequently cited success factor for co-op leaders across sectors. “In an economic democracy we have to look at what people get out of their participation. There’s a huge amount of learning that happens on how to work together. Empowerment is recognizing that there’s value to your contribution. It’s how we change the environment, improve quality of life, create sustainability, by allowing the empowerment stream to flow in a stronger way,” he said.
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