GM Development: Opportunities for General Manager Growth and Learning

GM Development: Opportunities for General Manager Growth and Learning

  |  September 19, 2022

Two upcoming classes in the GM Development program cover relevant topics for diverse general managers, but especially those who are new to their position.

If you were to close your eyes and consider the qualities that make a perfect candidate for a food co-op general manager (GM), what might you think about? They need to be friendly and personable to staff and shoppers. They need to be experienced in food retail and know the products the store carries. They need to know finances, sales forecasting, and cash management on an organizational level.  They need to be a skilled networker, able to position your co-op in the local community for long-term success. The ideal candidate would be firm, fair, kind, steady, smart but not overconfident, and willing to learn.

Now stick your head outside the front door of your cooperative and count how many people walk by who have all those qualities.

The truth is that unless you find someone who has been a general manager somewhere else, it’s hard to imagine anyone walking in with every quality and experience you would want on paper. Some people have retail grocery experience but have never been responsible for an entire organization before. They may have high-level leadership experience but be transitioning from a different type of retail into natural foods. No matter the candidate, there will be a strong and ongoing need for on-the-job learning and training.

Columinate is offering a GM Development Program which helps with that very need. Whether it’s their first month or their twentieth year, every general manager has an opportunity to learn and grow within their individual cooperative and with the industry as a whole. Tim Sullivan, a facilitator and teacher for the program at Columinate, gave some insight into why it was started:

“As an interim general manager, I often saw the results of poor decision making by general managers who were not well prepared for the GM role. The cost of that lack of experience and the cost of hiring a new GM is significant. There is definitely a return on investment if you can get your GM prepared to successfully lead the co-op.”

Two upcoming classes in the GM Development program cover interesting and relevant topics for diverse general managers, but especially those who are new to their position. The first is called “Co-op Culture, Diversity, and Engaging Stakeholders.” It explores the way cooperative culture helps a general manager bring together all of the relationships within their co-op. The course also focuses on increasing and strengthening diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within participating co-ops.

The course is taught by Columinate consultants Thane Joyal and James Morrell. Joyal talked about what participating GMs can expect to learn and take away from the course:

“I’ve heard culture described as ‘the way we do things around here.’ We try to help make the invisible visible. Every organization has a culture—you just can’t see it. But if you do something out of step with it, you sure know it! That can be particularly true for general managers who are new to the world of retail food co-ops.”

She also spoke about why general managers are well placed within the structure of a co-op to focus on culture and DEI: “I think co-op general managers are in a unique and powerful position to influence culture in their organizations. They set the tone for staff and management at the co-op and provide critical information and support to the board of directors. We try to meet our clients where they are and offer them tools to create the culture that will support and achieve their co-op’s vision and goals.”

The second course is titled “Board Relations and Governance” and focuses on understanding the governance, reporting, and communication structures of food co-ops. It helps new general managers especially become accustomed to the Policy Governance framework and learn how to build their relationship with the co-op’s board of directors.

This course will be taught by Columinate consultants Leslie Watson and Jeanie Wells. Both Watson and Wells have extensive experience supporting general managers and co-op boards. Understanding the difference between the roles of the GM and the board, and what the goals of each are, is instrumental to maximizing the relationship between the two. General managers taking this course should expect to come away with a strong understanding of the Policy Governance structure and an ability to review policy documents specific to their co-op.

The opportunity to build upon the strengths of a newer general manager and fill in their knowledge gaps is an extremely important investment in long-term leadership. Tim Sullivan explained the rewards that come with watching GMs thrive after taking these classes:

“As the facilitator and teacher for Columinate’s GM Development program, I have the great pleasure of working with our students and watching them soak up the knowledge our instructors are sharing. One of my jobs as facilitator is to follow up with our graduates, usually a few months after they have completed the classes, for feedback. Every single time, I hear about the great experience they had with our instructors. Columinate’s instructors have a depth of experience that makes them leaders in their area of expertise.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the GM Development program, you can contact Jeanie Wells at

Have more questions?

Get in touch with one of our consultants.