Case Study: Empowering Teams for Greater Leadership

Produce department at People's Food Co-op La Crosse

People’s Food Co-op
La Crosse, Wis.
Year founded: 1973
Number of members:4,317
Equity investment:$100 individual, $25 to add one household member
Number of staff: 125
Retail square feet:13,200 ­including Hackberry’s restaurant

At People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wis., General Manager Michelle Schry leads a management team that has had very little turnover since she began managing the co-op 10 years ago. The team is remarkable for its long-term experience, with some management staff having been at the co-op for 30 years. “That plays a big part in our success. We’ve been able to build strong trust and confidence in people who have done a job well for a long time,” Schry said.

From Schry’s perspective, this depth means empowering her team is about goals, tools, and “getting out of their way” by not micromanaging their activities. Giving people the support they need to reach their goals is critical. “It doesn’t just happen,” she said about the empowerment and accountability process. People want to feel ownership and pride in their work, and she likes to give people a lot of responsibility as well as credit for their work and ideas. She believes it’s one of the best ways for People’s, or any workplace, to build the capacity they need for growth and sustainability.

It’s not all about the general manager-department manager relationship, either. Schry said that the team relationship is equally important, if not more so. With a management team of so many years invested in the co-op, people don’t need to be “bossed.” She said she keeps in mind how she likes to be treated by the board, having clear roles and limitations, keeping the empowerment and accountability stream flowing.

“Each individual manager sets their goals in a team environment, and it has encouraged them to challenge one another,” Schry said. A lot of efficiencies have been gained because of this dynamic, in part because department managers are often a lot more aware of boots-to-the-ground issues and how systems could be improved because they are often working together inter-departmentally. “There’s a lot of group feedback.”

It’s also natural for people to have periods of boredom, or experience a slump. “One thing that keeps this from being an issue is that accountability comes from both the general manager and the team. They are responsible to one another. It’s what makes the whole system work best,” she said.

The People’s Food Co-op is now preparing for another phase of growth. They are exploring the possibility of a merger with the Rochester Good Food Co-op in Rochester, Minn. The merger will allow the Rochester co-op to expand its operations and enter a lease agreement to serve as an anchor tenant in a new downtown Rochester mixed-use development. While this presents an opportunity for the management team to continue to expand their capacity in two locations, Schry thinks that the biggest changes will occur for the administrative team. “These people will have a big new role because what have been long-standing one-person departments, like human resources, marketing, accounting and information technology, will now have their own teams.” She said that she’s very excited about the possibilities this presents for the co-op’s customers and staff because their growth in capacity will contribute to a better workplace and retail environment.

At the core of this work is a shared vision, and trusting the decisions people make are made with the co-op’s values first and foremost. “If people hold the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish when they make decisions,” Schry said, “we will continue to have opportunities to collaborate in exciting ways.”

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