Cooperative Strategic Leadership (CSL) is a tool newly introduced to food cooperative boards that represents an evolution in strategic thinking at the organizational level that engages co-op leadership at all levels during the process. Described by some as the “missing link” in governance, CSL is comprised of six components that address how boards can have a strategic conversation about the future while involving critical stakeholders, like the co-op’s management team and others.
The purpose of CSL is to feed the wisdom of the board’s decisions and tie together strategic thinking at all levels of co-op leadership. The CSL approach helps address one of the potential pitfalls Policy Governance in that the specificity of roles can sometimes lead to independent silos of thought or activities. The CSL model encourages building on and sharing knowledge that informs decision making and planning at all levels.
CDS CC member Art Sherwood has been instrumental in coaching a handful of food co-ops in using the CSL model. The components are as follows:
- Strategic Direction: The board sets Ends and the GM interprets and identifies consistent strategic objectives.
- Planning: Directors build their plan for the future of the board and the GM builds strategic and operational plans.
- Action: The plans are implemented.
- Performance Monitoring: All along the way, the board conducts its monitoring of policy and the GM conducts operational monitoring.
- Knowledge Pool: In order to make good decisions, organizational knowledge is needed and is fed by sources inside and outside the co-op. The board and GM engage in intentional learning in order to better enable them to make wise decisions and do their unique jobs.
- Strategic Conversations: Intentional communication with internal and external stakeholders takes place informed by knowledge pool. This strategic conversation then feeds the knowledge pool.
According to Sherwood, most co-ops already do #2, #3 and #4 well. The other components, #1, #5 and #6 can be better enhanced by taking things to the next level by codifying the engagement of others in the process, as well as recognizing that the strategic process is a cyclical activity that also creates institutional memory, a critical thing for volunteer boards with regular turnover.
At the Good Foods Co-op in Lexington, Kentucky the board has been applying the components of CSL to their board and management work over the past year. According to board president Richard Stump, the board started with a study question at its annual retreat: What is the best use of the board’s limited time and attention going forward? The board felt like Policy Governance had been going well, and the co-op was on stable financial footing with a very capable manager. What was next?
“Boards should be dealing with strategic issues, things that go past what the general manager’s doing, to look down the road. We need to look at the world around us and look at long term planning,” said Stump. This was an important shift in the approach to board planning and development. He likened it to Stephen Covey’s work on personal and organizational effectiveness. There are things that demand immediate attention that may or may not be important, and things that are important, but not immediate. Determining where the co-op activity falls in that paradigm can help you focus your work. “We’re moving our board into the important but not immediate realm of activity,” he said. “Everybody likes immediate feedback and impact, but that’s not the business of the board. We need to pay attention to the long term.” Stump mentioned that by skewing their focus farther out, the board is thinking about future capital demands on the co-op in order to continue to be competitive into the future. “I think it’s absolutely critical that the GM and board have a common understanding of where the organization is going.”
The Good Foods board began by asking the GM to do an internal 10-year forecast that included responding to marketplace trends. Additionally, they looked to the University of Kentucky for other expertise. “We want to leave a legacy of planning that future boards can use,” Stump said. “My perspective is that it’s very interesting work.” He also stressed how important it is for boards to realize they are doing something very significant, even if it doesn’t yield immediate results.
Anne Hopkins, the general manager of Good Foods said that while Policy Governance has worked very well, she has not worked with the board as a team before. “CSL is a way for our board to be really strategic in its thinking in partnership with me,” she said. “It’s very interesting; I’ve never done that before. It is an evolution in thinking. I’ve never stood side-by-side looking to the future. It’s compelling and exciting.”
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