In mission-based organizations like co-ops, the empowerment of individuals and groups is highly valued. For groups carrying out projects in such associations, organizational process is often as important as the outcome. Ideally, the co-op’s development and empowerment of its constituents flows from doing business in a way that makes the most of the organization’s resources and creativity.
The “empowerment stream” in co-ops starts with a membership empowering its board to carry out their vision, the board in turn authorizes management and staff to carry out the day-to-day operations of this mission, which leads to informed customers who empower the community with a principled asset.
That sounds great. On paper. Needless to say the empowerment stream can become a muddy creek in no time, fraught with the kind of conflict that engenders apathy and disempowerment. Empowerment can be a misunderstood concept and can be poorly administered in organizations that ultimately mean well, an unfortunate circumstance that often drains the co-op’s resources and its leadership’s vitality.
Bill Gessner, a CDS consultant for co-op expansions said, “Empowerment begins with clear direction.” However, it has to be balanced by board and management with the big and small picture. “If the direction from the board is full of minutiae, then the general manager will feel like they are just filling an order off the shelf. If the direction is structural, then it utilizes the strength of the general manager to be successful and contributing to something of meaning.”
Empowerment of that order requires a high level of organizational trust—and like your mother said—trust has to be earned. Empowerment and trust don’t happen instantaneously, they get built into organizational systems. Gessner noted the surest way to a functional empowerment stream is to have clear accountability. “Empowerment is not a blank check or a rubber stamp. Accountability has to be a central component.”
Empowerment may be misunderstood, but accountability is sometimes considered the thing that holds leaders back. People generally want to be accountable, but they want it to be fair and parallel to empowerment. Like the empowerment stream, accountability also flows through an organization from top to bottom: A board defines what it wants the general manager to achieve; subsequently management puts forth goals for its staff.
Mel Braverman, a CDS consultant on improving store performance, said the tools of empowerment are similar to those for accountability: Goal setting, monitoring, and allowing for creativity within the confines of policy.
It may appear that empowerment and accountability are two trains running on parallel tracks, but you can’t have one without the other. “Responsibility and authority go hand in hand,” Gessner commented. “If a team has full responsibility then it has to have full authority.” That’s why goal-setting and monitoring is so important from Braverman’s perspective. “It gets away from micromanaging. It allows both parties to be on the same page.”
Achieving genuine empowerment and accountability in an organization lacking role clarity requires a paradigm shift in board-management relations, as well as in the management-staff operational culture. At Brattleboro Co-op in Brattleboro, Vt., general manager Alex Gyori discussed his experience with his co-op’s evolution toward operational teamwork, as well as the board’s switch to policy governance and its affect on his relationship with them.
The early ’90s were “battle days” at Brattleboro according to Gyori, who said the co-op was having “a lot of internal growth issues.” Rather than give up on those conflicts and leave the co-op, Gyori resolved to “try one more thing.” More than anything, he was desperate to have a truly empowered and accountable staff. He attended the Cooperative Management Institute in the summer of 1993 as a last ditch effort, and came away feeling energized by the ideas and expertise exchanged there. It changed his whole approach.
Gyori said, “I changed the management team meeting structure. We went from meeting weekly to monthly. That gave us the budget and time to develop ‘Topic Teams.’” Store staff work on a Topic Team to solve various operational problems. These teams keep the management team updated on their progress or present proposals. It has encouraged not only staff participation, but management team members take a much broader view of their role. They are responsible for more than just showing up to meetings and reporting only on their own department.
Gyori also engaged an outside facilitator for the management team meetings, freeing him to be a better meeting participant he said, as well as instilling a sense of meeting protocol that was lacking.
Gyori admitted to feeling second thoughts about the approach at first. “I had to let go of the fear that they would make a bad decision and the board would hold me accountable for it. But they do their homework. They are just as eager as I am to make the right decisions.”
Part of engendering this trust had to do with having staff fully care about outcomes, setting goals. “I think the key element for getting people to care about goals is that they set them themselves. Empowered managers feel strongly about meeting their goals,” said Gyori. This doesn’t mean the general manager doesn’t work with his staff on mentoring them, but the process encourages ownership and accountability from staff.
In turn, Gyori gets the same treatment from board—they’ve determined the policies they want Brattleboro to operate under and give him the latitude to carry out the co-op mission. “Policy governance has really helped motivate me,” he said.
Gyori acknowledges that Brattleboro’s organizational shift was not something he was equipped to carry out without professional advice, and he also feels strongly that investing in staff development should be top priority, as that also helps build momentum and job satisfaction.
Braverman enthusiastically agreed. “Empowerment is an important tool, but it must be accompanied by accountability. You need to have the technical and people skills to be accountable,” he said.