Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way.
Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way. (Photo courtesy Adam Schwartz)

In his seminal management strategy book, Good to Great, business consultant Jim Collins outlines five key concepts for organizations to succeed. The first among them is, “Get the right people on the bus.”

Having a competent, engaged staff that’s on board with your mission seems like an obvious priority, but as Collins describes, it can be more difficult to execute than you might think.

For co-ops, being member-focused and principal-driven means we have to be extra sure that our bus is full of the right people. I’ve heard many stories about how disruptive even one employee who can’t or won’t embrace the cooperative way can be to a co-op’s mission.

So how can we ensure that we attract and retain the right people to our staffs and boards? This is a particularly critical question now, as we address significant structural changes in our industry and confront a workforce transition that will see tens of thousands of older co-op employees retire over the next decade.

For potential employees, it starts with the co-op’s reputation. This is where I see our community focus as having a major impact. If the work you do outside of providing safe, reliable, and affordable electric service establishes you as a force for good in your community, you’ll be much more likely to attract well-qualified job candidates who want to be part of that mission.

Regularly assess your interview, orientation, and onboarding processes to not only ensure they comply with applicable labor and employment laws, but also clearly and consistently emphasize that co-ops are a different type of business.

Even though directors are elected by members, the co-op can still ensure that candidates understand the co-op’s mission and the board’s role. I recently learned that several co-ops are using an interesting strategy that might work for you: Co-op leadership holds meetings with potential board candidates before they formally declare their candidacy. This is a great opportunity to ensure that these community members have a solid understanding of the co-op’s mission and the roles and responsibilities of its directors.

As far as current employees go, we know that we can’t force someone to care. If you have employees who have lost their focus on what makes co-ops special, you can try some tactics to turn it around. The first is to shine a spotlight on the co-op itself. Are you giving these employees a reason to care? Are you demonstrating the higher cause of the cooperative purpose? Does your co-op leadership truly honor the goal of helping others and improving lives?

You can also employ the fifth cooperative principle: “Education, Training, and Information.” As with our national efforts to improve safety, we can use a strategy of consistent education to turn a problem into strength. An educational program that reminds employees of the history and value of electric co-ops can help staff stay engaged and focused on the mission.

We know that the hiring and board election processes will never be perfect, and occasionally employees or directors who don’t understand or value the electric co-op model and mission will get through. But there are many simple steps co-ops can take to increase the chances that new and existing staff will share our vision. If we can get it right, everybody wins.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm helping co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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