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

In January, I wrote about co-ops adapting to change by finding a way to say “Yes” to their members. This month, I’ll show what saying “Yes” actually looks like.

Each of us knows that to improve, we must challenge our thinking. In some cases, long-established conclusions may need to be changed when faced with new circumstances.

I’ve started asking a question at my trainings: “Are you willing to change your mind when new information is presented?” The question, which is applicable to all co-op employees, elicits interesting responses. I tell students that during times of change, a willingness to adapt may be a co-op’s most valuable asset.

Co-op scholar Brett Fairbairn, from the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan, has said, “Cooperatives are highly adaptable, complex institutions.” I agree, but with one caveat. Co-ops can be highly adaptable, but they have to choose that direction and attitude.

Fairbairn says co-ops must do at least two things to increase their long-term viability:

  • Stay current with industry trends and direction.
  • Never lose the connection with members.

I suggest there’s a third key action: Empower your employees.

This is where challenging our thinking comes into play. Historically, electric co-ops have tended to be very top-down organizations. But in today’s utility environment, this structure can be detrimental, stifling innovation and leaving unsaid many good ideas that could help a co-op progress and meet its members’ needs.

Some co-ops are doing innovative things in this area. Sean Vanslyke, CEO at SEMO Electric Cooperative in Sikeston, Mo., has embraced employee-centric policies, bringing non-managers into the boardroom to discuss what they see at their level; sending staff for training and having them report lessons learned; and putting multiple employees through NRECA’s executive training program.

At Poudre Valley REA in Fort Collins, Colo., CEO Jeff Wadsworth and I developed an employee-centered program to promote the cooperative business model. A dozen employees at all levels of the organization met every six weeks for eight months to discuss ways to demonstrate how the co-op lives up to the cooperative principles. The ideas are presented to the executive team for consideration and implementation. Next month, we will kick off round two with 12 different employees.

I’m convinced that co-op leaders who are willing to challenge their own cultures and ideas will be better positioned to lead as the electric utility industry evolves. It boils down to a simple formula: try new things; learn lessons; work to improve.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps 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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