“You can’t truly understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”—Anonymous

I’m sure you’ve all heard this quote or some version of it at some point in your lives. I use it frequently in my talks, and I’m always struck by how everyone always seems to agree with its premise.

It’s a truth I tell folks they can and should leverage in their mission to make their co-op a better and more successful workplace.

As complex organizations, electric cooperatives have many job functions that are part of interdependent divisions. For instance, lineworkers are often referred to as “the face of the co-op” because they’re out there where members can see them. But they couldn’t do their jobs well if the folks in, say, accounting, purchasing, and member services weren’t doing their jobs well too. The same goes for all co-op positions. We rely on one another.

We often refer to our co-op culture as “family,” but we’re really much more of a “team,” where everyone plays a role for the ultimate benefit of the organization and the members.

So how do we build this “team” culture, where every employee knows or appreciates the skills, strengths, and needs of their co-workers and is truly working toward the group’s success? As we know, there’s no magic solution. But something I’ve been hearing a lot about lately is the holistic value of a job-shadowing program.

These programs can take many forms, but essentially, it’s creating a systematic way for each employee to “walk a mile” in the shoes of their fellow staff members.

“It provides an opportunity for the employees to get to know each other better, and I see the pride that the employees take in showing off what they do,” says Vicky Talmadge, director of administrative services at Florida’s Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative.

Suwannee Valley’s program lets each employee spend one day a month in one of five departments, followed by a summary interview where participants can share lessons learned and personal experiences.

“We thought it would be good for our employees to be sensitive to what their co-workers were doing and to have exposure to the big picture of the co-op’s work,” Talmadge says. “When our linemen sit and listen to our member service department communicate with our membership, they get a new appreciation for how much knowledge is required. Likewise, when our inside employees go out in the field with our linemen, they get an appreciation of the knowledge that is required to do the lineman’s job.”

It’s hard to look at our busy days and think about finding time to build a job-shadowing program. The advice I give co-op leaders is to start small. Choose a handful of employees to try it out. Let them pick which departments they want to get to know better. Let word get around about how fun and interesting the experience is. Then slowly expand it to include everyone. The impact on morale, cohesiveness, and productivity may amaze you.

Co-ops are facing new and unfamiliar challenges in the years ahead. In many cases, finding and implementing the right solutions for your cooperative will require bold, innovative actions that may put stress on your staff. Employees who understand the big picture and how their co-workers fit in will be in a better position to bear any strain.

Take a look at the people around you right now. These are the people who will help you take on these big, new challenges.

Now ask yourself: Is this a collection of groups? Or is it a team?

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) 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 email him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

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