Leadership in co-operatives

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Who’s afraid of leadership?

I was once at a housing co-op event, held to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – 8 or 9 of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. There were chairs stacked against the wall, and we all started lugging them to the centre of the room – but it was soon apparent – not just to us, but to the early arrivals who began to sit down, that we had no idea how to arrange the seating, no idea how many people would turn up, no previous agreement whether we would make rows of chairs or a big circle – it was chaos. So much so that some of us began to laugh to try to make a joke of it, while others got more and more frustrated and anxious. We finally got it sorted, but it was obvious we’d made a pretty negative impression on our audience who – no matter how impressive and persuasive our subsequent presentation – had had a clear demonstration of our inability to work as a team and our lack of leadership skills.

I have often remembered that moment and wondered why it happened like that. We were not totally lacking in team skills – in fact one of the impressive things about this group was the way in which they were able to pull together to organise things – but I think there was a fear of showing leadership. An idea that perhaps in a co-operative, showing leadership is wrong. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, and an assumption that a ‘command and control’ style of leadership is the only way.

Leadership theories

Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s interesting to review the many theories of leadership but for our purposes here, let’s look at commonly-held assumptions about what leadership means and what leaders do. In ‘traditional’ hierarchically structured organisations, power is located at the top, and leaders lead from the front. Leaders have authority, take control and attract followers. Line managers tell people what to do, who then have others that they manage in turn. In such a structure it’s hard for individuals to be innovative and creative. Someone at the top who doesn’t understand the day to day realities of work at the ‘coal face’ takes decisions which workers may not agree with but must comply with if they want to keep their jobs. Of course employees can and should join a trade union which will support them and lobby and campaign to change things, but in some circumstances, confrontational approaches can be counter-productive.

So perhaps we need to get rid of the structure and the leaders and all decide everything together? Apart from the impracticability of such a step (you’d never get any work done) Jo Freeman, in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ explains how misguided it is to assume that without a structure, there will be no leaders. Leaders will always emerge, attracting followers by dint of their charisma, power, or resources, but without a structure or a system of accountability, you’ll have no way of getting rid of them.

Leadership in worker co-operatives

So we need a structure. And of course co-operatives have such a structure, where people can be elected to a Management Committee, or Board of Directors, but will have a specific term of office, and will only be re-elected if members feel they are doing a good job. However, like every democracy, it only works if people have information accessible to them about how the co-op is doing and how successful it is in achieving business, social and environmental goals. The MC then is accountable to the members, but they will also need Terms of Reference so they understand their roles and their delegated powers.

Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish”

So how do you show leadership in a worker co-operative?

In contrast to a typical hierarchy, leadership in a worker co-operative is collective. It’s not just the MC who need to be leaders – anyone can show leadership at any time. But what does this mean and how can it work?

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider provides simple and clear advice on how to be an effective leader: be unbiased, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. For example:

lead in a nourishing manner
  • give away control
  • look for opportunities to give others control
  • try to ensure that decisions are taken by the people most likely to be affected (subsidiarity)
lead without being possessive
  • lead by example rather than by telling people what to do
  • avoid egocentricity
  • be’ rather than ‘do
  • be aware of what is happening in the group and act accordingly

“specific actions are less important than the leader’s clarity or consciousness. This is why there are no exercises or formulas to ensure successful leadership”

be helpful without taking the credit
  • be modest, allow others to take the credit.
lead without coercion
  • promote collaboration
  • provide tools for collective working
  • clarify roles, authority and accountability
  • delegate
  • create an environment for thinking

“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. Too much force will backfire; the leader who tries to control he group through force does not understand group process. The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force to act effectively”

The result will be thinking, passionately proactive and creative people who communicate effectively, who understand how to work as a team, how to respond positively to conflict and how to help new members feel at home and hit the ground running.

So in our housing co-op example, should we have been dreaming about the best seating layout for our meeting? Well perhaps not, of course there are circumstances where simply delegating a few tasks will avoid such a muddle. If someone had shown leadership by asking everyone what would be the best layout, then suggesting we divide up the tasks between us: someone to stick up notices so people know where to come, a couple of people organising chairs, a couple of people making tea, someone putting the recruitment leaflet on every chair – etc. Simple stuff, but someone does need to take that initial lead.

Here’s some useful reading on leadership in collectives by Alanna Krause

1 week left to apply for Co-op support

The Hive programme from Co-operatives UK (thehive.coop) is still open for applications for support until 13th June.  That’s just one week away.

As a reminder, we are providers to the programme, and through it, heavily subsidised support is available for existing co-ops and groups who are ready to form their new co-op.

  • One-to-one advice
  • Group advice
  • Peer mentoring
  • Training courses

Head over to the Hive and apply now!

Free and subsidised support for co-ops

We are support providers for The Hive, a funded business support programme for co-ops and community businesses.

The Hive offers:

Through The Hive, we can deliver tailored advice for your co-op. Apply now (and please mention Cooperantics!)

We are happy to chat if you need help identifying your needs.http://www.uk.coop/the-hive/about/advice-and-training

Appraisals and personal reviews

The issue of how to carry out appraisals and personal reviews comes up as a common theme among worker co-ops.  Reviews can help us to:

  • ensure that our worker-members are adequately skilled, suitably trained and capable to perform their duties
  • identify issues that are making life difficult for members so we can provide support or training
  • identify opportunities and untapped skills/potential within our co-ops
  • ensure that the day to day job role reflects what people want to do with their life or ties in with their career progression so we don’t lose members
  • identify weaknesses and risks within the team

Personal reviews should be able to feed into or draw upon a “global view” of the whole co-operative, enabling it to assess whether or not it has sufficient skills, and spread of skills, among its worker-members to provide the goods or services that produce its income, and where risks to the business lie (such as reliance upon the skills of one member).  Reviews can also reveal weaknesses and gaps such as the jobs that are being carried out that aren’t actually anyone’s responsibility but are crucial to success.

If you are interested in reading more, we have gathered some information on different approaches we have come across which can be viewed on this page.  We also offer consultancy services to help your co-op design a process or get it right.  Check out our Appraisals and Reviews service.

Co-operative Networking Breakfast in Southampton

Cooperantics and Rice Up Wholefoods are collaborating to provide a co-operative networking breakfast in Southampton.  Rice Up is providing venue space and taking care of catering.  Cooperantics is providing facilitation and promoting the event.  Both co-ops are contributing worker time for the mutual benefit of local co-operatives. All we are asking is that participants pay £5 to cover the cost of the breakfast.

  • Tues 14 July 2015, 8 am
  • at Rice Up Wholefoods, 20 Hanover Buildings, Southampton SO14 1JH

Why come?

  • Get that elusive contact that will help your co-op increase sales
  • Promote your co-op to a wider audience through other co-ops
  • It’s a great opportunity to brush up on your pitching skills in a safe environment
  • Meet members of other local co-ops – the first step to creating a mutually supportive network

About the session
We are using the “Principle 6” approach to co-operative networking, developed by Sion Whellens of Calverts/Principle Six.  It provides a simple but effective framework for co-ops to pitch their needs to each other and access each other’s networks, strengthening our individual co-ops through co-operation.  If you were at the recent Co-operatives South East networking session or at the Worker Co-operative Weekend you will have seen how easy it is, and how effective it can be.
For those interested in reading more, the Principle 6 methodology is available for download here but the great thing about this approach is that anyone can participate. Principle 6 slides link

Timeline
8.00 Breakfast
8.15 Introduction to Principle 6 networking
8.30 Pitching session
9.00 10 min extended pitch: Rice Up will give an extended pitch about their co-op
9.10 Referral session

We will finish sometime between 9.30 and 10.00 depending on numbers but you can carry on networking once the session is over.

Breakfast will be suitable for vegetarians/vegans. If you have any other dietary requirements please let us know.

How to book
If you want to attend please contact nathan@cooperantics.coop.  Booking is important!

And don’t forget to share with other co-ops who may be interested.  Thanks!

 

Happy Easter!

From Co-operantics. We’re taking a break for a few days. Please feel free to browse our site – you will find lots of useful information, tips, techniques and games. Or leave us a message: kate or nathan [at] cooperantics.coop and we’ll get back to you after Monday 13th April.

Happy New Year – & Congratulations to The New Leaf Co-op!

Lucky winners of our ‘Business Tools for Worker Co-operatives’ survey prize

The New Leaf Co-op, Edinburgh have won three hours’ worth of mentoring support worth £250!

The survey produced some interesting results, somewhat confirming our beliefs about the challenges of delivering training to busy worker co-op members.

We will be developing an innovative initiative for delivering support on worker co-op management, and introducing ‘co-op friendly’ management tools in 2015.

Watch this space!

Happy Holidays From the Co-operanticators!

It’s been a great year, with some hopeful & positive initiatives.  Here are some of our highlights:

See you at CBC’s Ways Forward III, Manchester in January &/or at Co-op Future’s Can Do Co-ops, Church Stretton in February

Thanks for all the support, work & fun we have had with our many friends, colleagues and collaborators & here’s to a successful, peaceful and co-operative 2015!

Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop
Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table

Our friend Brian Van Slyke, designer of Co-opoly has written an interesting response to our article on co-operative culture, focusing on co-operative culture and start-ups. We like it so much it is posted in its entirety here:

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table: Forging A Co-op Culture During the Start-Up Phase

The recent series on Cooperantics.coop about creating a cooperative culture was absolutely fascinating and an important contribution to the co-op movement. One particular quote stuck out to me, from a member of the Calverts Co-op:

Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast

This is a critical statement that rings extremely true in my experience. At the same time, many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.

Recently, I was at a co-op workshop in Chicago with a range of folks from different cooperative backgrounds – people who were learning about the subject for the first time, co-op developers, and a few who’d been in the field for a long time. One attendee was part of a large, newly forming catering co-op going through some of the start-up phase pangs. This co-op is in the midst of getting off the ground and many of their members work other jobs. Most of these members are people who’ve never been in a co-op before, who have mostly worked low-wage jobs with a boss that simply tells them what to do. This, the co-op rep told us, was causing problems. He, as the person with the original idea for the catering co-op, had been made into the de facto point man–and sometimes he even felt like a boss. This wasn’t what he wanted, but he wasn’t sure how to change things. People weren’t showing up for member meetings. People would be assigned tasks that they would never follow up on. He’d ask people what they should do about certain issues, and only get blank stares in response. They’d just ask him to take on all the responsibilities and be the face of the business. He told the rest of the workshop attendees that this wasn’t feeling much like a co-op, and he wanted to know what he could do to change things.

This all brings up an intriguing question. If co-op culture eats co-op governance for breakfast, how do we get people to the breakfast table in the first place? (If I dare stretch the analogy that far…) Some people have no history, no exposure, no understanding of what co-ops and co-op culture is in the first place. So how do we even get them to commit to the idea? Well, the co-op cater’s question sparked a long and lengthy dialogue in the workshop. It involved people ranging from those were starting their own co-ops to folks who had been in the co-op movement for quite a time. And below were some of the key take-aways from that conversation.

Making Sure You Have The Right People

One of the primary concerns this co-op rep had was: do I have the right people? Is it better to bring in people who are excited about the co-op mission, or who need the co-op the most?

There was a long and lengthy conversation over this point. But one thing that everyone agreed on was that you can’t start a co-op with people who don’t want to start it. The start-up stage is one of the most vulnerable times for any cooperatives. If you don’t have people who aren’t committed, who aren’t going to do everything in their power to make it work… then you really have to take a good, long look at whether your co-op dream has the chance of becoming a reality.

One thing that often happens during situations like this is a natural self-selection process–those who are not fully committed to the struggles of forming a co-op will fall off the bandwagon. At some point, however, you do have to decide on a key question: who is going to work with me, through thick and thin, to make this thing happen? And you need to commit to those individuals. Then, down the road, when you’re more financially and institutionally stable, you can be intentional about building room for those people who need more encouragement to join in on the cooperative culture and process.

Buy-In: Not Just Purchasing a Share

Another key point that was brought up during our discussion was that a buy-in isn’t just about purchasing a share in the co-op. It’s also about showing people that their opinions matter and will have a real, lasting impact in the workplace. That’s something most people are not used to, and simply don’t know how to react when they’re presented with the opportunity for first time.

One co-op developer shared his experience of working with a group where there was one member who never spoke – no matter what. One day, when the co-op was facing a serious issue, the developer went around the room and asked everyone specifically to share their thoughts about how the co-op should take on the situation. That person who never said a word? He gave the most in-depth and best idea of anyone, and the co-op eventually put his suggestion into practice. When the developer asked this silent member why he had never spoken up before, the member said it was because no one had ever asked him, directly, what he thought. He wasn’t used to being able to speak up and wasn’t comfortable with just jumping into a conversation.

Since then, this once silent member has become one of the co-op’s most vocal. The workshop attendees reflected that this was likely because not only was he asked for his thoughts, but he also saw them put into action. That was his buy-in to the cooperative culture.

Member Meetings: Should they be paid time?

Another thought that came up was something that’s been recently debated within the worker co-op movement: should member meetings be paid time?

Paying for members’ meeting times is certainly more difficult for start-up co-ops and those who don’t have much financial reserves. However, if people aren’t committing to attending meetings, then this is something that could be used to push them over the edge to join. In addition, most worker co-ops do consider member meetings to be labor. As such, that time should be paid for, if possible. For those who are unused to the idea of a co-op culture, and of being expected to participate in decision making and planning, this could be the needed catalyst to get them to the table.

Build Member Meetings into Existing Work Times

Related to the above was the issue of finding a time for everyone to get together. The co-op rep who was sharing his concerns stated that others were often making excuses about why they couldn’t attend meetings. Family issues, weekend mornings aren’t good for them, weekend afternoons aren’t good for them, weekend evenings aren’t good for them, after work hours aren’t good for them, transportation time and costs, and so on and so forth.

One suggestion that was offered was the idea of finding time during the busy workday to, no matter what, have the member meetings – while everyone is already there. Of course, this can be difficult for those who are already so jammed with work and crunched for time. However, it might be necessary if that’s the only opportunity where everyone can be together. In addition, this approach would help build the understanding that meetings are an expected part of the co-op’s work. They’re not separate or optional. They’re part of being in the business.

Making Communal Expectations, Sticking to Them

The final big suggestion was to make and agree to communal expectations, and to have everyone sign off on them. These expectations could even be posted on the co-op’s walls, so that everyone would be reminded of them on a regular basis. In this way, no one could say, “I didn’t agree to that!” Because they literally have. In addition, this approach builds a common understanding of what is expected from each other – instead of assuming people will work off of unspoken agreements. Finally, the co-op would have to ensure that people are sticking to their agreements and expectations. If people have agreed to attend all meetings, save for emergencies, illness, etc., but they regular miss them – there should be a process for grievance and review. If someone misses three or four meetings in a year without appropriate excuses, maybe they should be asked if the co-op model is for them. Whatever it is, creating clear expectations, having everyone agree to them, and having them upheld is critical to creating a vibrant cooperative culture.

Obviously, not all of these ideas will work for all groups (many of them are worker co-op specific) and there are many other ideas to share. The above is more of a synthesis of a brainstorm that happened in Chicago. Still, these are good ideas that should be evaluated for each start up co-op. Building a co-op culture is critical for building a successful, thriving, democratic organization. At the same time, we need to find ways to bring many people to the table to begin with.

Brian Van Slyke is the founder of The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker cooperative that creates and distributes educational resources for social and economic change, such as Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives