Avoiding the Pitfalls as Your Cooperative Moves into an Unknown Future

As you know well, these are challenging times for electric co-op leaders. You’re having to make difficult decisions fast, with incomplete information, and your environment is changing rapidly.  In short, there are pitfalls everywhere, and many co-op leaders have stumbled into quite a few of them during the COVID-19 crisis.

The future is what we might call “certainly uncertain.”  Many unknowns remain about the pandemic’s long-term effects on our nation, our communities, our families, our members, our employees, and our business models.

Of course, we aren’t the first leaders to be walking into the unknown.  When Lewis and Clark were preparing to depart for their expedition through the great American West in 1804, no one knew what was ahead.  President Jefferson, who sent them on the journey, thought it possible that Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery might find mastodons, lions, and elephants!  Indeed, their journey was filled with risks and uncertainty, just like the journey facing electric cooperative leaders today.

In the days and weeks ahead, you’ll be making many difficult decisions.  How do we transition back to working at the office?  Who gets to keep working from home?  How do we decide when to let members return to visiting our offices?  What do we do about the annual meeting?  Which new ways of operating do we continue and which do we abandon?  What things have we “always done this way” that should be jettisoned?  Which employees have displayed important new talents through this crisis, and how should we develop them into the next generation of co-op leaders? 

These are just a few of the many examples of tough calls you’ll be making in the near future (and are making right now!).

Now is the time to reimagine what your co-op can be.  The crisis has given you a perfect opportunity to make changes that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago.  But, doing this requires new leadership skills and a new way of making decisions.

Do this well, and your co-op will be better than ever. Do it poorly, and the culture and performance of the co-op can be damaged for years.

It’s highly unlikely that a single leader – or even the co-op’s entire senior staff as a team – can make all of the necessary decisions as effectively as possible to ensure a successful transition into the post-COVID-19 world.

So, what’s the key?

You need a “Guiding Coalition” of key employees across the cooperative to help shape its future.  This coalition should not be only those in management or leadership positions.  In fact, many of the right people may not be those with the formal titles.  Your coalition needs a “diagonal cross-section” of employees with unique skills, knowledge, and positions of influence.

Build your coalition with the following characteristics in mind:

Position Power: Are enough key players on board, especially the main line managers, so that those left out cannot easily block progress?

Expertise: Are the various points of view – in terms of discipline, work experience, demographics, etc. – relevant to the task at hand adequately represented so that informed, intelligent decisions will be made?

Credibility: Does the coalition have enough people with good reputations at the co-op so that its decisions will be taken seriously by other employees?

Leadership: Does the coalition include enough proven leaders to be able to drive the change process?

Management: Does the coalition include enough proven managers to be able to implement the changes?

Creating such a coalition is not an abdication of your responsibility as a leader.  Rather, coalition-building of this sort shows humility, an appreciation for the wisdom of your employees, and a desire to achieve the best possible outcomes for the good of the co-op.

And, don’t worry about the employees objecting to being invited to join the coalition because of their current workload.  Our experience indicates that most employees are wanting to get involved in shaping the future of their cooperative.  And, being asked to participate is an honor and a compliment.

Depending on the co-op’s size and the range of decisions to be made, you might choose to establish multiple coalitions that address different challenges.  Such “Strike Force Coalitions” can be stood up and torn down as new challenges arise, and they provide opportunities for broader participation and, thus, more buy-in across the workforce.

To hear more of our thoughts on these topics, be sure to register for our upcoming webinar on May 19 at 11:00 am Central!

Our team would be honored to assist your cooperative with leading employee coalitions in strategic planning meetings to help you plan your co-op’s future and avoid the pitfalls in your path.  Please contact us to schedule a time for a call to discuss.