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.
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
‘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
provide tools for collective working
clarify roles, authority and accountability
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
Co-operative skills aren’t just for co-operatives! We believe that these skills – developed in co-operatives of all kinds – can be useful for any groups of people wishing to work together to solve problems or achieve social goals. Of course we consider the co-operative to be the best model for any kind of enterprise, with social aims at its heart and democratic ownership and control its body – but our aim is to promote co-operative ways of working throughout all sectors of the economy.
To improve co-operative skills* in co-operatives. To promote and develop cooperative skills throughout all sectors of the economy and sections of society.
*Co-operative skills include communication, running effective meetings, decision-making, coping with conflict, negotiation and team working.
Co-operantics can save you money!
Through learning and practising co-operative skills, workers will be able to reduce workplace tensions and solve conflict, thus saving personnel time and avoiding the need for costly employment tribunals. They will learn how to:
give and receive criticism assertively
cope with the inevitable conflicts that arise and avoid unnecessary conflict
use techniques of principled negotiation
make it easy for new members to participate
Other benefits include meetings that are more decisive and more amicable, leading to decisions people will commit to and won’t subvert
Our half-day workshops are highly participative and interactive. It’s accelerated learning with materials available for download in advance. Topics include communication, meetings and decisions, conflict management, techniques of principled negotiation and team working.
We are experience co-operative support practitioners and can provide a range of co-operative business support services, some of which can be viewed here.
We offer coaching for individuals and small groups to explore issues around communications, assertiveness, confrontation and negotiation. Coaching can also be used to support project planning, setting goals, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Coaching can be face to face or via phone calls and email.
We are often asked to facilitate meetings in co-operatives where there has been a breakdown of communications of some kind, and the co-operative needs someone who will be neutral but who also understands the dynamics of co-operative working. We also facilitate members’ days, team-building events and participative planning events.
Throughout this website there are free downloads – tools, tips and techniques for improving co-operative working. These will be of special interest to anyone attending a workshop, since they will be able to download and read them beforehand.
We will maintain professional co-operative business advice standards, once they are developed and implemented, indeed we will play our part in developing and agreeing those standards. We will regularly review and update our knowledge, skills and experience, attending CPD events, sharing best practice and encouraging peer learning amongst cooperatives and co-operative business advisers.
We will always respect our clients and act in their best interests, seeking to build capacity rather than developing dependency, whilst recognising that it may be in our clients’ interests to utilise our skills rather than acquire those skills themselves.
We will always respect client confidentiality.
Co-operantics members will declare any conflicts of interest where they exist. If a Co-operantics member has ethical concerns with a particular cooperative or sector of the economy, the work will be passed to another member, unless it is in conflict with Co-operative Principles, in which case the work will be declined.
Kate is the Secretary of GO-OP Co-operative, aiming to be the first co-operatively owned open access train operator in the UK, and a member of The Phone Co-op, Sims Hill CSA, Bristol Credit Union and the Bristol Pound.
“Over the years I have collected masses of useful information, tools and techniques for co-operative working, the sources of which are now lost in the mists of time. Some of the material has been adapted from ‘Organisational Issues in Democratically Managed Businesses’, a collection of training materials published by ICOM in 1992. (ICOM was the UK federation of worker co-operatives which merged with the Co-operative Union to form Co-operatives UK in 2000). This small collection of tips, tools and techniques for co-operative working is just a start. We will add more materials over time, and we hope that colleagues and clients will contribute to the development of this site. If you have other materials you think should be available here, please let us know, we’ll be happy to acknowledge the source, or send us a link to your website.”
Nathan Brown has been working in the co-operative development sector for over 15 years. His hands on experience as a co-op member includes management roles in a Housing Co-operative, Credit Union, Worker Co-operative, Consortium Co-operative and Multi-Stakeholder Co-operative in addition to participating in various informal music, housing and food collectives since he was a teenager. Nathan is a Director of Olmec Co-operative CIC, South East Co-operative Support Limited, and is also Secretary of a Society for the Benefit of the Community. He is still a member of the Phone Co-op, the Co-operative and 2 unincorporated food co-ops and served for 12 years as a voluntary Committee member and Research Officer for a national campaign organisation. He holds a Certificate in Training Practice (IPD) and Certificate in Social Enterprise Support (ILM)
“I believe that co-operation is a natural choice for anyone with a bone of social justice or humanity in their body. As children, on our estate we even formed a sweet buying group with its own street stall (less Rochdale Pioneers and more Bash Street Kids) but that’s another story! The simple, effective, technology of co-operatives can be easily de-railed by competitive behaviours that are nurtured by society – focusing on what makes us different rather than what we hold in common. Co-operantics aims to help people get back on the rails and make their co-op a success.”
The conference – organised by Co-operative Business Consultants – aims to explore and debate responses to the challenges presented by Jeremy Corbyn’s call for democratic co-operative management of the public sector and other national industries, such as the railways and the energy sector:
Exploring how workers and users can be effectively involved in public sector management
Facing up to management capture as a major challenge for co-operatives
Considering Co-operative viability in the global economy
I’m facilitating the ‘People’s Railway’ session, with speakers Christian Wolmar, award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport and the author of a series of books on railway history and John Tilley, RMT Regional Organiser, North West & Eire Regions.
So I’ve started considering the issues from a co-operative perspective, and of course they are many and significant. (Thanks to Jean Nunn-Price and Alex Lawrie of www.go-op.coop for input).
Perhaps the biggest question is what could replace the present franchising system? Franchises are a high stakes gamble and for a co-operative the stakes are too high. No co-op could justify to its members the multi-million pound gamble that is tendering for a franchise. We need a different system, such as for example micro-franchises? Or core routes state-owned, and other routes open access?
Then what could be the role for co-operatives? Co-operatives need to be entrepreneurial, and that means they need to be able to alter their geographical remit at will, as business opportunities permit. So their role might be to complement a national publically owned and democratically accountable rail service.
As ever, a focus on international co-operative principles provides a useful starting point:
Autonomy: a co-operative is an independent organisation, not owned or linked to the state or any other organisation
Democratic Member Control: Who would be the members? The main stakeholders would be:
o Travelling public
o Staff &/or Trade Unions
So the co-operative could have representation from each category – which suggests some form of multi-stakeholder co-operative. GO-OP Co-operative is a bona fide co-operative, registered using Somerset Rules, and has User (passengers and employees) and Non-user (investor) classes of shares, and voting arrangements are organised such that the User members always retain control of the co-operative.
Membership in a co-operative is voluntary – no-one can be forced to join. So what about staff who don’t want to join?
Member Economic Participation: You wouldn’t have to be a member to travel, but member benefits, for example dividend on spend, need to be part of the deal. Of course members will be able to choose Directors and attend the AGM. There could also be local member groups to give feedback on the quality of the service and hold social events.
Organisational structure: UK Railway management is structured on a hierarchical model, with pay structures that are highly inequitable. How could management structures be converted to a more equitable model without losing experienced staff?
Collaboration with other rail industry organisations – specifically Network Rail: Network Rail would need to be re-structured to become democratic and accountable to its passengers. The Co-op Party has called for Network Rail to become a consumer mutual, where passengers would be represented on the Board, be involved in the development of a strategic plan and have powers to control remuneration and appoint and dismiss the Chair and non-executive directors.
These are just some of the issues that need to be considered – but I’d be glad to hear thoughts and comments from co-operators & and anyone interested in making our railways more efficient, democratic and accountable.
In private enterprise 58% of those in full time work believe they have no influence in the workplace, increasing to 70% for part-timers. (Source: YouGov polling, commissioned by Co-operatives UK May 2015). So it’s only if your employer offers good terms and conditions of employment, including flexible hours, that you will be able to benefit from good work life balance. And of course in private enterprise, employers need to prioritise return on investment for owners and shareholders.
Co-operatives on the other hand are run for the benefit of their members. So in worker co-operatives, where employees are the members, we might assume that one of the benefits on offer would be working hours flexible enough to ensure that members can meet family, education, leisure and social commitments – in other words, a good work life balance.
But there are different types of co-operatives – offering membership to tenants, savers or consumers – and it’s useful to distinguish between them. Consumer retail co-operatives (the familiar high street ‘Co-op’) are run for the benefit of the consumer – or shopper. They are managed like any other supermarket, except that profits are shared with members rather than external shareholders, and members can be elected to the Members’ Council and have a say on business issues. Although employees can be members, the co-operative is not run primarily for their benefit. Issues like work life balance will be covered in a contract of employment and dealt with through the HR department.
In a worker co-op however, the members are the employees and the co-operative is run primarily for their benefit. Members will have influence in the workplace, and will be able to contribute to discussions on the products or services that are sold, on the way work is carried out and on terms and conditions of employment, including work life balance.
“If only …”
But does it happen? Frustratingly, it can be challenging for worker co-op members to be able to achieve good work life balance, for several reasons, for example:
In the start-up period, founder members will often work for very low or no pay, in order to get the co-operative off the ground, so any talk of work life balance will be accompanied by a rueful smile …
Members have a responsibility to contribute to management decision making, leaving less time for other commitments
the co-op may decide to support the local community or people on low incomes and keep their own wages to a minimum, so members may need to work long hours
there may be a limited understanding of the enterprising nature of co-operatives, with a lack of research into potential markets which could provide the financial sustainability to permit members to achieve better work life balance
the co-op may be going through a period of change, cutting back on costs in certain areas to spend on new premises, additional equipment or raw materials
How easy is it for members of a large worker co-op to achieve good work life balance? Bristol’s Essential Trading is a worker co-op with over 80 members and is one of the UK’s ‘top 100 Co-ops’ according to Co-operatives UK.
Richard Crook from Essential says:
“… the realities of running a democratic business mean there are increased time demands over and above operational needs that might ordinarily be expected from an employee. Things like reading minutes, attending meetings, writing proposals, reading proposals, dealing with ‘people management’ issues, etc. all seem to add to the ‘work’ side of the see-saw – but at the same time because they can occupy the cerebral side of work rather than the physical, they do have an annoying habit of popping into one’s head during what should be ‘life’ time. Hence it often feels like the line is blurred between ‘work’ and ‘life’ in a worker co-op. People do really commit to the worker co-op they are members of, arguably sometimes too much for their own health and well-being, but this is done I think because they feel they are genuinely contributing to something alternative and often life-changing.”
What we can do to help co-ops be more sustainable?
Join them! Co-ops make an important contribution to the solidarity economy, they have an important part to play in that they (especially worker co-ops) offer an alternative form of business to the capitalist model. Business doesn’t have to be like Dragons Den or The Apprentice!
The rise of the “precariat” is well documented. Young people find themselves freelancing more and more (not just young people we might add!) and there is a real desire for structures that provide solidarity and insulation from the poor treatment an individual can suffer at the hands of unscrupulous quasi-employers or customers. A Freelancers Co-op can be many things. It can provide marketing of members’ services to customers with more reach and punch than an individual; the ability to tender for larger pieces of work; a “whole offer” for customers combining the skills of many members in one package; back office services like invoicing, accounts or factoring; shared office space; mutual support etc. Whatever the members want to source or provide collaboratively can be made available to members either as a “take it or leave it” offer or as a menu of services.
Having met when we co-delivered a weekend workshop with Alt Gen for young people setting up co-ops as part of the Stir To Action summer events programme, Jonny from Stir To Action asked if we could put together an overview of the key steps people might take to put together a freelancers’ co-op, to empower, inform and inspire people. Jonny got one of the STIR designers to turn our clunky diagram into a thing of beauty (excerpt below). We will make it available in the new year (update: available as PDF to download) but meanwhile if you want to see the goods you need to order the magazine.
Participative strategic planning is a means for engaging all members in planning the future direction of the co-operative business. In this way we can avoid conflicts caused by lack of information or misunderstandings about ‘how we do things here’. It’s strategic planning done in a co-operative, collaborative and participative way.
Strategic planning is a way of coping with change and planning for the future. It aims to accomplish three tasks:
to explore and clarify direction for the medium to long term, identifying desired outcomes
to select broad strategies that will enable the co-operative to achieve those outcomes
to identify ways to measure progress
Co-operatives use the process to build member commitment by involving them in the creation of the plan, but how you go about it will depend on your co-op’s structure, how long you have been established, your economic sector and the complexity of your business
One approach is to hold an annual Away Day aiming to integrate new members, facilitate interaction between different teams, and discuss co-operative performance and future plans.
It’s helpful to clarify the language of strategic planning before you start – so you can at least agree a common understanding. For example:
Strategic work is about where you want to go, it’s about the long term and involves setting aims and objectives, goals and outcomes – or draining the swamp?
Tactical is about how you’re going to get there, agreeing a route or a map. It’s more reactive and perhaps opportunistic, involving setting milestones towards the achievement of goals and organising timetables, action plans and rotas.
Operational is about the journey, it focuses on the short term day to day outputs, crisis management and fire-fighting – or fighting the crocodiles?
So make sure you look up from time to time from fighting the crocodiles to see if you can find time to drain the swamp!
Key questions for strategic planning:
are your co-operative vision and values clear, agreed and owned?
how well do you understand the market? Is it growing, shrinking, or flat-lining?
how well-informed are you about suppliers & competitors?
how fit is the co-operative organisation? Purring along nicely or bit bumpy?
are members ready to act?
Strategic planning – beyond the systems approach
In a recent (2014 & 2015) Co-operative Skills Seminar on Strategic planning for worker co-operatives, we discussed how existing management tools are inadequate for worker co-ops, since they are based on ‘systems’ thinking, which assumes controllers and controlled. Instead of thinking about organisations as machines, controlled by managers pulling levers, Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire talks instead about ‘complex responsive processes’ with high participation and constant change. He describes organisations (including co-operatives) as processes of human relationships and communication where people create and are created by the organisation and where no one can plan or control this interplay.
The seminars presented some tools and techniques based on this understanding of business as a series of interactions and conversations between people at all levels of the business.
Tools and techniques for participative strategic planning
Active Business Planning uses project management techniques, researching information on size and characteristics of the market, acceptable pricing, level of sales, etc. simultaneously and using the knowledge gained in one area to amend others. Active business planning uses a timeline (GANNT) chart to identify the dates of starting and ending each business planning action.
Agileis an approach to business planning based on techniques typically used in software development as a response to unpredictability. In contrast to traditional project management, with its sequence of: define aims – market research – product development – market strategy – implement strategy, the Agile approach is iterative and incremental, with all activities blending into several iterations and adapting to discovered realities at fixed intervals.
RISK ANALYSIS is a slightly different approach, involving looking at all the risks to your co-operative business and quantifying them in a table according to:
How likely is it to occur?
What impact would it have on the business if it did occur?
You then multiply (1.) by (2.) to get a rough and ready way to prioritise action. The final two columns in the table encourage you to think about how to prevent the risk from happening and if it does happen anyway, how to minimise the impact on your business.
Co-operantics offers a unique new service in support of co-operative performance assessment
As your co-op develops there will be a growing need for skills assessment and analysis of where skills gaps might exist across the whole business. You may also want to think about quality controls, standards, targets or best practice, to ensure that all employee members are offering the best customer service, meeting agreed targets and complying with best practice while the co-op delivers the member benefits, terms and conditions that your members want. To achieve this, the co-op will require some kind of assessment, to ensure these standards are being met.
If these assessments are not carried out, members will be unaware whether or not they are meeting performance standards, there can be role confusion – duplication or gaps, which can cause tensions or conflict. If the assessments are carried out inadequately or if they are seen as a mere tick box exercise, they can cause resentment and frustration or – even worse – a feeling that you are being ‘got at’ or punished for some misdemeanour. If personal development and work related aspirations are not met, you risk losing valuable members from your co-op.
Achievement of goals and compliance with standards can be assessed using an Appraisal – which identifies the tasks, skills and knowledge involved within a job description and assesses performance. A more holistic, person-centred approach is the Personal Review, which focuses on personal development and members’ strengths and weaknesses so that strengths can be built on and training needs assessed. The training needs assessment could then be the basis for a Personal Development Plan – an excellent and proactive approach to career development, building up members’ skills and knowledge as part of continuing professional development for the benefit of members and the co-operative itself.
There are a number of ways in which your co-operative can address performance assessment, and Co-operantics can help you choose the right one, details below.
Designing an appraisals or review system
Your Co-operantics consultant works with nominated member(s) of your co-op to review the processes you currently use and proposes improvements. This will usually take the form of a combination of workshops and consultancy. We focus on how a new system will mesh with and reflect the ethos and strategy of the co-op, supporting workers and members to reach their full potential and the co-op to meet its members’ needs.
Member personal review
Individual members identify key elements and skills involved in their job description, then carry out a preliminary reflective review. The Co-operantics consultant then comes in and carries out a second review, in which we aim to challenge the individual, and help them to clarify their answers. The final step is to work together to identify personal improvements, training requirements and personal targets for creating a personal development plan.
Co-op Member competency appraisal
Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘co-op member competencies’ from ‘job competencies’, drawing up a standard list of co-op member competencies that every member must fulfil. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training ordevelopment plans.
Job competency appraisal
Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘job competencies’ from ‘co-op member competencies’, drawing up a list of job competencies attached to every job description. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training or development plans.
Each member has a ‘Buddy’ to support them – a bit like a personal HR worker. Co-operantics will mentor the Buddies – providing them with training and support. Like the personal review above, the member carries out a self-assessment review and discusses it with their Buddy. The Buddy then presents it and their recommendations to the committee, but without the member being present. The Buddy monitors progress on Action points agreed by the co-op, so the co-op decides improvement actions, rather than the member.
Co-operantics will run a training seminar on KPIs – what they are and how to use them for performance management. Worker-members are allocated Key Performance Indicators relating to their job role. Regular review meetings are held to assess performance against KPIs and discuss related issues.
Co-operantics can help you to address performance assessment, working to support your HR team or sub-committee or taking on delivery of the entire task. We can advise on the most appropriate approach depending on the type and culture of your co-op, the number of members and the sector you are working in.
Please get in touch with us if any of the above options sounds right for your co-operative. Alternatively, we are happy to discuss other ways in which we could support your performance assessments.
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.