In this week’s Principle 6 newsletter, Mike Mercer checks in with a group of emerging cooperative leaders who discuss their motivation to pursue a career in co-ops.
Read the full newsletter below, then consider how cooperatives could work together to make the co-op movement more appealing for young cooperators. NCBA CLUSA is on a mission to document Principle 6 collaborations across the country so we can identify trends, document best practices and share this knowledge with you—our fellow cooperators!
Principle 6 Newsletter – A Career in Co-ops: Looking Ahead
March 8, 2023
Most folks getting started in co-op work are just looking for a good job. It’s usually several years after that first job until the idea of career path in co-ops enters the thought process. Ask any person who contemplates having a leadership position someday – they will tell you that they ended up where they are mostly by chance.
But before long, future leaders realize that they can bend the arc of their career. If they happen to be working at a co-op, even if they have been to co-op indoctrination school, there comes a point when the question gets contemplated – should I consider a financially lucrative career on the for-profit side or should I project my desire to help in the nonprofit world?
Why would a young leader choose to stay on the cooperative career path?
Well, let’s ask some of them. Not long ago, you were introduced to Sylandi and Damian. You were reacquainted with Savanna. And a year ago, you heard from Christian, a marvelous young leader with an enormous heart for co-op mission who decided to leave her credit union and embark on a leadership path in the for-profit sector.
You have future leaders like these folks in your organization. Listen carefully.
Mike: Let’s start with the most superficial (but very real) component of motivation. Compensation and benefits. As you look ahead to a growing leadership role in co-ops, what are your expectations about the money, relative to what might be available outside the co-op system?
Christian: Mike, thanks for inviting me back. As leaders, we must be willing to be uncomfortable by outlining compensation and benefits early, and often. If your base compensation isn’t attractive, but your co-op desperately needs talent, try instituting formal mentoring and career pathing as a benefit. Ultimately, being clear on expectations and a development path is the best way for the organization and the young leader.
Damian: Unfortunately, I expect to be paid 15-20% less in the not-for-profit/cooperative sector than my for-profit colleagues. I remember a similar comparative discount when I worked for the House of Representatives doing casework and community outreach. I think of the quality of life that comes from waking up every day feeling fulfilled by our purpose to help people. If the opportunity to deliver on mission is truly 15-20% better, then maybe the pay differential is worth it, at least for me. In reality, of course, this only works if everyone in the co-op feels (and acts) the same way.
Savanna: Given the complexities of compensation decisions, it is critical to prioritize transparency and communicate the “why” behind them. To a young leader, compensation strategy, particularly at the most senior levels, can be difficult to rationalize. I’m always thinking about the implications of who and what members’ dollars are being allocated to and how it’s benefiting the membership and employees. We can provide good value to stakeholders and pay equitably. In that regard, compensation strategy should reinforce our values and principles.
Sylandi: Like Savanna, I expect to be compensated equitably with wages comparable to those outside of the co-op system. However, compensation goes beyond the money. When I think of my pathway of growth as a leader, it’s not solely marked by pay raises, but it also includes opportunities to grow and participate in management and leadership development programs that signify a career at the co-op, not just a job.
Mike: By now, you have been thoroughly indoctrinated with cooperative values, principles, and practices. And you are clearly ‘mission-driven’ in your concept of how to serve people. But as you look ahead, what should the co-op be doing to appeal to your appetite for mission fulfillment?
Sylandi: Co-ops appeal to my appetite for mission fulfillment when they allow their employees to have a say in where the ‘extra’ dollars go. To set the co-op apart and truly embody the democratic components of our model, co-op leadership must engage in collective decision-making to determine how the co-op operationalizes cooperative principles.
Damian: I think it’s a simple formula – eat, breathe, and sleep cooperative values. The mandate is to continue innovating with inclusive and unique services or products that keep the underserved at the heart of our outcomes. Go into the communities where we want to grow membership and ask people what they need from us, then provide that service.
Savanna: Seeing my ideas come to life is highly motivating. By including young leaders in the decision-making process, senior leaders can help make that feeling a reality. Involve us by creating opportunities for our ideas to be heard – and taken seriously. Provide insight about long term strategies and involve us in tactical planning to foster our feeling of ownership and investment in the company’s mission. It’s a win-win that develops fresh perspective while strengthening commitment to purpose across the team.
Christian: All of these are valid points. I’ll add that investing in the next generation of co-op leaders is paramount for the longevity of the cooperative movement. Co-ops can and should reward their team members financially and professionally by investing in them. This generation is aware of the value they bring to the table, and more than ever, is willing to move to land the ‘perfect’ role. If your co-ops don’t want to lose their talent to “for-profit” providers, they should proactively develop a path for their professional success. I speak this from personal experience.
Mike: Every leader wants to make a difference. The license to make decisions and the opportunity to influence strategic direction are critical motivators for aspiring leaders. What can the co-op do to ring this bell for you?
Damian: It is imperative that cooperative leaders do two things; first create safe places to work and second break down organizational strategies into tactical projects that are delegated to emerging leaders – with resource support and legitimate opportunity to celebrate success or to fail with support.
Savanna: Teach young leaders how to influence. Share your expertise on how to effectively understand and participate in the governance that has an impact on key initiatives. Give us the chance to participate in stakeholder meetings so we can listen and learn. Put us in a position to make a difference and provide us with the resources we need to do so effectively. I recognize that participation at the decision table is a privilege that must be earned, but the invitation to contribute is a powerful motivation for me to try.
Christian: Some level of decision autonomy is important when it comes to developing leaders. I would never want my team members to do something that would hurt them personally or professionally. Prepare them with the knowledge to make good decisions. Teach them to assess return on investment, and risk. Don’t abandon them, listen carefully, opine constructively, but encourage them to experiment – to decide.
Sylandi: Co-ops must ensure aspiring leaders not only have a seat at the table, but meaningful opportunities to co-create and make their voices heard. This creates a sense of shared ownership for the co-op’s strategic plan and leads to the longevity and success of your organization!
Put me in coach! Give me the ball. Impatient? Probably. Disrespectful? Probably not.
Anyone sitting in the front seat today can probably remember when there was a time where thoughts like those expressed above were up close and personal. The cultivation of future leadership is not easy work. But it is essential for co-ops to succeed in a society dominated by for-profit firms and non-profit organizations. And for co-ops, it is not just about technical skills, strategic thinking, and leadership capacity. For co-ops, it’s all of those things AND…the belief in and appreciation for the importance of the cooperative business model. Growing future leaders from within is substantially less painful than converting leaders from outside.