Growing Pains: The GM Transition

By Heather Avella of Manchester Food Co-op

manchester logo
The staff at FCI knows that the path to opening a new retail food co-op is rarely a straight line. The potholes and unexpected turns can really shake up even the best startup team. We love to share stories of these Growing Pains, and how startups have overcome them, or what they would do differently.
Manchester Food Co-op in Manchester, NH has faces some twist and turns on their path. Now in the process of converting a store to a co-op, to open soon, they found the letting go process involved once a general manager was on board was a bit of an unnerving thing.  Our thanks to Heather Avelia, project manager at Manchester for sharing a bit about their own Growing Pains with us. For more information about Manchester, email info@manchesterfood.coop.  Reach the Food Co-op Initiative staff anytime at info@fci.coop.

Hiring your first General Manager. You see this topic on every start-up conference agenda, notice many references in CDS Consulting Co-op’s library, participate in a session or two about recruiting your GM, and gather tips how to make your co-op marketable to national talent.  We did all these things at the Manchester Food Co-op.  In hindsight we were not prepared for how difficult the process—and the transition it signifies—would be.

All of us who have experienced the simultaneous pleasure and pain of growing our food co-op from embryonic visionary state to the exciting and practical stage when a GM is hired know the sweat, tears, and triumphs involved in the adventure. The board, motivated by passion and a common cause, has its hands in everything from soup to nuts: when the GM is hired the shift can be surprising.  The board’s role and feeling of empowerment will change. They will be giving up control over pieces they have been intrinsically involved with, pieces that are also very near and dear to the mission.   At Manchester we found that, although you can be prepared from a textbook kind of sense, you may be surprised the wave of emotions that arise during this transition.   At least we were. We are happy to share our challenges and some tips with you.

Biggest Challenges

Separation Anxiety

We now have a fantastic General Manager who has over a decade of co-op experience. We feel very fortunate to have been able to hire such talent as a start-up!  However, no matter what type of rock star GM you hire, the challenge can be likened to parental separation anxiety.  Suddenly you have the loss of input into anything involving operations.  Our board consisted of members with grocery, HR, and architectural experience. They now had to now withhold their expertise to allow our GM to build his own plans and establish relationships. This is a tough letting go process. Board members who felt their value was in these skill sets now felt uncertain of their contribution. What do you mean I don’t have a say in store design? How do I not pursue conversations with local producers and potential vendors? Why can’t I lend a hand in the staffing plan? Why does the DC want to deal with only GM’s or PM’s, and not any board members?  Board members may feel like the bricks that they have been stacking for years while building toward a store have now formed a wall and they are on the outside, looking in.

 Policy Readiness

manchester bldgThen there was the Policy Governance piece.  We intended to operate by Policy Governance, because that is what food co-ops do, but we really didn’t even know what that meant. Ends? Means? We were suddenly chasing these concepts after already hiring our GM, which was less than ideal. When we interviewed GM candidates, we stated that we would govern by Policy Governance but we weren’t well versed in these principles, and we should have been!

Our tips for other startups

Be Prepared for Change and Letting Go!

When your new GM comes on board, there will be a clear division between operations and capital. Your board will be responsible for raising capital. Your GM will be responsible for all things related to store operations, including store design, staffing, products, and pricing. Conceptually, we have found it easiest to understand in the context of our pro forma: the board is responsible for the sources, while the GM is responsible for the uses. For some board members this will be more difficult than for others. Recognize that this stage, when you are implementing your capital campaign and your GM is hired, is not for everyone. You may find some turnover in board membership during this period, and that’s okay. Keep the lines of communication open between all board members to avoid any tension or dips in morale. Recognize when a board member may need to move on because he/she is not suited for this developmental stage.

Don’t drag your feet on Policy Governance!

Engage your Policy Governance before you hire your GM.  Without digging into this prior to hiring our GM, we were not prepared to both communicate our ends and understand how the GM/board relationship would work within this framework. Use the CDSCC’s CBLD materials and programs—don’t re-invent the wheel as there are great governance templates out there. Get your draft done and understand this process so you are best positioned for a smoother ride once your GM comes aboard. Understand how the board’s role will be to govern by ends, and make sure you feel comfortable that your ends represent your vision. This will give you the confidence that the vision will be executed, while completely empowering your GM to make decisions.

If you don’t have a policy governance lover on your board, get one fast – one of our drawbacks was not finding someone who loves bylaws and policies, so it became one of the important things we would consistently avoid.

I’m sure there is no food coop out there that would say this stage is completely carefree, smooth and easy. As with many coop developmental transitions, it is sloppy and less than perfect. By keeping in mind the passion behind your project, and taking some of these preventative steps to prepare, you can set yourselves up to surmount the challenges.  The end result is establishing a great working partnership with your GM and successfully opening your doors.  Nothing is better than that.

At least, that is what we imagine. We all joke that we will be laying on the co-op’s floor, bawling impressive puddles of tears when our doors finally do open!  I am looking forward to seeing that scene manifest.

 

FCI: Why We Like This:  No matter how many terrific industry experts and consultants you work with, no one but a peer startup cooperator can tell you what it’s going to feel like to transition from a working board to the governing board of a co-op that’s about to open the store. To be a board leader at a startup food co-op is to get used to being on a roller coaster, but it’s always easier to enjoy the ride when you know that next twist is coming. Thank you to Heather for sharing with us a little bit about the track ahead from one who’s been there!

 

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