Board Training – New Board Member Perspective

Last Updated: March 3rd, 2015 by Three Rivers Market.

Every year, the TRM Board attends a full day of training sessions provided by CDS Consulting Co-op. One of the primary cooperative principles is cooperation among cooperatives[1], and CDS embodies this principle by helping food co-ops share their best practices with the larger network of cooperative organizations. This year’s session was held a short ways east over the Smoky Mountains in Asheville, NC. Some directors made a weekend of it and took the opportunity to eat at some of Asheville’s many veggie-friendly restaurants! I carpooled with directors Drew, Fiona, and John.

We met up in the TRM parking lot at 7am on Saturday morning. Knoxville was just recovering from a flurry of snow the prior evening and none of us had cars with snow tires or four-wheel drive, so we were a little bit anxious about driving. Fortunately, the road conditions were better than any of us expected, and we got there (and back) safely! To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from the car ride since I haven’t gotten many chances to spend time with my fellow directors outside of the structured context of board meetings. The conversation that ensued took me by surprise and reminded me how magical it can be to bring together passionate people with shared values. We dove right in and talked about everything from our mutual love for Knoxville to produce labelling at the farmer’s market. My wife and I usually buy produce indiscriminately from the farmer’s market even though we have a strong preference for organic fruits and vegetables when we shop at TRM. Implicitly, I think we imagined that all of the farmer’s market produce was grown organically and that perhaps the costs of and barriers to organic certification might be too high for small, local producers. Suffice it to say that you should ask vendors about their pesticide usage before buying if that’s one of the factors that you’d normally take into account when buying produce.

But I digress. We arrived at the North Carolina Arboretum a couple hours later in time for a small brunch. I was attending CBL 101—Foundations Class for Directors since this is my first year on the board (thanks for voting!). I made my way toward the 101 classroom with directors Drew and Graciela (also new in 2015) while Jacki and our veteran board members sat down for Leadership Training. We all sat down together (there were about thirty people from ten or so organizations). After a few minutes, one of our two teachers introduced herself as Jade Barker and invited everyone to introduce themselves. She’s been involved with food cooperatives in New England for over ten years! Drew, Graciela, and I didn’t have much to say; we’re all new to cooperative leadership but we love TRM and want to help the store and community however we can.

The Training

We started the day with a group exercise. After being split into two groups, each group was asked to stand in two lines facing one another with our index fingers touching those of the person facing us. To be a bit more clear, there were two lines of eight people facing one another with each line member touching the fingers of the person across from them. We were then given a long, narrow pole and the task of lowering the pole to the ground with the constraint that everyone’s fingers had to touch the pole at all times. Simple, right? As it turns out, this is extremely difficult and requires a high degree of synchronization between everyone involved. If any single person or couple simply lowers their fingers, then they will no longer be touching the pole and the group will fail the exercise. The trick is to get everyone to lower their hands the same amount at the same time. If we were all computers, we could assign one participant as the master from whom all participants could take commands of the form (h, t) meaning at time t, lower your fingers by a height h. That would be easy! Synchronization, communication, and measurement (the former two extremely important to working together) can be a real challenge for humans though. The difficulty that we experienced in accomplishing such a seemingly simple task was truly remarkable. The pole challenge served as a metaphor to help us reflect on the difficulty and importance of working together in the cooperative movement.

The first half of the training was devoted to recounting some of the history, values, and principles of cooperatives and reviewing our legal responsibilities as board members. We began with the Rochdale Pioneers—a group of weavers in 19th century England who banded together in a very difficult time to improve the fortunes of skilled workers in their community. We then split up into groups to discuss the cooperative values and principles most important to each of us. One that was important to my subgroup was concern for the community. Three Rivers Market is vitally important for our community; it’s the only food store in Knoxville that exists to help the members of our community act and make choices together to achieve things that we couldn’t individually.

The second half of the training focused on cooperative governance and co-op financials. As far as cooperative governance goes, the duty of the board is primarily to put in place and monitor a set of rules that ensure that our cooperative is acting in ways that represent our community’s needs and values. The GM and staff are then responsible for realizing those needs and values operationally. The whole cycle looks like this:

Cooperative governance

The discussion about co-op financials was important for us too since TRM recently expanded into a much larger space and needed to take out loans that we expect to make up for in increased sales capacity at the new store. We even built a little work of lego art to help visualize the co-op’s financial position over time!

Lego co-op financials

I want to thank Jacki and the TRM operational staff for helping organize this event and all of my fellow board directors for participating with me. I especially want to thank members of TRM for giving me this opportunity to serve our community. The trip was a lot of fun and I learned so much. I hope that in 2015, we can give members an even bigger voice at TRM and accomplish some truly great things together for the health of our community and the environment.

Hoyt, Ann. “Cooperative Principles Updated.” Cooperative Grocer #62. Jan 1996. Print.