When I was a teenager, I read a book entitled Men of Good Will. (If written today, it would be called People of Good Will.) I don’t remember all that much about the book anymore but the title sticks in my mind, especially when thinking about our Co-op Board. Although my wife and I have shopped at the Co-op for over 20 years, we’ve only been member-owners for about three years. Nevertheless, my relatively recent role as a member-owner may also give me a perspective less clouded by historical preconceptions.
My membership has been, for the most part, a wonderfully rewarding experience. Walking into our store is like entering into a community of friends. I never fail to be greeted by five or more shoppers, employees or member-owners on duty whenever I enter the store. That great experience, more than anything else, is why people shop here. Sure, there’s our unique Bulk Department, the Produce section that specializes in locally grown food and organics, our first rate Cheese Department, etc. I’m sure people shop at Honest Weight for those reasons too, but how many more are also swayed by the welcoming atmosphere that hugs you when you walk through the door? That, the opportunity to help unusual and interesting people as a Shopper’s Helper, and working with the Co-op Voice have been the best parts of my Honest Weight experience. They’re why I shop here and why I’ve enjoyed being a member-owner. Those are the good parts. One part that has not been so great has been what I have seen at Honest Weight Board meetings.
As most of you know, about two years ago there was an attempted corporate takeover of the Co-op. The membership joined together and put in a new Board, which has achieved some amazing financial successes and has given Honest Weight a period of stability. I have the utmost gratitude and respect for all of the Board members who have given us this gift along with their talent and very hard work.
However, there’s a problem with the Board, which brings me back to the title of the book I read as a teenager, Men of Good Will. This book is in part about human trust—the assumption that all people want what’s best for one another. It’s a naïve vision, perhaps, but one that would go a long way towards solving the problems of our Board!
Since the inception of the new Board on December 15, 2015, I have attended a number of Board meetings. What stands out is the lack of respect and goodwill between Board members. It looks like some Board members don’t expect other Board members to have the Co-op’s best interest at heart. This may have its roots in how they work together behind the scenes, but the rest of us can’t know. Unless it can be corrected soon, Honest Weight is in trouble.
It’s not that we don’t have intelligent and hard-working people on the Board—we do. Unfortunately, these same talented and conscientious people have displayed a propensity at meetings to attack others openly and without regard for common courtesy. The agendas are ambitious, not everyone comes prepared, and the times allotted for discussions are not adhered to, so meetings become rambling and chaotic. Tempers of board members and observers alike become frayed, which has at times led to an unwillingness to listen to the points of view of others coupled with an unnerving tendency to silence dissent. This, along with four hour meetings, a fondness for secrecy and unnecessary Sturm und Drang, has been a recipe for dysfunction.
It seems this ongoing lack of courtesy and kindness is leading to burn-out. Five of our Board members recently resigned abruptly–in some cases with bitter feelings. Perhaps it was time. Two years is a lot of time to devote to a volunteer job as all-consuming as Board membership. Nonetheless, we have suddenly lost a lot of talent and experience.
We now have five new temporary Board members. I really appreciate the willingness of these new members, some of whom I know, to step up when it counts; but how long before the same problems come up again if nothing changes about the way the board operates and members of the Board continue to be allowed to verbally abuse or intimidate others?
So, what are some possible solutions? One solution would be shorter meetings with a vigilant facilitator, a timekeeper, and a shorter agenda. There needs to be a structured process to hold to the time scheduled for each agenda item. This is not meant to be a criticism. It is not easy to run a smooth meeting, especially when beset by disruptive forces. But, after a lifetime of sitting in meetings of one sort or another, I think I know what a successful meeting looks like and that’s not what I’m seeing with this Board.
Perhaps we could get assistance from a trained facilitator. There are some great resources available. Someone skilled in this field could suggest changes to the format or changes to the way that people are allowed to interact. Maybe even a retreat or workshop would help?
We could solicit input from the membership. Over the last few years, many members have attended at least one Board meeting. Why not ask the membership for recommendations about how Board meetings could be improved?
Surely, when five Board members quit in close succession, it’s time for the Board to ask for help. In a situation like this, there’s a choice. You can either go on pretending there isn’t a problem, or you can reach out for help. For all of our sakes, I hope the Board chooses the latter option.