I am getting a little bit behind with my blogging, but ten days ago we had a dinner for Board and executive team members with members from the Senate of the National Members Council, to mark Richard Pennycook’s departure as chief executive. This was a good occasion, not only because of the excellent food and wine (exclusively Co-op own brand products of course!), and a memorable farewell address from Richard, but also because of the chance to build informal relationships between Board and Senate members.
The ten members of Senate are elected from the 100 members of the National Members Council (many shown in the image below), and as well as leading the work of the Council they are a forum to which the Board can refer for guidance on how Council might react to particular courses of action being considered. To carry out this latter role effectively requires the building of trust between individual directors and Senate members, so that we can speak openly with each other and yet know that confidentiality will be respected.
Role of MNDs
In my role as Member Nominated Director I am fortunate to have had more opportunities than many of my colleagues on the Board to get to know our Senate members and the wider Council. This is both through attending Council meetings and because I am a member the rather strangely named Stakeholder Working Group (which acts as a point of liaison between Board and the Council President and Vice-Presidents), and last year I also served on working parties relating to the election process for MNDs and the development of the “Co-op Compass” as a way of measuring our performance against key objectives.
Holding the Board to account
The Co-op’s governance give the Council a vital role as representatives of the interests and priorities of our members, holding the Board and individual directors to account, providing inputs on possible future direction and acting in many ways as the “conscience” of the Society – making sure that we strive to hold true to co-operative Values and Principles and high ethical standards. At times dialogue can feel uncomfortable – when Council challenges a decision or proposal from the Board. That discomfort is essential and can be creative if we are to ensure that the Board really does steer a course that is in line with what our member owners would like. It can and does have a very positive influence for the good. But there is always a risk that it can descend into confrontation and misunderstanding if mutual trust is replaced by suspicion or an assumption that either the Board is wanting to undermine our Values or that the Council is just wanting to create obstructions.
The way to make sure that Council-Board relationships add value to the Co-op is twofold: firstly – clear, open and early communication; secondly – strong personal relationships. We can always do better at both, and as an MND and member of the Stakeholder Working Group I believe I have a particular responsibility to help make sure we continue to invest in making dialogue and mutual understanding as effective as possible. Social interaction such as the dinner are a really important way of creating human relationships that will then make more business-focused discussions increasingly productive.