During good times, it’s easy to read leadership books and get behind all the cliché quotes, methodologies, and soundbites from the experts. We can learn from case studies and cast big vision and goals. When margins are high, and rain produces abundant crops, it seems to make a hell of a lot more sense to be strategic, work on the future, and take risks. But how do we think about the future when we are just trying to survive?
When it doesn’t rain, it impacts everything, especially mindset. But there are two truths that must inform our mindsets during these times to lead well and shape the future to our advantage.
We’ve all heard the stories of founders taking significant risks and building highly successful organizations that have become national icons. Many of these companies were founded during times of recession and/or turbulent times. The Co-op system is no exception. Co-ops are rooted in a rich history of risk-taking, hard work, and—quite frankly—heroism. Most Co-op leadership teams tell a similar story of their founding members taking big risks or leading in a way that paid off or paved the way. They were imperfect leaders (as we all are), but they chose to lead, and we can learn a lot from their perseverance and willingness to forge a path for their families and their members.
As we look to the future, there is an undeniable trend of consolidation resulting in larger but fewer Co-ops and producers. But one fact remains constant: Co-ops’ work to serve their members and bring their products to market is indispensable.
There are two supply pipelines which are vital to every organization for growth and long-term sustainability. The first one is your people pipeline. The greatest organizations in the world (across all sectors) recognize the need to recruit, train, and build bench depth full of leaders. There has never been a time when this has been more important. In fact, according to a survey completed by Business Insider in January, 61% of U.S. workers are considering quitting their jobs in 2023. The reality is that you are competing for talent with other industries and value propositions which are changing to meet the needs of today’s worker.
Consider consistently emphasizing the following:
The second pipeline, vital to growth and long-term sustainability, is cultivating current and new customers. This may seem obvious; however, in times of drought, we must guard against apathy and instead focus on nurturing these relationships. Yield long-term results by meeting with producers multiple times throughout the year and having conversations different from the regular day-to-day discussions. Consider meeting in group settings and/or individually to express gratitude for their business. Understand and empathize with the challenges they are facing. Engage in dialogue about what they need and value in your services, and look for strategic opportunities to evolve your value proposition for the future. Find out what is important to them and what hopes, dreams, and concerns drive their decisions. Also, consider hosting industry-relevant workshops and inviting producers to participate.
Now may be the time to challenge your thinking on your current structure from the bottom-up, top-down, and cross-functionally to ensure you are operating efficiently. Make sure you have created the Org Chart of the future and are maximizing efficiencies in every functional area of the business.
Here are a few items to consider now if you haven’t already:
When large tech companies build new campuses of the future, one of the critical design considerations they are very cognizant of is how they can create people collisions. This is when people cross paths and interact with one another within the flow of everyday life on campus. Why? Because they know that it is natural for people to retreat to their hard-walled offices or cubicles to do their work and send emails or start a chat to communicate, particularly in times of stress. But there is immense value in, and hunger for, face-to-face human interaction, problem-solving, and strategic thinking, which the hangover effects of COVID isolation have proven. Simply put, every organization is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets, and when we ask leaders, “What needs to improve in your organization?” Without fail, every one of them responds, “Our communication.”
It has been said that the heartbeat of every organization can be felt through its meetings, and we know this to be true. When the right conversations happen on a rigorous cadence without being canceled or re-scheduled, accountability naturally increases and is less punitive, which reduces unhealthy conflict and builds trust.
Consider implementing the following with respect to your cadence of strategic thinking and communication:
Culture is the sum of what you permit and what you promote. The evidence of your culture is in the everyday work life of your people. How you interact with one another and customers, and your attitude, mindset, and commitment are all clues. What is common to your organization but uncommon everywhere else? Now may be the right time to examine your culture and define what you truly stand for. Use this clarity to inform strategic choices, hiring decisions, policy, and to build relationships.
Consider the following to better define and build culture:
Problems scream, but opportunities whisper. It is easy to focus on the negativity of the current reality. It is more challenging to focus on the strategy. But it is often during such times that we can lay the groundwork and seize opportunities for future growth.
At any given time, leaders are either planting seeds of growth or demise. When examining great successes and failures of the past, one can always go back to key decisions, mindsets, or postures which formed the genesis of the results.
Each leadership team must evaluate its current reality and make decisions based on what makes sense for its Co-op and members. But it’s worth asking the question, is it time to step out and have that conversation or build the groundwork for that big strategic move? Look at your business and think differently while drawing on learnings from the actions of founding members. Whether it is the evaluation of building greenfield assets which are more automated and less labor intensive, or diversification of revenue streams to generate more cash flow and working capital for the future, or another strategy, now is always the time to evaluate strategic choices, build a plan, and work the plan one step at a time. It is quite often while working the plan that we get smarter and find opportunities we didn’t even set out to find.