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Eleven Leadership Lessons from the Co-operative Model

January 23, 2012

Source: The Co-operators

Forget the caricature that all co-ops are crunchy granola communes. The co-operative business model is found in all sectors from large financial institutions and global retailers to funeral co-ops, communications firms, health clinics, day cares and book stores. Collectively, Canadian co-operatives and credit unions boast 18 million memberships and an asset size of $330 billion – yes, that’s a ‘B’ for billion! (source: The Co-operators & ) And, major Canadian co-ops in financial services and retail top the list of Canada’s Best Corporate Citizens and are prominent in the list of Canada’s best employers.

The secret to the success of co-operatives? Co-ops are values-based organizations guided by seven principles that ensure democracy, equality and commitment to their members and to local, national and global communities. Inherent in these are core leadership principles that contribute to the success of co-operative enterprises around the world.

  1. Values-based and centered. Member, community and organizational values guide the enterprise. Research shows that when employees’ values align with organizational values, the result is greater productivity and engagement.
  2. Joint planning & decision-making. By creating a common vision and contributing to decisions, members are committed to the success of the enterprise.
  3. Equality. Unlike stock companies where a huge shareholder can hold all the power, each co-op member has an equal voice. This upholds important principles of distributive and procedural justice.
  4. Listening. The principle of “One member, one vote” ensures the perspectives and needs of all members are considered. This can flag potential pitfalls or create value for products and services.
  5. Economic Participation. Ten dollars at the credit union, $5 at MEC, or substantially larger amounts… the cost of membership varies; but what’s more important is that co-op members contribute, at least nominally, to the capital of their co-operative. According to Robert Cialdini, author of the book Influence, even a small contribution engenders commitment.
  6. Reinvested profits. Surpluses are re-invested in the co-operative for development, reserves, member benefits or other activities approved by the membership.
  7. Education and training. Ongoing training of members, elected representatives, managers and employees fosters engagement and contributes to ongoing improvement within the organization. This investment is not optional, it is a core co-operative principle.
  8. Communication. Informing the general public about the nature and benefits of co-operation highlights the unique point of difference of the business and flags commonly held values.
  9. Co-operation within the Network.  Co-operatives work together through local, national and international structures to leverage the network’s broad range of strengths and perspectives.
  10. Concern for Community. Before CSR was fashionable, co-ops emerged as locally-grown business solutions to pressing community problems. Striving for social justice, ecologically sound and economically viable business – that’s not fashion, that’s co-operation.
  11. Rooted in Community. Community-based co-ops not only provide local employment, they are often the only credit union or food store in the community. Where large multi-nationals see small markets with low profit margins, co-ops see an opportunity to serve community needs.

The United Nations has unanimously declared 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives. Find out more about how “Co-operative Enterprises Build a Better World”.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Byron permalink
    January 25, 2012 8:49 am

    Soul warming to be reminded of the economic reach of co-ops in Canada, Dominique, not to mention the positive contributions to the social and environmental bottom lines.
    Your leadership principles clearly state why this is so.
    Very nice piece to read!

    • January 27, 2012 9:19 am

      Paul, thanks for your comment. I know we agree that the co-op model offers a lot of solutions in terms of distributive justice, concern for community – all elements that contribute to sustainable enterprise. Happy International Year of Co-operatives!

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