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.

Truth #1: It will rain again.
Truth #2: What we do right now as a leadership team will build the foundation for a more sustainable future when it does rain.

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.

Here are six strategic moves to consider making now. Then, continue these with consistency to shape the future to your advantage.

1. Develop Leadership – Build a Leadership Bench / Pipeline

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:
Adopt a mindset that investing in the development of our people not only increases their value to the company but also their loyalty, contentment, and a sense of ownership in their work.
Expose your leaders to people and business practices outside of the industry.
Think differently about recruiting, hiring, and where you look to find talent.
Employ consistent training to develop your leaders in the following high-value aeas: Enterprise leadership, achieving results through others, the role of a manager, dealing with conflict, building trust and personal ownership, effective communication, accountability and motivating others, customer service, and self-management.
Ensure your people understand the full value of their employee benefits package and the opportunities for advancement over time.

2. Grow Customer Relationships – Engage Your Members with Intentionality

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.

3. Increase Efficiency – Re-Think Your Structure and How You Do What You Do

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:
Elevate the role, expectations, and training of the Location Manager position. These front-line leaders represent a significant face of the Co-op to your customers and your employees, which will tremendously impact culture, efficiency, and future business. These managers hold the keys to your “Kingdom.”
Develop an organizational structure that demonstrates clear career path options for people who desire to progress within the organization, opportunities to cross-train and get experience in other functional areas of the business, and right-size leadership needs for the future.
Look for efficiencies in managing and staffing operations across multiple locations throughout the changing seasons.
Ensure employee policies are clear and understood at all levels regarding regular work hours and overtime.

4. Increase People Collisions – Keep, Start, or Increase Your Cadence of Strategic Thinking and Communication

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:
Read the book, Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni with your leadership team and managers.
Conduct annual offsite strategic planning retreats with your leadership teams. Make sure it operates by a structured process to bring out the best thinking in the room, evaluate strategic choices that will impact future scalability and sustainability, and develop a plan you commit to executing.
Hold structured quarterly check-ins/re-focus sessions with your leadership team to ensure you are moving the needle on strategic objectives with intentionality and accountability.
Consider adding daily huddles, weekly tactical meetings, and impromptu strategic meetings to inspire communication, collaboration, and creativity amongst your people at every functional level in the organization. These gatherings should focus on establishing priorities, creating a cadence of accountability, and sharing mission-critical information.

5. Build Culture – Now More Than Ever

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:
Examine your current culture. What is right, wrong, confused, or missing? What words would your people use to describe what you currently permit and promote? What would the ideal future look like? What must change to move in that direction?
What is your purpose, mission, vision, and values? Why do you do what you do, and why is what you do important? Facilitate group discussions around these questions, document final outcomes, and train all employees on these truths.
Change the dialogue in your meeting cadence to shift the mindset from drought to future harvest. Outline what you need to do now to set yourselves up for future success.
Intentionally meet on a regular cadence during this time with no agenda other than to have fun, celebrate WINS, and reassure your most valuable assets – your people.

6. Take Calculated Risks – Invest in Future Profitability

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.