Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with senior leaders of electric co-ops, and I can honestly say the vast majority of them have been enjoyable, educational, even inspirational. 

But lately, I’ve been hearing something in some of these conversations that concerns me. 

I always engage co-op leaders about the challenges they’re facing and the ones they see on the horizon. These days, I hear a lot about things like distributed generation, government regulations, broadband. These are big issues that require focused, multiyear commitments of time and effort. 

Over the past several years, though, some of my discussions, particularly with more senior leaders, have ended with the comment: “Glad that’s not my problem.” The unspoken implication seems to be: “I’m retiring soon; I don’t have to deal with that.” 

Years ago, I might have laughed it off. But no more. 

Now I ask them: “What if one of your employees saw an issue at the co-op and told you, ‘That’s not my problem?’” That employee probably would, at minimum, get a stern lecture about being a good team member. 

We’re at a point in our industry where we can’t afford to have anyone in senior leadership who’s not committed 100 percent to leading. The future of our program is at stake, and we can’t allow any employee—senior, junior, or mid-career—to take a pass on confronting challenges. 

Some of the leaders I talk to say they’ve put in their time; they’ve given everything to the co-op; they just want to finish with a few trouble-free years. I get it. And I know many senior leaders who have selflessly given to their co-ops for decades. But my response to them is, if you know a problem exists or will exist and you choose to do nothing, aren’t you already retired? Isn’t it time to move on? 

If the conversation continues after that, I try to impress on them the unique position they’re in to affect positive change: 

  • You have more expertise and knowledge than most of the people around you. 
  • You have a broad network of contacts and confidants. 
  • Your relationships with your peers are likely at a high point. 
  • You’re (hopefully) financially secure. 

I tell these leaders if they can resist the desire to avoid challenges in their final years, they might find a golden opportunity to try new things and take risks. It could well be the most rewarding time of their career. 

There are several strategies to accomplish this mindset change. 

A good one is to tap into the energy of the staff around you. You’re probably surrounded by forward-looking people who are eager to take on tomorrow’s challenges. Use their spirit to reinvigorate your outlook. 

Read books about the future. 

Take a course in embracing risk. 

Become a mentor to young staff. 

Do whatever it takes to rekindle that fire in the belly. 

The wisdom and knowledge you bring is priceless, and our next generation of co-op workers is counting on you to finish strong. 

Adam Schwartz (@AdamCooperative) is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm that helps co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and memberowner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.