MY FIRST SUMMER JOB WAS CUTTING GRASS at a local Shriners Club near my hometown of Clover. I was 13, and every weekday my mom would drop me off at the grounds at 8 a.m. and pick me up at 5 p.m. In between, I pushed a Snapper lawnmower with a 21-inch cut path across 15 acres of grass, winding around buildings, picnic sheds, RV campsites and down one huge hill that I had to cut by lowering the mower on a rope. By the time Friday rolled around, the grass I cut on Monday was ready to be cut again. The work was monotonous. The sun was scorching hot. Then and there, I decided that I wanted to do work with a greater purpose, and work with others to make a long-lasting impact.
I am not alone. One of the joys of working for the electric cooperatives in South Carolina is that I’m surrounded by good people who understand the mission of cooperatives. They don’t just have jobs where they figuratively punch the clock. They have a purpose and feel that they have important work to do.
I just read a book by a business leader named Roy Spence called It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For: Why Every Extraordinary Business Is Driven By Purpose. Right from the get-go, the title struck a chord with me, because I know our cooperatives are extraordinary businesses with a clear purpose. That’s to serve you, the members, not stockholders. As a member of a cooperative, you are the customer and owner, all in one. There is no confusion over who is the most important.
Spence says that high-performing, high-purpose organizations are led by leaders of great purpose who act as stewards of the purpose.
Co-op members in essence “hire” their board members to lead the organization when they elect them to the board. Here in South Carolina, most of our elected board members are called “trustees.”
The word “trustee” gets to the heart of the matter. Co-op members are “entrusting” board members to keep their co-op strong.
The job is more than attending a board meeting once a month. Trustees must learn about complicated issues in the energy business and foresee challenges in providing affordable and reliable power. They forge a long-term plan for the sustainability of the business. They hire the CEO. They reach out and listen to the members, speak up for the cooperative and stand up for the members at every turn.
They are stewards of the purpose and should make every decision big or small with the members in mind. They don’t just have jobs; they have important work to do.
Let me tell you a story about two stonemasons in England, around 1300 A.D. The first one was asked, “Do you like your job?” He replied, “I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember. This job is backbreaking, and the sun is scorching hot. It’s monotonous, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see the fruits of my labors in my lifetime. But it’s a job, and it pays the bills.”
The second stonemason was asked, “Do you like your job?” He said, “I love my job. I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember. But I’m building a cathedral. Sure, the work is backbreaking, and the sun is scorching hot. It can be monotonous, and I can’t be sure the project will be completed in my lifetime. But I value the work of my fellow artisans. I have important work to do, because I am building a cathedral.”
Our electric co-op trustees work long and hard. They often don’t know if they’ll see the fruits of their labors in their lifetimes. But for most of them, their co-ops are cathedrals. They are stewards of the purpose, and they know they have important work to do—for you!