As consumer needs evolve and the role of electric cooperatives changes, CEO leadership is a vital factor for boosting member engagement, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson told more than 350 co-op leaders at the 2018 CEO Close-Up conference.
“Member engagement has always been fundamental to who we are. It’s going to be all the more important as we face the future,” Matheson said. He pointed to the competition co-ops are confronting today and will face in the future. “It’s competition with a twist. Third-party organizations already are reaching out directly to consumers,” offering them products, including solar panels, energy management systems and energy storage, he said.
Co-op members “now have more choices than they used to, and they’re going to have more choices in the future,” Matheson said. “Retail choice in this context is with us now. The key difference for us is that our consumers also are member-owners of their co-ops. This is where member engagement is of such value to us, because more and more we’re going to be competing for providing services to consumers.”
Reaching out to younger adults who may lack co-op member identity is an area of focus for NRECA and its members. “We have to think about whether they even know they’re a member of a co-op,” Matheson said. “If they don’t know, how can they be engaged?”
Community and member engagement is an important contributor to the cooperative principles and the cooperative business model. And Matheson noted that co-op engagement is, of course, a shared responsibility. He said board members should continue their traditional roles as leaders of the community, and co-ops should still engage their local chambers of commerce and civic clubs.
“But is that enough?” Matheson asked. “There are other community organizations out there. And that next generation of co-op owners that maybe aren’t plugged in to the local chamber or civic club-how do they connect to the community?”
To answer that, “we need to think creatively,” Matheson said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to advance our members’ interests in addressing these challenges.” And co-op executives-particularly general managers and CEOs-have an important leadership role to play, he added.
“I can tell you from my experience that the foundation of every successful case study of an electric co-op I’ve seen is a CEO who takes the lead.”