Leadership development programs key to
more women winning seats on co-op boards
By Kristine Rose
Editor’s note: This article is based on thesis research conducted by
Rose at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. For more
information on the research findings, she can be reached at
tcspa_Kristine@yahoo.com. She hopes to continue her work with
cooperatives in the areas of leadership and diversity.
any co-ops are looking for ways to increase
the number of young people and women on
their boards. While working for Land
O’Lakes and as a graduate student in organizational
leadership, I led a roundtable discussion
on leadership at a conference for women in agriculture.
When the women participants learned of my employment
and interest in women in leadership roles, they asked me for
advice regarding how they could become directors.
This piqued my curiosity. It seemed to me that if women
co-op directors would share their knowledge and experiences,
it might eliminate some of the mystery of how to
become a director.
Six out of 236
To find some examples of women co-op directors, I looked
to National Cooperative Bank’s list of Top 100 Cooperatives,
focusing on the 11 that are located in Iowa, Minnesota, North
Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Of 236 directors serving
those 11 cooperatives in 2001, just six were women.
I spoke to each of the six about their experiences of being
nominated and elected, as well as serving their cooperative.
Hopefully, their experiences will serve as a resource for other
cooperatives seeking the best possible leaders, and as an inspiration
for other women.
These six directors interviewed were:
Embarking upon the leadership pathway
- Pam Bolin, Swiss Valley Farms, Davenport, Iowa; Years
of board service: 1989-present.
- Connie Cihak, Land O’Lakes Inc., Arden Hills, Minn.;
elected to district board in 1989; served on corporate
- Ardath DeWall, Foremost Farms USA, Baraboo, Wis.
- Nancy Meulemans, Alto Dairy, Waupun, Wis.;
- Laura Stacy, Land O’Lakes Inc., Arden Hills, Minn.;
- Carolyn Verhulst, Foremost Farms USA, Baraboo, Wis.,
Each of these six female directors had previous involvement
in organizations or programs such as Young Cooperators,
Young Farmers and Ranchers and Farm Bureau, among
others. This experience was key to their leadership development
and election to the board, all agreed. Their involvement
and attaining leadership roles in those organizations did not
go unnoticed, as five of the six were encouraged by men to
pursue a board nomination. These men included co-op directors,
employees or members of the nominating committee.
Bolin’s experience confirms the value of involvement in a
leadership development program, such as a Young Cooperators
program. Her involvement in the program improved her
visibility in the cooperative.
“The YC program is a good starting place because it gets
you involved and it exposes you to things on a national level,”
says Bolin, who got involved in the program in 1981. “It gets
you beyond your community. As a result of our YC involvement,
we knew about Swiss Valley cooperative, the co-op system
and co-op issues.” Bolin and her husband, Dave, were
both active in the YC program and its contests, winning Outstanding
YC Couple honors one year.
As was the case with the other directors, Bolin found that
this leadership experience opened the door to a chance to run
for the board.
“Following that, a director who was going to be retiring
approached us, wondering if one of us would be willing to
run. Since we were 30 and 32 years old at the time, he
thought we were maybe too young to actually get elected. But
he said, ‘Let’s get your names out now and maybe this is
something you could do in the future.’”
Bolin’s husband felt strongly that she had ability to lead.
Indeed, all six directors interviewed said their husbands supported
their running for the board. Her husband also thought her first
run for the board would just be to build
some name recognition for a future try.
“We won’t get it this time, but then they’re
aware that we’re interested in the co-op and
maybe it’s something we can do down the
road when we’re a little older,’ he said. So I
put my name up for the nomination.”
Farm Bureau experience whets
appetite for run
Stacy’s nomination story differs in that
she was the only one of the six who was
approached by the nominating committee
and asked to consider becoming a
“I was not seeking the director position,”
Stacy says. “ I had been more active
in the Farm Bureau and was seeking an
office there, but was unsuccessful.”
When the co-op nominating committee asked her to run,
Stacy said she was honored, but was worried about her lack
of governance knowledge.
The committee assured her she could pick up those skills
quickly, and she was elected on her first try. After serving as
board secretary for several years, Stacy was elected president of
her district board in 1992 and went on to join the Land O’
Lakes corporate board in 1994.
Verhulst pursued the nomination independently, entering
the election process because she felt the membership in her
district was underrepresented.
Overcoming initial self-doubt
When initially encouraged to run for the board, each
woman had concerns about her ability to serve as a director.
Although they were already recognized by others for their
leadership in Young Cooperators or other organizations, they
wondered if they had enough formal education, knew enough
about governance or were smart enough to lead and serve their
Cihak describes her personal challenges: “I think there are
a lot of good women in agriculture, but we’re ingrained with
[feelings that] ‘You don’t know enough.’ I always felt like I
had to try harder, read more, be more prepared, always go
that extra mile just to be even. I always felt I had to try hard
just to be on baseline.”
Male director reaction
Some of the women encountered individual board members
who seemed uncomfortable with a woman in the boardroom.
But each director said that, overall, she felt accepted
by her fellow directors.
“One thing I learned, as far as the co-op board, is they
didn’t have a problem with me being a female. They accepted
me,” says Bolin.
“Each director accepted me very well,” Stacy concurs. “I
think I was accepted readily because I was
known. You’re with your next-door
neighbor, so to speak, your county
people. You’re familiar with them from
co-op annual meetings and the ag community
you just know those people. So
I was well received there.”
Meulemans said entering the boardroom
was also comfortable for her. “I can
honestly say I was always respected as a
woman and a director.” She considers
board work interesting and rewarding,
saying she wishes that “everybody could
be on the board at sometime in their life.”
Adds DeWall, “I felt very well accepted.
Of course, I had been on the board
before, so I was kind of acquainted with
Most of her initial worries proved groundless, Stacy says.
“I have had a wonderful experience, was well received and a
lot better qualified than I gave myself credit for.”
Combined, their board service now totals 68 years (not
counting director experiences outside co-op board rooms).
As S.J. Freeman, author of Managing Lives: Corporate
women and social change wrote: “By the time she has proved
herself, a woman’s acceptance has slowly evolved.”
Further proving how well their male peers accepted them,
five of the six women directors were elected to co-op executive
Cihak’s feelings following her election to the executive
committee are an indicator that one barrier to women’s participation
might be an internal barrier: “The vice chair
moved up to the chairman’s position on the dairy committee,
and they needed to elect a new vice chair. My peers elected
me to that position. I [then] realized they had confidence in
me and trusted me.”
Director interviews with these six board members demonstrate
that participation in Young Cooperator and Young
Farmer programs played a key role in each woman director
developing confidence in her leadership ability and increasing
her visibility among other co-op members. This is one
more reason why co-ops should continue their support of
leadership development programs.
Another key to election was the encouragement the women
received to pursue the directorship from men in their cooperatives.
Since only one of the six directors was elected as a consequence
of being nominated by a nominating committee, cooperatives
should review nominating committee procedures and
see if a means can be made to seek more diverse candidates.
Once in the boardroom, these six directors each spoke of
being well received by their male peers. Not only did they
speak of being accepted, their peers elected them to executive