Tamela Blalock serves as the VP, of Cooperative Relations with the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International, where she enhances engagement and impact with the trade association among the cooperative leadership community.
She has served several Washington institutions including the Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C. NFL Football Team, The Washington Post, and George Washington University. Prior to joining NCBA CLUSA, Tamela most recently served as the Executive Director of the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy, and the Senior Director, Membership Services for the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors.
She has served on the PCMA Board of Directors and is an alumnus of the ASAE 2016-2018 class of DELP Scholars. She has a B.S. in Marketing from Georgetown University and an M.B.A. from The George Washington University.
Connect with Tamela on LinkedIn.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Sponsorship vs. Mentorship
- Intentional careers in trade associations
- Bandwith management, staff burnout, EI & team motivation
- Being a change agent while serving on the SLT/ELT
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Association Leadership Radio. Now here’s your host.
Lee Kantor: Lee Kantor here another episode of Association Leadership Radio and this is going to be a good one. Today on the show we have Tamela Blalock with the National Cooperative Business Association. Welcome.
Tamela Blalock: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for welcoming me.
Lee Kantor: I am so excited to learn what you’re up to. Tell us about NCBA. How are you serving folks?
Tamela Blalock: Okay, so NCBA, we are the National Cooperative Business Association. We are the Apex Trade Association for all cooperatives. Cooperatives are organizations that are owned and governed for their users, which are their members, and good examples that everybody is aware of cooperatives and that every credit union is a cooperative. So that’s an example of cooperatives. There are a lot of famous ones that people don’t realize. Our cooperatives, like the Associated Press, Land O’Lakes, RTI, Organic Valley, Blue Diamond, etc. So there are a lot of wonderful cooperatives out there. Most of the ones that people encounter would probably be grocery cooperatives.
Lee Kantor: Now, what is the thinking behind an organization structuring themselves as a cooperative as opposed to a more traditional, you know, whatever the normal corporate structure would be an LLC or a subchapter S or C?
Tamela Blalock: It’s a great question. I’d say what’s happened in business education is that cooperatives are just no longer taught or shared in that. What makes cooperatives unique is that nearly every co-op that existed didn’t start as a way to become wealthy or become rich or secure. The bag cooperatives were created to solve a need to fix a problem in the community. Having financial resources that can fund new ventures or even small ventures are why a lot of credit unions were created. If you live in a rural or exurban area. Your utilities are usually serviced by a rural electric cooperative. You may not even think of it that way. For example, Mutual. If it’s a mutual insurance company, then it is also a cooperative and is there for disaster recovery and support for entities that did not have access to that. A lot of cooperatives are at least 50 plus, in some cases over 100 years old. My organization is like 106 years old, so that’s why coppers are created. The real question is why are they not as superfluous as they should be when you consider particularly their value ties to millennials and Gen Z? And that’s because it’s no longer taught and it’s not promulgated as a solution to leverage the economy, to create inclusive economies that are owned by the members.
Lee Kantor: Now, for something that’s been around for so long, like you said, it’s not being taught, but there are some organizations like B Corp have kind of bubbled up recently that have this kind of mission associated with it. Is that something that is I don’t want to say in competition, but has kind of taken some of the attention away from cooperatives as this new type of way to do? Well, by doing good, by being a B Corp?
Tamela Blalock: A, B, B Corp benefits from having an excellent marketing branding campaign. I, you know, I and with cooperatives, that’s something that has been a concern and a challenge. And I look at it as an opportunity for know how better to tell the message and what can happen with organizations particularly that are so values based like cooperatives, is that there’s a desire to fully evangelize and get like a full heart commitment and to the organization and to the cooperative community, you know, rather than focusing on conversion awareness right in that space. So let’s say a focus that we have for the next five years is to look more at. At making it very accessible for people to come to enter into cooperative communities, either as an entrepreneur or entrepreneur or in membership, or also to be able to shop cooperatives more intentionally. And whether it’s casual, like the same way that I started to go to Trader Joe’s, because I heard about it and not necessarily because I knew exactly what all entailed. A trader Joe. Same thing can happen with cooperatives. You might start going to a grocery cooperative that is near you for a host of reasons, and then that learned that the dollar recycles 10 to 15 times within a community. When you do it within a cooperative, that if you were to, for example, go to a Trader Joe’s, where it might recycle at most five types within a community.
Lee Kantor: Now, in your work with the CBA, are you how do you go about serving the membership? Is it more to give them tools to become just more efficient and better at at being a cooperative? Or is it to spend some investment into educating the outside world about why this might be something for them to consider?
Tamela Blalock: That is a great question. We are a 506 trade association where Apex Trade Association. So just like the National Restaurant Association and National Association Manufacturing, our mission is the same as to develop a brand to protect the cooperative enterprise. Our vision statement is to build a better world and a more inclusive economy that empowers people to contribute, to share prosperity and well-being for themselves and future generations. Like most of the trade associations in our country, a lot of it was started around government, government relations and advocacy. It’s having a regulatory and legislative system that protects, defends and advances cooperatives so that GI advocacy is our primary focus within that. For membership support, a key opportunity when you are apex association is collaboration with partners and not competitors. There are seven cooperative principle. The six cooperative principle is cooperation among cooperatives.
Lee Kantor: It’s like Russian Russian nesting dolls.
Tamela Blalock: And that, I would say, is a chief focus there because cooperatives, of course, want to work most with each other. But the number one opportunity to do so is to know where the other cooperatives are in your state or in your region, or that is in the vertical that is related to what they’re doing. And that is, I would say, a chief area of focus and interest for our current members and new members is to meet each other and also find activations that they can work with each other to further create inclusive economies and to solve for their needs in their communities by working with each other.
Lee Kantor: I’m sorry to get in the weeds with this is just I’m fascinated by it. I’ve run across, obviously as I interview lots and lots of business people. I’ve run across some people who are part of cooperatives, but it’s such the minority. And each time I’m talking with that person, it’s very interesting. And I always wonder like, how is this just not more of this out there when it’s such a it seems very congruent with the values of today.
Tamela Blalock: We’ve done research on like an ABCs of cooperatives, and about one out of 12 Americans is probably more so now you are involved with the. They may not realize it. For example, I’ve only been for credit unions my entire life. A lot of that has to do with the fact that my family is multigenerational military. But. There are if you are involved, if you’re a member of a credit union, if you’ve gotten a home or car loan from credit union, you are engage in a cooperative. If you’re with Nationwide Insurance, you know you are part of a cooperative. If you have organic valley in your fridge, if you’ve ever been to a Piggly Wiggly, you can engage. But the cooperatives may not be aware of it. If you read the Associated Press or follow them on social media, you like, you’re connecting and engage with the cooperative. It just may not be in your face.
Lee Kantor: Right. But you’re not. As I mean, let me reframe my situation is that I talked to business people that have started business entrepreneurs, all kinds of business people every day. That’s what I do. And I don’t hear a lot of talk of, hey, I’m structuring my business as a cooperative that’s not on their radar, even though they might have a business that would be appropriate and might thrive and might benefit from structuring in that manner.
Tamela Blalock: But the way I see that that is a focus that we are having there, and that’s really through co-op conversions. And that’s like transitioning a business into a cooperative. An example is Ace Hardware, which is a cooperative. So the individual stores, maybe owned by a few people or a family. And what the retirement, you know, it can convert into like a major big chain or the workers can purchase it through a conversion and start a workers cooperative. There also are different types of cooperatives that. Would include the vision that current entrepreneurs have now, a great example of that are purchasing cooperatives. So Ace Hardware, I said, is a cooperative. It’s also a purchasing cooperative. And actually Yum Foods that does like KFC and Taco Bell, they do their purchasing for their purchasing cooperative. And that’s where. Independent businesses, they don’t have to be cooperatives. Usually they are not. Create a cooperative to purchase share. Good and often are able within that to create other services for their members. From health care to admin training. It expands now depending on the industry and they’re all over in others. One for VC, they are those for boats, you know, for veterinary clinics. So. My personal belief and bias is that probably purchasing cooperatives. Which used to be one of the more covert cooperatives might be the most accessible type of cooperative to create for the current entrepreneurial spirit that exists right now.
Lee Kantor: So let’s talk a little bit about your backstory. How did you get involved in association work?
Tamela Blalock: Like so many of us, it’s never I never knew. That’s what I always wanted to do was to be an association executive. A lot of it started actually. I had Dan Snyder, of all people, to thank for entering the association world while I was in grad school getting my graduate business degree. You know, I had the goal that I was going to be the first woman and first black person to be general manager of an NFL team. And at that time I was with I guess they’re now the Washington commanders while I was in grad school and. Well, I mean, people have read the news on that. The environment is, as it’s been written about in major publications. And in looking at that, there are only 32 NFL teams and it’s like, why would I limit my career to 32 teams, of which six of them had relatively healthy environments. At that same time, Destination DC had lunch or breakfast for people who were in my program and I went and I actually ended up in a CVB job right after that. But while working in CVB Convention Visitors Bureau, I realized I was more in love with what my clients were doing than what I was doing. And then that’s how I transitioned into trade associations and have been there ever since. I would say my favorite is anything in supply chain for sure, but where businesses or organizations are members. I just love that space because it’s about advancing an industry. It’s about innovation within an industry and the impact it has not only to the employees but the communities that those organizations serve is just so vast and just so impactful that I just I love what I do.
Lee Kantor: Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful career path. And like you said, a lot of people kind of accidentally kind of stumble onto it rather than plan a career to be in it. Any advice for the young person out there that’s listening or might be at a point of deciding what career path to go on? Can you kind of maybe evangelize to that person about the value of going into association work? Because I think it is so important for young people to at least consider that as a path for them, because I think it’ll be rewarding and the impact is real and you can really accelerate your career by going into this direction.
Tamela Blalock: Yes. Before I evangelize that group, I want to evangelize to my fellow association leaders and that we need to continue to do very good jobs recruiting and visiting our colleges and high schools and trade schools. Talk to our military veterans if if that’s the case, what have you, and create more interesting demand for talent, for amazing talent, for what we do and the impact that you can have, and that there are a very strong and healthy income range that’s in our space. So I encourage us to be more open to create internships and externship and those type of opportunities to actively recruit.
Lee Kantor: So you say you think that the association leadership might not be framing the opportunity, right? Or they’re not looking as broadly as they could be. They’re kind of going to the same old places to get the same old results.
Tamela Blalock: I don’t I have not seen, like, sustained continual effort. You know, that there are some independent associations that are doing it on their own. And I don’t in terms of future planning, I don’t see a sustained effort to really educate on what it is that we do. Like, I always have this really governance nerd thing that I do when I always speak up about nonprofit industry because 500 1c3 is doing an amazing job, you know, recruiting. You know, people may think nonprofit, they exclusively think 5c3 is a lot of us are C, C sixes, but they’re also like C fours and C sevens and C eights out there. Like credit unions are viable. Want a lot of them are C ones, you know, and even like that bit of education helps them understand like what their possibilities are in a nonprofit world and and that it’s not only C three, C three some amazing work and you know that they’re even within C six. We have the professional societies and the trade associations know so there’s so much wealth and nuance there. And similar to cooperatives like you are aware of associations like you just don’t think about it. Like if you brush your teeth with toothpaste, like the ADA, you know, on the back of the label. So you’re aware of associations, like you’re aware that lawyers are there, certification for American Bar Association, you’re aware that doctors are licensed, and that’s usually through the AMA, like you’re aware of it. Is it that you haven’t thought about it as a career and job opportunity? So I would love for us to do that and for usually the message I use when I go to my alma mater, Georgetown Hoyas, is that it’s a mission driven organization where you can have an amazing impact and you also can have be able to have a healthy enough income to have a good life. So it’s like there’s not any area of passion, desire in your life or the sacrifice that you get to focus on a mission and create a good life for your members, their community, their industry, and also your family.
Lee Kantor: Now, do you find that associations as part of their mission is to help their members obviously become more successful? Is this an area where they can be helping educate their members on how to leverage the association better, like how to include, you know, maybe members of their of their team at all levels rather than maybe just the executives, but to just use the association as kind of that lever to immerse their employees into the industry, into the mission, into the kind of the bigger picture, and give that employee the opportunity to show leadership by volunteering and to get involved deeper and and then by extension, would become more active in that association.
Tamela Blalock: Oh, yes, absolutely. That is one of the things I’m focusing on with our members and that we definitely need engagement from. Senior level executives, because for us, the whole organization needs to join, which means it’s usually a decision. Between the CEO and the CFO in most cases. Uh, so if you definitely need their buy in, however, you also need stickiness. The. Metaphor that I use is like holding a pit in your hand. Like if you’re only connections with one employee, that’s like trying to hold on to the pin with the finger. If you lose that connection, then it drops as many fingers You can wrap around that pin. It’s the stickiness that you have with your members, and that is getting them engaged not only on a senior leadership level, but also as far into the organization as you can reasonably consistently support. So if that many staff members of that organization are engaged in your Association for Professional Development, I think volunteer leadership is be. Um. Best ROI that we have and that so many of us learn governance. So many of us learn leadership. So many of us have the opportunity to practice and develop their skill sets through those roles. And it’s also contributing to the health of the industry in doing that. That is the best ROI that we have and also for what we’re doing, the work we’re doing within the association. Having that volunteer bandwidth allows us to give a bigger return to not only our members but to the industry as well.
Lee Kantor: Right. To me, it’s that righteous circle of winning, winning and winning all the way around. Everybody benefits the the volunteer benefits by showing off leadership to people that they may not have been and might not have known. And they get practice and they get skills. And the the association benefits obviously by having more warm bodies out there helping and getting the word out and helping accomplish whatever it is mission that they’re working on at the moment. And then the business wins by having a more successful, robust association and more skilled employees. Like it’s just everybody wins at every turn.
Tamela Blalock: Absolutely. I could not be more evangelical about that. And also it helps to destigmatize board service and the stigma being that it’s very hard to do. Only a few people can do that. It’s a very accessible and necessary leadership organization. And I think more people should be enthusiastic about looking for volunteer leadership positions, but also board service, because we do need a plethora of different experiences on board.
Lee Kantor: Right. And that’s also from the association standpoint, it’s important to, you know, cast a wider net and to not have the same people doing the same thing. And a lot of the times it’s because they’re the only ones who raise their hand to help and you need more people to raise their hand.
Tamela Blalock: Right? I don’t remember which organization I really want to say it was AC, but I could be wrong. Now that found that like over 70% of volunteers, the number one reason why they did it is because someone asked them to. I’m one of those folks that but it’s effective. So like recruiting it’s I think so many people who. It’s not that they haven’t consider it. I think they are intimidated that they won’t be accepted. But when you’re invited to apply or when you’re invited to a position like it has a whole different disposition. We are creating more volunteer opportunities in my organization and the response to inviting people to become a co-chair. It’s like, you think I’ve given them a Grammy, you know. So but it’s also amazing to me on the other side of that, you know, part and what great leadership will come from emanate from those people in their network because we’re doing that. So.
Lee Kantor: Yeah, it’s funny that it’s the framing matters a lot, you know, where it’s like if it’s just an email that goes, Hey, we’re looking for help. You know, people might ignore it, but if you go, Bill, we need your help. Bill will probably say, okay.
Tamela Blalock: Right. It becomes very different, you know, and also what we’re doing for co-chairs because it’s a new council, is that nearly every council has four co-chairs, which seems like a lot. But when you think about what people are managing, if it’s two co-chairs and they’re both really busy at the same time, you have no co-chairs, right? It’s unlikely that four people are at the same level of busy at the same time. So that ensures that you should have at least two co-chairs who are operating there. And then within themselves they create like a tight sibling group. I’ve noticed watching them bond so that it’s really great. And it has another benefit, which wasn’t even my intention when we designed it as such, which is that it spans how many leaders that we have already for creating these councils.
Lee Kantor: Right. And and for those people who get the opportunity to lead for the first time, that could be helping the acceleration of their career.
Tamela Blalock: Exactly.
Lee Kantor: Now, can you share a little bit? I know this is an area of passion for you. Explain the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. A lot of people use those words maybe interchangeably and they’re really, really different.
Tamela Blalock: Yeah. I thank you for asking, actually. I was writing a small group of people where I send out what used to be daily affirmations. Now I did it on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and today I really happen to be writing about that in context of the recent passing of Irene Cara. A lot of people may recognize a name from a theme song to Flashdance. What a feeling. And also from the soundtrack to the movie fame. And when people pass away, you know, pretty much like every interview they ever did comes to light. And from hers, it was essentially how the music industry, which is heavily deregulated, made it really difficult for her and that she essentially kind of blacklisted out for a long period of time. And she came up during a time where there wasn’t SoundCloud, other ways to get your music published and to develop a relationship with that audience and I like that is a perfect example of what would have happened or what could have been different if she were sponsored and not just mentored and mentoring. It’s not that it doesn’t have value, it’s just that. We are in a place where we need a lot of impact and mentoring. The only requirement of it is information, given. It’s very passive, so it’s words only and no action.
Tamela Blalock: Sponsorship is action driven. If you get any advice through sponsorship, that’s an additional benefit. But sponsor sponsorship is using your leveraging your privilege, your access, your network to achieve a result for someone. It’s not telling them about an organization, it is leveraging what we can to see if we can get them the first interview or if you know someone who’s a port has to appoint a board member. It’s putting their name in there. It’s getting them in to an opportunity or. At least. Negotiating that they can get as quick, as close to an opportunity as possible through actions and not only giving that person individual advice. Because I long for the day that started with the United States that we actually have a true meritocracy. But the reality is that it’s really structured. Like oligarchy, where there’s a central group that has most of the access to privilege and power. And it’s. Finding your way to be connected to that that we have. That we get access ourselves. So the more people that we can put into that oligarchy, the more we actually start. We’ll start to see a meritocracy. And the most impactful way and lasting way that happens is through sponsorship, which is leading through action. And not only just giving people advice.
Lee Kantor: Right. And it’s risking political capital for someone else.
Tamela Blalock: Absolutely. Absolutely. So sponsors definitely choose their responses to dishes judiciously. However, when you see major things happen, like particularly when you see people who are able to achieve things that are young, like a big faux pas, something that I think is just a bad form, you know, when people have success stories and their success stories only involve them achieving everything by themselves, like it’s it’s it’s a lot easier to pull yourself off higher bootstraps. So all of us have achieved success through help, especially if we’ve been able to do it at a younger age, wherever that help came from. So I encourage us to name our help and to identify that, because it’s also people who. Decided to leverage their political power or what have you to achieve our success. And that’s the way things happen. That preparation is met with opportunity and a sponsor who made that sure that opportunity was successful.
Lee Kantor: But also the sponsor has kind of taken in action and demonstrated value to make that sponsor a lot more confident, to sponsor them to whatever the position that they want. So it’s not something that I think that people can just wait for and hope happens. They can be taking actions like volunteering, they can be getting involved and doing things that make other people aware of how talented and and valuable they are. So they would be willing to risk that political capital on their behalf.
Tamela Blalock: Absolutely. But I will say sponsorship is also a lot like volunteerism. Very few potential sponsors will have the idea on their own to become a sponsor. All my sponsors and all the sponsor relations I’ve seen have started with the sponsor asking the sponsor. And sometimes it’s like selling Girl Scout cookies. You know, they’ll be you’ll find everyone who wants Thin Mints, or you just have to find that one person who wants to smoke. So you have to. You know, be strategic and ask, but it may take a while before you find sponsors. And sponsors have the same thought about sponsors the way we have about mentors. You don’t have just one. You have several that you have. Right. Similar to what you’re saying is that you also have to realize that it is a mutual beneficial relationship. So also look at ways where you also can support your sponsor as well.
Lee Kantor: Yeah, but I think that that is the it’s like the old saying it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, the who, you know, part is extremely important in the process. And the more people, you know, you’re increasing your odds of that building that right relationship with the sponsor, that’ll help get you to a next level faster.
Tamela Blalock: Yes. Another thing I have to say about sponsorship is a mistake. Some people make are looking for sponsors that have obvious, I would say, visual cues to who you are, like someone who looks just like you or someone whose story is just like yours. A lot of my sponsor relationships, you know, we may have something in common. Like, for example, I’m from Ohio, I am in the Ohio State Band and yes, I am very much in mourning today after the events of this past weekend. I definitely look for people who seem that they are different than you, because I’ve noticed in sponsoring, you know, there is an interest in they’re looking at their legacy and, you know, to have helped a wealth of people and not necessarily people who are the carbon copies of themselves. And another way that you’ll stand out is that if a lot of people around them are carbon copies of themselves, I mean, you will stand out that way. But I will encourage in looking for sponsors, don’t look for a carbon copy of yourself. Look for people who seem like they may be different than you are, because also that’s different networks, different circles, no different focuses in there. So when you look for sponsors, like diversify that list as much as you can.
Lee Kantor: Right? And don’t be afraid to make the first move and take action.
Tamela Blalock: Absolutely. And when you do request for a meeting like 15 minutes, what they want, I think about myself now, like if you want to meet me for half an hour, like I already cringe at the thought, let’s have a 15 minute chat. Right.
Lee Kantor: And you better be organized. You better have some agenda. Kind of worked out already.
Tamela Blalock: Yes, absolutely.
Lee Kantor: Well, if somebody wants to connect with you, I’ll learn more about NCBA. What’s the website? What’s the best way to have a conversation with you or somebody on your team?
Tamela Blalock: Oh, I love that. So our website is n, c, b, a, Clutha, c USA Co op co-op, and then I am t Blaylock t b as in boy le LOC k at NCBA co op.
Lee Kantor: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You’re doing such important work and we appreciate you.
Tamela Blalock: Well, thank you for the opportunity to be able to talk associations and call us at the same time. All right.
Lee Kantor: Well, this is Lee Kantor. We’ll see you all next time on Association Leadership Radio.