Case Study | Leadership and Culture

When Mark McKinney was named president and CEO at Jackson County REMC 10 years ago, he recalls his board president telling him, “We didn’t hire you for the 95% of the decisions that need to be made at the co-op; we hired you for the 5% nobody wants to make.”

McKinney says he soon found that to be true the hard way. He had been working his way up as a cooperative employee for 19 years, beginning in the meter shop and moving into leadership while earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But now at the top, the buck stopped with him.

“Tough decisions need to be made. The toughest thing I’ve ever had to do is let somebody go. In a co-op, you’re all kind of family. It’s just never easy,” McKinney reflects. “Some of the training on that came from my master’s degree from Purdue. They said if you’re not sick a few days before and sick a few days after, you’re not human.” 

Schooling didn’t prepare him for the real-life effect. “It would have been nice to have had people to talk to who’ve had to do that in their career,” he says.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but McKinney was not alone in his isolation at the top. While 37 other Indiana electric cooperative managers who’d faced the same tough decisions were all around him, there was no clear support system a new CEO like McKinney could comfortably and quickly turn to for trusted advice.

Now, Indiana Electric Cooperatives offers an enhanced suite of leadership, culture and development resources to its member cooperatives. McKinney and a handful of other CEOs and IEC directors are taking an active role in rolling them out.


After a long history of offering its members training and development programs, those offerings were expanded in the Fall of 2022 to include more advanced precision tools. The resources available to members continues to grow as a multi-faceted program designed to equip, empower and engage employees and leaders across Indiana’s electric cooperatives. Areas of focus are professional development, youth, careers and human resources support services.

“Members have been accustomed to training,” says Lena Morris, IEC’s vice president of careers, culture and development. “But the world has changed. The workplace has matured or developed into something different. It needs our programs to take them from training to transformation.”

In 2021, IEC members voted “workforce development” as their second-highest area of focus for IEC’s strategic plan. With this request in hand, IEC set out to meet that need through enhanced offerings of director training, employee leadership development, executive and employee coaching, and mentoring programs. 

“In the new workplace, there’s a greater emphasis on the human factor. Post-COVID people have evaluated life a lot differently. They want to show up differently at work. They want to have meaningful contributions and be recognized for it but not from a sense of pride. From a sense of: ‘I want my days to count,’” Morris says.

“The workplace has matured or developed into something different. It needs our programs to take them from training to transformation.”

Lena Morris, Indiana Electric Cooperatives

“Gone are the days of sitting on the sideline and just collecting a check,” she explains. “You still have a small fraction of people that will do that. For the most part, it’s that human factor. We understand the heart of cooperatives is service. The focus of our programs is how we take that service and intersect it with a different level of human interaction, human equipping.”

Cooperatives already have the “good bones,” the foundational soul laid by the cooperative business model and the seven cooperative principles to provide the kinds of careers younger workers desire. Cooperatives offer employees careers that let them impact and improve their communities and the lives of consumers while making a good living for themselves in ways most companies can’t. The goal is to help every IEC member cooperative strengthen areas of weakness and accentuate strengths through customized services that let their employees thrive.

Another part of the enhanced offerings is a quarterly “Leadership and Culture Impact” toolkit. The purpose and vision for these toolkits is two-fold: 

Highlight the impact of the work that’s been done at individual cooperatives. 

Provide resources to all member cooperatives that could help them continue to build their culture on every level that they could access on their own time.

Part of each toolkit is a case study. The case studies tell of how the tools and skills have been applied at a cooperative and are creating transformation that’s impacting the whole organization. Accompanying each case study are resources that will help people develop their own stories.


Another of the enhanced offerings is the creation of “cohort” groupings. These will provide CEOs, directors, employees in leadership positions, HR positions and more the opportunity to become even better interconnected than at the existing section groupings. Cohorts will gather and share experiences and be there for support and advice. 

The CEO executive roundtable kicks off in February 2024. The year-long engagement opportunity will have 14 CEOs in its first year. The roundtable is designed to build community among Indiana CEOs by giving them a safe place to evaluate their own impact. 

“In this program, participants get to do the deeper work. Leaders talking about leadership,” Morris said.

With this first group, McKinney says CEOs will be better able to share experiences. “We’ll just have someone to talk to when we’re having a certain situation at our co-op. We can ask, ‘Hey, how do you handle this?’ Or, ‘What are your thoughts on that?’”

Dave Duttlinger, Jasper County REMC’s director on the IEC board and a member of the board’s careers, culture and development (CCD) committee, looks forward to the same kind of sharing of experiences for a cohort group of directors, when it’s implemented. 

A precursor to a year-long director cohort program was the director retreat IEC held in the summer at French Lick. “Everybody always says you’ll learn just as much in the conversations with fellow directors at trainings as you do from the training. That’s what we need. That’s what unifies the state. That gets us all together at the same level, the same time, and lets us talk, lets us interact with each other.

A retired career firefighter and paramedic, Duttlinger brings a strong advocacy for director continuing education to the CCD committee and has been a proponent for weekend classes for directors.

“Education is the future, and the more we can educate the better future we have.”

Dave Duttlinger, Jasper County REMC

“When I was working at the fire department, I had to use a vacation time because they were all Monday through Friday. Being able to offer weekend classes benefits those who have a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday job.”

Duttlinger says organizations are only as strong as their weakest partner. Training and education for all employees strengthens the entire team. 


Another focus is for cooperatives to continue their long-standing impact on youth.

As one of the younger board members, Duttlinger still has three of his four children living at home. His youngest is a fifth grader.

He gets to see the effects cooperative youth programs have personally. One of his sons just recently experienced Camp Kilowatt. “Just the stories he came back with from there. He was just full of energy. They do such a great job of making the kids so happy and so proud.”

He says Youth Tour, especially, is an important program. “These are, for the most part, rural kids. Their school systems don’t offer a lot of the opportunities for a trip like the Washington, D.C., trip. And we’re able to do that for them. When you hear their stories coming back like: ‘I was so amazed at seeing the Capitol and actually meeting with these politicians that I see on TV or hear on the radio, or knowing that they’re a person no different than my dad or grandpa.’ I know that their eyes are opened to a part of the world that they’ll never forget.” 

A focus of the CCD committee’s youth emphasis had its test run in November 2023 — a trades camp. The first, hosted by Kankakee Valley REMC, brought skilled trades like electricians, plumbers and construction together with students interested in exploring alternatives to a traditional four-year college. 

IEC will work with cooperatives that would like to host such a day with youth around that region to expose them to various trades.


Empower HR is another new program launched in late 2023. “Human resources is a role that is changing at cooperatives. Traditionally, it has been a part of accounting and benefits,” says Morris. “But there’s a need for a different level of professionalism with protection and oversight that comes with a dedicated HR role.”

IEC is working with the cooperatives to elevate that HR role. Through the resource assistance, training and support will be available to take that specific role to contemporary standards.


“Nothing we do anymore is a one-and-done,” says Duttlinger. “When a cooperative asks IEC to help with a training, the service will go deeper than surface level.”

Everything IEC offers is customized to the competency and the capacity of each cooperative. “The greatest impact happens when we customize to meet everybody where they’re at,” says Morris.

Duttlinger says one of his favorite lifetime quotes is: “Be where your feet are.” He says if you are in the boardroom physically, your mind should be in the boardroom.

In some ways, that sums up the enhanced emphasis IEC is putting on its leadership development resources. The training and programming is offered on deeper customized levels to better serve each cooperative, as opposed to one-and-done training.

Another layer of the enhanced service is a “cooperative university.”

After discussing with the cooperative’s leadership about what classes they need, IEC tailors an average of four to six classes to tailor based on the cooperative’s needs for growth. 


All the programs IEC offers are designed to take a cooperative from “training to transformation.” Some cooperatives may already be there with their leadership and culture and need little or no tweaking at all, maybe just a tune-up now and then. Some have a culture that may need an overhaul, a total transformation. The resources are there for both. 

“Transformation is a lot more challenging,” Morris says. “I call it ‘cutting to the white meat’ to be honest with each other. It is getting to the bottom of our behaviors, our mindset toward each other and the things that are impeding us from being where we need to be in our interactions, and ultimately, in our results as an organization. That’s painful. But the benefit when you’re healing through that is so much more meaningful, and the impact shows up so differently across the organization.

“Transformation begins with getting behind closed doors and having the hard conversations about how a leadership team respects, trusts and values each other. And if we don’t have that going on, how we need to implement tools for us to live it out in that room with each other and multiply that across the organization.” 

IEC is dedicated to helping cooperatives reach that level of motivated, high-achieving leadership and employees across the entire system.

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