Category Archives: Well-Being

“First Person”

I had the wonderful opportunity last month to briefly address the National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I have not spoken before a national employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) audience in several years, so it was a terrific chance to renew past friendships and catch up first-hand with what is happening in the ESOP community at-large.

Along with that invitation, NCEO also wondered whether I might be willing to write a companion piece in a column entitled “First Person,” to be included in their monthly publication, “Employee Ownership Report.”  The periodical provides updates on all sorts of ownership-related matters., both in the U.S. and also in other locations.  I agreed to submit a reflection on the similarities of ownership as I’ve experienced them in both the U.S. and Nicaragua.  The article was published in the May-June edition of the Employee Ownership Report and I think it has application not only for a U.S. ownership audience, but also anyone engaged in development work in places like Nicaragua.  The following is the article in its entirety:

“Universal Truths”

It’s still amazing to me! After working for 31 years in my company, the last 20 of which were under ESOP ownership, in 2005 I found myself working for a private foundation serving rural Nicaraguans. But as different as the circumstances and surroundings may be between those environments, I’m still talking and teaching the same language and the same lessons as all those years ago. To my great surprise, my greatest strength in working with impoverished Nicaraguan farmers is my ESOP orientation, and recognition of just what it is that grabs the human spirit and shakes loose creative drive.

Things such as ownership, as in the coffee cooperatives. And transparency, as in understanding the fundamentals of how an enterprise succeeds, how A+B=C, the rules of the game being played. (Yes, The Great Game of Business translates into Spanish!) Or participation, by members all across the organization, both as constituents and leaders. Like organizational holism, where the entire organization focuses on the six dimensions of well-being: Intellectual, Social, Emotional, Spiritual, Occupational and Physical. It turns out that the elements of organizational strength are the same whether in Nicaragua or within the U.S. and there’s a lesson in that.

The lesson is that the methodologies we encourage for effective employee ownership are not simply progressive management tools that can generate improved organizational performance. Rather, the elements are responses to basic human needs, universal truths that address some of the most basic yearnings that we experience in our lives.

We need to provide for ourselves, of course. But we long to be part of something bigger, something that goes beyond vocation, something that promises a lasting imprint. We want to know how things work around us, and how we make it better. We need to feel that we have contributed something of ourselves to an undertaking that is good and successful. Providing a living for ourselves is a livelihood. But elevating those around us at the same time is a legacy, something that transcends everyday existence in ways profound and subtle.

I’ve experienced the power of that truth both in the U.S. and in Nicaragua. In 1993, The ESOP Association began its annual practice of recognizing employee-owners and companies for their achievements under an ESOP ownership structure. The very first national employee-owner of the year was Shirley Bauer, a Tool Crib Attendant at Foldcraft Co. Shirley and her husband were farmers in southeastern Minnesota; maybe that contributed to her ability to see the potential in employee-ownership. A humble but outgoing woman, Shirley had daily access to people from around the entire company and became an outspoken promoter of the ESOP. When her name was announced at that first annual awards dinner, both her energy and humility-as well as her ESOP passion- were evident to everyone in attendance. The moment emblazoned itself in the memories of many who were present, and I still hear recollections from some of those people today.

Two weeks ago, I sat in a very different venue. I attended an organizational workshop for coffee cooperatives. Before an audience of 75 people, a tiny Nicaraguan woman by the name of Corina nervously but firmly explained the details of a 5-year family farm plan which she had created. I had met Corina several years before, after her small coop had been defrauded by unscrupulous middle-men and faced almost certain collapse. The Foundation provided enough help for coop survival, but I recall Corina as a defeated woman, one who had invested much and now faced near-ruin. Back then, she was barely audible in the presence of her North American visitors. But now she was sharing the wisdom gained through perseverance, the success of her immensely hard work and that of the coop, the “family strategic plan” blueprint provided by her coop mentors. Her radiance mirrored that of Shirley Bauer so many years ago.

We’re not as different as we sometimes think. There are universal elements that feed our psyches and souls, among them the power of shared, collaborative work. Tenets of employee-ownership are not simply good structure. They meet some of our most basic human needs.

It’s often the case that we spend much of our time and energies identifying how we’re  so different from one another, and deciding who should be allowed to participate in the freedoms and joys of this life, rather than recognizing how entirely alike we members of the human species really are….








Except For…

We’re finally into flat-out, full-bore, blossom-laden Spring in my part of the world!  We haven’t had any freezing temperatures for weeks now, the sun is high enough to quickly warm even the coolest mornings and every living thing is in motion.  I took a long run along the river over the weekend, just to listen and smell and hear the magnificence of Spring in northeastern Iowa.

The water is flowing freely right now, the beneficiary of snow melt and early rains.  The water is clear at the moment- no chemicals in the mix as yet-and not yet affected by the farm field runoff which still carries too much valuable soil and nutrient to the south.  The bubbling rapids are pristine and there is joy in the sight and sound of them; clean water is not only an essential, but a wonder for which to be grateful.  I am delighted by its language, except for the realization that its abundance is shrinking everywhere in the world.

Already, fields have been plowed and crops are being planted for a hoped-for bounty by Fall.  All around the area, the smell of lilac and pine are at their intoxicating peaks, crabapple and black locust permeate entire neighborhoods.  The essence is nearly transformative, lifting me on my run.  I am saturated with gratitude at the sweet scents of the earth, except for my memory of the smells of urban decay, both in the U.S. and abroad, which can quickly overpower the natural beauty of a Spring day.

I encountered five other runners and walkers on this day, each showing elation at the emergence from hibernation with smiles and greetings.  We are all in moments of leisure, blessed in a communion with the beauty of a Spring idyll.  I am glad, not only for myself, but for the experiences of my fellows, except for a sadness that so many others may never know this kind of moment.  Maybe their days will be filled with other joys, but I selfishly want them to feel this moment the way that I do.

I am amazed at my running.  For fifty years I have traversed wilderness and  street, winter freeze and summer swelters, from the Superior Trail to Budapest, Managua to Kyongju.  I have run for my own good, for a sense of accomplishment, to be healthy, and to spark creativity.  I’ve been blessed with good knees and strength, and I recognize every day what such activities have meant to my well-being.  And I find myself full of joy, except for the nagging realization that elsewhere, people conserve their energies for more practical tasks, such as survival.  The thought most often slows me down, even if my step remains light.  Wherever the journey leads, the contrasts are the same.

“Whether you are writing about anger, love, jealousy, desire, hate, it does not make a great difference whether you use a plowed field or a city alley, a garbage can or a rural dump, a city park or Quabbin Watershed Wilderness Area.  The great central human considerations may be found everywhere.”                                                                             -Joseph Langland, Poet

So I run on, in a delicate balance between the sublime and the disquiet, knowing that what I hear is not always heard, what I feel is not always felt, and the others I see are but a fortunate few of the many unseen.  Wherever I am, I run between the conflict of beauty and decay, health and hurt, confidence and despair, for we are whole except for where we hurt, helpless except for when we choose otherwise….