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:
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….