Ownership Here and There

I’ve been involved in the notion of ownership quite a lot.  I helped construct an employee ownership plan for my company, I served as a Trustee for that plan for more than 20 years, I was a participant in the plan, I served two terms on the Board of Directors of The ESOP Association (a lobbying and education association serving the employee ownership community), I served on five corporate boards of employee owned companies, I have taught ownership basics domestically and outside the U.S., I’ve written articles for employee ownership periodicals, have touted the values and methodologies of successful ownership to cooperatives in Nicaragua and have delivered more than one hundred ownership addresses to employee ownership audiences over the past twenty-seven years.  You might say that I like the notion of employee ownership.

In the wake of those activities, I continue to reflect on the importance of ownership to individual and collective development, both domestically and abroad.  When I first began working in Nicaragua, I was struck by the similarities between Nicaraguan organizations seeking to strengthen themselves and the employee-owned entities with whom I had worked in the U.S.  It turns out that those elements of transparency, participation, engagement, and collaborative work are not only progressive management strategies, but also universal human needs.  But lately I’ve reawakened to another truth about ownership that is as certain in one society as it is in the other: successful ownership of anything requires commitment, attention and buy-in.

I’ve recounted here the moving testimony from some Nicaraguan coop members who describe actually owning something for the first time in their lives.  I’ve heard tearful stories about how belonging to a group of fellow producers has fundamentally changed families and lives.  We’ve witnessed in wonder at the development of rural peasants who, with no prior experience, have ambitiously taken on the formation and registration of a coop , organized its members, dodged the many political and economic obstacles along the way, and improved their prospects.  The opportunity of ownership is encouraging stuff for the most part, and it’s why we continue working with such people.

But we’ve also seen the “other” side of the ownership equation, the risks and responsibilities.  Recently we learned of an embezzlement perpetrated within one of the coops we have most admired; the discovery was not only disappointing because of the trust broken on the part of the manager involved, but also the realization that the coop members had not been as attentive to their business as they could/should have been.  There is a deeply held hope that the plan for restoration of coop members’ funds as well as WPF assistance can be carried out timely and fully, but there is the nagging question of whether they can accomplish firm footing after such a blow.  There are also the several coops who simply did not repay their obligation, for a variety of stated reasons.

I know that there can be a tendency in the case of U.S. Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) companies to see the establishment of an ownership plan as a gift, as a transfer of rights and privileges to be enjoyed by the new owners at their leisure.  Of course, that perception is a false and dangerous one, since the value of the ownership is only as strong as the work being put into it.  Ownership is not a gift, only an opportunity.  But it’s the same opportunity that successful entrepreneurs have embraced and leveraged in development of enterprises which others admire and wonder how to emulate.  There is no magic formula, nothing in the genetics to favor such owners over others.  There is only the hard work applied to the opportunity.  Do all opportunities pan out successfully?  No.  But without the commitment element, even the most favorable opportunity cannot succeed.  It’s a lesson that U.S. ESOP companies preach and teach in consistent cadence.

The lesson is no less true in Nicaragua.  Ownership is a tremendous opportunity, but one which requires the diligence, self-honesty and fundamental skills to give life to that chance.  Aspiring Nicaraguans- as well as North American employee owners- might hear about fortunes made overnight, but such wealth is often, in fact, made in the darkness of deceit and manipulation, where the light of integrity and collaboration does not shine and where lasting advantages cannot survive.  It leads to impoverishment far deeper than money can define. Just ask guys with names like Madoff or Skilling or Lay.

In trying to leverage the opportunities of ownership, there are lots of models from which to learn.  The ones which hold the greatest promise are those which reject notions of secrecy, political influence or personal gain. Because in the long run, secrets become told, political influence changes parties and personal gain, in fact, means that you most often end up alone.

Maybe we all speak the same language, after all….





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *