Saturn and Mars

I took my leave (early retirement) from Foldcraft Co. on September of 2005, after 31 years with the company. It was a wonderful ride and a thrilling journey, but I sensed somehow that there were additional excitements to be discovered. I also considered that if I was going to go looking, I’d better do it before my energy and opportunity got away from me. On October 1, the very next day, the opportunity to lead Winds of Peace Foundation presented itself, and I have been focused on its work with the poor in Nicaragua ever since.

At the same time, employee ownership has remained a passion of mine. I have been blessed with the opportunity to speak with companies, professional and civic groups, chapters and members of The ESOP Association on an ongoing basis, sharing whatever experiences and insights I may have with those who seek to build ownership cultures. The work has kept me squarely inside the world of ESOP corporations.

Some have inquired of me whether these two seemingly disparate activities isn’t like working on two different planets. In Nicaragua I am privileged to meet and work with people who are among the poorest of the poor. In corporate ESOP America I am honored to interface with some of the most enlightened and energetic leaders in the country as they innovate to maximize the ownership wealth of their companies. But I have learned, to my absolute astonishment, that these venues are stunningly similar on at least one front.

Last January I met with Martha Heriberta Valle Valle, a dynamic woman who was an activist in the Nicaraguan revolution, an organizer of rural women, a former elected official of the National Assembly, and founder of the women’s cooperative FEMUPROCAN. She described to me the nature of the cooperative’s work and initiatives, the struggles and triumphs she has experienced, and concluded that first conversation with the insight that in order to survive, three concepts must be foremost in the thinking and actions of the members: holistic development, participation and ownership.

I was stunned at this revelation, because those are the same general themes that I have tried to teach and cultivate within the employee ownership world, almost verbatim! I commented to Martha about the sameness of our messages, and she seemed pleased that the notions resonated with me. I was shaking my head all morning at the amazing coincidence of words.

Later that same day, in an entirely different community, I was again making acquaintance with rural Nicaraguans when one senior community leader commented that, in order for their community to prosper, three elements needed to be present. In essentially the same words that I had heard that morning, holistic development, engagement and ownership emerged as the critical focal points. The gentleman who made the statement watched me rather quizzically as my eyes opened wide and my look of utter astonishment reflected an epiphany, of sorts. This second conversation quickly took any coincidence out of the equation for me; there was something more profound than coincidence in these observations and that conclusion was further substantiated during the balance of the week in visits with other communities, and where I heard amazingly similar statements.

The emerging truth for me was that the notions of holistic well-being, participation and ownership are not simply nice, progressive management “technologies” that are being employed in select ESOP companies in America. They are, in fact, the very foundations of human development, self-sustainment and even survival. Many of the people of Nicaragua know this and conduct their everyday lives in concert with it, because they feel its importance. What many of their American counterparts do not yet understand is that the notions are no less critical in America. The success and very survival of our employee-owned companies is tied directly to our abilities to see the corporation and its elements as a whole, to engage our co-workers to participate in the strengthening of each component of the organism, and to help each ESOP participant feel his/her ownership to make it personal.

So, is this message about Nicaragua or is it about employee ownership? I prefer to see it as a reflection of human needs, that whether we examine the struggles of creating something of value in Nicaragua or the task of growing the value of an ESOP company, both intentions require the same awareness of basic human requirements. In Nicaragua the people we’re working with often possess the understanding but not the resources to follow through. In American ESOPs, all too often we have all the right resources, but not the insight and resolve to leverage what we have.

Working in these two venues is a bit like working between Saturn and Mars, only to find that the same creatures inhabit both planets.

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