Tag Archives: Success

On Seeing Solutions

If you have read many of the offerings at this site, you will know that my background includes a long and in-depth relationship with employee ownership.  I served both The ESOP Association and The National Center for Employee Ownership, the national associations which promote employee ownership, was President of the Minnesota Chapter of the ESOP Association for two terms and in 1998, our employee owned company, Foldcraft, was recognized as the Outstanding Employee Owned Company in the Country.  Yes, I was immersed in ESOP.

As a result, I continue to receive newsletters and employee ownership-related materials, usually nodding in affirmation of the great performances that are featured therein.  Shared ownership worked then as it does now.  So I was not at all surprised to read the latest results of the annual Economic Performance Survey (EPS), summarized in the November 2018 issue of The ESOP Report.  Once again, employee owned companies performed exceedingly well and, in many cases, significantly outperformed their non-employee-owned peer companies.  Since the EPS was launched in 2000, the majority of responding companies have recorded increases in profits for every year but two (2002 and 2010) and increases in revenues for every year but one (2010).  The exceptions noted above reflect the nationwide economic downturns of the prior years (2001 and 2009).  Even in those challenging economic times, 29% or more of ESOP companies responding to the survey reported that profits and/or revenue increased.  And there’s the lesson for our cooperative partners in Nicaragua.

We have chosen to work within the cooperative sector by design.  For the essence of cooperativism- shared ownership- is the same motivator as in employee owned endeavors.  We have always believed in the power of collective wisdom and work; the employee ownership model simply brought some new tools and direction to the coops with whom we work.  Notions of shared benefits, transparency, broad participation, financial literacy and the importance of a cohesive cooperative culture are not natural outcomes with ownership: they each need understanding and practice.  And maybe especially that last item, culture.

As is true in the most successful employee-owned companies, the participants of a coop have an essential need to fully understand the collaborative nature of their organization.  It’s not enough to join a coop in hopes of benefitting from market presence or volume buyers.  Every coop member must understand the machinery of the coop, and the cog that each represents to keep that machinery running.  Without that individualized participation, it’s like trying to win a baseball game with a first baseman who won’t field the position, when every position is vital.  It’s what makes up a team.

But an individual’s impact on organizational culture is more than just fielding a position.  It’s the absolute knowledge that one is part of something bigger than self, that there is strength and security and a sense of “we can do anything together” that inspires and drives the group to thrive.  The strength of collaborative work fashions a safety net that is nearly impossible to replicate individually.  For organizational success, cooperative members must embrace the idea that “we are in this together.”

For Winds of Peace Foundation, that message has remained unchanged over the past dozen years of our focus on coops.  It has been the mantra of the most successful employee-owned companies in the U.S. since ESOPs came into being in the 1970’s.   If the collective efforts of a cooperative are truly in synch, and the rewards of the collective work are truly shared, stability ensues.  Members begin to recognize the rhythm of success.  Momentum builds.  The mindset of the organization transforms to one of expected progress, rather than hoped-for survival.

Cooperatives are not the mirror image of employee-owned companies.  Nicaragua is not the U.S.  But the reality of ownership is universal.  It engenders a characteristic that transcends most of the lines which separate us.  That’s why the truth of shared ownership is as real in Nica as in Nebraska.

And that, in turn, is what makes cooperatives so exceedingly important in Nicaragua today.  Challenging economic times?  With threads in the fabric of the country literally unwinding every day, the nation is in desperate need of institutions that are grounded.  Cooperatives have the ability to be just that.  They can create economic hope.  They can provide a shield of security against dangerous moments.  They can maintain a strong sense of structure when other  forms become distressed.  The coops can represent deep roots against tides that threaten to wash away the groundwork of community.  (For a deeper look into this truth, take a look at Rene Mendoza’s posting in his Articles and Research portion of our website.)

I loved the concept of employee-ownership from the first moment I heard of it.  I was amazed at the power of its best tools, broad participation, open books and financial teaching.  Thirteen years ago I became astonished to learn that the coops of Nicaragua were so similar to U.S. ESOPs in both their difficulties and their needs.

The universal nature of the power in ownership continues to this day.  I never imagined, however, that its importance and potential might figure into stabilizing an entire nation.  But a dream and a reality sometimes are one in the same….




Jesus At the Table

I readily admit that I’m a person who looks forward to what’s next.  I am a person of immense and continuous gratitude for what is in the present, but I’m also excited about what might be around the next bend, the next corner, the following day.  And I think I became that way as an outgrowth of the realization that amazing and unexpected things are always coming our way.  Stop for a moment and think about all of the happenings of the past week that we never anticipated, how they have impacted us individually or the broader world in which we live.  Good or bad, those events were unknown to us last week at this time.  I’m good at enjoying today; I’m great at anticipating tomorrow.

During the recent Certificate Program in Nicaragua, I absolutely loved presenting open book management materials to our rural attendees.  But with each module over three days, I couldn’t help but feel anticipation for what the next module would bring, so that the participants would see the ideas building upon themselves.  And on the last day of open book materials, I was already eager for them to embark on a Lean journey of continuous improvement, building upon the open book foundations being laid.  (For the uninitiated, Lean is essentially the removal of waste within work processes, creating labor that is safer, faster, more productive and more efficient.) And by the end of the week, I was eagerly anticipating everyone’s return home, where they might discover application of the elements taught.   But I didn’t even need to wait.

Just one day into the material on organizational Lean methodology, the waiting was over.  As the day came to a close, as participants departed for recharging themselves and the Program facilitators gathered up their materials, Jesus stepped forward.

Jesus is a member of GARBO Cooperative, the host location for the Program.  GARBO is frequently where we gather for workshops because they have facilities for long stays and accommodations for meals and meeting space.  Jesus is therefore a frequent face at gatherings, whether as a full participant or as a curious passer-by.  On this occasion, Jesus had joined us as a workshop member.  He is a diminutive presence, standing perhaps a hair over five feet in height and a slender build to contribute to a boyish look belying his years.  His initial shyness is vintage Nicaraguan, but it quickly dissipates in the face of a driving curiosity and friendliness.  His classmates tease him by saying that visitors to GARBO always wish to take him back home, such is his charisma and boyish demeanor.

Jesus came forward to ask a series of simple Lean questions: why, he wondered, are the presenters using such a small table for their work?  The table surface is much too small for the projector and materials, and the presenters have to store their copies and references in other places, either on the floor or on an adjacent table.  Why not use a larger table surface, maybe with some shelving beneath the top, that would allow for easier access, less travel and a better flow of presentation?  In fact, wouldn’t that idea be an example of putting Lean improvement to work?

We looked at each other in astonishment.  Away from the earshot of the other participants, just a few hours into the material, at the close of a day in which we could only hope that some of the ideas of planned innovation might sink in, Jesus had come forward with an absolutely perfect application of Lean.  Better still, he offered the observation to the very ones who had been encouraging the use of observation and application!  His suggestions fit the definition of Lean improvements exquisitely.  Maybe of greater importance, the lessons presented had clearly been received; we had no need to wait for the following days to know whether the concepts were viable to this audience.

I think our immediate joy caught Jesus off-balance.  He did not anticipate that his simple observations would create such an excited reaction from his North American guests.  We immediately asked him to share his insights and ideas with the entire group on the following day, as everyday examples of where to find waste and how to envision its elimination.   The width of his smile at our recognition reflected his own dawning sense of achievement and acumen.  Imagine the moment: the student steps forward in demonstration of his understanding by no less than coaching the teacher, and the teacher, having successfully planted a seed, witnesses its immediate germination.   Plans were set in motion on the spot to create the table of Jesus’ design.

Yes, I love the anticipation of whatever’s next.  Because there is good reason for great expectations from this journey we’re on.  Even our moments of disappointment and disillusionment are filled with the possibilities of redemption.   There is always excitement ahead, and I can hardly wait to see what is to come….

3 In 10

I suppose that one cannot be in any line of work for very long without becoming a student of human behaviors, intentionally or unintentionally.  The stories that I can tell from my years in a for-profit environment reveal the zenith of both corporate heroism as well as personal greed.  (Ask me about those sometime.)  Likewise, my past ten years in the not-for-profit arena contain tales of stirring courage as well as frustratingly open self-aggrandizement.  In whatever venue we travel, the polars of humanity are there.  “The great central human considerations may be found everywhere,” wrote author Joseph Langland.

With that in mind, I read a recent report by a midwestern college that provided a short profile of its first-year students, their capacities and their outlooks on certain matters.  And there in the second line, I read a statistic that both puzzled and discouraged me. The report stated that 71.8% of this group feel that it’s “very important” to help others in difficulty.

I don’t believe that these statistics were presented as either positive or negative traits, but rather a report about how these students look statistically.  Nor can I say that they are typical for the age group or an overall college population.  But I could not prevent myself from a certain degree of amazement that nearly 30% of any diverse group would respond in this way, let alone a group of college students whose education and experiences might be expected to produce reports of greater compassion.  Yes, 71.8% of the respondents signaled a high degree of commitment to those in trouble.  Maybe the real story lies within that metric.  But nearly 3 in 10 did not think that helping others in difficulty was very important at all.

I don’t think that I am naive,  Particularly in an age where every sordid and unkind act is reported in detail over ubiquitous social media outlets, criminality and cruelty seem to be rather common. Yet I was struck by the response of this audience, one which, on the whole, might be considered to be more worldly, more in tune with the interdependence that mankind requires for survival, one which seems to pride itself in its attacks upon injustice, calamity and even boorish behaviors with their techno devices in hand.  This was an audience of men and women with at least one full year of college under their belts, more than enough to have begun the awakening that society craves in its “next gen” leaders.  And 3 in 10 have little apparent concern about helping others in trouble.

Maybe these are the outliers, the slow-to-mature ones who have yet to cross the threshold from narcissistic self-serving to a more selfless giving.  Maybe they see the development of their future careers as so all-consuming as to have tunnel vision to those futures.  Perhaps they didn’t understand the question.  But whatever their excuses, these respondents are cause for worry, both for themselves and those for whom they do not see the need to help.

Our reality is that we depend upon the sensitivity and collegiality of one another now more than ever.  Some may deceive themselves into believing that they have survived and thrived in their lives all by themselves, without the presence of others.  But it’s delusional thinking.  Even without mentors or family members, we are impacted daily by the density of humanity on earth and the speed with which our actions are felt by others.    The statistic above makes me wonder what those 3 in 10 feel about all of the actors in their lives, known and unknown, who helped them attain the chance at a college education.

The survey question didn’t even come close to broaching the issue of our global interdependence.  Without a sense of importance about helping those in difficulty at home, the 3 in 10 can hardly be looked to for global solutions to poverty, human rights violations, foreign wars or maybe even  (could they be this myopic?) climate change.  The most pressing issues of our present and future demand extraordinary abilities to “walk in another’s shoes” and live our lives in the mutually dependent manner that our future requires.  It will take 100%  of our human capacities to survive those most pressing issues.  And that’s a statistic which requires little interpretation….



Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

I will be leaving a corporate Board of Director’s seat in a few weeks, ending about 28 years of service with that group.  “That group” is Foldcraft Co., the firm for which I worked as an employee for more than 30 years, as well.  To have remained on the board for so long has been a privilege as well as a point of pride; that any organization would tolerate my presence and outlooks for so long defies realistic expectations.  But I have chosen to leave under my own terms and timing, which seems a fitting conclusion for so long a tenure.  The change that it will create is an essential one. And therein lies a lesson for most organizations, I think, including ones in Nicaragua.

The lesson has everything to do with succession, that final piece in a sometimes long term of service wherein the responsibilities and obligations, the voice and the stewardship for the organization is passed along to whoever follows.  It’s likely the most overlooked responsibility leaders deal with.   That’s not to suggest that leaders don’t think about and plan for succession at all, but that they simply don’t prepare for the eventuality nearly well enough.  That reality is why leadership succession represents one of the most vulnerable times in an organization’s entire life, and why organizational failures often occur within a short time after a succession has taken place.

I have often stated that perhaps the most important accomplishment I ever achieved during my employment at Foldcraft was turning over the leadership of the Company to the “right” successor.  I still believe that to be true.  But it also must be recognized that the effectiveness of that transition was years in the making, wherein senior authority and leadership became increasingly discussed, shared and strategized.  In fact, one could argue that preparation for that particular succession evolved over nearly fifteen years.  Successful succession in that instance was not an event, but rather a process of orientation, teaching, seasoning, making and learning from mistakes.  Organizations rarely have fifteen years to prepare for a shift in leadership, but they owe it to themselves to be constantly preparing for the inevitable change.

And when the planning and preparation have been well provided for, the change in boardroom or management or committee setting can be- in fact, should be- a blast of fresh air.  I hope and believe that my participation in recent Board meetings has not been stale or redundant.  (You’d have to ask the others about whether that’s true or not.)  But I also hope and believe that my successor will bring new chemistry to the process, challenging the way that conversations have evolved over the past 28 years, lending insights that I might never have had, and seeing the future of the organization through a new lens.

If, over the past years, I have brought any positive elements to the organization, I will trust that those characteristics will have impressed themselves on my colleagues and they will blend those singularities with the freshness of the newcomer.  It’s the best of evolution, and our organizations deserve that step up in their continuity.  No one is good forever, and even if they could be, there will come a time when the organization needs something else, something new.

One of the great disservices which befalls an organization is the perpetuation of same leadership.  Leaders are comprised of the sum total of their life experiences and lessons.  It’s the stuff from which they draw conclusions, make judgments and see the world.  But no one possesses perfect vision or all-encompassing experiences, and by definition that means any leader is bound to misinterpret or misread from time to time.  The capture of an alternative outlook sometimes can only be discovered through new insight born of different intelligence.  Hence, the necessity for superb succession.

Some have argued that the risk of succession is primarily because the new leader might not possess the same values and perspectives that allowed the organization to function well in the first place.  And that’s true, if the successor is relatively unknown to those who would make the appointment; any governing body’s primary obligation is to have a pretty intimate knowledge of its incoming leaders.  Where that knowledge exists, the value of new energies will far outweigh the risk of detrimental decisions.  (In any case, no leader should lead without checks and balances and the continuing governance structure should always provide a safety valve against an ill-advised direction.)

I’ll be spending time visiting cooperatives during the coming weeks and one of the essential qualities I hope to see is the provision for what happens when the leadership shift occurs.  First of all, will one occur?  And if so, under what process and preparedness?  It may not feel like a priority to anyone today, but I can guarantee that it will be, and sooner than most are prepared for.

Yesterday, I remember wondering about the future and what it might hold for my organization.  Today,  as I prepare to leave it, I recognize all the promise and challenge once imagined in the past. Tomorrow, I hope neither I nor the rest of the organization will regret any lack of preparedness for what is to come….





It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over

Here in the U.S., the National Football League (NFL) has now completed its most important weekend, with playoff games reaching a seasonal crescendo leading up to the Super Bowl in February.  And tomorrow evening, college football’s national championship playoff will be played out in front of millions more viewers.  Football fanatics are having the time of their lives, and therein lies an important recognition for all of us, whether football junkies or not.

Time.  The game is played over sixty minutes, no more, no less.  The timeouts and the breaks for television advertisements notwithstanding, the outcome of the game is determined over the entire time to be played.

I watched portions of each of the games played over the weekend.  In a couple of the contests, teams were able to mount  significant leads, only to lose those advantages with the passage of time.   Given my lukewarm interest in the actual outcomes of the games, I found myself more closely observing what I perceived to be the emotions and attitudes of the players and coaches as the scores changed, over the full sixty minutes.

In one game, the presumably favored team fell behind by a wide margin on their own home field.  They caught up, only to fall behind again by the same deficit.  When they fell behind for the second time, viewers could actually see the trepidation in the players and hear the despair of the crowd at their plight.  On the opposite side of the field, the opposing team’s players were jumping up and down, dancing and slapping high-fives with each other amid great smiles of self-satisfaction.

If we had had the opportunity to stop the action on the field at that point and talk with the protagonists from both sides, I wonder what we might have heard from each.  In the case of the home team, we would likely have heard that the game was not yet done and that there was plenty of time to  reverse the outcome.  Such optimism is expected from those who are competitive and driven to succeed.  But we might well have heard the hint of doubt or uncertainty in their words while standing under the glare of the massive scoreboard which, at the moment,  would suggest a different end result.  We might not have even had the chance to speak with the guys who had dropped a pass or missed a tackle; they sort of lose themselves along the sidelines.  It might have been difficult to mingle with any of the players much, as the poor guys just seemed down.

On the opposite side of the field, conversation would have been even more difficult, given the hollering and joyful yelling of the team in the lead.  We’d have a hard time hearing each other.  Here, we would have access to all the players, as every one of them would stand with confidence- even hubris- and a certainty that their game plan had been well-crafted and that victory belonged to them, regardless of the face of the field clock.  The word “destiny” might be heard over the din of excitement.

Well, we now know the final scores.  In some of the games, by the final gun the have’s became the also-rans, while those who appeared to be facing elimination survived.  One of those “survivors” may even make it to the Super Bowl.  Imagine that.  The world often becomes topsy-turvy during these times and those in the lead don’t always emerge as the champions.

Maybe that’s why so many people follow the NFL.  There’s always the chance that the “little guy” will rise to the occasion and achieve a status considered impossible.  And we all love a good story about how the high and mighty are somehow justly brought down to size, especially if at the hands of the little guy.  We make legends of five-foot eight, one-hundred eighty-five pound running backs blasting through a line of behemoths to score in the final seconds, reminding us that time is the controlling element, that ultimate success or defeat only occurs at the end of time.

I start watching some football during this time of year, for the reasons mentioned above.  But I can’t help but watch the story lines unfold with an acute awareness of how time will have a way of bringing great surprise to the highly favored and the the lowly alike.  The reality is, we have no way of foreseeing who will be on top when time runs out….



A Delicate Balance

I’ve been thinking about balance in our lives.  It’s a condition we strive for in all the facets of our very busy days, and without the conscious awareness of it I suspect most of us would quickly fall seriously “out of balance. ”  That short phrase suggests that something in our work or relationships or even our health is out of alignment and thus posing some kind of a threat to our well-being.  The issue is no less true, no less evident, in charitable development operations, where all the players are all jockeying for something, often unspoken, often merely intimated, and even potentially dangerous.

The proposals received by funders like WPF are meant to encompass both the heart and soul of the organizations seeking favor.  The narratives usually include historical recounting of how the organizations grew into existence, the hardships and challenges faced, the holistic benefits that they seek to offer their beneficiaries and the budgetary plans to make all of that magic happen.  Sometimes, it’s even all true.  Oftentimes, it constitutes little more than a picture of what the leaders would like it to be or, even worse, merely what they believe the funder would like to hear.

It’s a bit of a game.  The requestor tries to articulate the words and ideas that will resonate with the funder, and over the years has likely become quite savvy about what stories seem to “work.”  Meanwhile, the funder attempts to discern exactly what is being proposed within the words and interviews, remaining steadfast with its assistance objectives and requirements while trying to be practical about what rural peasants are capable of accomplishing.  A fair amount of cat-and-mouse likely drains energy from both sides.  But sometimes a balance is reached and a partnership is formed, for better or for worse.  The organization gains access to credit or grant funds, and the funder either gets repaid or receives a report about results.  It all happens under the term “development,” and sometimes good results are created.

It’s the same kind of balance that makes for successful business organizations.  The very best corporations create a balance between executive decision-making and the serious consideration of perspectives from the rest of the organization.  Too little of it results in an organization that feels little loyalty or ownership; too much of it creates delays and dysfunction for lack of agility.  Organizational boards of directors face the same balancing act of knowing how far to reach into the minutiae of operations versus watching the entity from a much higher level.  Such balance constitutes the art of organizational governance.

Non-profits have to follow the same laws of balance in their own pursuits of success.  Knowing when to press and when to accept, differentiating personal perspectives from essential truths, knowing how to rely upon experience and wisdom rather than claiming it, wielding authority instead of serving through it; these are critical hallmarks of enduring organizations of substance.

Economic theories, sociological precepts, historical milieu and political postures notwithstanding, progress comes down to the motives and the integrity of individuals.  Naturally, each has been shaped by the influences of those external factors.  But in the end, success or failure is a result of our willingness to maintain balance….





Reading Between the Lines

The uphill struggles of many in Nicaragua have been well-chronicled both here and in countless other reflections written by visitors to that country.  The reality of need is evident not only in statistics (such as percentage of people earning less than $2.50 a day, second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, etc.), but also in the endless stream of mission, outreach and development agency people visible on flights in and out of the country every single day.  Nicaragua is a worthy and close-by neighborhood for the exercise of our largesse.  But the needs evidenced in Nicaragua are not likely to be eased by short-term and sometimes short-sighted North American efforts.  There exists a more systemic and underlying difficulty.

Education.  Or rather, the insufficiency of it, both in terms of quantity and quality.  Now, we’re all fond of stating the obvious when it comes to education, that as a society the more of it we have the better our long-term prospects for the future become.  We compare our educational outcomes with those in other countries, we gnash our teeth when math and science scores seem to fall further behind other nations, and we wonder aloud whether the cost of a college education is worth the investment vocationally.  These are all reasonable concerns to have, and we acknowledge them continuously.  But in Nicaragua, the level of urgency and need for education improvement is on another plane altogether.  And without substantive interventions, the outlook is not good. This is a country where most kids don’t last beyond the third grade.  Where teachers all too often have no training for the classroom.  Where the compensation for teachers is less than half the average monthly need for cost of living.  Where even the first lady of the land has described the education performance as, “mediocre.”  Clearly, the scope of both the need and the impact is well-known across society.  Despite all the sources of assistance and other forms of aid coming into Nicaragua, its developmental outlook can never be hopeful without address of its education shortfall.

IMG_3977The plight seems pretty dire on the face of it, and that’s why our visit a couple of weeks ago with Vanessa Castro was so uplifting.  She’s a well-educated educator:  a PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has worked with the World BankIADBUNESCO, and CIASES .  And her passion is education of Nicaragua’s kids, especially through reading development.

On a national level, Vanessa and others are trying to motivate children with a campaign to encourage reading with greater speed and comprehension.  Underwritten by several sponsoring organizations, the campaign consists of a contest accepting first-grade classes from all around the country that wish to participate.  Any class with a teacher who is full-time and present in class can compete at the school, municipal, and departmental level to reach the finals.  80% of each class must pass the requirements, which include reading an average of at least 25 words per minute and answering 80% of the comprehension questions correctly.  The success rates are improving as the number of schools and participants increases, and the excitement is evident in Vanessa’s  face as she tells stories of small successes.  “Offering awards is just the means to the end of raising these children’s reading fluency to acceptable international standards. We need community motivation, parent participation, and teacher training to spur the children towards these goals.”

Those goals constitute a big part of why WPF has added education as one of its main focal points for assistance.  The Foundation’s activities undertaken over the past three years are varied and widespread across public and private organizations, but all with the aim to lift Nicaragua’s children through enhanced education.  For example, with WPF involvement the reading literacy program  purchased more than 12,000 books last year for placement in primary schools, often constituting the only books available to students in those schools.  Some 8,000 children were served by the effort, a mere fraction of the need but nonetheless an important number of kids exposed to new, engaging stories, and a love for reading.

There are lots of ways that organizations like WPF might seek to make a difference in the lives and futures of Nicaraguans, to be sure.  But even a cursory assessment of their greatest needs underscores the reality that, reading between the lines, education is the basis of future hope….

The Heat of the Moment

There is a metaphoric story that has been told at several of the workshops conducted by  colleague Rene Mendoza, Interim Director of NITLAPAN.  The idea of the tale is that if you were to place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would immediately jump right out to escape the deadly heat.  But if you placed that same frog in a pot of tepid water and then very gradually turn the heat up to the boiling point, the frog would remain in the water until it died, so gradual and subtle would be the increase in heat and discomfort.

It’s an old metaphor and one that may or may not be literally true.  But it has been used by many leaders to describe the dangers of complacency, of accepting gradual erosions of a healthy state of being to an unhealthy one.  In the workshops, Rene has used the story as a metaphor for rural cooperatives who have gradually lost significant value for their work and product to the marketplace, the “middleman” and managers with unfair leverage over them.  The message is clear: jump out of the hot water of powerlessness and acceptance before the heat consumes you. Continue reading The Heat of the Moment