WHO OWNS THIS PLACE?
Broadly speaking, there are three catagories of owners in the typical American corporation. THe first group, those normally though of as owners, invest mere cash in the business. The second, because they have dedicated their working years to the cooperation, invest their lives and their gifts in the corporation, invest their lives and their gifts in the cooperation. The third group, essential contributors to the cooperation, invest some special skill or talent or creative energy and have a strong comitment to the cooperation, but part-time.
To understand a cooperation, we must understand the characteristics of its owners as expressed through their management and through their personal behavior. If anyone is to serve the cooperation, either as a professional consultant or as a full-time employee and owner, that person must understand the attitudes of ownership.
What should be our attitude of ownership? Are the owners committed to short-term or long-term performance? Physical growth or maturity? To what kind of management process is the ownership committed? Do they think of work as an illness or an opportunity? In the sense of ideas and special talents, do they see their role as stewards or possessors? In the sense of the complex environment in which we all work and live, are the owners dedicated to serving people or to accumulating money and things? In other words, is mere material accumulation and measurement what life is all about for the owners?
One perception of ownership appeared in a recent business magazine, when the president of a privately owned company was asked if his tactics would be different if he were running a public company. His response was "If I knew my compensation next year would be based on this year's return on equity, hell no, I wouldn't act the same. You've only got a few years at the top in a public company to make your killing. You want to put every penny on the bottom line to wind up with the juiciest retirement package you can get."
One sees an admirable counterpoint in a thoughtful book, Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf, an executive with AT&T for twenty years. "Love is an undefinable term, and its manifestations are both subtle and infinite." It has only one "absolute condition: unlimited liability! As soon as one's liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much." (Servant Leadership, New York: Paulist Press, 1977, p.38)
Owners are liable for hard assets and also a legacy for their corporate heirs. At Herman Miller, owners and corporate heirs are often the same people, as are owners and employees. This began to happen more than twenty years ago when stock was sold to a small group of executives who were making a career commitment to the company.
Today we are one of the few public companies in the United States where 100 percent of full-time regular employees in U.S. who have completed one year of service are stockholders. These two roles bring responsibilities and rewards.
A dtory I once heard illustrates this idea. A friend of mine used to teach in Harlem. He thought it might be a good idea to take these city kids out to the country for a week camp. One of the first things he did, not unnaturally, was to organize a baseball game.
A curious thing happened. Nobody would play in the outfield. He soon discovered the reason for this: The outfield was surrounded by woods where all sorts of unknown dangers lay. My friend assigned two kids to each outfield position. One would hold the glove; one would watch the woods. Each person and each duty was essential. And the game went on.
At Herman Miller, there is an owner and an employee in every position. Because everybody acts sometimes as employee and sometimes as owner and sometimes as a little of both, employee-stockholders complement the participative management process which we have had since 1950. The Scanlon Plan, introduced under the leadership of Dr. Carl F. Frost, is in a vary real sense the paradigm of employee ownership.
Employee stock ownership is essential to a declaration of identity. Motivation is not a significant problem: Herman Miller employees bring that with them by the bushel. But people need to be liberated, to involved, to be accountable, and to reach for their potential. We believe that more and more working owners are winning the struggle for identity and meaning against anonymity and frustration.
Employee stock ownership is clearly a competitive reality. Nothing is being given. Ownership is earned and paid for. The heart of it is profit sharing, and there is no sharing if there are no profits. Risk and reward are connected logically and fairly.
There is no smug condescension at play here. Rather, there is a certain morality in connecting shared accountability as employees with shared ownership. This lends a rightness and permanence to the relationship of each of us to our work and to each other.
Stock ownership is a marvelous vehicle for involving an entire family in the career of those of us who work for cooperations. There is a compelling coherence to reasons for employee ownership.
There are also some clear implications. There is risk personally and there is risk corporately. While it's great to work for gains, one also has to be ready for the losses.
Recently an employee and owner at Herman Miller, a woman working on her master's degree at Aquinas College, told me how a couple of her instructors who work at other companies asked, "What is the bottom line on the Scanlon Plan?" I suggested that she call their attention to the first section of that year's annual report, interviews conducted, edited, and printed without either review or approval on my part. Some companies might find this kind of risk unbearable, but it is a kind of risk taken constantly by employee-owners in a good participative process. More often than not, the results more than justify the risk.
Another implication is that everybody must live up to some important expectations. In the position of owners, we become more accountable for our personal performance. Owners cannot walk away from concerns. So, the accountability of all of us begins to change.
Ownership demands increasing maturity on everyone's part. Maturity is probably expressed best in a continually rising level of literacy: business literacy, participative literacy, ownership literacy, competitive literacy. The group of owners committed to the same organization, to the same goals, to the same value systems must be knowledgeable in many areas. Ownership demands a commitment to be as informed about the whole as one can be.
In the end, it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are. At Herman Miller we are committed to doing everything we can to grow both as employees and owners. As those two roles merge, adversarial postures--labor versus consumer--will begin to disappear. The merging of employees and owners is already happening in many places.
The capitalist system cannot avoid being better off by having more employees who act as if they own the place.