4. The paradox of business ownership

No founder will ever forget the day their business legally came to life. The birth of this new entity comes with a great sense of responsibility. Many business owners feel a great deal of emotional attachment to their creation as it unfolds, develops and grows. 

Ownership and governance play a crucial role in business as we attempt to transition towards a wellbeing economy. Holding on to what is most important can require reimagining what it means to own something. Here are 3 important elements to consider: 

  1. Decision making
  2. Growing pains
  3. The Social and the Environmental

How can ownership support effective decision making?

Recent research has shown that more than two thirds of employees are not fully engaged in their work, affecting motivation, commitment and ultimately also productivity.

James Priest, Co-developer of Sociocracy 3.0, LearnS3

“Collaborative endeavours will be more effective if people affected by decisions are involved in making them, or at least that they are able to influence decisions that affect them, on the basis of sound reasons for doing so.”
 James Priest, Co-developer of Sociocracy 3.0, LearnS3

 

According to a recent McKinsey survey, we spend about 37% of our work time on decision making.

Decision making, made in the absence of an understanding of the full picture, can affect the level of agility to respond to a changing environment (changing market demands, risk factors, regulations etc.). 

In commonly used ownership structures, influence and business information are mostly centralised to a few decision-makers. As a result, employees, customers, and affected communities and the planet are often left out of decision-making processes.

“Management hierarchies centralize decision making. While this is effective in some contexts, collaborative endeavours are more likely to succeed if you shift responsibility for significant elements of decision making close to where value is created.”
 James Priest, Co-developer of Sociocracy 3.0, LearnS3

 

Ultimately, ownership should not be a roadblock to productivity. It should enable it by delegating governance to those affected.

How can ownership affect our trajectory?

Many companies started out life in response to a social need – sometimes influenced by their founders’ religious beliefs. The UK confectionery Cadbury’s was begun by a Quaker. The Spanish cooperative Mondragon by a Catholic priest. The UK retailer Marks and Spencer by an impoverished Jewish boy from Belarussia. These organizations, like many others, have struggled through organisational growth and change of ownership to stay true to, and serve, their initial purpose. 

An ownership and governance structure that supports affected key stakeholders to have a voice in decision-making can help organisations to stay true to their mission. 

Katherine Trebeck, author of The Economics of Arrival

“Investor demands on business can take away from a business’s original mission. Without ownership and governance models designed to protect the interests of all stakeholders, there is a risk that actions focussing on the short-term will prevail.”
says Dr. Katherine Trebeck, author of ‘The Economics of Arrival’

 

As companies grow, they often start to be viewed as commodities, controllable by the highest bidder. Business-as-usual governance models are designed to maximise shareholder influence and often ignore stakeholder interests.

 

Martin Rich, FutureFit

“Listed companies are owned by nobody because they’re ostensibly owned by everybody, the result is a lack of responsibility.”
Martin Rich, FutureFit

 

This means economic interests and short-term profit gains can often overrule organisational values and principles, social and environmental concerns and even the long-term success of the business.

Even Patagonia, often held up as the poster child of sustainability, is wrestling with these questions as they head north of the $1bn mark in annual sales. They are beginning to question whether their scale is a hindrance to being truly regenerative.

Hunter Lovins, President of Natural Capitalism Solutions

“Scale is a real problem for change.”
Hunter Lovins, President, Natural Capital Solutions

 

As a business grows and occupies a new role in the market, there is a need to evolve to a model of stewardship. This means influence is delegated to a range of stakeholders to ensure informed decisions can be made by those affected.

 

Who’s responsible for the social and the environmental?

Traditionally, consideration of social and the environmental impacts was an afterthought for businesses, once the business of the economic i.e. financial had been taken care of. That has begun to change with statements from various business groupings that profit maximisation will no longer be the sole focus for their business.

Patrick Andrews, Co-Founder of Human Organising Co.

As a general rule, ownership brings responsibility. So it’s something of an anomaly that the owners of companies have no legal responsibility for their actions. If you own a share in a company that breaks the law, pollutes the environment or even kills someone, you can’t be touched. Is this not strange? 
Comments Patrick Andrews, Co-Founder of Human Organising Co.

 

However, saying it and actually doing it are two very different things. One way to help ensure we move from words to action is by bringing other voices into the governance model. Check out our first case study – Riversimple for such an example. Another is employee ownership, a model discussed in our second case study, that of Auchrannie Resort.

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