Before the conference kicked off, we were lucky enough to get a tour and Q&A at Namasté Solar, a very cool solar energy company based in the equally cool home of outdoor sports of Boulder, Colorado.
One of the many interesting things about Namasté Solar is that they are co-owned by their employees, meaning that 45 or so of the people that work there are owners and have a say in how the company is run.
The journey to co-ownership
While Namasté Solar has always been employee-owned, they found that the original ownership structure wasn’t lining up with their values over time. The structure allowed for an imbalance of power: like many start-up companies, they found themselves with a small number of majority shareholders, mainly founders or early employees. They decided to make the business into a cooperative because they felt it was the right thing to do, that it would make Namasté a better place to work, and also because it would be better for the business.
But when they did it, they had to do something that many shareholders would find quite intimidating: those few majority shareholders had to hand over power to the whole company. While retaining their original shares and financial stake in the business, the company created new class ‘A’ shares that are held by the employee-owners, which entitle them to one vote on any issue the company chooses to debate, regardless of their length of service or seniority.
Making big decisions in big groups
Decisions are made at monthly Big Picture Meetings, where all co-owners spend the day together being educated on the latest of the company’s business, then debate the key issues before making consensus-based decisions as a group.
The whole principle of this decision making process, and a fundamental reason for becoming co-owned is that ‘no one of us is smarter than all of us’. Namasté believes that it’s better to have your say than to win – that the process is more important than being right or wrong. It’s the highest level of maturity in doing business – if you don’t get your way, you just get on.
To make this big group decision-making efficient, Namasté encourage people to use hand signs to signal they agree and don’t feel the need to make the same point again, and for indicating they don’t mind, or that they can live with a particular decision. They also use representative decision making, where groups elect individuals to debate and agree on specific issues on their behalf.
Becoming part of the team and choosing your role
The process of becoming a long-term employee and/or co-owner is really interesting. Anyone joining the company in a permanent role spends twelve months being mentored, joining the Big Picture Meetings, and getting to understand the business and responsibilities of co-ownership. At the end of the process they have a choice of petitioning to become a long-term employee or a co-owner. The petitions must be approved by a vote of the current co-owners.
Namasté believes that helping people really understand the business is essential if they’re going to be a co-owner and make important decisions. Employees receive coaching on their ability to read the books and understand the finances, and learning to do stakeholder balancing – looking at things from different perspectives and hold different points of view. This is not something people are used to at work, but massively helps people make better decisions that deliver on mission and values.
Learning to communicate frankly, openly, honestly
Communication plays a big role at Namasté. To work democratically as co-owners requires having very good communication skills, being able to be open and honest with each other to facilitate decision making and to help people be accountable to one another. Namasté practices what they call F.O.H. – Frank, Open and Honest communication. They train and support people to have these difficult but honest conversations, practicing active listening, and when necessary providing a third person to check that people hear what’s being said to them (a common problem in solving problems at work).
FOH was a founding principle for the company, and now one of 10 Pillars of Co-Ownership. Amanda Bybee, Vice President and our host for the day, said it was the hardest, but most rewarding part of being a co-owner – she says all levels of accountability start with an FOH conversation, and sometimes work feels like therapy. Lots of Namasté’s story felt familiar to Will and I, but this aspect was closest to home – at NixonMcInnes we believe very strongly in giving open and honest feedback that helps build accountability and better working relationships.
In summary, although Namasté is in a very different industry, half-way around the world from us, so much about what they do, how they do it and what they believe in felt very familiar. Their practices of empowerment and democratic working were an inspiration, and we’ve definitely taken back some ideas to implement and a new energy to pursue the idea of co-ownership, something we’ve been discussing for a while.
I am very grateful to Amanda and Namasté for hosting us, being so open and honest, and for setting an example to other businesses of how things can be. I’m pretty certain NM will not just be taking inspiration but calling on their experience at some point in the future.