Notes from the other side: how being an EOT has changed everything, and nothing

A little while ago, our founder and MD, Bella, shared her thoughts as an ex-owner as we transitioned into Employee Ownership. Now, the baton has been passed to me to share the view of this transition from the other (employee) side, and with the benefit of some hindsight.

A positive change of direction

It’s been almost two years since Salad transitioned from private to employee ownership. It’s an exciting time to be part of the team and, in many ways, it feels like everything has changed.

A new legal entity has been created, we have a new board of Trustees whose job is to represent and defend the interests of the trust’s beneficiaries (that’s us, the employees). Our head of delivery, Nicole Cook, has been voted in as our Employee Representative on the trust board. This is not a title without responsibility, and there are other EOs whose Employee Representative is a full-time role. But, whilst learning at a furious pace, she’s showing us all how conscientiously and brilliantly she can balance her day-to-day role with this new responsibility. I have taken a seat on Salad’s board of directors which, if nothing else, adds some new context to the board’s decision-making process.

In parallel we’ve been spending much more time, as a team, discussing the future of our business, seeking to find common longer-term aims and hatching future plans. Some of us have even started calling each other “co-owners” and “business partners”. Whilst this may seem like a small change, or at least a change in name only, from within it feels like everyone has taken a step forward in considering the business as partly theirs, rather than being just a tiny adjustment in language.

Bella’s article spoke of unity which, as a small team, we already had. But (and it’s a big but), that sense of unity is now much stronger, with team members feeling that their contributions can stretch further than before. And, whilst it was my job to facilitate sessions that would later result in a new business plan and a rejuvenated proposition, it was the whole team that contributed the raw material to work with.

So, as much as we feel that everything has changed, there’s also a contrary feeling that nothing has really changed.

Finding our new normal

Like many other businesses, Salad fundamentally changed in early 2020. Many of our clients opted to put breaks on the work we were doing, waiting to see how business was affected as we locked down. In response, Bella & Andy took difficult, but necessary and decisive action to reduce risk, keeping a small band together and furloughing staff where possible. And, whilst many of us moved to new opportunities, this small core team kept the business running, and did an incredible job whilst doing so.

This new format for Salad, born of necessity, had all the hallmark features of Salad as it exists now: a small team of experts, a strong culture, democratic by nature. Coming back to that felt exciting, a groundswell of potential, and that’s the feeling I get every time we all get together for a day of planning or at our monthly supper club.

There are features of this new Salad that feel consistent and, having given it significant thought, quite rightly so. Bella is still our MD and Andy continues as our FD. We’re not suffering as a result of this transaction, far from it, we have a highly motivated leadership, encouraging and receiving participation from a highly motivated team. And, that consistency allows any plans for succession to be evolutionary. No short, sharp shock, but rather a period of grace. We’ve all been given the time to find our feet as owners, develop our internal processes and move forward with purpose.

Yes, we are a group of very different people, and up until the transition to EO we may not have been obvious business partners. Having come through 18 months of Employee Ownership, those differences become strengths. When we know that all of our voices are heard and respected, ideas can come from anywhere. Whether it’s determining how accountability works, where our next Christmas party should be held, or how and when we approach sharing out a carefully determined slice of profit to beneficiaries, we’ll do it together.

Clearly, we’re still fairly new to this game. Employee ownership isn’t for everyone, and even some of the team have been converted since the transition took effect. We will continue to learn about the benefits of employee ownership as we tussle with the various challenges we’re faced with. Economic uncertainty, differences in opinion, how succession works out, hiring new people. Whilst we wrestle with the day-to-day of running the agency, delivering value for our clients and partners we will, in parallel, discover how deeply we can embed employee ownership and how we can use it to create a motivating and fulfilling environment for all of us. Our culture will continue to develop and, I believe, we will become a closer, stronger team helping to develop it together.

A healthy dose of cynicism

Before I wrap up, a caveat. I was deeply cynical about employee ownership when I was first introduced to the concept. It struck me that the financial attraction of selling your business, tax-free, to your employees could lead an unscrupulous individual to enter this world for all the wrong reasons. In our case, what struck me was that there was no succession plan in place and leadership was not going to change. I suspected that we didn’t have the cash to pay for 100% of the shareholding, so I was concerned that an overbearing, long-term financial arrangement would be a seriously demotivating factor, perhaps negatively affecting morale within the team.

When I raised this issue with Bella we had a full and frank discussion about the reasons behind the sale, what it would mean to the team, and how it might be structured. Thankfully, there was an overbearing sense of relief and possibility: preserve culture, provide an open, gradual succession plan and benefit from the experience of the exiting owners.

Membership of a very purposeful club

Recent experience has significantly changed my mind. Learning the lessons of embedding employee ownership as part of a team. Seeing our culture preserved and strengthened. Learning to listen more to new ideas and different opinions, no less valid than mine.

In parallel, we’ve engaged with the Employee Ownership Association, a not-for-profit and politically independent organisation that works in close partnership with its members to champion, promote and provide insight into the business case for employee ownership. Through the EOA we’ve attended seminars and training sessions to help with the day-to-day knowledge we needed, and this autumn we participated at the EOA’s annual conference in Liverpool. I can’t imagine a less competitive and more inclusive conference. Shared experiences, advice and networking opportunities for anyone at any stage of their employee-owned journey. We spoke about our experiences so far, learned from others who are further down the road, and we felt an overwhelming sense of belonging. It has made us reflect on who we are, who we want to work with, and why we want to be a part of this growing movement of placing ownership at the centre of our business.

I’ve learned through dialogue with the team, the EOA and others that, done right, employee ownership is a powerful tool to motivate teams, preserve precious culture and give individuals a chance to make a difference above their pay grade, or level of experience. Like I said earlier in this article, it’s not for everyone, but it definitely fits Salad, and I’m thrilled with how it seems to be working for us right now.

A word of thanks

One final point remains. I’m grateful for many things in life, my health, my family and the opportunities I have been presented with over my 20-something-year career.

I am both humbled and hugely grateful to that core team that kept it all together in 2020. Without them, this alternative and ambitious future, and the opportunities it presents, would not have been possible. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help lead this small but mighty team to whatever greatness we believe we are capable of. And, I’m grateful to Bella & Andy for having the trust in all of us, as a team, to move forward and develop the type of agency we all believe we are capable of building.

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