All of the People All of the Time
October was an extremely busy month, as usual, within the employee ownership community. October is Employee Ownership Month, and a time when many Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) companies celebrate their unique ownership structures. They do so by renewing their understanding of their opportunities, sharing stories with other ESOP firms, hosting company get-togethers and many times using the occasion to distribute their companies’ latest ESOP stock account performances.
October has become a busy month for me as a result. I have the great privilege and good fortune to speak to many of these companies at either ESOP Association Chapter gatherings or at private company celebrations. I love the interactions with ESOP folks; I am moved at hearing about the amazing things being accomplished under the banner of employee ownership and the transformed relationships that often develop in an ESOP culture. Like any ESOP speaker who takes his/her role seriously, I do my best to energize ESOP employees in their understanding of the tremendous opportunity that employee ownership provides. And I hope that I don’t broach immodesty in saying that, for the most past, people must be receptive to my messages and my delivery. I keep getting asked to speak, even in the places where I’ve spoken before.
So you might understand my consternation following one appearance in front of perhaps 300 employee owners from a wide range of different companes. As usual, I attempted to wrap my ESOP message in something that I felt was appropriately unconventional and entertaining. My approach felt effective as it was being delivered, assuming that attentiveness, nods of assent, some tears and laughter are reliable gauges. I received several invitations to come to other chapters and companies to repeat the presentation, so I felt successful at the end of the day. But I’m one of those guys who just can’t help paying close attention to the ones in an audience who are either falling asleep or otherwise checking out of the message. While I didn’t notice any of them during the talk itself, the post-meeting evaluations contained comments from a couple of individuals who obviously felt that way, based upon some very derogatory statements.
Their comments were not only negative about my style and delivery, but about the content itself, a message of self-responsibility, accountability, attitude and energy. Reading even those few comments was painful and confusing to me, as my themes, to ESOP and non-ESOP audiences alike, are usually well-received as a basis for hope about workplace cultures and connections. Despite the overwhelmingly positive evaluations from the other members of the audience, I was really troubled by these singular responses. I felt as though I had let these participants down somehow, that I owed them more or better than I gave, or that I had failed to deliver on behalf of the organizers of the meeting.
That’s when it dawned on me that the feeling was the same one I had experienced from time to time in our own ESOP company, when a member of the firm somehow didn’t “get it,” failed to understand the critical messages of collaboration, personal commitment, contribution, entrepreneurial risk-taking, being part of something bigger than one’s self, and how to maximize the unique ESOP opportunity. Try as we might, managers and co-workers were not always successful in convincing some people that the ESOP contained a greater chance at success than in many other firms. Such individuals were not to be won over.
As I lamented the unpleasant comments directed at my presentation, I realized that 100% is sometimes not realistic. There will be people in an audience who just plain don’t care for the sound of your voice or the intrusions upon their own comfort zones. And the same is true in our ESOPs: some simply do not want to go where we are headed. We owe it to every member of our companies to describe the vision and the anticipated roadmap of where we’re going. We have to encourage, entice, enthuse and educate in the very best way we can. But at the end of the day, individuals still have to make their own choices about whether they like the message and direction or not. When their determination is that the ideas don’t resonate or motivate, it’s best to move on, for both parties. I always felt badly about those members of our company who never seemed to grasp what we were trying to do and who therefore didn’t fit, but I couldn’t let those attitudes speak for the whole entity.
I guess I have to treat the disturbing comments in the same fashion: I’ll feel badly that I didn’t reach those people in something that I said along the way. I try to aim for capturing the imaginations of all the people all the time, but falling short of perfection is just part of the process, and I won’t be sidetracked from the uniquesness of the ESOP message or the manner in which I’m working to deliver it.