Thoughts on the Leading in an Ownership Setting Program


We wanted to highlight this guest post from Dave Ferraro of Carris Reels who shares a few thoughts on his experience at the Leading in an Ownership Setting Program. More information about the program is here. 

Leading in an Ownership Setting – A Participant’s First-Hand Experience.

By Dave Ferraro, Carris Reels, Proctor, VT

Eighteen months before our current CEO had planned to retire, I was tapped as the next CEO of Carris Reels, 1 100% ESOP company headquartered in Proctor, Vermont. At the time I have spent 33 years in the sales and marketing side of the business. As we discussed the possibility of my assuming the CEO role, I became deeply aware of the enormity of the responsibility that went with the position. On the recommendation of the CEO I was succeeding who had attended an earlier program, I signed up for the Penn ESOP CEO Leadership Development Program.

Seventeen of us arrived on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania one Sunday in late June to begin the program. Our self introductions were stiff, our apprehension was apparent, and the tension in the room was palpable. Yet after the first day, between a well-planned exercise and break outs into smaller groups, the group opened up, people relaxed, conversation flowed, and humor ensued – the class was engaged.

Later in the week, we would realize we had only scratched the surface of the trust, sincerity and frank discussions that would follow. Our facilitator had the pleasure of telling us that we were to disconnect from our electronic communication tools for the week as much as we possibly could so that we could focus on our work together, and we did. For 8 days over two sessions, this group met at 7:30, remained in the meeting room where lunch was served, took 30 minutes out before dinner together and then returned to our rooms to do some ‘homework’ to prepare for the next day. The result was that we grew together in many ways.

I want to touch on just a few of the gifts I gained from these sessions.

The content and agenda for the program was well-planned and targeted to what we would find useful as ESOP company leaders. The credentialed presenters, people with faculty experience at Penn, had relevant building blocks, much of which we’d later debate and mold into something that we could use in our respective companies.

Dr. Michael Baime, Director of the Mindfulness Center at Penn’s School of Medicine, conducted an impressionable session on mindfulness. He had the room captive as he spoke. However, you probably can imagine the looks around the room when he said – ‘OK we’re going to meditate.’ More than a few eyes rolled, but we tried it. 45 minutes later I heard remarks like – ‘wow, I’ve never been THERE before’ and ‘I think I found my happy place.’ We learned the importance of mindfulness in being fully aware of ourselves and those around us so that we could listen more effectively and be better attuned to our responses to people and situations.

It is just this type of experiential learning that resonated. The depth and relevance of data and research presented by other faculty provided fresh concepts to bring back to our companies.

The class was composed of 9 current CEO’s and 8 people who would be incoming CEOs sometime in the next couple of years. We shared key successes and mistakes – which is second best to experiencing them oneself. The real world learning was so much deeper that what you could ever expect from a class, a course or even a good read. The integration of our personal experience with the material presented throughout the program was one of the real highlights of our learning.

As participants, we had open and honest exchanges around philosophies, practices and failures of 17 company leaders that seeded our minds with experience. So many other classroom-based programs or seminars are taught from the perspective of academia, that they aren’t really useful in practice. This program was different. It really was directed at giving us concepts, research and ideas and then having us talk through with one another how the ideas applied or could apply to building the culture in our company.

There was one overwhelming theme woven through the program – CULTURE IS EVERYTHING. So what is it that makes a culture strong? By the end of session 2, we departed with the 5 key elements to further culture; 1)clarity of vision 2)passion for vision/mission/company 3) communication and transparency 4) focused attention, and, 5) alignment.

The program design included frequent small group breakout sessions of 3 – 4 people which provided a forum of thinking through application with trusted peers. Our interaction opened a door for subsequent provocative inner reflection. As full as our days and evenings were, all admitted to spending time with their notes following dinner each evening.

One of the days the program included an out-of-classroom experience participating in Philadelphia’s extensive Mural Arts program. The program founder, Jane Golden, first shared the profound story of how, through her passion, she orchestrated the funding and creation by community artists and residents of more than 3000 murals in some of the poorest sections of Philadelphia. Her inspiration has generated pride and participation in communities where hope was just a dream. We had the pleasure to work on a mural as a group (some said we painted but the local artists said that was kind). Some of these murals occupy 4-6 story buildings and take months to complete. They’ve reduced crime and drug activity in some communities as residents recognize what they can accomplish with a little encouragement.

Our program facilitators kept us busy as well between the two sessions at Penn. We each visited at least 2 other companies of other participants to observe their company’s culture. We looked for the answers to questions such as:

  • How do employee owners have a voice?
  • What do you see that tells you what is important in the culture?
  • How do employee owners act like co-owners of the company?
  • What ownership structures and committees exist?
  • How do the leaders maintain, reinforce or strengthen culture?

We had three program participants visit Carris. The unexpected surprise was the value of the learning that occurred for our own employee owners as a result of talking to our visitors about their respective companies. Their discussion afforded an important reference point that could serve as a benchmark for us. In the second session at Penn (four months after the first session) we shared what we had learned from our visits. This discussion was very revealing, in that some things we each had taken for granted were recognized as best practices. At the same time the entire classroom was taking copious notes of collective observations and ideas that they could investigate further with individual leaders whose company they may not have had a chance to visit.

While you can’t take someone else’s culture wholesale and drop it into your company, you can take pieces and modify them to fit in your culture to reinforce or model specific values. Just as we learned, culture is not a unrelated set of disconnected parts, but rather a set of practices, policies, and structures that are aligned to develop and reinforce an articulated set of values and behaviors that connect to the concept of shared ownership.

Despite a well-planned agenda and set of faculty presentations, it was often the space left for “emerging topics” where some of the more relevant content came to the surface. One day we had a session where the group initially divided into those who had been in the CEO role for more than 2 or 3 years and those who were new to the role or not yet in the role. Then the two groups came together in a circle so that the new CEOs or CEOs-to-be could question the experienced CEO’s about what they had learned and what they might do differently as they entered the CEO role. The take-aways from this 90 minute discussion have proven invaluable to me as I am about to take up my new position as CEO.

The first day of session two, we were given a tough assignment. We had to write a tribute to OURSELVES as we would like it to be at our future retirement:

Tonight hundreds of people will gather to honor you as The Employee-owned Company Leader of the Year. People will praise your character, performance, accomplishments, passions, frustrations.

The groans were deafening as the assignment was made (pity the instructor). For the next three days we’d ask one another, “Have you started yet?” When Day 4 arrived, everyone was watching the clock hoping we’d run out of time – but our ‘taskmaster’ would not have it. With a big smile she said those dreaded words: ‘it’s time for your tributes’! We had one individual who had been outspoken and full of humor throughout our time together. He volunteered to go first. He began by getting up and passing a box of tissues around the table for any tears he knew were imminent. Next he opened his Ipad and started to read his self-tribute as the theme from Rocky began playing in the background. That was the icebreaker we needed. These tributes were another example of opening oneself amidst a group of authentic and caring ESOP company leaders who are driven to make their companies the best.

Looking back – calling this “a class” is misleading –it’s more like 8 days of immersion into a veteran ownership pool of CEOs and soon-to-bes. People committed to the same ends, sharing common challenges, opportunities and strategies.

So, what did I gain from spending the extensive and intensive time in this program?

1. A Network. First, I developed a network of 16 other people I can pick up the phone and ask ANY, and I mean ANY, question about their business, their ESOP or to gain their input on my plans. They know they can do the same with me. Though the formal program ended, the learning has continued. I visited another company later in the year on my own and have had calls and meetings with others in the program when we have been able to get together.

2. Succession. I am moving into the CEO role at the beginning of this year. I am committed to using my own style to effect change as a leader, rather than trying to become the people who have had the role before me.

3. A plan. The program helped me to develop a roadmap for what I want to accomplish as the CEO of Carris. I know there will be many secondary roads and detours. However, I discovered how to avoid many of the potential potholes along the way and I am aware of the many stops I will need to take to check whether our culture is developing the way we want it to.

I cannot imagine a better preparation for soon to be CEO’s than being a participant in Leading in an Ownership Setting.