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24 February 2022

Cultivating our leadership: A new structure for a new world

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I’d like to tell you about a change of ownership that we are working on here at Cultivating Leadership and talk about what it means to us—and perhaps even to you.

As of next month, the four of us who started Cultivating Leadership won’t own it anymore. Some of you reading might have an experience of selling your business and all that entails. There is probably a mix of feelings in there—delight, relief, the bittersweet sadness of the passing into a new chapter. Some of you might have the anticipation of selling and the desire to figure it out, maybe even learn from those who have gone before you. I think our story will be different from most.

Here’s the thing. At Cultivating Leadership, we decided years ago that we didn’t want to be a partnership in the way that many leadership or professional development firms are a partnership. But neither did we want to be a traditionally-oriented organisation that was meant to deliver the most money possible to the founders. Our thinking was that we first wanted to design for the goodness we wanted to bring into the world—for one another, our clients, and our partners, and then figure out which structures served that. We had a hunch that money and power often got in the way of the values and ideals of folks like us who started organisations.

As we looked around, it was hard to find models to follow. We didn’t know how to make a partnership really complexity friendly and deliberately developmental; we had seen the way partnerships so often struggled with both individual and collective change. At the same time, we didn’t want our owning the firm to get in the way of our expression of our values: friendship, curiosity, development and generosity. So we experimented our way forward. We tried to put our values into practice with a flat leadership structure, lots of distributed power, and no pyramid system with a passive income stream for the owners. As for our formal structure, we decided we four would keep owning the firm but mostly put the ownership into the background: in addition to no ownership dividends, we also tried not to let our ownership to increase our power in the collective (other than the fact that we four have always sat on the leadership team).

But as much as we’ve been able to use this form of ownership and our various leadership structures in an enabling way, we have seen for the last few years that this ownership structure is increasingly worrisome. One surprise: Cultivating Leadership as a firm is now worth actual money. We have always wanted money to be an outcome of a well-functioning system and not the goal we strive for or organise around. But bigger sums of money make it harder to avoid the gravitational pull that money seems to have on all of us. These bigger sums of money also make succession hard—how do we pass along a valuable asset when we don’t want that value to be cashed out? Another surprise: we have become global. A mix of lovely clients around the world means that we have to navigate requirements in multiple countries. This puts pressure on a model designed for simplicity and also makes it harder to distribute power throughout the network. And finally, there’s the issue of our principles: We want the value of the collective to be accruing to the collective (rather than the original owners) because that’s so core to our beliefs. The collective is the value of Cultivating Leadership; we four were the spark, but it’s the collective that makes the flame.

We went to lawyers to talk about this. It took a while for them to get their heads around it. One said, “All our clients come to us with the opposite question—how can they get the most money out of an asset. I have never had any client ask about how they can tie up an asset away from themselves.” But the lawyers thought it was a cool idea, and so they’ve been working on it with us for the last 18 months or so.

And so now we would like to tell you what we know so far about our new owner: It will be a trust we are in the process of creating, whose name and purpose is emerging, which will put our profits to good use in making the world a better place. You can see this is mighty vague for now: the new Trustees (that’s us founders plus some very cool colleagues) have quite a lot of work to do to figure out what it means to use what we know about complexity and development to try to help our fragile and disrupted world. But the pathway opens up the possibility for a next level of shared leadership and our shared—always imperfect—desire to live out our hopes for a life and work filled with meaning and purpose. 

The change in ownership allows Cultivating Leadership to continue to thrive without the potential constraints that were emerging with private ownership. We are hoping this is one of those stories so possible in complexity: that multiple forms of goodness come from one change. Our hope is that our governance will be strengthened, we will enable more leadership throughout our collective, we will find new ways to influence the world to be a kinder and more sustainable place, and our clients and our colleagues will find our firm is even more aligned with our values.

Why am I telling you about this? I guess for a few reasons. First of all, I feel proud of the decisions we’ve made here, if a little wistful about what we’re leaving behind. Secondly, I think a key part of the special sauce that is Cultivating Leadership is the way we try again and again to push in the direction of our values, even when they are inconvenient or difficult or costly. But I also want you to know that we are not martyrs here. Our decisions are made also with our values of fun, delight, love. We wouldn’t make this move if we didn’t also believe it would bring goodness into our lives too.

I was talking with a friend this weekend, and they are trying to do something similarly difficult and values based in their own organisation. We talked about how this present time means that it is not our history or even our vision that can guide us. As the whole world struggles to create a future that is impossible to see or imagine from here, we are off the road of our past experience, and off the road of even our imagination of the future. And in this bumpy ride, filled with misstarts and difficulty, we need something to help us find our way.

Ancient seafaring people used stars to guide them as they made their way in a watery world without maps. Now that we have Google Maps on our phones, we can forget how to wayfind at all. We can fall into the pathways that the voice of society murmurs in our ear: look out for yourself, go for the money, separate business from your emotions. Getting off the path is harder, but right now it feels more exciting. For us at this moment, our values are the stars that guide us. Our colleagues and our clients are the reason to keep exploring this new way. And our hope for a better world for us all—a world where we can live more gently and kindly with one another and with all of life on this planet—is the wind that pushes us on.

Tell us how you’re using your values to wayfind in this upsidedown world. What have you tried that feels like off-roading it? We’d love to learn from you.

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