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Lighting a Path to New Ways to Work

How Staff Partners have made Zingerman’s a meaningfully better business

Howard Erlich, from whose writings I’ve learned a lot over the years, once offered this insightful advice to organizational leaders: “I think we might issue a slip of paper to all collective members. On it I would write ‘diffuse power’ and ‘empower everyone.’” Last week I wrote about the latter. Here, I’d like to share one way to constructively do the former. What follows is about what we at Zingerman’s have come to call Staff Partners. If it sounds unfamiliar . . . best I can recall, it’s gotten no attention in the many articles and interviews that have come out about us. But, I believe it’s one of the best changes we’ve made in our entire history. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that.

To be clear up front, my main point here is not to have you follow suit; it’s merely to get you thinking. The late Stas’ Kazmierski, who taught us visioning and Bottom-Line Change®, always said to “Adapt, not adopt.” I encourage you to use our work to inspire some of your own—created by you and your own team—that will be best suited to your organizational ecosystem.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the way we create our organizations is just as important as the products and services we sell. In fact, organizational design can be as creative a piece of work as writing poetry. (See “The Art of Business” for more on this.) As with poetry, one needs to read, then reflect and slowly make one’s own meaning from the words on the page. Jim Morrison once said, “Real poetry opens all doors. You can walk through any one that suits you.” Having Staff Partners is, I think it’s safe to say, a road less traveled. It’s not a panacea, but it has helped us to be a better organization in so many ways.

Sticking with the idea of poetry, I’d frame it as our effort to do what Irish theologian, philosopher, and poet John O’Donohue once outlined when he wrote:

What is the source of the light that banishes our fear? I read a lovely sentence in a Hindu book years ago which said, consciousness always shines with the light from beyond itself. One of my images of the divine is that it is light in some form, and that the divine light works very tenderly with human freedom. If you don’t believe that the light is there, you will experience the darkness. But if you believe the light is there, and if you call the light towards you, and if you call it into whatever you’re involved in, the light will never fail you.

The Staff Partner project is based on the belief that, as frustrated as we (that includes me) can feel some days, as grim as the headlines can seem, the light is always still there to be seen. O’Donohue’s framing and phrasing reminds me that the (often unintentional) reality is that most of the old models of organizational governance operate all too often only in the dark. At least to a staff member’s perspective. Meetings are held behind closed doors. Bosses make decisions, then dictate them “down.” Only the people at the “top” are included in the conversations. Everyone else waits and hopes for wisdom from their bosses. Or at least that they won’t be saddled with too many stupid decisions. But there are other ways that make the work of leading more powerful through our poetry while skipping past the politics.

Following John O’Donohue’s artistic lead, the late Audre Lord wrote:

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.

Staff Partners, then, in Lord’s layout, are a poem, one to which we previously had no name to use. Here are some of the details: Currently, at Zingerman’s, we’re set up to have three Staff Partners. They sit as full members of our Partner’s Group, which we can shorten here to “PG.” The PG also includes all the Managing Partners of the various Zingerman’s businesses, plus me and Paul. It’s where we govern the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses—we use consensus decision-making there to lead the organization. The PG makes decisions on organization-wide issues, like deciding to approve our new 2032 Vision or our new Statement of Beliefs. Or if there was, in a strange sci-fi sort of scenario, just for conversation’s sake, let’s say a global pandemic, the PG is where we would decide how to deal with it.

Staff Partners, as we’ve set things up, serve two-year terms. Like everyone else on the PG, they have another full-time job in the organization. Maybe they’re a baker, manager, line cook, caterer, or work in marketing. In the context of being a Staff Partner, this “extra job” is to help guide and lead the organization. In that work, they are a full and equal part of the PG consensus. That means that they have the same say as I do. Do people listen to me or Paul differently because we started the business? Certainly. But they also listen to the Staff Partners because of who they are. In a good way, sometimes they listen to the Staff Partner more than to me or Paul. As well they should. The Staff Partners bring a different set of perspectives—so when a Staff Partner has something to say, it’s a good idea for the rest of us to listen. Jaison Restrick from the Bakehouse, who’s been a Staff Partner for the past two years and will be finishing his term later this fall said, “It may be hard for people to truly believe that a non-partner level staff member in this role will hold the same decision-making power as one of our organization’s leaders. It’s the truth! The Staff Partner’s voice holds the same weight as that of the owners in our business.”

To be clear, the Staff Partners are NOT staff representatives. They are not there to speak for other staff members. (We address that issue by having open meetings so people can all speak for themselves.) Staff Partners, by dint of who they are—i.e., not a Managing Partner—are on the PG to bring diversity, and valuable different perspectives, to our leadership conversations.

How do we pick them? Our initial ideas mirrored the American electoral process. It seemed straightforward. People who wanted to be a Staff Partner would declare their desire to be in the position. They would “run” for office. At some point people would vote. Someone—or someones—would be “elected.” The problem of that process—said with all due respect, and please DO definitely absolutely get out and absolutely vote next week (I already handed in my ballot)—is that the way it’s designed leads quickly to divisiveness. It can be competitive, at times, even cutthroat. It’s about exceptionalism, where we’re looking for equity, collaboration, and the collective good. To get the outcomes we wanted, it seemed clear, to Emma Goldman’s good point about congruence of ends and means, we would need a different way. The inspiration for the process we finally settled on came from a book: Sociocracy as Social Design by Gerard Endenburg. It’s based on the early 20th century work of a Dutch-born progressive educator Kees Boeke. Gerard Endenburg put Boeke’s education-centered ideas to work in his engineering company, got really good results, and later wrote about it.

Each August we make a call to the entire organization for nominations for Staff Partner. Anyone who works here can nominate anyone else. You nominate them because you believe that they would be a great person to help govern the organization. Some nominations are only a few lines long. Most are a few paragraphs. A couple are over a page. They’re inspiring to read. The recognition and praise are heartfelt, always encouraging, affirming, and positive. In the six-year course of this experiment, anywhere from 85 to 150 nominations have been submitted each August. Instead of a few individuals stepping forward to push themselves out from the group, we ended up with an inclusive annual celebration of positive leadership possibilities.

It’s an effective, other-focused process. Instead of ego-driven announcements of, “I’m great. Vote for me!” this gets going with a rousing round of “You’re great!” Hearing positive thoughtful praise from someone you work with about how you can be a great leader in the ZCoB can—and has—altered the self-image of many individuals in the organization. As Jamie Ticknor at Mail Order shared, “It really is amazing just to be nominated. The first time I was nominated I didn’t have a supervisor title and being nominated meant someone recognized the hard work I was doing and the heart I put into it.” Teri Laeder, who leads our LEAN work, said, “I was overjoyed and really appreciative of the nomination I received. To know that my contribution to the ZCoB is noticed by those that I work with made me feel honored and humbled.”

Of those nominated, the folks who are eligible to formally apply for the Staff Partner positions are what we call Community Share owners—staff members who own a share in Zingerman’s (again, another article for another time). Right now, we have about 185 of them out of a total year-round staff of about 600. The application includes them writing a vision, and answering a whole series of questions about leadership, the organization, its values, and their role in it. Writing it takes a good bit of work—it’s not a 10-minute task. Which makes sense—being a Staff Partner is not a small commitment. Terra Brock was nominated this year. She thought long and hard about whether or not to apply. As she shared:

In the end I applied because I made a commitment to myself to get more involved at an organizational and community level. I feel like the process itself has demanded that I honor that commitment. I became a Community Share owner, started attending ZCoB huddles on a regular basis, and am training to teach Basic Food Safety. I didn’t just read the 2032 Vision draft, I pored over it and thought seriously about which of its tenets I was the most passionate about and what help I could offer to make them a reality. I might not have prioritized these activities if I weren’t going through this process.

It’s a big deal to apply. It means a lot for the person who’s committing to two years of extra work (they get extra pay, but still, it’s a good bit of serious work). Because they serve two-year terms, and there are three Staff Partners, one year we select two folks, in the alternate year, only one. This year is one of the latter. Depending on the year, we’ve had between 7 and 18 applicants for the position. The applicants go through an interview process with one person from our Governance Committee (made up half of partners and half of staff) and another Community Share owner who’s not on the committee (to get more people involved). We debrief on the interviews and the applications at the Governance Committee meeting, adding into the decision-making mix our interest in diversity—everything from job type, experience level, race, gender, business they work in, etc.—in order to make a more diverse PG. From that debrief, using a consensus of the Governance group, we choose the top three candidates. Those three go through a second round of interviews. Then the Governance group—again with a consensus process—presents its recommendations to the Partners. And there at the PG, we make the final decision which person (or persons) will get the position.

The application process alone encourages thoughtfulness and self-reflection. The applicants know each other and share thoughts amongst themselves throughout. Terra Brock says:

I made a commitment to myself to put myself in situations in which I am more vulnerable, uncomfortable, and/or don’t have all the answers. I have achieved those “goals” through the application and interview process alone. I have made connections with people in the organization I would not have otherwise and have had interesting and thought provoking conversations and look forward to many more.

Is ours the ideal process? Of course not. By definition, caring folks who have made the decision to make themselves vulnerable will not be the one chosen. We have, I’m sure, left some applicants frustrated. People’s feelings, inevitably, are at least a little bit hurt when they’re not chosen (mine would be). Still, the point is always to go forward anyways and it works pretty darned well. We’ve already adjusted and improved it all over the first six years, and I’m sure we’ll do more of the same this year as well. Take note though that the applicants don’t “run against” each other—there’s no tearing down the other candidates to push yourself forward. It’s all about inclusion and, in the end, it’s inspiring. Our outcomes seem similar to what Kees Boeke said a century ago: “ . . . after the decision there is often a feeling of satisfaction. This feeling is in contrast to the democratic elections, in which the majority is celebrating while the minority may be grieving or fuming, and to autocratic choices in which the boss makes an announcement that may induce feelings of resentment, alienation, jealousy—or even incredulousness.”

Once they’re in the Partner’s Group, the Staff Partners bring a LOT to the conversations. They also enrich the organizational culture. Jaison Restrick says, “As a former Staff Partner I can vouch that this program adds tremendous value to our organization on all levels. It provides a voice in the room for non-partner staff members while providing an amazing opportunity for growth.” Odd as it may seem, their newness to the group and being at first “outsiders,” raises the quality of the conversation. Author Priya Parker calls it “the stranger spirit.” She says, “One of the more improbable secrets of unleashing honesty and vulnerability in a gathering is raising the stranger quotient. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is often easier to get people to share when many in the room are unknown to them—or when they are helped to see those they do know with fresh eyes.”

Is it important to have those voices in the room? I think it’s critical. Together the group is far more effective than any of us—impatient as we can all be on any given day—would be on our own. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt shares a good bit of reason for why:

Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

The staff partners have helped us consistently bring that to the group. It’s not that they have the “perfect answers.” The point is none of us do. As Wendell Berry writes, “The burden of our conversation is that the answers are not simple. They depend on people taking responsibility.” The Staff Partner selection process, and the work the Staff Partners do, is all about that. Kees Boeke wrote, “So long as we are ruled by fear and distrust, it is impossible to solve the problems of the world. The more trust grows, and the more fear diminishes, the more the problem will shrink.”

Projects like this one help move decision-making out of the darkness, encourage people to do positive self-reflection, and to engage with and commit to the larger collective of which they’re a part. And as John O’Donohue, “When the light is here, the whole place is luminous and really alive with such subtlety of color.” Our organization and all of us who are part of it are better, I believe, for doing this work. Jenny Tubbs, who runs Zingerman’s Press (and makes all our business books and pamphlets possible) shared, “I find it inspiring and reassuring to have a system that includes staffers on this level of governance in our community of businesses.” In the best possible way, it proves out historian C.L.R. James’ jewel of a statement that “Any cook can govern.” We have, I believe, imperfectly, helped a good number of folks in the organization to have more positive beliefs about themselves as leaders. As John O’Donohue says, “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart.” The Staff Partner project is one small way we have to help bring that light out.

Ultimately, I believe our long-term organizational health depends on creative and inclusive paths like this one. As Audre Lord lays out: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” My friend Melvin Parson from We the People Opportunity Farm pointed out, “One thing you all have going for you is this collective group of creative minds. It spurs ideas and working together as a team. And a lot of people don’t have that.”

Everyone in business today talks about creativity and being open to new ideas, but then, mostly we (us included) just keep going with the same ones that we learned from others ages ago. We lament what’s wrong around us, but don’t do things differently ourselves. I hope that the story of the Staff Partners will serve as a seed for some new ideas elsewhere, the kind of creative thoughts that can bring new light to the all-too-often darkness behind closed doors (often unintentionally). As Audre Lord said, “We must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply, and so many of our old ideas disparage. In the forefront of our move toward change, there is only poetry to hint at possibility made real. Our poems formulate the implications of ourselves, what we feel within and dare make real . . .”

P.S. For more on how we work with Staff Partners here’s a short video and also a Webinar from ZingTrain.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!