Update to our semi-final entry (a kind of preface)
This update summarises our story and focuses on two key principles that shape our work. We also give illustrations of how other organisations we have worked with have adopted our principles – something we hope others can learn from too.
Our entry is not about processes or procedures. Rather, it is about the human aspects that emerge when openness and individual responsibility are made central to an organisation. This leads to powerful results, but it is not a utopia without difficulties. We know this from our story and we know it from sources such as Gary Hamel’s insight in to W.L Gore in The Future of Management.
So - It is difficult to manage without management! But it reaps rewards and it’s something we have worked hard at Kessels & Smit to develop. We are proud to work this way ourselves, and to take this approach to the wider world to help others build great organisations too.
Where things started – a quick recap
The purpose and idea behind our company was to create a laboratory in which to develop practices, concepts and approaches for new ways of learning and organising that help individuals, groups and organisations become the best they can be.
Central to our idea was that learning is at the heart of work: we live in a knowledge economy in which value is created through the development and application of knowledge - through the talent of people. This kind of value creation is essentially a learning process in itself: you cannot be productive today without learning. So: work becomes a primary source of learning and work and learning become inseparable.
Our drive and purpose
What drove us at the beginning was the question: how to organise for this? How do we create an attractive, successful and sustainable organisation: a good place to work, a fun place to work, a productive place to work, a real learning place? Our own organisation, in which we continuously experiment with answers to these questions, needed to become a platform and source from which we contribute to others and to the world. Kessels & Smit’s purpose is to create the best possible learning environment for us to develop our the talents, knowledge and experiences so that we can help others do the same.
Two Key principles
When we started, we asked ourselves what are the key principles for developing an organization in which people are good learning companions for each other – and this stood equally for fellow professionals outside our own organization and for clients.
This has developed into two core principles at the heart of our work:
1) Personal entrepreneurship
- People own the most important means of production: their talents, learning capability and knowledge. No one else can own these, no organization can be owner of it. People are free, entrepreneurs of their talents by definition. They can be more or less active, more or less aware, more of less good with these talents and awareness of these talents. It's in everyone’s interest to start from this personal ownership and entrepreneurship as a given and organize to develop and maximize it.
- Obedience leads to mediocrity, for excellence/innovation/inspiration you need to build on personal passion and strengths. People can not be smart against their will.
- Matching freedom and responsibility: treating people as autonomous professionals also means that they need to take responsibility: freedom to choose with matching responsibility for consequences of this choice.
- This means people can choose their own work, are ‘boss’ of their own time, and choose their own fees.
- Work that doesn't provide learning is a waste of time, no matter how much it pays.
- This has helped to develop a practical rule linked to entrepreneurship: to continuously develop yourself you spend 1/3 of your work on issues that you are good at (a base for self confidence and for trust with clients), a 1/3 on things you are becoming better at (continuous improvement) and 1/3r on new things that you want to explore for the future (innovation)
2) Reciprocal appeal
- A strong whole is built on strong connections between individuals, who work together based on reciprocity. Reciprocity is more than exchange, it is more than mutual dependency, it is co-creating something exciting and special that no one is able to do on his own- this becomes more fully enriching.
- Working together is based on individual choices (“I want to work with you”). An enlightened self interest is fertile ground to really create a common good and a strong whole. Starting from a common good leaves us with general good things, agreed to by everyone, owned by no one. Once the individual drive is out, the whole become empty and powerless.
These are the two principles behind our work. They shape everything that is illustrated in detail in our entry. It is how initiatives are started, how new companies within the company are developed – even how this article was written. It means when we do things, we do it with a lot of heart behind it… and we do it with people we really want to work with.
Over the years, these principles have proven their value, and we have come to understand what these mean deeper and deeper, by experimenting: asking us in every situation 'what do this principles mean for this situation? how can these guide our action?'
The question for others of course is – can others do the same?
What we have learnt from and made happen with others
As per our introduction, we set out initially to understand more of this way of working not only for ourselves, but so that others could benefit too. Here we show some short examples of how other organisations have adopted what we do, with our help – starting with learning that we developed through our way of working.
Learning generations in a supermarket – the power of reciprocity and personal entrepreneurship
Some people say: to be a good consultant your should become grey. In K&S some years ago the average age of the consultants was growing. But, in contrary to the saying, our feeling was that in our company it would be better to have more young people. So we decided to ‘hire’ five young consultants – all at the same time - to make a better balanced group. Unfortunately it didn’t work out very well at first. The young people grouped together and didn’t ‘gel’ with the older consultants. Something like a generation conflict! Reflecting on this we realised this wasn’t the way to work with young people. Our reflection showed that the young people thought they should first learn the knowledge and skills the ‘seniors’ already had before they could become masters themselves. The older people had the same mindset: “I know how to do this profession, so if you are new, just watch me so you learn how to do it”. After this conclusion we changed our way of working drastically. Our younger consultants evaluated their skills and passions and went looking for projects in which they could build with these talents. The senior consultants helped them in finding clients, but left the development of the assignments in the hands of the young consultant. Both groups felt better respected, we worked better together and even developed new kinds of consultancy work – the company started to build!
A supermarket chain experienced the same problem: older and younger workers didn’t go well together. The senior people thought you should be dedicated to your work, while the younger ones liked to talk to each other and when possible make jokes. So the question came to K&S: can you help us to develop us a dedicated work culture for the young workers in the supermarket. A K&S senior consultant of went there with two youngsters. It seemed immediately clear what to do with this problem. Not a training or ‘coaching by the experienced workers’ program for the new people, but an interactive project in which the reciprocity between the two generations was strengthened. A programme was set up in which the pairs were made with a junior, a senior and a consultant to explore a research question: where and how can we make our supermarket better for the client?. Every idea was welcome. The result: a significan shift in innovation, greater awareness of customer need and a new found respect between the workers no matter their age!
'Craftsmanship' in the Dutch Police Force – building from passion and personal entrepreneurship
Six years ago K&S was owned by four colleagues. They took lead in developing the company, acquiring projects and coaching other professionals in their learning. But the company grew and this group of four increasingly felt like ‘managers’. Most initiatives came from this core group while all other consultants focused on their own smaller projects. To change this situation the four invited most of the other people in the company to take ownership and come and help build the organisation in a new way. This worked very well. We discovered that if you want to support learning in the workplace, you should ask people to take ownership and stop asking them to join in initiatives of ‘managers’. Instead, foster an attitude of curiosity and support people in making great things happen themselves.
At this time, a few colleagues were asked by the Dutch Police force to help in developing police ‘craftsmanship’. Craftmanship was seen as a term for everyday innovation in the job - the ability to make fixes happen to improve services from the bottom up. The initiator within the police wasn’t thinking of training modules, but he was thinking of learning and innovating in the job. After some meetings and some thinking a project idea based on K&S principles popped up. Like within K&S, they realized you would not be able to make new or better craftsmen, but it was better to find the policemen and women that were already fantastic craftsfolk, and empower them to innovate together.
From this point the police force went on to speak with successful craftsfolk and these craftsfolk began to initiate new and innovative ways of working in their local environment. After a few visits, with more trust built, the group made it clear that it was better to keep management and staff out of their initiatives initially! Most of the innovative work was also ‘rule breaking’ work. According to the craftsfolk; if you follow the rules you are often not efficient and you can harm your relation to the public. “If you involve managers too early they will not support you in breaking the rules or, if they believe it can be a success, they will take over the initiative”.
So – the initiative was set up as an action research project, looking for craftsmen and supporting them in making the right connections to colleges in the police or partner organizations and to set them on stage as soon as they were successful. This revolutionised the way change happened in the Police Force.
READ OUR ORIGINAL ENTRY FROM HERE ONWARDS....
Kessels & Smit is a place without managerial or organisational structure, where individuals deeply align passion to their work, where emphasis is placed on rich relationships and where there is open space to shape ideas, work and enterprise without process or procedure. From the outside this can be inspiring yet bewildering. From the inside, it demands constant attention to openness, relationships and learning – at the same time there is a unique sense of firmness in a fluid space. This is the way we work because we fundamentally believe it is the way to truly open human potential. The impact: an amazing community of people growing as individuals, as a business, and as an international group with a growing reputation for excellence.
We share our story as an example of a genuine way of working built around people. By sharing we hope to inspire and provoke thinking – prompting questions around how this really works and how it can be transferred. Ultimately we hope to learn too – and to connect and share around how we build greater organisations for our future as human beings.
Kessels & Smit, the Learning Company is a group of 60 professionals with a passion for learning and development. From our bases in The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, India, Germany and the United States of America we support individuals, organisations and communities around the world in learning & development issues. We strive for solutions that build individual growth, sustainable organisational development, knowledge productivity, innovation and change. We are small in comparison to large professional services organisations, yet we have made a big impact and are growing commercially and internationally.
A founding principle for us is that a hierarchical environment isn’t ‘challenging’ for knowledge workers (arguably most kind of workers). So for more than 30 years – starting with our founders, Joseph Kessels and Cora Smit – we have been fascinated by the idea that an organisation can also exist without managers. As Joseph Kessels says: “Management often - unintentionally – blocks employees’ development.” So we work towards this theme: how to arrange work more intelligent and humanely – building companies that grow from people first – starting with ourselves.
So - based on this principle, this competition entry itself provides an example to challenge the convention of structure. It means you, as a reader, should be able to direct the aims, ambitions and wishes around reading the story as you wish. It means we won’t create a context… that is up to you! This is a starting example of our organisation: each of our colleagues creates his or her own context in work, whether it is concerning industries, clients, offices, projects, business, practices or teams. What will you make from our story? What responsibility will you take for learning from it? What will you choose to do next?
Where we decided to do things differently and to create a company around ‘doing what you love’
We see Kessels & Smit as a living laboratory. We work on the basis that we won’t ever reach an end point: rather than an organisation we are a constantly evolving ‘organising’. We don’t have a structure or hierarchy; we don’t have job descriptions; we don’t have policies or procedures. And we do something most companies would find unthinkable: people set their own fees and everyone knows what everyone else earns (and this creates a greater whole!)
Where did this all come from? The triggers we share here are based on some of the critical moments that developed into our founding principles over time. These are not written in stone (far less PowerPoint), but function as a kind of DNA for the organisation – nurtured through dialogue, exploration and reflection.
A disbelief in management
In 1977 Joseph Kessels and Cora Smit started their cooperation as two young experts on educational theory. Up to that point they had worked for a small company producing teaching materials for schools and businesses. By coincidence, they discovered that the two owners of the company spent more money on their lease cars than on the salary of the two employees. All that while Cora and Joseph were delivering the productive labour, making most of the organisation’s profit, but not feeling benefit or fulfilment. In Joseph Kessels’ words: “We enjoyed the work, but we didn’t want to work in such an organisation.” This was a fundamental learning experience. They were sure that they never again wanted to work in a hierarchical connection with managers on top.
Learning that energy and relationships grow from passion (and not from money)
Before joining Kessels & Smit, Paul Keursten, a colleague, owned a consultancy firm that worked on similar principles as Kessels & Smit. 1993 was a tough year for Keursten: four employees and too few projects. “We tried to gain clients through active marketing. But I didn’t enjoy that at all. And it didn’t work… Then we turned it around: instead of working from a market perspective, we started looking at our work from the perspective of what intrigued us. Then we designed new kinds of projects and proposed these to several new clients - not to sell, but to test our ideas - after all, they are the ones who have the experience!” From this point a pattern and relationships grew interest in a real exchange instead of wanting to sell something. This formed a basis for working from a point that matters.
It is also important to think of what money means in the company, bearing in mind that one of the guiding principles of working at Kessels & Smit is that no-one has to do work that one is not interested in. Robert van Noort, colleague, sums this up: “I do not believe that financial reward provides motivation. You cannot buy motivation. We ask ourselves what really has our interest, what helps us to learn and to develop. That comes first. The assignment of a client and the payment are consequences of this interest, and not the other way around!”
A principle of mutual attractiveness
At Kessels & Smit we self organise by working with people who we want to work with – both as colleagues and as clients. Everyone repeatedly cooperates with others – so a certain internal market emerges. This open approach means each individual takes responsibility for making things happen. If you’re no longer asked for projects, you have a problem. It means it is key to stay interesting and attractive, for both clients as for colleagues. Of course, this only functions in a business culture in which it is possible for tough moments to be put on the table and reviewed. If that is not the case, the openness will be broken and trust can be damaged. This is clearly easier said than done. On the one hand it asks for a constant alertness on how the cooperation is going, on the other hand it takes courage to talk about difficult moments at different levels: content, procedure and deep-rooted process. It also makes a demand on firmness to resist the temptation of creating procedures. For example: that senior consultants have to generate work for junior colleagues, or that everyone should call at least one client a month. It is exactly these procedures and regulations that take responsibility away from people and invite them to do nothing more than make ‘agreements’. Instead, we work on taking individual responsibility, working to mutual interest and making sure we do the hard things in human relationships.
How we make this way of learning and growing sustainable
How do we make it all work? Over the years, many shapes, appearances and models have developed to sustain our way of working. By constantly reflecting on these, some key ‘innovations’ appear to be key to making our working methods a success. In saying this however, it is also tough to call them ‘innovations’ because they are in no way used as procedures and they’re constantly changing and evolving as new questions, challenges or needs arise. For the purposes of this exercise we have classed some of the key practices we’ve learnt about into three areas, described below.
- Taking individual responsibility instead of work within procedures and hierarchy
- Making room for self organisation: Guideline of Thirds and Companies within the Company
- Facilitating high quality connections with both clients and colleagues: A mental model and K&S Days
Taking individual responsibility instead of working with hierarchy and procedures
Within K&S hardly any procedures can be found. Our way of working has developed over the years and constantly adapts to new people, ambitions, needs and wishes. This means we rely on people taking individual responsibility to arrange their work and needs in connection with the bigger whole. There is no need to ask for permission, though it is important to share and test new ideas with colleagues. No one has power to forbid or reject an idea, but everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and has responsibility to act accordingly. From this, some nice tools have arisen. We explore two: our apple trees and the round tables.
In most companies, employees have one boss that determines the evaluation and reward. At K&S people work with so called ‘apple trees’. Whenever a new consultant joins our company, several colleagues commit to this new consultant in the form of an apple tree. Usually the apple tree consists of three to four people who meet the new colleague and find it attractive to introduce this person within the company. We ask several colleagues to have a conversation with the potential colleague and when everyone is positive about it, we sign the contract. This contract is between the new colleague and the people who take up a role as employer, coach and or committed colleague. If it is about a paid employment, such as with recently graduated new colleagues, the Apple tree also takes up financial responsibility on behalf of the company. The apple tree stays intact as long as the new colleague wants it. Saskia Tjepkema, a colleague, explains:. “It is a tool to express mutual commitment and to guarantee adequate people within the network will give effort to and take care of a colleague. One is connected to ‘everyone’ through the people in one’s apple tree. This way, the care for colleagues has a face and the ‘bystanders’ syndrome’ (which means: everyone sees that someone is about to get in trouble, but no-one acts upon it) is prevented. Also, apple trees arise around themes. Groups of colleagues with a fascination for a theme and the ambition to broaden it. Through the apple tree they express their commitment and invest time, energy and sometimes money to deepen that theme, develop new methods and publications and to create projects around it.”
Another essential practice are the so-called "round tables". There is a financial table, a "care for people" table and several "ad hoc" tables. Arne Gillert has taken responsibility for the financial portfolio within K&S. “This does not mean I take up all the financial matters myself! Of course we get a lot of support from the financial colleague within our company and our external accountant. Anyone interested and wanting to think along about the financial ins and outs of our company can join the financial table. Once in a while we come together when we notice a change in the approach of our financial process is necessary." There is no fixed or regular financial consideration-meeting. If there is reason to do so, there will be a meeting and anyone who wants to think and talk along can join.
Making room for self organisation: Guideline of Thirds and businesses within the business
Self organisation is a strong thought within our company. Connected to the vision of taking individual responsibility, this leads to ways of working that differ per person. Still, one can find a basic assumption underneath these differences. One is about how we divide our work, to enhance growth and development. The other is connected to ‘doing what you love’ and leads to inspiring ventures within our company and our field of business.
Guideline of Thirds
Kessels & Smit colleagues vary how they spend their time, with several occupying positions at universities or colleges. These activities help broaden the network and help us stay ahead of the curve. It is of utmost importance for knowledge workers to continuously acquire new knowledge to continue, even in the daily consultancy business. Therefore a guideline is the principle of 1/3-1/3-1/3. A third of the work is routine - something you love to do. It doesn’t take much effort. You are quite experienced, to a certain extent are able to predict what will happen, the work feels comfortable and secure. The second third of the work is more complicated. These are projects that require innovative solutions. You need to develop new methods or tools, you learn from it. However, it takes much effort to these handle these projects properly and creatively”, Joseph says. “The last part of the work consist of unpaid projects for our own development, for example, doing a PhD or voluntarily setting up an empowerment program in Africa. The paid work finances this part.” The separation between work and learning are simply artificial, in Kessels’ opinion. In a knowledge economy, work itself becomes a learning process. "That's a change of paradigm. Knowledge development does not have to stand next to the existing work, the daily work situation is in fact the best place for it”.
This guiding principle is also linked to developing knowledge, expertise and relationships – ultimately new business, by putting energy into writing, presenting, sharing and building other forms of knowledge that we can share with the world. We are passionate about writing and sharing knowledge on themes that we really love: connected with our principles of mutual attractiveness and a desire to build on strong relationships, this becomes a very powerful ‘marketing’ tool too.
Businesses within the business
In recent years, several ‘businesses within the business’ have emerged through experimentation and working together. Some of these are non-profitable, such as the Research Practice, others are created as self-managed profit making enterprises. All of them arose from the same principle though: contributing to the quality and professionalism of K&S and strengthening the bigger whole. We share some examples:
A number of years ago a company within the company was started specifically to attract young people to work at Kessels & Smit. This ‘Research Practice’, set up with the aim of working on learning research projects for clients, is led by young professionals as their own company, with its own portfolio of contracts and newly developed research methods. This form appears to work much better than hiring recently graduated people who learn the profession by coming along with a senior colleague.
Suzanne Verdonschot, a young consultant and researcher, tells: “In my first assignment for a client, I simply worked along in the supermarket, to see what makes one store better than the other – and to learn. Out of curiosity, I asked loads of questions and I noticed how some of those questions bore people to think. That way I discovered that my curiosity is a talent that I can use in the job.” So the research practice provides a great way to attract talent and help find passions to build from.
Other examples of businesses within the business include the setting up of two smaller companies: ‘Development Centers’ and the game-oriented group – ‘Something’. Both of these businesses are based on a specific product: the first one on our successful method of creating, facilitating and evaluating Development Centers for organisations. The Development Centers have specialised in this method and are able to put it into practice with clients, in an optimal way with a different financial structure than the regular K&S projects. ‘Something’ is set up by three colleagues who are specialising in learning through game and play. They have developed several inspiring and innovative ways on themes such as leadership, learning and development. In this case, not only the financial aspect requires a different approach, also the way of designing and building a game are new specialties within K&S.
Another example of an enterprise within the company includes our head office. Kessels & Smit in Holland is based in a beautiful building dedicated to learning and connecting - a very special meeting place which also rents space out to other companies. But whomever thinks this building belongs to a large property owner is mistaken. In fact, some entrepreneurs within K&S bought the building and run it as a small property company. Ans Grotendorst, one of the investors: “The ideal was to set up an entirely new office concept. We wanted to ‘venture with space’. Core of the concept is that various tenants, able to inspire each other, use the building together. If you need individual working space, you reserve it in advance. When you want to have a meeting or workshop, you book one of the rooms in the building. You pay for what you use and only if you’re actually there. If you feel the need to relax or meet other tenants, you’re always welcome in our grand café.” Step by step a new ‘office’ arises in which many people cooperate and share knowledge.
Facilitating high quality connections with both clients and colleagues: A mental model and K&S Days
As mentioned earlier, it is not procedures and agreements that connect us, it is the commitment to basic principles and beliefs where we find our interpersonal and professional connection. Over the years, some of these principles evolved into new models, others were derived from it. One of the main mental models, is about the three layers of communication. At Kessels & Smit we believe that every kind of communication contains three levels: that of content, that of procedures and that of process - (imagine content at the top of the pyramid and process at the bottom). We strongly believe that it is the emotions and relations between people (the basis of the pyramid) that form the fundament in a conversation – and therefore are always first priority. If connections on this basis are of high quality, communication on the other two levels will be enhanced. Transparency on the basic level, helps to make clear what kind of procedures should be followed in a conversation and eases understanding the message. A high quality within the relations therefore enhances communication on the other levels and improves work an cooperation. One can see this belief in many choices we make and ways of working we chose.
Within this also lies the principle of mutual attractiveness. Arne Gillert, colleague and one of those of an international background and education, describes what this means for the way of collaborating: “I only want to cooperate with people whom I find interesting and whom like to work with me too. The starting point for healthy working relationships is ‘mutual attractiveness’. We work together because we can add something to the job and to each other, not because hierarchy forces us to. However, this also contains making a constant effort to be an attractive colleague. And I don’t believe any regulation or structure can incorporate or replace this effort.”
Even when consultants did not pick a project themselves, but are ‘hired’ in a conventional way, they won’t act as a sole executor. “Often it can be meaningful to reformulate the client’s question by inquire more deeply after expectations and wishes”, Joseph Kessels believes. “We take the client seriously of course, but if you do exactly what he asks of you, change is unlikely. Clients tend to ask questions to which they already know the answer.” It is useful and enjoyable to view the question from a totally different perspective.
Rules such as the obligation to be present do not exist within Kessels & Smit. Those who prefer working at home or client, do so. Everyone is responsible for arranging their own work properly. This bears a risk of losing track of each other. And in a company where the quality of connection is the basis, this is a big risk. Therefore, we found ways to stay in touch and arrange our moments of connecting, meeting and catching up. Every six weeks a ‘Kessels & Smit day’ is planned, to make sure people don’t lose sight of one and other, and to allow time for the necessary coordination and joint decision-making. These gatherings are not general meetings, but meetings in the literal sense – comings together and meetings of minds! With room to share personal engagements (“joy and sorrows”), to exchange professional developments, to design Kessels & Smit, to work on projects and to give space to everyone’s individual development.
Of course, none of the above could happen without doubts, questions, frictions and other tense moments. We would like to mention three of those challenges in this story. As you might see, some of these are mitigated and worked with through the practices we shared in the innovations we mentioned above. Others are still up for a new design, phase or experiment – we are after all, a living laboratory!
One of our constant challenges is how people ‘step in’ to K&S. It seems to be a question for both K&S-people and the newcomers. Because – considering we don’t have recruitment processes – how do you choose a new colleague from our beliefs of self-organisation, mutual attractiveness and lack of hierarchy? Who decides that and when does one say yes or no?
At the moment, our apple trees work very effectively in these processes. It allows three or more colleagues to express their trust in and wish for a new connection. And since those people are trusted by many other colleagues, a collective agreement arises: ‘If you trust this and want to invest in this new person and relationship, I trust you and will support you.’ The apple tree guides the new colleague in the exploring process of getting to know the work, the clients and the colleagues.
The process of new colleagues stepping in, also brings along the question of growth: is what we are doing still possible with more colleagues? And will we manage when the company broadens internationally? As experience has proven, this is still working out for us. We’ve grown organically in the last ten years from 20 to 50 colleagues and from 2 to 6 countries. Yet we are openly learning and experimenting – creating beautiful proposals and projects as an international group, feeling our way through this process at the same time.
Resisting temptation to create rules
The principle of avoiding management and procedures becomes central to everything we do. It comes from the crucial trigger that Joseph Kessels and Cora Smit experienced in their early years. And ever since, we make much effort to ensure procedures don’t take hold in Kessels & Smit. And truth be told, we’re just not very good at introducing them anyway! The wonder is – that we also recognise these supposed shortfalls, and so we have a special ‘Good Office’ team that helps and supports with more ‘operational’ aspects of the company: supporting a range of aspects from financial administration to some aspects of project planning.
On the other hand, one can image that colleagues who have had a successful experience with a new idea, would like to share this with the rest. A smart way to grow a project, an efficient way to divide offered work, a proposal on how to deal with ‘mismatches’ (when it doesn’t work out with a new colleague)... there is a constant temptation to write a new rule or procedure about it. But, as should be clear by now, we don’t. Time and again we manage to share the idea and than allow self organisation to see how it works out. Sharing existing knowledge and experience, without telling the other what to do with it.
We’ve already shared much about our ways of working from individual responsibility and mutual attractiveness. And we’ve shown how we use these principles in all aspects of our work: how we organise ourselves, how we work with clients and how we market ourselves in finding new projects, new colleagues and new partners. Naturally, we also use this view to arrange our financial affairs. We use several anchors from which we design our financial construction:
- We need a construction that creates an economic base to do what we love to do
- We want to provoke an individually felt responsibility for the bigger whole, through which we together bear the risks and take responsibility
- We want to constantly create space for individual entrepreneurship
A few principles have main priority. For instance, we try to avoid internal financial streams as much as possible. This means we prefer to keep our invoicing as simple as possible, without creating an internal invoicing between colleagues or businesses. The main financial current exists between K&S and our clients and between K&S and the individual entrepreneurs. A custom made program helps to simplify this. Everyone registers billable hours in the system and our one financial expert turns this into invoices for clients and in-company invoices.
K&S is constructed as a private limited company. In our ambition to stay a company, and not just a network of independent professional, each of us contributes financially to the bigger whole. Over the past we’ve created several ways to stay financially connected to K&S. Although the financial construction might differ, there is no difference in the visible connection. Each and every colleague is part of K&S by contributing to and making use of its knowledge, network, projects and value:
- Paid employment: some colleagues join our company in a more traditional way. They are offered a contract for paid employment for a maximum of three years. Of course, we have added a few innovative aspects to the traditional contract. For instance, after at best three years, we feel it is a good time to reflect upon the connection, the work and ambitions. Usually, at that point one decides to join in a more sustainable way by becoming an entrepreneur or even a co-owner. Secondly, the employee decides for himself what he would like to earn. We then design a fitting formula, based on the wished wages, the estimated turnover, a suitable hourly rate and the desired number of weeks and hours to work. This way, even in paid employment, it is up to the employee to decide how much one desires to work, charge, turn over and earn.
- Being an associate: another way to join the company, is being an independent entrepreneur. One joins from one’s own one-person business and contributes a percentage of each invoice to K&S.
- Being a co-owner: another construction we know since several years now, is that of co-ownership. This means a colleague buys shares and with that co-owns up to 2% of the company and, when available, profits from the return on investment yearly. Of course, again we have added a few aspects of our own to this shareholding. Most importantly, we do not divide shareholders from associates or paid employees. We organise shareholder-meetings, but everyone is invited. After, even if you’re not a shareholder, you’re always a care holder!
- Being a core-entrepreneur: in the two countries where K&S has become a larger company, the construction of core-entrepreneurship has been arranged. This means a group of people, who together own more than half of the company’s shares. Reason to develop this construction, is that running a company that belongs to 40 people, simple becomes unrealistic. And as with all other constructions, the ownership and role of core-entrepreneurs is always open for discussion, questioning and revision.
Besides these constructions, there are no other general structures set up. We do not have any money pools. The money that comes in from financial contributions and other profits (coming for instance from selling books), is used to pay the fixed costs that come with running a company like K&S. Those are for instance: rent of our office space, paid employment of our Good Office team being our secretariat, K&S days, registration of our company name as a trademark, depreciation, services by thirds (catering), cleaning and inventory. Let us stress here that affairs such as incapacity assurances, computers and laptops, pension regulations and other usually general regulated affairs are handles and chosen by the individuals as much as possible.
How do you measure something that is fluid, organic, and based on individual passion? Well we know that the company has doubled in size in the last three years. We also know that about 80 % of business in Holland comes from repeat clients – people love what we do. We are growing internationally, and are now expanding in South Africa, Germany and the UK. But as you will probably already be able to tell, measuring all this through metrics goes against our grain. The measure of success for us is that we work with exceptional people – both colleagues and clients – and on themes that deeply matter to us all as individuals. We set the direction, we take responsibility and we only have ourselves to learn from when things don’t work. We are constantly challenged not as machines in a cog or parts of a process but as human beings – who we are and what matters to us. This is the greatest reward – to be in a space that is fulfilling, that invites us to grow, and a place in which we can lead our own journeys.
Well, we started our story with a suggestion – that you as reader set the context, and that you take out what you want from our journey. So what does all mean for you?
- Maybe a realisation that it is possible to work in this way, although many people are convinced you can’t, because ‘that doesn’t work here’ or ‘our people need more guidance’.
- Maybe that it takes rigours, discipline and emotional and relational toughness to be in a place fit for human people.
- Maybe that dedicated groups – or ‘apple trees’ can work more effectively than structure.
- Maybe that it is possible to run from passion, but only if that goes along with an honesty between people about who they are.
- Maybe that nourishing relationships matters most of all.
- Or maybe that there is no blueprint. That we are people after all, and that there is no ‘one size fits all’. So perhaps a ‘laboratory’ or ‘organising’ is the best definition for what you do as a manager – and that all you have to work with is how you learn as you move.
This story was written by Andres Roberts and Marloes van Rooij, colleagues at K&S UK and K&S Holland. Some of this entry is a translation and a revision of the article published in 2009 called ‘Lernende Firma’, written by Peter Laudenbach of the German magazine Brand Eins. Other K&S colleagues involved in shaping the story include Saskia Tjepkema, Cees Sprenger, Ans Grotendorst and Philippe Bailleur.