Lighting A Path To New Ways To Work

ari
Written by
- 7 min read

What follows is about what we at Zingerman’s have come to call Staff Partners and how this has made us a meaningfully better business. 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.

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the way we create our organizations is just as important as the products and services we sell. Organizational design can be as creative a piece of work as writing poetry.

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.

Lighting A Path To New Ways To Work

The Staff Partner project is based on the belief that, as frustrated as we can feel some days, as grim as the headlines can seem, the light is always still there to be seen.

The 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.

Currently, at Zingerman’s, we’re set up to have three Staff Partners. They sit as full members of our Partner’s Group (PG). The PG also includes all the Managing Partners of the various Zingerman’s businesses, plus me and my co-founder, Paul Saginaw.

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 as the co-founder and CEO.

Do people listen to me or Paul differently because we started the business? Sure. 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.

A different set of perspectives

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.

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.

Any cook can govern

Together the group is far more effective than any of us would be on our own. 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.

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.”

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 . . .”

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


This is a guest post from Ari Weinzweig, CEO and co-founding partner of Zingerman's Community of Businesses. For more information on Ari and the company, check out his rebel page.

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