Back to that ‘Profit Sharing’ Nirvana

cakeMy last post set out why profit sharing beats incentives by a country mile but I also laid out a note of caution on one aspect, short-termism:

I wrote that “A key consideration for anyone designing a profit share method is to avoid short-termism. Alternative thinking on how to achieve this might be to consider payment in shares that can’t be sold for a certain period, or payments into a person’s pension scheme, or [some other way of thinking outside the box]”

I have been keeping my eye open for a ‘for profit’ organisation out there that has been demonstrably successful in operating a profit sharing method that fits, and doing so for a reasonable (i.e. proven) period of time…and I believe that I have found such a thing! A Swedish bank called Handelsbanken.

Here’s the story:

At the end of the 1960s Handelsbanken was in crisis so it searched around for a radical thinker to lead them. They found Jan Wallander – an economist who had metaphorically ‘put his money where his mouth is’ by leaving academia and becoming a director of a rival Swedish Bank…and he was doing rather well whilst challenging conventional wisdom.

WallanderHe took on the role of Handelsbanken’s CEO in 1970 and got stuck in to doing things quite differently! As an example, he was particularly scathing about budgets:

“either a budget will prove roughly right and then it will be trite, or it will be disastrously wrong and in that case it will be dangerous. My conclusion is thus: Scrap it!”

As a result of this, Handelsbanken have now been operating very successfully without budgets for over forty years! (There’s an important ‘Beyond Budgeting’ post coming soon)

….but getting back to the profit-sharing subject:

Jan Wallander believed in a profit-sharing system that:

  • is intended as a reward for everyone’s collective efforts and competitive success (i.e. as against other banks); and conversely
  • should not be an incentive for individuals to pursue financial targets.

“beating the competition…is a far more powerful weapon than financial incentives. Why do people need cash incentives to fulfill their work obligations to colleagues and customers? It is recognition of effort that is important. Managers will only strive to achieve ambitious goals if they know that their ‘best efforts’ will be recognised and not punished if they fail to get all the way.”

Wallander set out an overall goal for the organisation (within its banking purpose): attaining a better return on equity than its (listed) banking competitors. This is rather interesting:

  • it doesn’t tolerate for any ‘resting on their laurels’ in easy market conditions; and conversely
  • it reasonably accommodates what might seem disappointing results (in absolute terms) when the market is tough.

Starting in 1973, the bank has allocated part of its profits to a profit-sharing scheme for employees. The main condition for an allocation to be made is that the ‘return on equity being better than the competition’ goal is achieved for that year.

The funds are paid to a profit-sharing foundation called Oktogonen (which was set up by the bank’s trade union club). In turn, the Oktogonen Foundation places 90% of these funds in Handelsbanken shares, thus giving the employees owner representation on the bank’s board.

The Oktogonen Foundation has become the bank’s largest shareholder, with over 10% of voting power.

Okay, so there’s a big fat fund of money…but how do the employees get at it?

This is the long-term bit, mixed with a healthy dose of equality.

Every year that the bank makes a profit allocation into the foundation (which, as it happens, has been achieved every year since its inception) then each current employee is allocated an equal share of units (i.e. salary level is not relevant to this allocation).

The value of each unit then goes up and down with the value of the foundation’s investments i.e. mainly the price of Handelsbanken’s shares.

Current and past employees can cash up their units from the age of 60 i.e. they cannot access any money until this point. This gives the Oktogonen Foundation the character of a pension fund.

This 2013 financial report shows that, if an employee had worked full time at the bank since the start of the scheme in 1973 (i.e. a 40 year working life), their fund units would be worth SKr 14,000,000…which is US$1.7 million at today’s exchange rate!!!! …that would be my pension pot sorted.

Some thoughts on this:

  • you can see that everyone working for the bank is ‘joined together’ (working as a system), aiming in the exact same direction over the long term…yet they also need to do so with speed so as to release the yearly profit allocations. This harnesses together the desires for efficiency and effectiveness;
  • it removes the need for the whole ‘setting personal objectives – arbitrary targets – judgemental scoring – giving of contingent rewards’ commotion….and the people can use this huge amount of freed-up time and wasted energy to work towards purpose. A bye-product is that people can now ‘get on’ as adults rather than as Parent – child;
  • it removes the batch behaviours associated with annual bonus payments:
    • there isn’t a period before year end where some people ‘hang on’ to get their payment when they’ve already checked out for something/ somewhere else; and
    • there isn’t an exodus of people out the door in the months after the bonus cheque has been cashed…causing a renewed batch of recruitment.

… people leave as and when they want to, which makes for transparency and a clear flow, making the balancing of capacity much easier;

  • it binds the employees and the shareholders together. They now have the same long term interest of building and sustaining a business for the future. Conversely, it will likely dissuade short term investors attracted merely by share price volatility…which isn’t in the best interest of organisational success.

What about some likely criticisms?

Here are four likely retorts to the idea of long-term profit sharing instead of short-term incentives:

1. “But what about ‘poor performers’?”

This is usually the first criticism of the profit-sharing method and rests on the belief* that some people will always ‘work harder’** than others and why should ‘slackers’ benefit at the expense of ‘grafters’.

* it is interesting that most people working in a command-and-control environment appear to have this belief about themselves as compared to others. A bit like everyone thinking that they are a ‘better-than-average’ driver 🙂

** I am only covering the ‘effort’ question here. The ability/ scarcity of resource question is covered within the differing levels of salary that people receive.

Incentive schemes are not the answer to supposed ‘poor performance’ – they are frequently used as a substitute for good management and, as such, are an abdication of management’s responsibilities.

Alfie Kohn writes that “In order to solve problems in the workplace, we must know what caused them….holding out a carrot – ‘Do better and here’s what you’ll get’ – is a pseudo solution; it fails to address the issues that are actually responsible for holding back the organisations and the people who work there.

Incentive schemes are frequently used as a substitute for giving workers what they need to do a good job…much less effort is required to dangle a bonus in front of employees and wait for the results…[however] there is evidence that pay-for-performance plans tend to displace careful management…a compensation system is no substitute for careful management.”

But it’s not just management, it’s also about peers! Here’s Handelsbanken’s response to the ‘poor performers’ fear:

“In a team based organisation driven by peer pressure, free riders are exposed very quickly and replaced by people more willing to commit themselves to real performance challenges.” (Source Book: ‘Beyond Budgeting’)

i.e. rather than gifting ‘free riders’ with easy money, the profit sharing method exposes and deals with them!

On advocating the removal of the ‘incentive-performance management’ system, Deming was once asked by a member of his audience “but what will we do instead?” His response was “Try leadership”.

…it has clearly worked rather well for Handelsbanken!

2. “How do we get people to leave? Won’t people hang around forever?!”

This view fits alongside the concern about ‘poor performers’. Consider though that the supposed ‘poor performance’ may very well evaporate…and we now have hugely experienced AND motivated people.

‘But they will be dinosaurs, unable to change’ I might hear someone reply. Really? Do you think that you couldn’t change even if you wanted to? Consider that “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” (Scholtes). It’s back to that environment again!

Perhaps those ‘resistant to change’ are suffering from ‘change fatigue’: namely, being tired of their huge knowledge being ignored as the next overly simplistic ‘silver bullet’ change programme is done to them.

An organisation with high employee turn-over allows (and often forces) years of highly skilled knowledge to regularly ‘walk out the door’, only for the learning to start again, almost from scratch by the ‘next batch’. If the experienced workers stay, just think of where they could ‘kick on’ to if they so desired.

…but don’t worry, we haven’t engineered a prison! People can and will leave as they wish…and retain the profit-sharing units already assigned to them.

3. “People like getting a lump sum each year to pay for, say, their holidays”

Yes, I can see this (I do too)…but I would happily trade in the pain of the annual performance process (including the dysfunctional behaviours it causes) and the resultant lump sum payment if it meant that I got a real kick out of work because of the amazing environment that I worked in, with people who are equally energised, and who are ‘all running in the same direction’ and helping each other do so.

This brings to mind the quote “Pay people well and fairly…then put money out of their minds.” (Alfie Kohn)…though I might fondly look ahead every once in a while to that pension pot!

4. “What happens if the organisation goes bust?!”

Yep, you’d lose your investment (or at least be at the back of the creditors’ line)…so you would be very keen to constantly:

  • stay alert: look ahead to see external change coming (rather than ‘sit back and wait’);
  • know what’s happening: keep close to your customers and how their needs are changing…and be sure to deliver value to them;
  • innovate: think differently, look at what others are doing, try things out (experiment), pivot in new directions;
  • collaborate and roll-in meaningful change that demonstrably works for the whole system;
  • seek out, recognise, and directly attend to obvious waste and failure demand.

i.e. constantly improve your capability of meeting your customer’s purpose….just what your shareholders and profit-share foundation unit holders (incl. past employees) would want of you!

…and finally, that’s not the whole story:

Cleary, it wasn’t just a superb profit-sharing scheme that has led to Handelsbanken’s success…but it is seen as an enabler and a foundation for the necessary environment to stimulate and secure long term success. Jan Wallander did lots of things differently – probably the greatest being that he was also a firm believer in empowering people through decentralisation.

There is a clear relationship between decentralisation2 – empowerment – intrinsic motivation – purpose – systemic collaboration – continuous improvement – profit sharing.

Notes:

1. Handelsbanken reference material: The history of Handelsbanken

2. On Decentralization: “What is commonly understood by decentralization originates in the conventional command-and-control paradigm, defined as Decentralization 1.0.

To cope with the world’s exploding complexity, some vanguard companies have evolved to a higher level of organization by adopting a new kind of decentralization originating in the enabling-and-autonomy paradigm – hence the term Decentralization 2.0. This refers to organizations consisting of autonomous groups facilitated by an enabling support organization. To keep these high-trust, spirit-driven organizations together, a new kind of deep leadership is practiced by them.” (Decentralization 2.0)

3. The Oktogonen Foundation: For a very clear explanation, scroll right down to Appendix A at the bottom of the ‘Written evidence from Handelsbanken to the UK Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards’. (Parliament UK)

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