"One of our drivers was making a regular delivery and he’d noticed we’d run out of eggs, so he went to buy some on the way and offered them as a substitution - at the same price - to the customer so they weren’t short of the product," says Bob Melling, a member of Suma, the UK’s largest worker cooperative.
It’s hard to think of many £40m turnover companies where this would be allowed without at least a few phonecalls to head office or a spot of hand-wringing. Melling is one of more than 200 workers, all of whom are paid the same and none of whom answer to one single boss.
But this isn’t "lack of leadership", says Melling, anything but. Put simply, "We collectively manage the business so it’s not about one individual, it’s a recognition that everyone has a contribution to make and their own perspective and knowledge of the business". The members vote on things like pay rises, bonus structures, and infrastructure, expansion.
As important as equal pay is the culture of subsidiarity, says Melling, which enables the delivery driver to make decisions at the point of need and this can have a significant contribution to productivity.
Because there is no financial incentive to leadership at Suma, if you want to make a change in the company you have to persuade your co-workers. This, says Melling, "makes it a very consensual system".
And Melling believes that this way of working would be effective if only companies would realise it. "Most people know their own job well enough to make the right decisions. The only reason they don’t is because they require it to be passed up the hierarchy. That’s just passing the buck. We don’t pass the buck."
But it’s true there are patterns emerging in companies such as Costco, which has a relatively flat management structure. Says Melling, "You’re starting to see minimal-hierarchy structures springing up, with more and more people getting used to working in a risk-sharing way. I’d hope that as these companies grow into larger concerns, some wouldn’t choose to abandon their minimal-hierarchy beginnings."
The principles behind Suma are fairly simple, says Melling, "All we have done is take the egalitarianism of a small two-person business and maintained it as we have expanded and devised management methods to deal with it."
While this much autonomy can do wonders for customer service, it can slow the process of change down somewhat, says Melling. "It does have the potential to make us a bit conservative sometimes but on the other hand, we’re unlikely to be carried along as a result of a charismatic CEO. Yes, we might miss the opportunities a ‘visionary’ leader might see but you don’t get led into stupid and untenable propositions either."
Does all this lead to the idea that leadership is redundant in business? Katherine Woods, managing director and CEO of Meeting Magic, which works towards a self-managing workforce, says an emphatic no. "Leadership is not becoming redundant but management is. As forward-thinking organisations move to more networked, self-managing organisational models, the need for management (ie, man-management as we currently know it) is becoming redundant and is being replaced by self-organising systems in which administration is shared or centralised and governance is handled by the people involved, rather than by management."
However, Woods believes that the need for leadership is still there, "just not necessarily in the hierarchical leadership structures we have experienced in the past - ie., traditional pyramid structures." Instead, she says, "distributed leadership is becoming more prevalent in the workplace, so leadership comes from within the workforce rather than imposed top down."
But Woods warns, "this requires a very different kind of leadership at the helm on organisations, a leadership which is humble enough to admit that they don’t have all the answers and the willingness to work with staff to find solutions." This style of co-creative leadership is rare in many large organisations at the moment, but, says Woods, "I foresee that it will emerge as the next generations of leadership come to the fore."