Blog Published: April 2020
From the beginning, Namaste Solar has been built as a transparent business. It is one of the pillars of our company structure, in part because we are an employee-owned cooperative. True cooperative ownership would not be possible without extreme transparency where co-owners have access to information at all levels of the company. While it was baked into our model from the beginning, the importance of transparency for our business has shown itself in many ways over time, including during the current COVID-19 crisis.
If you are interested in increasing transparency within your business or are wondering how to be transparent in your response to COVID-19, the following conversation may provide value. We talked with two of our co-owners, CEO Jason Sharpe and General Manager David Henry, and they shared their perspectives on corporate transparency and transparent leadership. We don’t pretend to be masters of transparency in business, but we have been practicing it for a very long time.
The responses below were edited for clarity.
Back when we were operating business as usual, before COVID-19, what did transparency look like at Namaste Solar?
Jason Sharpe – “Transparency shows up in many ways. One way is sharing our books on a quarterly basis. Another is that we've always shared salaries, so people have insight into what others make across the company. We may be discussing our strategic direction in an open leadership meeting, and we allow any candidate or co-owner to call in and participate, at least listening if not even offering opinions about the direction of the organization.”
David Henry – “Transparency at our company has evolved, and the desire for it and what it means to individuals in the company has evolved over time. When I first came to the company it was easier because it was a small group of 20 some people, and transparency was easily accomplished by sitting around and talking one afternoon each week. It was information sharing in real time. Somewhere along the way transparency has evolved to be more nuanced. What do you need to know in terms of your job role versus what are you entitled to know versus what do you want to know as a co-owner? It has become a lot more challenging as we become a larger, more complex company.”
From your experience at Namaste Solar, what do you think are some of the benefits of transparency in business?
Jason – “People are going to make up a story whether you give them the information or not, and we have found that the truth is usually a better story. Even if you don’t always like the answer, at least you know why. It creates an environment of trust, and in our experience, it’s healthier for the organization. Transparency is scary, but it's so much healthier. I think of Brené Brown and her work on the power of vulnerability. When you’re able to be vulnerable and honest, it’s a more powerful outcome compared to the alternatives. We have found a lot of success in having the courage to be truthful.”
David – “Information is generally regarded as power, and the more information one possesses generally the more perceived power or even actual power one has. I think the whole intention of transparency at Namaste Solar was to level that power dynamic. We still have power dynamics in our company, but I would say that even employees in our company who aren't co-owners are probably receiving more information than most people would at most other companies. That’s a vehicle for empowering individuals.”
On the flip side, what are the biggest challenges of transparency at Namaste Solar?
Jason – “I think the biggest challenge is whether or not you have all the information. You might draw a conclusion on a soundbite, and you can spin it into a story if you don't take the time or have access to the full conversation. That can be dangerous. That's one of the biggest challenges, and the bigger we get the harder it is to make sure all the people have all the information.”
David – “There is a responsibility that comes with transparency. It's really easy to understand what the responsibility is for the people that we’re expecting to be transparent. But what is less clear is the responsibility of those that are on the receiving end of that transparency. It's recognizing you may not have the full context, and it’s recognizing that it’s human nature to start filling in the blanks. It’s very difficult to make sure we’re providing the proper context for information."
Jason – “Along the lines of what David is saying, we have to create space for people to express potential concerns or conclusions one might draw from data. Privilege and unconscious power dynamics can get in the way of healthy dialogue and understanding, so we work really hard to create a culture and create spaces where people feel safe asking clarifying questions or disagreeing.”
"Transparency isn't just a right. It's also a burden, and sometimes it means owning information that is not easy.” - David Henry
You’re both part of the COVID-19 Task Force at Namaste Solar. How have you worked to be transparent throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and how much thought has the task force given to transparency?
David – “I would say transparency has been underlying every single thing we’ve talked about as a task force. Every decision and every conversation includes a discussion of what do we need to share, when do we need to share it, and how do we need to share it.”
Jason – “It's this double-edged sword of trusting the emotional intelligence and maturity of your organization. You don't want to set overly optimistic expectations, and you don't want to unnecessarily upset or worry people. So how do we be transparent in a way that doesn’t spin the message in either direction?”
Last week (the week of March 30th, 2020) was a really tough week for Namaste Solar. Jason, you had an extremely transparent talk with the entire company leading up to an announcement of layoffs and furloughs. You shared what was happening and why before delivering the news, instead of the more traditional approach where an explanation is given after layoffs have already happened. How did you decide to take that approach?
David – “I don't even think it was a decision. I don't think we even contemplated not doing it that way.”
Jason – “I mean, think about what you would want. That's a good start. I think we decided that being a transparent company, being employee owned, it was important to us that everybody understood why this decision had been made. At the end of the day, people can disagree with you, but at least they know why you acted the way you did. At the very least we can share what we're thinking, and we found it was way more valuable for those people who were going to be leaving to be able to hear that firsthand. We trusted the emotional intelligence and maturity of the organization, and we think our employee owners would expect nothing less.”
While you were announcing layoffs, there were many messages of support in the video conference chat. What did it feel like to see people showing support and gratitude while you were making such a difficult announcement?
Jason – “I had to stop looking at the chat because that's the thing that made me cry the most. It still makes me emotional to think about it. But I can't imagine another way to do a business than to be in relationship with the people that you work with. It was an affirmation of how amazing the people of Namaste Solar are, and it's what made it all the harder.”
David – “The task force has been receiving a lot of gratitude all along, and then it kind of culminated in the all-company meeting. It was this weird feeling for me of complete and utter pride in who we are and at the same time experiencing complete heartbreak. At the same time, you feel so supported, and I think that was the nourishment that I needed to help continue through all this.”
How do you think our history of transparency has helped us through our response to the pandemic?
Jason – “It's like a muscle. You have to exercise it and work at it before you are going to be good at it. Blake Jones [one of Namaste Solar’s co-founders] sometimes talks about how we need to vote more often because we have to exercise the voting muscle, or we need to disagree more often because we have to practice our debate muscle. The transparency muscle is one that we do practice regularly, and I think it made it easier, not just for the people making the hard decision or delivering the information but for the people receiving it. It takes practice, and it builds that emotional intelligence.”
"Do it when it's easy so when it's hard it's easier." - Jason Sharpe
For others who are looking to increase transparency at their business, how would you recommend they start? What are some of the first steps on the road to transparency?
David – “I’d tell them not to do it. Ok, my real answer is that transparency is one of many elements, and it has to be contextualized within the framework of what they are trying to accomplish. Why do you want to be transparent, and what is the outcome that you're looking for at your organization? Think about what information you're going to start with and how is it going to impact the leaders of your organization and all the other stakeholders.
For most of us at Namaste Solar, we walked into it when we started our jobs. It's just how it's been from day one. But if you're talking about an organization that's already well established and looking to move in this direction, you have to be really thoughtful and methodical about what you're trying to accomplish. I wouldn't take it as a given that it's automatically going to be roses and all positive impacts.
Transparency takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of care and feeding to do well. Even at Namaste Solar we’re not always practicing it well. I think about all the conversations that we have that are a result of us being transparent, some of which are easy, some of which are really difficult. It takes a lot of time, and people need to understand that it's really changing a paradigm of how you operate. It's not like you're just saying, ‘Here's all the information, everybody. Have a good day.’ It's really going to affect how you run your organization.”
Any parting thoughts you’d like to share about transparency in business or your experience with transparent leadership?
David – “Sometimes I hate it, and I wish I could get rid of it. But all in all, it's very much a net positive. It's kind of like if you want to get to the dessert, you have to eat your vegetables. Transparency can feel like the vegetables, but ultimately it is also the dessert. It's really the only way, in my opinion, to have a company that is so supportive and well-rounded like the one that we have. I don't think we could have what we have today without transparency.”
Jason – “I'd add that transparency in business can redefine power. There are conventional ways that you have power: power based on your title, power that comes with access to information, and decision-making power. If you have a seat at the proverbial table and you have the information, then you’re able to influence a conversation and a decision. I don’t think leadership has less power with transparency in business; it’s just a different set of tools.
But what do you gain? You gain trust, dedication, and loyalty from your workforce. You gain productivity when people feel trusted, are empowered, and have the information they need. There are all these problems that companies can throw money at, but that doesn't really motivate people. I think we’re learning, through new generations of workers and through a better understanding of motivation, that being transparent is a key element of people feeling engaged and having an aligned purpose across the organization. It's an inclusive, empowering way to lead a company.”