The Nursery – Our EO Story: Creating an EO culture to underpin all we do

The Nursery Research & Planning is a market research consultancy specialising in brand, communications and customer experience. We offer a full range of quantitative, qualitative and data science solutions and, at the time of writing, we had 44 employees (partners).

Founded in 2001, our transition to 100% employee ownership was planned as part of the founders’ and majority shareholders’ ambition to ensure the company had a sound platform for long-term growth, whilst remaining independent of the larger marketing services groups.

Whilst becoming employee-owned was a means to an end, we quickly realised that our EO status was something that could benefit the company both internally and externally and so it has proved: within 18 short months the culture, energy, management and governance of the business has changed remarkably.

Good governance

In common with most small, privately owned businesses, the three founders / majority stakeholders took ultimate responsibility for the business as directors. So our first step was to appoint a new Board of Directors on which the (now ex-) shareholders were in a minority.

This was more than a symbolic step – it was important that the senior managers who would be running the business once the founders had left were taking the decisions now that would determine The Nursery’s future.

We also appointed independent Trustees with a remit to oversee performance and key decisions, with a particular emphasis on maintaining sufficient liquidity so that the EOT repayment does not affect commercial operations.

Taking Stock

One of the new Board’s first acts was to set up a working group to review our status as an employee-owned business. There are few EO businesses in market research, so this group set out to see how businesses in related sectors had made the most of their EO status.

The resources of the EO Hub were invaluable, and we enjoyed the opportunity to bounce ideas off members of the EOA team and other EO businesses further ahead on their journeys.

It became clear talking to clients that they could appreciate some benefits to them from working with people who all had a stake in their own business, but that employee ownership per se wasn’t a substantial enough rationale for choosing us over another agency.

We concluded therefore that our EO status should be something to leverage internally, to ensure that all our partners felt and appreciated the benefits, and that clients saw the benefits indirectly through working with motivated and talented partners.

Making EO real

We were conscious after the excitement of our initial announcement that it could be a while before employees felt any benefits from the transition, so our first initiatives were aimed at bringing the concept of EO to life in ways that were meaningful to partners.

A first step was to conduct a survey to decide what we wanted to call ourselves – ‘employee’ being far too generic. An overwhelming majority voted for ‘Partners’, a word which – thank you John Lewis – has the right connotations of collaboration, investment in the business and a shared desire to deliver great service to our clients.

Alongside this we elected our first Partner Rep, a position offering a new line of communication from Partners to management, and a separate point of liaison with the Trustees.

True to the new nature of the business, we asked the Partner Rep to help define the role and work out their own methods for gauging opinion and gathering input from the wider team.

She attends most board meetings and has established diverse ways of gathering input from Partners ranging from all-partner surveys to drop-ins and inductions for new joiners. She has also designed and implemented an Awards scheme to celebrate collaborative success stories.

Engaging Partners with the business

When the EO working group reported back to the Board we established two key principles which we had observed in previous EO Stories. The first was that ownership does not equate to management: everyone is entitled to know and to have a say in how the business is run, but is not expected to run the business themselves.

The second was to adopt the principle of ‘Transparency by Default’: as owners everyone has a right to ask questions about the business and be given straight answers. We have regular all-team meetings where accounts and business performance are presented, and we have drop-in sessions with our Finance Director to explain the numbers and trends behind them.

We also set up the routine of an Annual General Meeting. This is an all-staff event where senior managers present their reports of the year to the Partners in their formal capacity as shareholders: following which every Partner gets a copy of a written Annual Report and Accounts to keep.

Active involvement and initiatives

We have also set up several Partners’ Working Groups where small teams take on responsibility for a range of issues affecting our working life. They all operate autonomously, within set budgets where appropriate, but without supervision from management.

These include our social programme, Health and Wellness, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, a review of our employment benefits and policies, and sustainability.

These groups allow Partners to gain deeper involvement in a topic of interest, to address an issue that is important to them, or simply to experience aspects of business beyond the ‘day job’. All regularly come up with ideas more imaginative and more in tune with what the team want or need than a group of senior managers could do.

Employee management

A year on from our transition to EO, we implemented broad changes to our management structure. This meant devolving all issues of day-to-day management from the Board to a Management Group comprised of department heads and area leads and creating a Client Management Group of Account Directors with responsibility for project quality, new and existing client development and resourcing.

This spreads management and responsibility around a wider group of Partners and draws on a broader skill set.

Beyond employee ownership

Although Employee Ownership is a relatively new thing for us, as a people business The Nursery has always prioritised attracting and retaining talent and making it a rewarding place to work.

As a result, many initiatives which feel close to EO were already in place and other new initiatives feel even more appropriate now that we are employee owned. As an example of the former we had recently achieved Investors in People accreditation: much of the work done here has helped Partners identify ways of progressing within the business and getting more involved in it.

As an example of an initiative suggested by one of our Partners, via the Partner Rep, we are in the process of becoming accredited as a B Corporation, where many of the values we live by as an EO business are in complete alignment with the wider B Corp philosophy of ‘business as a force for good’.

A changed business

Eighteen months on, employee ownership has changed the nature of The Nursery. We have always valued our people and put a premium on collaboration and collective creativity; EO has made these values real and meaningful, and they now underpin all the work we do. It also gives us a sound, independent platform to grow the business in a way that will benefit all our Partners – and our clients too.