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Applying a Cooperative Corporate Philosophy: Find and Keep Great Employees

Successful African American team leader

It’s a modern fairy tale—you leave the corporate world to travel the globe, start a llama farm, or become an opera singer. In this fantasy, the corporate job offers generous material benefits but little in the way of soul satisfaction. What is a fat salary, corner office, and great dental insurance compared to being your own boss and paving your own way? However I’m here to say that—at least with regard to small businesses—the corporate way gets a bad rap. In fact, most dance studios would greatly benefit by adopting a “cooperative corporation” philosophy.

The Digital Media Law Project defines a cooperative corporation as “a special form of corporation that places ownership and/or control of the corporation in the hands of the employees or patrons of the corporation.” While this is accurate, the focus isn’t on an organization’s back-end workings, but the owner’s mindset. How you make your decisions, the way you structure your organization, if you choose to hold the business steady or make a big leap—a cooperative corporate model plays in all these decisions.

Inside small businesses, especially in the arts or education sector, a lot of the control is already in the hands of the employees. Dance studios in particular have the “cooperative” part of cooperative corporate on lock. Everyone on the team does their part by helping a student tie their tap shoes, answering a late-night email, or loading in props on recital day. It seems to be ingrained in the studio model that everyone will pitch in, all the time—anyone who grew up dancing at a neighborhood studio inherently understands this. But this approach can end up taking a toll on employees (and CEOs) when there isn’t sufficient structure in place to balance it out—the “corporate” side of the equation. 

If this misalignment is not corrected, studio owners can become stuck in a never-ending cycle of teacher and desk staff turnover caused by burnout, frustration, and the lure of a better gig somewhere else. Often, dance studio employees move on from the studio to a “real job” in the—you guessed it—corporate world.

Corporations are built on an organizational structure, and structure means expectations. When expectations aren’t clearly communicated or boundaries between work and personal life are consistently crossed, employee recruitment and retention issues create a barrier between where your business is and where you want it to be. High-quality people don’t want to work in a medium-quality environment. So how can you create a high-quality environment that will attract (and retain) rock stars? 

Consider upping your game on the corporate side of the equation, and remember: high quality doesn’t have to mean high cost. You might be surprised to find that it doesn’t always come down to dollar signs in terms of getting staff buy-in—culture, upward mobility, and meaningful work rank highly on employees’ wish lists. As a consumer yourself, you’re often looking for the best value rather than the lowest price, so as an employer the burden is on you to create and show value to current team members and prospective hires alike.

To start, look at what you’re already offering an employee. Improving your corporate structure might require beefing up your benefits package, offering more professional development opportunities, or getting a clean organizational chart in place so everyone knows what’s expected and can confidently go about their work without guessing. Do you offer clear job titles with descriptions of roles/responsibilities, key results areas (KRAs), and key performance indicators (KPIs)? Do you have a healthy performance review process in place? What about a bonus or incentive structure? 

Many small business owners are so busy working in their business that they don’t set aside time to work on the business. As CEO, you never clock out, and no one is coming to save you from drowning in your to-do list—you are the only one who can decide to dedicate this time to your business. There’s never been a better reason to press pause on the whirlwind work for a moment and look closely at your current corporate structure.

Let’s say you have prepared a well-written and enthusiastic job listing, chock-full of benefits and clear expectations. What you have to offer will get you through the hiring process, but what about keeping that hire? What can you continue to offer over time? Creating and emphasizing career paths within your organization will encourage employees to stay and allow you to get off the hamster wheel of turnover. 

A career path begins with onboarding; things like adequate training and promoting your studio culture will encourage a new hire to picture a bright future with your studio. Unfortunately, it’s often “sink or swim” inside small businesses, particularly creative ones—as artists we frequently learned material on the fly or went onstage as a last-minute swing, so we consider this approach normal and natural. While it might solve an issue today, it’s not the best way to set up an employee for long-term success. Your business might benefit from a version of Disney’s famous Traditions onboarding, whereupon new hires learn the history and mythology of the Disney brand—the grand vision that they now are a part of upholding—before moving on to job-specific training. 

In his book Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney, former Disney Executive Vice President Lee Cockerell describes how new hires (or “cast members”) are brought to the iconic Cinderella carousel in Orlando’s Magic Kingdom as both a demonstration of Walt Disney’s legendary attention to detail (it’s painted with real 23K gold leaf) and a reinforcement of workplace expectations. New hires get the message loud and clear: We expect your work to meet this standard. Your veteran staff might love to participate in an experience like this, or maybe even take part in creating it for the newbies—a simple video, document, or slideshow will do the trick. Hook hires in from day one with a mix of inspiration and expectations.

Next is job-specific training, whether it’s how to use the auxiliary cord for the classroom stereo or how to send an email through client management software. In a dynamic, growing company you’ll repeat this training process many times over the course of an employee’s time with you—this is a good thing! As staff members take on new responsibilities or are promoted they need to experience onboarding and job-specific training all over again. If you provide upward mobility options for satisfying career paths, employees will respond with an enthusiastic “yes” when annual contract renewals roll around.

If you pay attention to job titles you’ll see the cooperative corporate concept really start to gel. Many small business owners joke about being “chief cook and bottle washer,” and too often their employees fall into this same category. In order to implement the cooperative corporate philosophy you’ll want to differentiate roles, and job titles are the clearest way to do that. The marketing coordinator coordinates marketing, whether that’s slick social media or good old postcard mailers. The community liaison creates and maintains relationships with local businesses, schools, and other organizations in the community. The costume manager manages anything and everything to do with costumes. 

This is where the beauty of being the leader of a small business comes in—you can design titles to have the greatest impact on the triple bottom line of people, profits, and positive programs. If you’re just starting out, maybe a simple office assistant is all you need. Larger organizations may be ready for a director of operations or a CFO. Wherever you fall on the business-size spectrum, creating clear structure around who’s responsible for what will go a long way.

“Corporate” doesn’t have to be a scary word. After all, its Latin root is body—those of you who have danced in a corps de ballet know all about being the “body” of the production. And like with your own physical health, it’s never too late to make improvements, so start by undertaking a cooperative corporate audit of your company today.

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