Walking Our Talk

In nature, pioneer species are often the first to become established in a barren or disturbed landscape. With great tolerance for poor conditions, erratic weather, and isolation, these tough and hardy species manage to put down roots in cracks and rocks amid inhospitable, barren landscapes. They germinate and grow in these edges, eventually creating enough surrounding fertility to allow for new species to take hold, natural succession to occur, and a thriving ecosystem to emerge over time.

Permaculture principles like this guided Natural Investments founders Hal Brill, Christopher Peck, and I when in 2007 we decided to become co-owners of this firm dedicated to socially responsible investing. We decided to operate like a guild in nature, honoring the diverse skills, gifts, and traits of each person while focusing on cultivating beneficial relationships—thereby creating an adaptable, strong, and healthy organism through which we could thrive as people and as a company.

In 1990, there were just about a dozen pioneers of socially responsible investing (SRI)mutual funds with about $200 billion engaged in responsible investing, the bulk of which were categorized as such for excluding tobacco or companies operating in South Africa from their portfolios. As this approach slowly gained steam, more businesses started to follow suit. We were among the first to attain  B Corp certification 10 years ago, which recognizes the positive environmental, social, and governance policies and practices of companies.

We have intentionally designed and fostered our operations to be in alignment with the same principles of nature, including human nature. Our approach to decision-making is inclusive and consensual. We are organized as an autonomous collective, emphasizing freedom for each member within a collaborative framework of  systems, protocols, and initiatives that benefit the whole. Christopher Peck and I oversee all operations of the firm, but we invite the entire group to discuss major decisions, including our investments, strategy, policies, procedures, and overall direction. Rather than micromanage our exceptionally capable advisors, we delegate and monitor, offering support as warranted. We are transparent about company operations, invite feedback and suggestions to help us course correct if needed, and invest time and energy into building a sense of community among us.

Our advisors share leadership by taking on initiatives and performing tasks for the whole. It’s clear that they do so out of a sense of responsibility for the firm’s overall success. A horizontal approach to organizational leadership isn’t always easy, but when people are regularly and actively involved, they are engaged and empowered. For those rare instances when we cannot reach consensus, we’ve introduced a voting process.

How we communicate with each other is also an important aspect of bringing our whole selves to our work. We make time to talk on an emotional level and connect our personal lives to our work. This creates a safe container through which people can not only share life’s joys but also feel comfortable bringing up sensitive topics or personal situations, building a support system in the spirit of community.

This year, we also saw a shift in ownership of the company. After 10 years of Hal, Christopher, and I owning and managing the company equally, Hal sold some of his stake to longtime advisors Malaika Maphalala, James Frazier, and Greg Pitts.  They have stepped up with new ideas, energy, responsibilities, and perspectives, reflecting our company’s plan to cultivate leadership among all its members.

Our organizational experiment as an autonomous collective has been fascinating since the outset, and 10 years after forming our first ownership triad, it’s clear that this experiment is working well enough to warrant the next plateau of expansion. For when you plant a few trees and nourish their growth, it’s not possible to know what will happen to them. As we have witnessed their healthy roots and felt their strong trunks, and as we have branched out, the bountiful foliage and fruits of our labor are now being harvested. And this year, we began to truly grow a forest.

Michael Kramer

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