The young farmer who planted his first leeks at Riverford 36 years ago was an egocentric maverick with a desperate need to prove himself. Governance, had he known what it meant, would have seemed like a boring obstacle to getting things done. As the years passed and Riverford grew, this approach became exhausting for me and those around me; it was time to grow up, share the load of leadership, and value those who questioned me.
In the years running up to Riverford becoming employee owned, I became fascinated by what sort of governance produces the best decisions and the most sustainable growth. Growing up wasn’t so bad after all; it was an exciting new challenge. We were able to write our own constitution, based on my ‘Founder’s Wishes’ and refined by the responses of co-owners; you can read this document on our website. And in our fifth year of employee ownership, we have just won the Good Governance Award from the Employee Ownership Association.
We are still working to improve our governance – particularly including more diversity in our decision making – but this award is a positive reminder that we are on the right road. In a reversal of my younger self, I have become convinced that:
1. Power should not be confined to one individual or clique. The safest decisions are made by consulting widely, and by welcoming and seeking to understand those who disagree.
2. Egos can provide drive but should be balanced by service, a desire to be useful, and the ability to listen.
3. You must accept pragmatic compromise. Life is long, with many battles which cannot all be fought today.
4. Reality is complex; unquestioned, ideologically held dogma is dangerous and always wrong.
5. Honesty, with others and with yourself, is essential.
Thinking about good governance and then reading the recent news has offered a stark contrast. The larger and more mature the organisation, the greater the importance of these principles – and yet, beyond our fields, mature governance has collapsed. Every one of my rules has been comprehensively broken. The decisions we all depend on are being made by the narrowest of ideological cliques, who banish anyone who disagrees and lack a democratic mandate. To save the country I love from tearing itself apart in a childish frenzy, we urgently need better governance. I can see no way of achieving this without a general election.