Q&A: WorldBlu's Fenton on Workplace Democracy

Democratic businesses come in all shapes, sizes, and industries.

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Traci Fenton, founder and CEO of consultancy WorldBlu, has been mulling over workplace democracy for more than a decade, but she thinks that the idea is finally ready for prime time. U.S. News spoke with Fenton about her research and the development of her own company. Excerpts:

How did you come up with the idea for WorldBlu?
During my last year of college I was asked to be the executive director of our student-run conference, which we did on democracy. But we looked at how it related to not just government but also urban planning, education, and business. It opened my mind to what democracy really could mean.

How did you see democracy after that?
I look at it as a way of organizing people so they can solve problems together and create their own destiny.

Aren't most successful companies pretty top down?
Command and control worked in the industrial age. It brought us to a certain point. But now we are in the midst of massive shift to the information age, which requires a different mind-set. Companies that understand how to give power and create work environments of choice are more innovative and more successful to the bottom line.

How did you get the name WorldBlu?
It came to me when I was thinking about where I feel the most free: sitting on the beach, looking at the blue water. I later learned that blue is the color of freedom in flags and other symbols.

What trends have you seen over the past 10 years?
When I first started down this path 11 years ago, everyone thought I was crazy. The Internet was just getting started at that time. Now you don't hear anyone saying we need to run our companies in a more command-and-control way. Now we are in a time and place where this can be the "new normal," because we have access to resources that make democracy possible.

How do you put together the list of the most democratic workplaces?
I had to do almost a decade of research to figure out what democracy is and how to measure it. I came up with 10 principles and a lot of questions that evaluate the degree to which those principles are practiced.

How does a company get on the list?
It's the people's choice award. Companies distribute a survey to employees, and we ask for 70 percent return on it. They have to score 3.5 or higher on a 5-point scale.

What did you notice about this year's companies?
They are highly innovative and creative companies doing really cutting-edge things. They come from almost every industry: IT, retail, manufacturing, food. The idea of democratically run companies can apply to all companies and sizes.

What do they all have in common?
They all practice open-book management where they are open with financials. Other than that, it's just like in countries: The practice of democracy in England is different than in Canada.