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In publishing, conventional wisdom asserts that attention grabbing elements are A Good Thing, and the editors of People Management know a good pull quote when they see one. In a sector of trade publishing more prone than most to ‘attention grabbers’ that leave the reader with a sense that someone nearby will shortly be waving their Buzzword Bingo card aloft and shouting ‘House!’, the following certainly attracted our eyeballs:

Hiding behind your desk in a suit isn’t the answer anymore.”

The speaker is Ricardo Semler, CEO of Brazilian company Semco. People Management describe him as ‘the forgotten business guru’, which seems an odd appellation for a man whose organisation continues to thrive and grow. And the attention that he does receive has tended to focus far more heavily on his divergence from ‘conventional wisdom’ than the success that he has achieved. There’s a ‘why?’ begging to be asked.

When it comes to doing things differently, he has quite a history – more so, perhaps, than the man most of you might first name when asked to associate a major business figure with ‘thinking differently’ (I’m guessing most people would think of Steve Jobs). Semler introduced radical moves towards corporate democracy and a rethinking of not just the corporation but the way it conducts itself internally: no HR department, no org chart, no fixed working hours, total access to company accounts for everyone…

Semco’s focus is on getting everyone to recognise that they are all adults, they can take responsibility, they are human (hours can vary according to current demands from areas of life other than work). There is a sense that what has become a successful group of companies does not sit in process design meetings (it tries not to sit in meetings at all, unless there’s a point to them) agonising about what it does, but takes time to contemplate how the people involved will behave.

In a previous blog, the issue of the military origins of aspects of leadership and management thinking was touched upon. It’s a point Semler himself makes in the interview:

The corporate structure is a military legacy, but the digital world doesn’t require the battalion mentality or the hierarchical relationship that was necessary before. But it will take 20 years to really change things, because there is such inertia.”

It’s obvious that many traditions are no fetish objects for him: on the back of the huge success that the company initially enjoyed under his leadership, he wrote two business best sellers but they remain without a further sequel – despite the business’ on-going successful record. Indeed, he has said with hindsight that the first book was written – and successful – before his approach had been truly proven.

I couldn’t help but wonder what he made of the retitling of his first book. First published in his native Brazil as Virando a Própria Mesa (“Turning Your Own Table”), it was retitled for publication in English as Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace – a title that resonates with a sense of fearless rebel yelling when reading interviews with its author conveys more of a sense of a man who is interested in making things work as well as possible for all concerned than in being rebellious per se. Given its sales of over 1 million copies, perhaps the publishers were right to stress the rebellious angle as holding the greatest appeal to potential purchasers?

Key to all the changes that he has wrought has been to create involvement at the lowest levels possible, encourage a shucking-off of controls, and recognise that work-life balance and human happiness are important things not just to talk about but to actually achieve as far as possible. Semler is a man that doesn’t just talk about change, as this quote from the book hopefully underlines:

We gave people an opportunity to test, question, and disagree. We let them determine their own futures. We let them come and go as they wanted, work at home if they wished, set their own salaries, choose their own bosses. We let them change their minds and ours, prove us wrong when we are wrong, make us humbler. Such a system relishes change, which is the only antidote to the corporate brainwashing that has consigned giant businesses with brilliant pasts to uncertain futures.”

It was interesting to see that, in their profile of him, AndersonBowe drew a comparison with John Lewis, which has practised an employee partnership model since 1929: there is definite common ground in areas such as openness, transparency and employee engagement. Reading other interviews with him and examples of the changes he has brought about, I was reminded of other writers of different aspects of business and thinking: his removal of internal walls and dividers left me thinking about Steven Johnson and his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. His ‘Retire-A-Little’ scheme, in which employees can ‘buy back’ a day a week to explore other elements of life during their working lives, rather than after them (read more about this in an interview with Management Exchange) reminded me of a Susan Sontag diary entry about reconfiguring our approach to education to better fit the patterns of human lives.

Closer to ASK’s heart is Semler’s insistence on a critical question: “why?”. And not just asking it at every available opportunity, but asking it three times. The first to get the rehearsed answer, the second to start the process of fresh thinking in the questionee, and the third to push the new thinking forward. But for a final quote from Semler, I think the following – from the same book – is better:

Yet when visitors learn that our economic success requires replacing control and structure with democracy in the workplace –well, often those starry-eyed visiting executives go home with second thoughts and never get around to making it happen in their workplaces.

Why is that? Why do these visitors shy away from practices that are hugely successful both in terms of the bottom line and in the pursuit and attainment of personal happiness? And for the third consecutive why, why do organizations and their leaders cling to a rigid form of command and control that is at odds with the values of personal freedom that they cherish?

Don’t tell me that the answer is profits. Semco makes plenty of money. But let the whys linger and ripen. The answers– or more whys–will come in due course.”

To which we might add another question, even if the answer may not reflect well on some of us. Why do we think mostly of Semler – and of Semco – as being unconventional rather than being successful?