Heaven for mavericks

Ricardo Semler took over his Dad’s Brazilian business, Semco, in the 80s. Semco now employs over 3,000 people in manufacturing, professional services and high-tech.

They increased their annual revenues from $35 million to $165 million between 1994 and 2001.

At its peak, there was a 17-month waiting list for the bi-weekly tour of Semco, as corporate leaders from all over the world clamored for a peek at their magic dust.

Semco has no org chart, no official structure, no business plan, no company strategy, no 3-year or 5-year plan, no mission statement, no standards or practices, no HR department, no job descriptions, no employee contracts, no compulsory meetings, no supervision or monitoring, no rules on where and when people work, not even a fixed CEO.

Their productivity and resilience are second-to-none and staff turnover is ridiculously low, despite the fact they don’t necessarily pay their staff super-high wages.

Why?

Their staff are treated as adults. Adults are capable of understanding the business and making decisions about how, when, why, where and what they do accordingly. If they don’t, there’s a far more fundamental problem. Semco staff aren’t shielded from bad news – they’re actively involved in the direction of the business and take responsibility, at every level. Anyone can participate in a board meeting and the CEO can be voted down by a factory floor worker.

They ask why. Continuous questioning often reveals what a massive amount of time we spend on business autopilot. Why do we wear suits? Why do we have to be here at 9am? Why do we need to come into the office? Why don’t we show clients our cashflow? Three whys normally rinse out dumb autopilot actions.

They manage less. Semco leaders more often than not choose to do nothing. Less is more when it comes to interfering and decision-making. Rather they rely on democracy and trust their people.

There are many other reasons why, but they’re more or less all to do with freedom, democracy, trust and transparency… and casting out age-old mindless rituals and beliefs that serve as barriers to progress. They also recognise that progress and success aren’t necessarily money-related.

It you haven’t read any of Ricardo Semler’s books, they’re worth a look. Check out The Seven-Day Weekend and Maverick.

Although some forward-thinking start-ups do fancy themselves as able to embrace bold values like Ricardo, it takes another sort of steadfast bravery for bigger organisations to drop the ego-massaging hierarchy and cast out deeply ingrained practices in favour of a role as trusting enabler.

As the workforce becomes more fragmented, demanding and self-guided, surely organisations’ only hope of keeping pace, innovating and having a life is to embrace values like these. Values that make the workplace more tolerable for mavericks, i.e. the folk that get stuff done.

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