A Real Revolutionary

What would you think of a company that had the following characteristics and beliefs?

  • No official structure, organization chart, no business plan, or company strategy; no mission statement, long-term budget, fixed CEO or human resources department (don’t need a mother and father of everyone in the company); no career plans, job descriptions; no one approves reports or expense accounts, and supervision or monitoring of workers is rare indeed.
  • Instead of dictating [our company’s] identity, [we] let our employees shape it with their individual efforts, interests, and initiatives.
  • On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept, but a better way to do things. …People are considered adults in their private lives, at the bank, at their children’s schools, with family and among friends—so why are they suddenly treated like adolescents at work? Why can’t workers be involved in choosing their own leaders? Why shouldn’t they manage themselves? Why can’t they speak up—challenge, question, share information openly?
  • If we have a cardinal strategy that forms the bedrock for all these practices, it may be this: Ask why. Ask it all the time, and always ask it three times in a row.
  • We have been known to place ads reading: “We have no opening but apply anyway. Come and talk about what you might do for us, and how we might create a position for you.”
  • [The company’s] Lost In Space program, assumes young recruits don’t know what they want to do with their lives. So do what you want, move where you want, go where your interests take you. At the end of year, anyone you’ve worked for can offer you a job.
  • Telling people that the company trusts them and then auditing them makes it impossible for them to feel secure. …We don’t require expense accounts because of what they say about character. We’ve learned that peer control is as effective as reporting and auditing. …Even in cases of fraud, we shun audits or policing procedures because we feel that responsibility and peer interest are stronger than any internal controls (and that was before the collapse of Arthur Andersen, the king of audits and controls!).
  • Most people flourish under freedom, flexibility, and responsibility. Most who have left [the company] have been managers.
  • No management works quite like self-management. And working at [the company] means self-managing as much as possible. It isn’t nearly as frightening as it sounds. In the end, it’s self-interest at work. It requires conceding that managers don’t—and can’t—know the best way to do everything. People who are motivated by self-interest will find solutions that no once else can envision. They see the world in their own unique way—one that others often overlook.
  • The world desperately needs an “Age of Wisdom,” and workplaces would be an inspiring place to start. At [the company] we have little to teach and even less to “sell” in a packaged form. We’re just a living experiment in eliminating boredom, routine, and exasperating regulations—an exploration of motivation and passion to free workers from corporate oppression. Our goal is helping people tap their ‘reservoir of talent’ and find equilibrium among love, liberty and work. …Once people learn to do that…I know we’ll be alright.

After a speech the owner of this company gave, he was asked, “…Can you please tell us what planet you’re from?”

These beliefs defiantly challenge the conventional wisdom of management practices. I’d love for the recent author of a letter to the editor of the Journal of Accountancy to read this. If he thinks timesheets are necessary for control, he’s deluding himself.

The above forces us to challenge nearly everything we think we know about how to properly run an organization. This 50-year old company, by the way, employs 3,000 people in three countries (some of them union members); engages in manufacturing, professional services, and high-tech software; and had revenues of $160 million in 2001—up from $35 million in 1994. If you had invested $100,000 in this company 20 years ago, it would now be worth almost $6 million.

When I discuss this company in presentations, I am met with a staring ovation of disbelief. This visionary leader knew what type of future he wanted for his company, and he was willing to pay the price to achieve it.

Is this the type of firm—and leadership—you would want one of your children to work for?

In the spirit of adventure and curiousity, I implore you to read the two books by Ricardo Semler and discover for yourself the possibilities of creating a better future: Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace; and The Seven-Day Weekend: A Better Way to Work in the 21st Century.

If you’d like to see Ricardo Semler for yourself, watch this presentation at MIT World (about 48 minutes).

Meet a real revolutionary who doesn’t just talk about the pace of change; he creates it everyday. There’s many lessons here for professional knowledge firms.


  1. Matthew Tol says:


    Having read “Maverick” quite a few years ago, it started my thinking on the way business can be run as opposed to the way it is run.

    Many of Semmler’s ideas make traditionalists squirm very uncomfortably – they believe it is somewaht akin to socialism where you’re risking the future of the business. Nothing could be further from the truth. His point about people being adults out of work and then being treated like kids at work is particularly resonant.

    When the owners/managers of PKFs realise that they have engaged very capable people (why would you hire them if they weren’t) and then place all these controls in place over them (timesheet in particular), the messages get garbled and nothing makes sense. The communication is “you’re trusted with your work but you need to account for every second of your day”. It just doesn’t work – never will.

    By setting people free in their workplace, you enable them to grow to levels beyond which you could imagine. This again might be uncomfortable for many of the current managers/owners out there as they will probably find that some of their people are far smarter than the bloke that runs the company! More than likely more capable managers too.

    If only more people thought more like Semmler – the world would be a far better place.

    A very smart man told me years ago – everyone is an oyster and inside every oyster is a pearl – your job as a manager is to help them find that pearl.


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