Management & Organisations: “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler

ricardo-semler-maverick-management-organisationI read Ricardo Semler’s Maverick because at some point in my life I became a management nerd. I still am. Organisation management, people, processes: they fascinate me. In a cultural context in which work is boring and meetings are a waste of time, I am charged by the challenge of figuring out how we can make better organisations. How do we make it easier for people to do their jobs well?

Currently I’m making great bounds in exploring this interest. I’m studying an Advanced Diploma of Management with the Groupwork Institute of Australia (GIA). This course looks deeply at collaborative management and better practices for getting along at work. Underlying this, it builds the actual emotional intelligence required to be an effective manager.[1] In addition, I’m working part-time with the AYCC. The AYCC is just getting on six years old, so doesn’t have entrenched traditions or structures in the way of older monoliths. It’s a fertile environment for experimentation and change. Finally, I’ve been reading some great books related to management. One such book is Ricardo Semler’s Maverick.

Maverick is not required reading for the Management Diploma, but it comes very highly recommended. Fellow students of mine had read it and raved about it before I picked it up, and I’d also heard gushing words from the course facilitator and founder of the GIA, Glen Ochre. It wasn’t available an eBook, so I tracked down a copy, ordered it from the US, and waited patiently.

The good, and perhaps surprising news, is that Maverick is very easy to read. Despite functioning as a guide or instruction manual of sorts, it is written as a biography, and a terse, content-rich one at that. Biography? I use the word with only some hesitation. Maverick is best understood as the history of how Ricardo Semler, the author, transformed Semco, his father’s and then his company, from a middling and traditional company to a highly-successful pioneer in collaborative organisation. But “history” is too dry, too impersonal. Semler writes lovingly and passionately, injecting into the novel stories of himself and of others. “Biography” it is.

The book details Ricardo’s starting at Semco and his initial failures at improving the way the company worked. Then, bit by bit, it all starts happening. The chapters unfold chronologically, with each one relating a specific challenge and a specific way the company responded. In this way the key ideas or revelations are communicated, presumably in the same order in which they were implemented at Semco itself.

What Semler has to say on Organisation Management

As the reader, you are flooded with great ideas, learning about revolution after revolution. First Semco sets up worker committees to allow workers to speak collectively and take greater control over their workplace. As time passes they abolish company rules and policies, arguing for common sense as a substitute. Semco soon up-ends the power relationship between managers and subordinates with a system in which job applicants are interviewed by future subordinates and managers are evaluated twice yearly by those who work under them.

By the end, Semco is the big rock candy mountain of workplaces. They no longer employ people in menial roles, with even senior staff doing their own photocopying and filing. The workforce is broken up in to small units, avoiding the impersonal nature of large corporations and allowing employees to form close connections and be in touch with what is going on in their environment. Colleagues decide together when to start work, and can even set their own salaries. Company profits are shared with employees. Most excitingly, bureaucracy has been eliminated by a radical yet simple structure:
maverick-ricardo-semler-semco-structure-management“Counsellors” are a team of about six people who are the equivalent of Vice Presidents or higher. They coordinate policy and strategy. “Partners” are the “seven to ten leaders of Semco’s business units.” Every other employee is in the outermost circle and is known as an “associate”. “Coordinators”, shown in the triangles, are those in “basic leadership” roles. They “guide” teams of five to twenty associates.

This structure is beautifully elegant. I’m constantly wondering what the ideal structure is for the AYCC and, more broadly, what principles should govern organisational structures. What is the sensible model?

This one really appeals to me. I like the lack of pyramids, which imply not only hierarchy but superiority. I like the flexibility in the outermost circle, the ease with which associates and coordinators can relate and transmute. I like the lack of layers, which implies both a welcome sparsity of redundant managers and a workforce that is displaying more autonomy, judgement, and accountability.

And that’s about it for writing about the actual contents of the book. Interested? You could start by checking out this brief summary. Really though, just get and read the damn book. Maybe you’re not interested in this like I am. But I’m pretty confident that at some point you’re going to have a job in a workplace. Then you’ll see.

Maverick turns the story of an organisational transformation in to a gripping read that proffers a vision of how work could be more fulfilling. The essence of Semler’s thesis is that “our advances in technology have far outstripped our advances in mentality.” These days we have the means to have radically different workplaces and workstyles, yet factories and companies are still run like textile businesses from 1633. Too much of what happens in the workplace happens due only to the oppressive weight of the past. Too few are ready to revolutionise, to question these conventions, and to take the uncomfortable steps towards a workplace that works better. Semler’s Maverick is a story of instruction, explaining specific initiatives that helped Semco to prosper through lean economic years.

Semler’s Maverick is a story of entertainment, with twists, highs, and lows, as plentiful as in the trashiest Dan Brown thrillers. And Semler’s Maverick is a story of hope. You’re not alone. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are better options. And if Semler can do it, you can too.

[1] Article in Harvard Business Review on emotional intelligence

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4 Responses to “Management & Organisations: “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler”

  1. Thanks Joel, this is a very clear and well written piece, I read it with interest, it is good to keep in touch, Jane

  2. This book took my workplace by storm when it was published in the early 1990s.But nothing happened. I did re-read it when studying a management subject and still loved it and wanted to apply the culture, strategy and structure to a company I was setting up. Yep want to see it happen.

    • I can really see this happening – both the enthusiasm and the failure for that to translate into actual change. It’s so hard! I think the story told in the book is encouraging though – the culture is created by a series of changes…it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Gives one hope.

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