Ricardo Semler – Employee participation to the extreme

Thought Leaders

Ricardo Semler's message is clear - give your people the freedom to build a good life for themselves. In the last 30 years his unorthodox approach has produced fantastic results. Here is why he is one of the Devana's Thought Leaders.

Richard Semler is a CEO of the Brazilian SEMCO group. He has been called a ‘corporate rebel’ and is someone who had taken Semco at the time when it had 2 union strikes a year to a no strike in 25 years, while having double digit growth each year. I’ve got introduced to Ricardo’s work through his TED Talk where he manages to unleash about 20 groundbreaking, inspirational ideas in 15 minutes.

Give up control

The most basic idea that he believes in is giving up control.

Ricardo believes that all people inherently want to be better and improve. At Semco, the two ruling assumptions are: 1) “trust in adult behavior”—the basic human drive to be productive, to build toward the future, and to contribute to something larger than themselves, and 2) every person’s rhythm’s are different when it comes to when and where and how they do their best work.

And the regulatory mechanism in place to ensure the place does not fall apart? Team consensus. Every six months your team  chooses whether you retain your job, and who the new team leader will be. The current leader needs to get 75% votes to stay or a new one is chosen. This puts a very effective regulatory mechanism in place where everyone is held accountable for their work by their peers.

Semler urges employees to “go with your guts” in their decision-making, forget everything about strict rules and simply “go and find better way to do things” in the company.

“Our philosophy is built on participation and involvement. Don’t settle down. Give opinions, seek opportunities and advancement, always say what you think. Don’t just be one more person in the company.” – Ricardo Semler

Semco has a number of experiments  geared toward “returning control to our people over a very important piece of real estate—their destiny”.

Good life

The second basic principle Semco is built on is the need for gratification through work.

“The purpose of work is not to make money. The purpose of work is to make the workers, whether working stiffs or top executives, feel good about life.” -Ricardo Semler

He encourages this through programs like retire-a-little which allows employees to buyback their Wednesdays for 10% of the salary and “use that time for active pursuits when their bodies can handle it.”

What Semler is after is that uniquely human equilibrium that comes from the right mix of challenging, meaningful work and truly rejuvenating pursuits (state of joyful idleness).

Noteable ideas

  • Employees create their own salaries. They are given financial data about company’s finances, and how much everybody else makes and are free to decide how much would they like to earn. Pay yourself unfairly, and you could soon be looking for a new job as others get to vote on that.
  • Buyback your Wednesdays for 10% of salary
  • People are used to sending an email on Sunday night. But nobody’s is used to seeing a movie on Monday afternoon. That is why we see burnout. The opposite of work is idleness and we need a right balance.
  • People have enormous potential that can only be applied when they understand what they are supposed to do and how it fits into the grander scheme.
  • The essence of stability in the company is to have a cut of humanity. 5% that are lazy, 5% that are geniuses. Not just hire only the best people.
  • “Lost in space” program. Hire college graduates and tell them you can do whatever you like for a year. Then we will tell you if we want to hire you.
  • Lumiar school founded by Semco Foundation where they bring senior citizens (that nobody uses) to teach these kinds whatever you really believe in.