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[PER] Ricardo Semler:: How and why of the workers' paradise

Ricardo Semler:: How and why of the workers' paradise
By Lucy Kellaway
Financial Times; Apr 14, 2003

Ricardo Semler looks at the tape recorder between us on the table and asks: "Why?" He is not questioning why I am recording the words of the world's most famously unusual businessman. He is asking why the technology of the tape recorder has improved so little in 25 years.

I say my machine works fine, though I don't always manage to put the tape in the right way round and press the "record" button. He looks at me as if I'm a fool.

Possibly the Brazilian businessman-philosopher thinks I am a fool anyway. I am here to interview him about his new book, The Seven Day Weekend, which is about how much he hates hierarchies. That very morning in the FT I had written an article saying how much I like them.

To look at us, sitting on deep sofas in his Chelsea hotel, you would think we were the other way round.Mr Semler, who scorns men in suits and whose workforce includes the blue-haired,the body-pierced and the tattooed, is dressed ultra-conservatively. In honour of the FT, he is in black trousers, white shirt and shiny grey tie. Had I not known better I would have mistaken him for a butler.

In honour of Mr Semler, I have worn my red shoes with the stain on them. Had he not known better he might have mistaken me for a bag lady.

Why? is Mr Semler's big question and is the heart of his book. He disdains normal business questions: how much, when, where and who. Yet despite (or because of) this attitude, Semco, his privately owned company, has thrived. It employs 3,000 people, 10 times as many as when he inherited it from his father 20 years ago.

Mr Semler, you might say, is the most enviable man in the world. He is famed for having created a workers' paradise, yet in so doing has increased his substantial wealth many times over. As he takes no decisions, he works only a few hours a day, leaving him the rest of the time to think and read, and feed the ducks with his young son on Mondays. "I'm like a frisbee in the park," he says - skimming from thinking about Jupiter one moment, to the Renaissance the next.

I had come armed with a list of my own whys. Why does the no-rules model work at Semco but not elsewhere? Why would one want to feed the ducks on Monday? But I found asking them difficult.

Mr Semler sits forward in his chair and answers his own whys instead. He tells me why hierarchies are ossified. Why even the military would be better without the military model.

Hang on a minute, I say. Surely you couldn't just let the lads in the Gulf get on with it? He shrugs. "My first answer is, if the men were given the option, the war would not be happening."

I ask why he wrote this book. "I had a three- to four-year mid-life crisis," he says. "I have a lot of time to consider what's important." So maybe he isn't the happiest man in the world. Maybe if he had to work more and spent less time asking why, he might be happier.

He feels my life balance is wrong, too, and senses I need more idleness. "Why doesn't your husband take your children on Thursday mornings so you can sleep in till 10.30?" he suggests.

I ask why the book is called The Seven Day Weekend. It is a lie for most of us; in any case, the weekend is only desirable if there is some working week to go with it. He brushes such points aside, saying it was the publisher's idea.

On the back cover of the book it says "Any company can emulate Semco" - which simply is not true. The biggest why is why no company seems able to emulate Semco at all. It is nearly 10 years since Mr Semler's first book, Maverick!, was published; more than 1m people bought it, yet Semco is still almost the only example of its kind.

"I came from a rich family," Mr Semler explains. "There was no incentive for me to make money. My only question was: why is this worthwhile? Why do people want to come to work for 40 years? I've been asking these questions for a generation. It takes a generation or more to put the ideas into practice and it is still changing all the time."

The reason others don't follow, he says, is partly that they don't dare lose control and that they are under pressure to perform. "CEOs come to my seminars and say: 'I only have 90 days. Do you have anything I can do in 90 days?' You can't overhaul your business if you are assessed on a quarterly or even yearly basis. It's too risky."

Instead, what companies have done is plunder Semco's quirkiness. Semco is bristling with policies with cute names such as "Lost in Space" and "Retire a Little", which others have greedily copied. Yet these are window-dressing and do not amount to the same thing at all.

For a moment it looked as if the dotcoms were adopting the Semco model. "They said: this Semco thing fits! They had beanbags in reception," he says. "But it didn't go anywhere. As soon as their business started getting serious, they started having corner offices and two secretaries."

But why?, I ask.

"The model doesn't travel easily," he admits. "It's centred on characters."

In particular it is centred on Mr Semler's own character. His scorn of profit and his weird mixture of ego and laisser faire makes it possible. I imagine this, if not unique, is most unusual.

Mr Semler's lack of interest in money has gone hand in hand with amassing a great deal of it. In the book, he states that the maximum amount of money anyone should aspire to is $12m (£8m), having arrived at this figure using some calculation tenuously adapted from Leonardo da Vinci. Yet his wealth is much greater than that.

"I have five houses," he admits when I press him. "It's a lot of houses, right. But I'm trying to deprogramme myself. I've asked myself if I need an apartment in Paris."

What does he do with the money, apart from buying houses? "I've found ways of throwing off the excess into my school or my botanic garden. I've spent over $2m on a school with 20-30 kids. For three years I had 22 people travelling the world to work out how to start a nursery school." The school is his latest big project. Mr Semler is intent on proving that the Semco rule-free model also works with education.

Semler junior (aged four) is being brought up this way and the endless whys are driving Mrs Semler mad. "Sometimes she has to leave the room when I discuss with him for 15 minutes about going to bed. But she knows it is really the right way." As a result of never having been told what to do, the boy now eats Brussels sprouts voluntarily and watches little television.

Given what a profound and universal thing rebellion is, I wonder idly whether this little boy, raised so rigidly without rules, will rebel, just as his father did. When his turn comes to take over the family business, will he run it like Al Dunlap, the famously mean, autocratic hatchet man?

As I leave, Mr Semler reminds me again to try to sleep in on Thursdays. Why, I wonder. Do I really look that tired? I am halfway down on the lift before I realise I've left the outdated tape recorder on the table.

довольно дурацкое интервью, на самом деле. но мужик интересный, у него по-хорошему парадоксальное мышление. не для того, чтобы продемонстрировать, а просто:

Once upon a time we committed ourselves to putting a man on the moon. What kind of similar commitment should we make now? What's the "moon shot" of the 21st century?
Bringing quality of life to the largest part of the world. All else is niche-oriented and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As the world heads down its current path, what should we fear most?
The ungluing of the first world from the rest.

What issue or issues will most define our future?
Longevity, which will increase.

Technology, which will continue speedily progressing but altering nothing essential.

Environment, which will still be considered secondary, and will hit us in the stomach again and again.

Work life, which should have gotten much better, and didn't, and suffers from excess lip service and no commitment to its structural bettering.

Unhappiness, which stems from excessive workload; insufficient time for inactivity (as opposed to leisure); and the treatment of love, quality of life, and peace as things that can be addressed in off-time.

(вопросы задавал Fortune; ответы давал Рикардо Семлер)

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