Book Review: Maverick

Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace by Ricardo Semler is an international bestseller which was first published in 1993. This is a review of the edition from 1999. Ricardo Semler writes in the new introduction that Maverick is “a reminder that age-old truths about human nature, respect and integrity can be powerful allies of success”. Here’s a summary of the book together with my impressions.

Ricardo Semler sees his role primarily as a catalyst. Success, for him, is to “create an environment where others make decisions”. It’s about having absolute trust in the workers, or partners, as he prefers to call them.

Ricardo Semler was “shocked by the oppression” he found when he first started working at Semco. His father was a “traditionalist”, who treated employees “paternalistically”, and often induced “fear”. Ricardo Semler couldn’t help but think that the company could be run differently without “counting everything” and “regulating everyone”, without “all those numbers and all those rules”. The first thing he did when he took over the company from his father was to “strip away the blind, irrational authoritarianism”. It gave the workers the possibility to govern and manage themselves.

The partners typically work in teams, or clusters, with responsibility for a complete product. This gives them more control and makes the products better. Everyone is encouraged to mix with everyone else. Nearly all have mastered several jobs. Twelve layers of management were replaced by a new structure based on three concentric circles.

There was a deep split between those who believed in law and order above all else, and those who felt that people can overcome any obstacles if they are “motivated by a sense of involvement”. Ricardo Semler tried all “prepackaged ideas” and “techniques” that he could find, but he couldn’t make them work. After a while, he realized that the company’s problems went deeper than he had realized. There was “a lifelessness, a lack of enthusiasm, a malaise” that had to change.

Ricardo Semler started by eliminating the “most visible symbols of corporate oppression”. He didn’t want to have “a company at which you don’t trust the people with whom you work”. Democracy needs to be exercised with “conviction” and without “exception”, and it begins with “little things”. “Small changes eventually led to larger ones”. Teams “formed spontaneously” as the “winds of democracy swept through”. The strength of these teams were their diversity. They didn’t have a “formal head”. People who showed the greatest capacity to lead got the job. The groups were held together by mutual respect instead of “boxes on an organizational chart that guaranteed power”. Once a team had made a decision, it stayed decided. No approval was required. It was a spontaneous process. People participated only if they wanted to.

Ricardo Semler believes 20 percent of the managers were sympathetic to his efforts to make the workplace more democratic, and that another 20 percent laughed heartily at it, considering him a rebel with an inheritance. Ricardo Semler wants people to “think, innovate, and act as human beings whenever possible”. His experience is that people perform best when they know almost everyone around them.

Participation is infinitely more complex to practice than conventional management. Most managers prefer traditional methods, but no one can expect involvement and partnership to flourish without openness and truthfulness. Companies must clearly and consistently demonstrate fairness. Fairness is like quality, “it takes years to build up but collapses over a single incident”. People must always be able to say what’s on their minds. And all company communications must be absolutely honest. Power and respect cannot be imposed.

Ricardo Semler thinks that too many are too quick to jump on the latest managerial fads and fashions. He is flattered by all the companies that have tried to imitate Semco, but it also makes him nervous. Semco still has a long way to go. And even if Semco was perfect, no one should set out to copy it. People must have the freedom to determine their own ways.

Ricardo Semler mentions at the end of the book that most businesses today still are organized in much the same way as they were 400 years ago, with stultifying results. No company can be successful, in the long run, if profit is its primary goal. Successful companies will be those that put quality of all life first. “Do this and the rest—quality of product, productivity of workers, profits for all—will follow.” At the heart of it all is trust!

Maverick doesn’t provide a model to be copied. Maverick is an invitation to put quality of all life first—and in so doing, create a more humane, trusting, and life-affirming workplace. This is an excellent book!

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund shares his reading, book reviews, and learning on his personal blog.

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