Are you a stone cutter or do you build cathedrals?

Ricardo Semler took his company SEMCO from a 4 million dollar a year venture with one division to 212 million a year with 15 divisions.  This is from 1982 to 2003, I couldn’t find any newer numbers, but at that time his staff was aiming for 1 billion dollars by 2008.  Sales have an average growth of 24% a year and SEMCO has less than 1% turnover.  Beat that Wall Street!

Ricardo has some very unconventional ideas about how to run a company.  Things are run democratically, everyone gets one vote, even Ricardo himself.  If someone calls a meeting on a new idea or business proposition and no one shows up or the people that do show up think it’s a bad idea, that’s it.  Regardless of whose idea it is.  All SEMCO employees are taught how to read financials and are invited to participate in the twice yearly budget process.  Employees set their own hours and salaries.  Then there’s the board of directors: they keep two open seats that any employee can sign up for and for that meeting they are board members with a vote. 

SEMCO doesn’t have rules, Standard Operating Procedures or much of any policies.  It’s left up to employees to use their common sense.  This is the closest thing they have to an HR manual: SEMCO Group Survival Manual.  Its aim is to create a common language and to help people to go in the same direction.  From Maverick, “There is another less obvious dividend to the banishing of rulebooks: people begin to make more decisions on their own, decisions they are better qualified to make than their supervisors.”  That’s something I learned while working for Xerox, let the people closest to the customer make decisions that affect the customer. 

In his book Maverick, Ricardo says, “We simply do not believe our employees have an interest in coming in late, leaving early, and doing as little as possible for as much money as their union can wheedle out of us. After all, these same people raise children; join the PTA, elect mayors, governors, senators, and presidents. They are adults. At SEMCO, we treat them like adults. We trust them. We don’t make our employees ask permission to go to the bathroom or have security guards search them as they leave for the day.  We get out of their way and let them do their jobs. “

He tells the parable of the stonecutters in Maverick:

Three stone cutters were asked about their jobs.

The first one replied, “I’m paid to cut stones.”

The second replied, “I use special techniques to shape stones in an exceptional way, here let me show you.” He proceeded to demonstrate.

The third just smiled and said, “I build cathedrals.”

Ricardo wants a whole company of cathedral builders. He says, “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.”

Where do I sign up?