How Leaders Can Change Their Company Culture


Should Your Company Be Out of Control?

I think Darwin would have a lot to say about how organizational models have evolved, prospered and died in the ecosystem we call the free market. If you’re willing to allow religious institutions, non-profits, governments, and tribes into your universe of possible business models you quickly see the power wielded by something we commonly call culture.

For too many of us culture is like the elephant in the room. Since no one knows what to do about it, it becomes invisible and we spend the rest of our lives cleaning up after it. Not so with Ricardo Semler.

Ricardo is the CEO of SEMCO, a $200 million conglomerate based in Brazil. An artist and musician by avocation, Ricardo spent months living with and studying the indigenous tribes of South America to learn how humans create enduring organizations.

The result is a culture where people set their own rules and compensation. A SEMCO employee might work until 1 am Sunday only to take off at noon on Thursday to see their kids play soccer. There are no forms to fill out, and no need for permission. At SEMCO, meetings are optional and vacations are mandatory.

SEMCO has raised employee participation to unheard of levels by continually asking why. Why do adults need to be managed? Why have an office? Why have rules? Why do the same job year after year? Why not retire at forty and come back to work at sixty? Why go to the bother of finding out what went wrong?

SEMCO will question anything because they believe the purpose of an organization is to make life worth living for everyone in it.

Imagine the loyalty, creativity and productivity you could engender if you paid your employees with more freedom, happiness and life? Self expression, the thrill of achievement and the satisfaction of living on purpose are motivators of the highest order. What if you could fully unleash that energy?

There is now a mountain of evidence that highly participative, values-based cultures out-produce their conventional counterparts by 30 – 40%. They are also a lot more fun.

What SEMCO has pioneered is a culture so firmly grounded in its values that they have no use for rules. Peer control replaces management oversight. The energy needed to create value for its customers is no longer consumed by watching, checking and managing people.

Ricardo’s profound insight is that it is the very act of managing people that requires them to need to be managed.

8 Tips to Change Your Company Culture

If you’re thinking about changing your culture, this checklist may help.

  1. Deal with your culture because it is the right thing to do, not because it will make you more money. Your commitment to see it through must be based in your values, not your pocketbook.
  2. Put away the banners and hype. Actions will be the only thing your people will read. You must start sharing power.
  3. Get people dreaming about the company they’ve always wanted to work for. Surface the principles that best reflect your corporate identity and philosophy. (Jim Collins and John Kotter are the most clear and accurate authors on this subject.)
  4. Clarify the behaviors that anchor your principles as well as the behaviors that undermine them. Get people actively discussing, challenging and clarifying standards until you can tell who is on your team simply by watching them work and interact.
  5. Challenge every system, rule and procedure by comparing it to your principles and standards. Eliminate and modify rules until only adults can navigate your company. Keep expelling the people who can’t play without rules. (Most rules only restrict the 98% of your people who don’t need them.)
  6. Challenge the foundational structure of your organization. Figure out how far you can go with decentralized control. Keep experimenting.
  7. Undergird your decisions with lots and lots of communication. Be sure to highlight early wins while continually painting and repainting the vision.
  8. Anchor your victories in new habits and policies that remind people about what good looks like.

It took SEMCO more than twenty years to evolve these ideas and turn blind faith into the solid confidence that people can be trusted with every aspect of growing a business.

If you’d like to read more about SEMCO you can read Ricardo’s book “The Seven Day Weekend” available at Amazon.

This article was written by Bill Mills. Bill Mills is an award winning author and speaker on business innovation. He directs Executive Group Inc. an entrepreneurial think tank for almost 70 Minnesota business owners and CEO’s. or