Dennis W. Bakke, co-founder of Arlington-based energy company AES Corp., ran things a little differently than most chief executives.
He tried to limit himself to one major decision a year. He encouraged plant managers and other employees to be creative, take risks and believe they had a stake in the company. He wanted employees to feel less like a cog in a machine and more like operators in command of the mechanism.
(Bill O'Leary--The Washington Post)
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Here's what happened: The company floundered, the stock tanked, and the board and shareholders put much of the blame on Bakke, who quietly retired in 2003.
Even in the hindsight of retirement, however, Bakke, 59, insists that his principles would have worked, and still can work, if people just give them a proper chance.
To prove it, he wrote "Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job," expounding the theory that empowering employees will change the modern workplace. People will want to come to work, change the way they handle their jobs, and as a result, both people and companies will thrive.
"I'm really railing against the part of the industrial revolution model that just messed up the world. The industrial revolution made jobs miserable for everyone but bosses, making people into machines and taking away their freedom, taking away their ability to reason, take action, make decisions. Things that are unique to the human species," Bakke said in an interview. "There is a huge problem in that 70 percent of people think jobs are miserable. We need to wake up and do something about it. That's all. That's what I'm trying to do."
If it sounds more like Das Kapital than the philosophy of a one-time member of Forbes's richest-people-in-the-world list, Bakke sees no contradiction.
"There's no question that I'm a capitalist. You can't be pro-work and not be pro-capitalist," Bakke said. "What confuses people is I don't jump to the conclusion that that's the goal of life. The goal of a corporation isn't to create jobs. It isn't to borrow money and pay back the government in taxes. It's not to make money for shareholders, although all those things are very important. . . . The goal is to provide a service or product that serves the needs of society."
Similar "empowerment" principles have been in practice among executives since at least the 1960s, and self-managed workgroups were in vogue in the 1980s, said Janice A. Klein, senior lecturer at MIT in management and author of "True Change: How Outsiders on the Inside Get Things Done in Organizations."
But Bakke's principles, she said, are a bit extreme. "It can work if you have the appropriate systems in place," she said, but "if you just go out and let them all make decisions . . . you can run into chaos."