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Book review: The Seven-Day Weekend

The Seven-Day Weekend gives us an inside perspective into Semler’s psyche. I see similarities with CEOs that I have interviewed. Just like Semler, they focus on happiness in their organization. “People that are happy at work have IQ plus EQ plus SQ minus ego,” Semler states. These people are able to do what is good for them, for their colleagues and for their clients by letting go of control and working with enormous creativity and dedication. Semler refers to people that have an entrepreneurial mindset and does away with the stereotypical MBA graduate who has been taught to be competitive, and above all to think from his own perspective and put himself first.

At the same time, we all have our human quirks. Even direct employees of Semler’s had difficulty with his vigorous ideas, as this candid story shows. In 2003, when this book was first published, he was essentially advocating a paradigm shift in thinking. Despite the resistance it evoked, the business success of the Semco company still ensured an interest in the efficiency of happiness. It could be said that he has described his experiences as a precursor of a number of things which have become more commonplace nowadays, such as flexible working hours, the new way of working and self-managing teams.

"At 76 universities, Semler and the Semco company are considered a case study; at 271 educational institutions, texts about the Semco approach to happiness are required reading." (p.24) I can indeed say that in the lessons I teach at various schools and universities - whether I’m lecturing on Business Psychology or HRM - this Semco Style is often mentioned in the core curriculum. Because so much has already been written about Ricardo Semler and Semco, I would like to take a closer look in this review to see which happiness competencies are applied. These happiness competencies can be found in the book Geluk op het werk? Train je gelukscompetenties!, now including Semco as a case study.

Playing and thinking outside the box

If there is anything Semler does, it is breaking through standard thought patterns and routines. In this context, playing means: using the available space to think freely and achieve innovation, allowing life’s energy to flow instead of constraining it. Thinking outside the box means: gathering new perspectives and achieving creative solutions. How did that happen at Semco according to Semler?

  • Playing means using the available space and not just (blindly) following rules. Ask yourself why; question your reasons for doing something. We are so used to doing something because everyone else does it too or because it is dictated. If you have an answer to the first why question, ask yourself why again. And then do it for the third and last time. “At Semco, we encourage people to question each instruction.” (p.18) The 3x Why technique will help you with this. A practical example: Semler used to have three to five business lunches with business partners every week. He considered this a strain. He referred to it as ‘a burdensome lunch program’. Semler asked himself the why question three times and realized that he could also reach the same result he had intended to achieve with the business lunch, but in a different way. Getting rid of this program gave him room to breathe again, i.e. more flexibility to do fun things.
  • Another way to allow more life energy to flow is by aligning your work with your personal biorhythm. Back when Semler first started experimenting with this, it was still considered revolutionary not to work from nine to five, but instead to organize your own time. Everyone has their personal biorhythm of productive hours. Make use of that instead of “timekeeping” on attendance.
  • Enriching and broadening your mind is one of Semler’s happiness-boosters, as it turns out. He has resolved to study two hours per day, without any clear objective in mind.
  • Semler uses the principle of self-interest to encourage creativity. ‘People who are motivated by self-interest will come up with solutions that other people would never have be able to imagine.’ That is why no one is obligated to attend a meeting. Only if it serves your own interests.
  • There is plenty of space to take actions which you deem necessary. That means that there is plenty of space to experiment and make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes. Playing means in this context: trying things out, falling down and getting up again, and enjoying the ride.

Positivity skill

"Instead of constantly talking about motivation, organizations should ensure that employees are occasionally delighted." (p.65) Semler sums up his moments of happiness. When his three-year-old son gives him kisses, when he feels a smile emerging when he has written something intriguing, when he hears his favorite musician play. Semler knows how he can summon his moments of happiness and relive them again and again. He takes you along in that in a picture album filled with blissful moments.

Appropriately giving and receiving and Signification

Many people experience signification in their job. In Geluk op het werk? Train je gelukscompetenties! Signification is defined as: ‘Provides added value to the bigger picture from the position of a meaningful other’. It is a known fact that it is often more difficult for people who no longer feel part of the bigger picture, because they no longer have the idea that they will have any significance after their retirement. In case of Appropriately giving and receiving, we are in part talking about ‘being able to fill your personal happiness reservoir’. Many people take holidays for that, or save the good stuff for the weekend – or even worse: until they retire. In other words: they place it outside work. How do you fill that happiness reservoir during working hours? Semler places it in a broader perspective. He advocated a part-time retirement program. An employee gets a ‘voucher for work after retirement’. That means you do not have to stop working and that you can do now what you would have wanted to do when you retired. Semler states: "my weekends and workdays have been interchangeable for the past ten years." (p.55).

Alignment

The principle of ‘The Seven-Day Weekend’ is based on Semler's statement that there is a symbiosis between work and your life’s purpose. Semler states that “everyone has a ‘reservoir of talent’. Intuition, interests and skills form the foundation of talents. These talents are indicators of your calling. The best way to ensure long-term job satisfaction is to act on that calling.” (p.69) The happiness competence of Alignment means in this context: Awareness of your personal mission which allows you to make a significant contribution. Semler therefore wants to give maximum space to employees to do what they want in the company and to find their place where they can generate value for the customer. “At Semco, you are what you do.” (p.301) They do not even have business cards. They only made an exception if it became too confusing for the client. For that matter, there are also organizations in the Netherlands who have embraced this principle; instead of listing their job title as ‘managing director’ on their calling card, they’ve opted to state a hobby under their name, such as ‘sailor’.

Community building

The definition of community building includes personal responsibility and connectivity as basic elements to generate a creative force as a healthy working community. Semler calls such a working community a kinship. Other organizations that I speak with talk in terms of a ‘squad’ or a tribe. There is a very good reason why self-managing teams have a maximum size: to ensure that personal contribution is tangible for every team member. For that matter, Semler considers kinships outside work just as important as the tribe at work.

Relaxation, resilience and recovery

“Ways to combat stress, such as playing golf before a conference call or taking a break on the beach during inventory, are essential.” (p.56) At Semco, you really need those happiness competences if you want to reach your targets. When internal business plans are constantly rewritten, half-year budgets do not provide any guarantees and you have to deal with half-year forecasts, you will be under quite a lot of strain. The objectives set by clients are not tame either. Semler describes how one of his employees needed “Zen lessons in regular retreats” to find the peace of mind to reach their targets. (p.309) And peace of mind correlates closely to happiness, as happiness scientist Professor Ab Dijksterhuis describes. Thankfully, this employee at least knew HOW to relax and recover from the work pressure and had developed the skills of Relaxation, Resilience and Recovery.

Personal Leadership

One of the ingredients in the happiness competency of Personal Leadership is adopting the position of the inner adult. Semler continues this principle across all the lines. “Why are adult people treated like young adolescents at work? Why can’t employees be included in the decision about who will lead them? Why shouldn’t they manage themselves? Why should they not open their mouths and openly challenge, ask questions and exchange information?” (p.16) Decisions are made by the group members themselves; employees choose their own manager. Instead of imposing control, trust is given. 

Not everyone flourishes in a Semco culture. Let’s take a closer look at the flip side.

The flip side

  • At Semco, there is such a thing as a ‘Survival Manual’, let’s say an introduction manual for new employees. “Many people have left Semco because they had trouble adapting to the excessive freedom and lack of control.” (p.199) “They need rules and guidance.” (p. 203) “Employees need to adapt Semco to their preferences.” “When people ask for the reason why Semco exists, there is no clear answer, but it is about mutual satisfaction and providing a reason to live and work.” (p. 54) “We want self-management to be the only standard here at Semco.” (p.269) What is the difference between so much freedom and being tossed in at the deep end? Every person has their own personality type and communication style: one flourishes with the big picture, while another needs more details. Without entrepreneurial drive or any idea of your personal mission, it is hard to fit into a culture like Semco’s. The book does not show that this transition was facilitated. Organizations that I talk to within the context of Geluk op het Werk, which have been successful in creating their own reality from so much available space, have purchased training courses to help employees find their personal mission. Once they have found that, the desire to manifest their personal mission will be a motivational force in their entrepreneurial mindset.
  • Each meeting will start as if the last one had never taken place. Almost as if you are starting over and over again. That seems quite exhausting to me. However, it is very agile: based on the principle that ‘everything is possible’, they brainstorm about their long-term objectives, but they only plan ahead three to six months, always responding to what is happening at that time.
  • Decisions are made by the group, which creates considerable group dynamics. Though the objective is maximum commitment, there is also considerable chaos. The lack of solid footing and being at the mercy of group dynamics, as I have encountered in a number of self-managing teams, also produce negative emotions. One of the organizations that I work with has therefore chosen to initially define the role of a manager as if he would be a film director, with the aim of letting go of that role at a later point in time. A team will first go through various phases before they get into the flow – and they now know how they can be the catalysts for this.
  • Sometimes tribes at work will clash with each other. Semler does what he believes is best, which is: “nothing”. (p.207) “The process is the stimulator.” They “trust implicitly in confrontation”. That also applies to conflicts at work. In my opinion, that only leads to unnecessarily long periods of pain. It assumes that you’ll be able to deal with all of these emotions. Some issues will end up in “lots of discussion and quite a lot of shouting”. “If we do not fully agree on something, we often leave an issue undecided, so that some people will stick to the criterion and others will ignore it. This process has liberated many people and have offered entirely new perspectives to others, just as it has cost us some first-class employees.” (p. 254)
  • Not everybody is ready for this ‘free flight format’. “A large part of job satisfaction is derived from people gaining some amount of individual control over the logistics of their work. At Semco, we try to create those conditions by doing away with formal job descriptions, career plans and organizational models.” I do not see this happening any time soon at some government institutions.
  • Semler had heard stories about extramarital affairs, drug use and other socially inappropriate conduct within the company walls and beyond. He is convinced that this is just the tip of the iceberg, but he has never considered taking a position on this.” (p.281) Does this mean that you just wait and see? When you are dealing with violence, is it enough to simply “not take a position” because you assume you are dealing with “adults”?

Semler admits that his leadership evaluation had shown that Semco would benefit more from stability than unrest at a certain point, in which he mentions with some measure of self-perspective that the latter is his strong side. In addition, it is also often too late. (p. 297 and 301) The fact that Semler does not value any power or leadership position makes it more possible for him to leave out his ego to provide meaning and flexibility to the maximum human potential and creativity from IQ, EQ and SQ.

Veronique Kilian is trainer, (team)coach, public speaker and author.
Chief Happiness Officer at www.k-tdynamics.nl
www.trainjegelukscompenties.nl

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This book review previously previously appeared on Managementboek.nl in Dutch. It has been translated and published with permission.

The Seven-Day Weekend
Ricardo Semler
Meulenhoff Boekerij, 2nd printing 2015
For more informatiobn about this book, click here

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