Oh Ricardo

I’m preoccupied with Ricardo Semler – again. My head is full of him and his dangerous ideas – again.
Exactly 10 years after I first encountered him – at a vulnerable point in our transition to democracy when all sorts of tantalising ideas were in the air – he’s disturbing my peace – again.
It had taken a very long time to get him out of my mind the first time and to convince myself that he was a total unknown without a support group and that his promises were whispers of discontent and that to be happy I had better put him firmly out of my life.
I had forgotten about him, and only remembered him in vague hmm-that-reminds-me-of-something ways when a month ago, killing time at Joburg International, I was browsing in the CNA and there he was! Surrounded by a group of ducks, large as life, smiling, enticing – and not looking a day older.
Oh Ricardo!
Damn you Ricardo!
Not now Ricardo!
This is the wrong time to come back Ricardo!
Ricardo, I have put all that behind me, I blurted, to the amazement of the travellers/shoppers. I don’t do self-help any more. I don’t read management books, I don’t believe in the grand narrative of the guru. My situation is so utterly unique and without precedent, that only I can invent for myself the best course of action. I’m an adult now Ricardo, I’ve grown up, I’m not so impressionable anymore. I have enough experience to be jaded and distanced. And last time you turned my life upside down I was left feeling foolish and pathetic because only I believed in you, in this entire country you had a fan club of one. Nobody had even heard of you!
No Ricardo!
Not again Ricardo!
So what did I do? I bought the damn book, and – I’ve been reading it.
And what has Mr Maverick and his “success story” done for me? Made me disgruntled, frustrated and discontented – again!
How does this annoying Brazilian with the “world’s most unusual workplace” know what lies deepest in my soul? How does he – within a minimum of pages – touch all I yearn for?
Damn you Ricardo, I am in torment again!
And I’m ticking off all the reasons why I should not believe in you, all those things that undercut your words and make you a liar so that I can firmly box you and fix you as definitely not for me, not for this world, not for my world at any rate.
You’re a rich daddy’s boy – inheriting a company at 23! Fancy!
You obviously have lots of disposable income – you and your “wisdom revolution”, your “work/life balance” – you can talk about the Seven-Day Weekend!
You have freedom and power totally unknown to a person who works in a bureaucracy from hell with the timelines of the turning seasons, where to get a key cut takes a requisition in triplicate and 72 hours’ notice.
No Ricardo! You don’t find yourself as a number among thousands, in a business autocracy that so invades your mind that you cannot believe any other system exists.
You are so coy about your formative years, how could you grow up in the Brazil of the 70s and find and espouse such bizarre ideas? Where did this come from? Who did you pinch it from? Nobody is a self-made man. I can’t believe your credentials because I can’t find them. What school did you go to? What university? You’re hiding something, Ricardo!
Democracy in the workplace; factory workers hiring their bosses; no hierarchy in the parking lot; meetings in which people come and go depending on their boredom levels; working as many hours as you need in a week; bringing your children to work if you want to; setting your own salary; mooching around the company when you don’t have a formal job to do but you’re kept because you’re liked and valued and something will come up! No HR section, no IT section, everyone’s so empowered they can do it all for themselves!
For goodness sake who can seriously believe this stuff!
You say in the 10 years since you wrote Maverick the most important business schools in the world have been to Brazil to study your company and its new-fangled nonsense but, Ricardo, where does this feature in the popular literature that eventually filters down to us on-the-ground middle-management types? I’ve recently been invited to an “Emotional Intelligence” seminar (read the book about the same time I read yours) but I’m not being invited to “Maverick Method” seminars.
How could I have been the lonely convert? The only one who believed a business revolution akin to a political revolution was possible? It’s like the mass democratic movement without the mass.
No Ricardo, can’t go back there. To the fervent belief in change, the essential goodness of the human being, to the responsibility that freedom breeds. Not in the workplace Ricardo. No.
I will just have to continue plodding along with grace, attending those interminable HR workshops on writing job descriptions and grading posts. Keep on avoiding the management self-help section. Stay away from the CEOs with a story to tell in glossy cover hard-back.
Just don’t write another book in 10 years’ time, please Ricardo.

* Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace (1993) and The Seven-Day Weekend: The Wisdom Revolution; Finding the Work/Life Balance (2003) published by Random House.

September 2003

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