12 Most unCEO Business Leaders
There’s a better way to run a company, and that way requires a more enlightened – and more effective – brand of leader. Allow me to introduce the unCEO.
These Twenty-first Century leaders deserve their own book, something I’m presently working on. Here, submitted for your approval, is a list of individuals who each deserve their own chapter in that book.
Surely everyone’s favorite unCEO, Branson founded his first company to “have fun, hang out with cool people, and make a little money” – and he’s still doing that today, on a grand scale. This billionaire’s style makes a mockery of the straight-laced, by-the-numbers stiffs running most other businesses. If for no other reason, emulate Branson because he’s much more successful than you. Or, because he’s enjoying himself more. Your call.
2. Tony Hsieh (Zappos)
Hsei realized that he didn’t like his own company culture anymore – so he sold it and founded another: Zappos, where culture is king and the CEO isn’t. Indeed, the CEO is so not king that his “office” is a cubicle in the middle of his call center. Few personify the unCEO more than this iconoclast, who, like his people, is “just a little bit weird.”
Like Hsei, this founder/unCEO works among her staff on the open floor. She hires those who’ve survived a rough patch in their lives, because of what the experience taught them.
4. Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia)
What do you do when your hobby begins to show you a profit? If you’re savvy, you remember what brought you there – and you instill that ethic in your company culture. As he explains in his book, Let My People Go Surfing, success doesn’t have to ruin all the fun of business.
Buffett is the polar opposite of the parasitic corporate raider. For decades, he has bought companies based on their management and held onto those firms (and those leaders) for the long-term. This unCEO gets that business is all about people and their values, not assets and their value.
6. John Timpson (Timpson)
What is the first thing this British unCEO does when he buys a new business? He removes the electronic point-of-sale machine, replacing it with a good old-fashioned mechanical cash register. Why? So people at the home office can’t run the business.
“A higher degree. A higher purpose.” When these teachers and former union organizers founded Walden, the first school without walls, in 1972, they weren’t just out to build a business – they set out to make the world a better place. That idealism, coupled with a very practical business model, has indeed changed higher education, and trained two generations of leaders to stand for more than merely increasing shareholder value.
8. Ricardo Semler ( Semco)
Brilliant. Inspirational. Undisciplined. Incredibly successful. That sums up both Brazil’s Semco and its unCEO, Ricardo Semler. When this scion took over his company at 23, it was run as an old-school Latin American dictatorship, destined for ruin. Semler invented on the fly, ceding control to his workers, who vote on everything from the colors to paint their factory to the projects they pursue and even the location of Semler’s (ever-shrinking) office! Semco has averaged 40% growth year after year since the early 80’s. Maybe he’s onto something.
Ever notice how stripped-down and “uncommercial” craigslist.com is? That’s because their unCEO feels that a whole lot of profit is enough, a small staff is enough, and a large satisfied user base is (you guessed it) enough. While every other web icon is striving for IPO billions, Newmark contentedly chugs along, providing value.
10. Anthony Maglica (Maglite)
You know those heavy-duty flashlights that police officers use? Still made in Southern California. This remarkable unCEO wouldn’t move production overseas “even if his life depended on it.” How much profit is enough? Maglite is thriving as-is, and so is its owner, Anthony Maglica.
No one knows what the future will bring; that is why it is so essential for leaders to sow good karma all along the way. For 70 years, Mendoza and his family have run Venezuela’s biggest brand with utter respect for their workers and customers. Today, it is those workers who are standing up to the government of Hugo Chavez in his takeover bid of the company, and it is the customers who support them. Be an unCEO long before it is necessary; long before it is too late.
12. Bill Gore ( W.L. Gore & Associates)
Way back in 1958 my all-time favorite unCEO, then a staff scientist at DuPont, decided there must be a better way to run a company. Today, this privately-held innovation-machine continues to thrive, with a CEO elected by his peers and a management structure flatter than a pancake. Apparently, treating workers like adults is incredibly profitable – and still, in 2011, incredibly threatening to most business leaders.
Impressed? Let me leave you with one thought: why not your company? Something that amazes me is how W.L. Gore’s management style can still be considered innovative 53 years after its founding. Why do these half-century-old ideas still matter, in your opinon?
I have my own hunch, of course, which I’ll be exploring in my upcoming book on unCEOs. More importantly, though, we’ll discuss how we’re on the verge of a seismic transformation in how business is done. We’ve been stuck in the 20th-Century, top-down style of management for generations. That is about to end. As it does, these and other unCEOs won’t seem so unusual anymore.
Leaders, will you call these un CEOs your peers? …Or your replacements? The choice is yours.
Featured image courtesy of Stephen Poff licensed via creative commons.