Have you ever set out for work bleary-eyed, wishing you were independently wealthy so you could quit your job? Dennis W. Bakke, co-founder of the AES Corp. and now president and CEO of Imagine Schools, contends it is possible to not feel negative about work. He does so in his book, Joy at Work: a CEO’s Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job.
The book, Bakke says, is aimed “at the working life of the other 90 to 95 percent of people in large organizations” instead of upper management. With its blend of religious faith and secular rewards, it shows how anyone can maximize his or her potential and enjoy work without compromising moral or ethical values. It is “for people who want more from their jobs than a paycheck and a benefits package…[for those] stuck in a miserable job but motivated to do something about it,” he says. A mid-level manager who feels trapped by a top-down, highly centralized organization, a president, director, or CEO who would be open to a different organizational model, these are the kinds of people who may benefit from the principles espoused in Joy at Work.
Despite its title, the book is not just a guide for those who are unhappy with their job. It follows Bakke’s own story of success and triumph over his humble beginnings in Washington State. Bakke is a first-generation college graduate who went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard Business School. His experience as an employee at the Federal Energy Administration led him to establish the AES Corp., a global energy company. At the height of its success, AES had plants in 31 countries, $8.6 billion in revenue, $33.7 billion in assets and 40,000 employees: not bad for a company where the prevailing concern was that the employees have fun. Fun, in this context, is not the annual picnic or after-work beer fest. Rather, it is more a matter of allowing employees to have a voice. If every person “has the power to use his God-given talents free of needless corporate bureaucracy,” the work environment becomes fun and employees enjoy their time at work, he argues.
Appendix B is especially helpful in highlighting some of the ways that AES differs from conventional companies in its treatment of employees. At AES, nonleaders make approximately 99 percent of all important decisions. While obtaining advice is mandatory, no approval by higher-ups is required for spending company money. There are no companywide job descriptions. Instead, every person is allowed “to build a job around his or her unique skills and passions.” There also is no separate management group; each person is simply an employee.
In terms of compensation, all employees are paid according to the same criteria. There is no special program for management. Annual performance evaluation is based on self-review, with some advice from colleagues. Education, training and information are also shared equally and not just kept within certain circles. Business reviews are seen as a way to inform and educate employees about values and economic issues.
The idea of being allowed so much access and responsibility is mind-boggling to those of us accustomed to routine. Most of us probably feel unqualified and unable to step up and make financial and administrative decisions that will affect the company’s bottom line. But what if Bakke’s approach is right? Surely a job would seem less pointless if employees felt that they mattered and that their opinions and suggestions were considered.
Some naysayers point to the eventual decline of AES and Bakke’s ouster as CEO as proof that Bakke’s way does not work. Bakke addresses these developments in his book and insists that they are not evidence of flaws in his system. He points out that the principles he espouses “took AES to a lofty share price in the first place” and that “external factors [such as] the Enron scandal” caused most energy companies to suffer financially.
Whatever your viewpoint regarding Bakke’s methods, Joy at Work is a great read. Bakke’s personal story is fascinating and encouraging and his candid look at the problems at AES that led to his leaving is enlightening. And who knows, perhaps it is possible to find joy and contentment at work.
Joy at Work: a CEO’s Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job
Author: Dennis W. Bakke
Publisher: PVG, 2005
Reviewed by Soroya Brantley