Dennis W. Bakke, cofounder of the energy giant AES Corporation and CEO from 1994 to 2002, has written the most fascinating, if not the downright strangest, leadership book I’ve ever read: Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job (PVG, 2005). It is a good thing that CEOs are grossly overpaid. Otherwise Mr. Bakke might not have been able to afford to put out this self-published book. Vanity presses were never like this, with full-page ads in national publications, free books for b-school profs, an accompanying audiobook and related DVDs, and a heavily promoted national book tour. All told, he must have spent a bloody mint on the project. But why?
The book’s first 204 pages are, if not a joy, an impressively well-formulated compendium of just about the sanest and sagest managerial advice you will find sandwiched between covers. He echoes — sometimes unconsciously repeats — insights from the most thoughtful books written by people-oriented CEOs: Imagine the best of Bob Townsend, Max DePree, Jan Carlzon, and Jack Stack, along with a judicious admixture of guru-grounded wisdom à la Douglas McGregor, Abraham Maslow, Tom Peters, and Bob Waterman (the latter served on AES’s board). When it comes to treating people right, what Mr. Bakke says and does is textbook perfect. He is the anti-Shaka.
Importantly, to Mr. Bakke, creating joy at work doesn’t mean providing workers with beer and skittles. Instead, it “gives people the freedom to use their talents and skills for the benefit of society, without being crushed or controlled by autocratic supervisors or staff offices.” To accomplish that at AES, he tossed out organization charts, job descriptions, and the HR department, and gave every worker the authority and opportunity to learn, grow, and make a difference to the company’s performance. He put nearly all of AES’s 35,000 workers on a salary, organized them into self-managing teams of 15 to 20 members, gave them access to “insider” financial data, and left them free to find ways to improve the organization’s effectiveness. He then carefully measured their performance, held them accountable, and rewarded them on the basis of their contribution. In doing so, he took direct aim at the country’s corporate Coach Fitzes, making a convincing case that if you treat people like adults, they will act like adults.
Alas, reading the book is not an unalloyed pleasure. We get much too much about the author’s wonderful parents, brilliant wife, and beautiful children. He offers too many cloying little stories and homilies. He is a first-class name-dropper (and may have set a record for the largest number of celebrity blurbs). There is excessive self-congratulation, overuse of the first-person personal pronoun, and a smug sense of certainty. He wears his religious virtue on his sleeve, and goes on and on about everything he believes, work related or not. All of this seems unnecessary. Why ruin a great story with overkill?
Then, in chapter nine, we find the solution to the mystery of why Mr. Bakke has written this book in this way, and promoted it so aggressively with his own money. Here we learn that AES’s share price, which hit its high of $70 in 2000, fell below $5 less than two years later. Apparently the board lost confidence in him shortly thereafter and — well, you know how these things go — he “resigned” as CEO. It now becomes clear that the book is Mr. Bakke’s apologia, his justification of his actions. There is no joy in this chapter. Indeed, here we see another side of the author, defensive and scrambling to explain himself. It is all very complicated, and clearly there are at least two credible sides to the story.