Freedom at Work: Elect Your Boss!

Posted by jlubans on October 29, 2013

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Your organization is seeking a new leader. This search will be different – instead of the staff’s usual limited input to the decision, this time the staff elects leader. The candidate with the most votes gets to be the boss. Impossible?
That’s what happened at DreamHost, a 172-person, Los Angeles-based dot com.
DreamHost’s executive team (ET) - not exactly a radical setup with its 7 Vice Presidents including a VP of Human Resources - identified eight viable candidates. Then the ET narrowed the referendum to three. The three were invited to meet the staff; each on a separate day. All three agreed to the ballot process and to a company-wide meeting with staff, followed by informal meetings and opportunities to ask questions one-on-one.
Election Day was a two horse race; the third candidate opted out on the day of his interview. Simon Anderson was elected (online and anonymous) by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent. On his first meeting with the staff, he yukked it up: "All those of you who didn’t vote for me, stand up. You’re fired."
The election appears to have prompted Anderson’s thinking along democratic lines, more so than perhaps he would have done if he had been the usual appointee from on high.
While he says he was a collaborative kind of guy to start with – an Australian, so somewhat different from the stereotypical competitive MBA – he has shared detailed financial information and engaged employees in discussions of critical issues, such as how the company could continue to offer free health insurance. DreamHost recently formed a “committee of managers and rank-and-file employees to create a kind of constitution that will guide how DreamHost makes decisions.” And, Anderson practices the staff-inspired concept of “shameless honesty.” He elaborates:
“You can be sitting in a meeting and you can say, ‘I’m going to be shamelessly honest here.’ Boom. Now there’s respect and it’s not rude honesty. It just gives us permission to have those hard conversations ….”
Did the DreamHost staff make the right choice? Looks like it to me – they’re still in business and growing.

Vermont town meetings have long held public elections of town
leaders, sometimes by hand vote or often by silent ballot. I visited the Bradford, Vermont’s annual town meeting and observed firsthand the citizen decision-making that’s been going on in New England since about 1620.
It is hard to imagine a more open, democratic process. The slate of candidates for selectman and other permanent town jobs goes up on the board, each candidate speaks briefly (this is taciturn Vermont!) about why she wants the job. When all have spoken, it’s time to vote.

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Caption: The “slate” for one position, March 6, 2012, Bradford, Vt.

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Caption: Neighbors and citizens lining up to vote, Bradford, Vt.

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Caption: Checking in to vote, Bradford, Vt.

Can electing the boss apply elsewhere? It certainly would increase, for the better, the systolic blood pressure of my peers in large academic libraries. Instead of the search committee sending a slate of three or more names to the President, let the staff vote. The same for department heads or team leaders.
Is electing the boss an outlandish concept? Why? Well, top administrators have an unparalleled expertise, broad knowledge and proven ability to pick the right person, don’t they? Those at a lower level have too little information and understanding to make this sort of choice. If you viscerally believe this, the staff’s electing the boss is not going to work. But, If you have doubts about the effectiveness of the bureaucratic and hierarchical status quo, elect your boss!

NOTE: The Perfect Swarm : the Science of Complexity in Everyday Life by Len Fisher (New York : Basic Books, 2009) cites, in an extensive note, my “Invisible Leader” paper on p. 189. This paper, revised extensively, appears in Leading from the Middle as chapter 6, “The Invisible Leader: Lessons for Leaders from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.”

If your library does not have my book, borrow it from one that does: Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Grinnell College.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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Posted by Evangela on November 16, 2013  •  08:12:46

Interesting concept. The implication in this strategy is that the staff are equal stakeholders and have the competence to select the right person for the organization. In other words, a real partnership. Does this apply for those times in which staff wants to fire their boss?

Posted by jlubans on November 23, 2013  •  06:43:46

It should. Certainly worth a debate!

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