An entrepreneur’s search for leadership and innovation in the workplace

This story was published before on energized.org (also in Dutch)

Meet the Bearded Dragon named Api, the CEO of New Black. This lizard has been in charge of this tech startup in Almere since its start. This unusual situation typifies how New Black co-founder Steven Bakker looks at conventional business premises. Steven has been averse to titles and hollow job descriptions all his life.

Steven founded and led many companies. After many years and hundreds of employees, Steven began to discover a fixed pattern. “As soon as people start to work, something changes and they start to work as a worker. All human baggage and curiosity is left behind at the cloakroom when they arrive, and as soon as people go to work, they step into their jobs and carry out only what the job description requires of them. At the end of the day people go home and from that moment on they start real doing business again.

At home, they arrange mortgages are being arranged, book round trips to distant countries and administer the local tennis club.

Here I see independence and talents that I did not see on the work floor. This happens in Retail on a large scale, with shop employees. This has always surprised me.

I am convinced that this is caused by managers and hierarchies. Traditional business facilities make people stupid and task-oriented. ”

“As a former owner of a retail company like Dixons, I thought to stir up the entrepreneurial spirit among people by taking managers away from the organizational structure. But this was not enough. To get real change, I needed a mind-set shift. I expected that by removing a layer of management, people would become freer and grow enormously. Nothing was less true. Even in the absence of the manager, the backpack full of talents and the urge to learn and grow hardly came within the walls of the company.

It took a while before I realized how entrenched hierarchical thinking is. Behavior and patterns do not change quickly. Classical forms of task-oriented management or Taylorism — dividing work into small pieces and exercising strong control over this — have been accepted as normal for over a hundred years. Even without a “boss”, people are conditioned to be docile employees. In a role, with tasks, powers and responsibilities. Individuals determining their own priorities and managing themselves has been seen as something exotic. Even the most talented individuals experienced self-management as counter-intuitive. And we found that removing the manager’s yoke, even partially, had the opposite effect. In practice, employees were not only conditioned, but also very insecure. They were burdened with the fear of resignation when they make mistakes. They were too afraid of not doing well. As a result, they opted for safety by expressly following instructions.”

“It really took me some time to develop a strategy where I could free people from the way they’ve been working for more than a hundred years, within a hierarchical management structure. After clearing the management layers, I started to implement clear KPI’s, wide and deep within the organization with the aim to provide people with certainty, by making it measurable how exactly the team and individuals could contribute to the desired economic result. But this 'replacement clarity' was also not enough.”