Back to School

After the discouraging experience of letting someone else try to roll out 5.1, I knew it was time for some serious management training. Alan and I, and Bruce to a lesser extent, claimed that our management approach was defined by the statement “we teach correct principles and our employees govern themselves.” We borrowed the statement from Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church, who said “I teach correct principles and they govern themselves,” when asked to explain how the church was governed. We had attempted to follow this philosophy, but over the years we had not done a very good job of teaching correct principles. Our company was run with a philosophy closer to “we let employees govern themselves, and when they make a mistake, we try to correct them.” I was hoping to change this by defining and teaching the correct principles of WordPerfect Corporation in a series of lectures for all managers in the company. The lectures represented the sum of all I had learned over the years.

For practically every week from December of 1989 through mid-1990, I invited 16 different managers to have lunch with me for three consecutive days starting on Tuesday. After lunch each day, I spoke for about an hour and a half. In addition to the managers from WordPerfect Corporation, I held classes for most of the managers from SoftCopy, our manufacturing company; WordPerfect Publishing, the publishers of WordPerfect, The Magazine; Computershow, a computer store we owned in Orem; and ABP Development, the company we formed to build our buildings. A few of the managers from our WordPerfect companies around the world also attended the lectures.

My approach was low key. I dressed casually and drank an extra large Dr. Pepper to keep my throat from going dry (I have since given up both sugar and caffeine). There were no tests and no study materials. No one was forced to come, and no one had to take notes. Everyone was allowed to ask questions at any time and to disagree with anything I said. Instead of telling people what to do, I was trying to convince them that the principles I was teaching were the ones we should follow.

The lectures were an unusual experience for a lot of people. For years I was the person most feared in the company. If I walked down a hallway, I was used to hearing the sound of desk drawers closing as people hid their snacks from view. If I attended a meeting, it was likely that at least a few of the people there were afraid to speak to me, unlike Alan, who was welcomed, or Bruce, who usually went unrecognized. By starting with lunch, I was hoping to put people at ease.

The first lecture was mostly a recounting of the history of WordPerfect Corporation. A lot had been written about the company in the trade publications, but many of the newer employees had only a few pieces of the puzzle. The three of us on the Board were by now something of a cross between legend and caricature, typecast as the eccentric, the good guy, and the bad guy. I wanted people to see us in a more realistic light, as normal people from relatively modest backgrounds, who worked hard once they found themselves in the right place at the right time. I wanted to explain how I came to believe what I believed. Luckily, none of the history was very controversial, and it served as a comfortable introduction for some of the more difficult to swallow material which was to come.

Near the end of the first lecture, I explained what WordPerfect Corporation was not. This set the stage for the next two days, when I would explain what WordPerfect Corporation was.

WordPerfect Corporation was not a platform for personal achievement, a career ladder to other opportunities, or a challenging opportunity for personal improvement. The company did not put the needs of the individual ahead of its own. The company was not concerned about an employee’s personal feelings, except as they related to the company’s well-being.

WordPerfect Corporation was not intended to be a social club for the unproductive. While other companies might condone many personal or social activities at the office, ours did not. Things like celebrating birthdays, throwing baby showers, collecting for gifts, selling Tupperware or Avon, managing sports tournaments, running betting pools, calling home to keep a romance alive or hand out chores to the children, gossiping or flirting with co-workers, getting a haircut, going to a medical or dental appointment, running to the cafeteria for a snack, coming in a little late or leaving a little early, taking Friday afternoon off, and griping about working conditions were all inappropriate when done on company time. Even though these activities were condoned by many businesses across the country, we felt there was no time for them at WordPerfect Corporation.

WordPerfect Corporation was also not an arena for political games. A good old boy network method of trading favors inside the company to get things done was frowned upon. Kissing up, back stabbing, and seeking for power and position were inappropriate. Making decisions by compromise, the politician’s favorite tool, was not acceptable.

Finally, WordPerfect Corporation was not a “New Age” company. We were neither employee-owned nor a democracy. We were not primarily interested in focusing all our attention on either the employee or the customer. We did not feel it appropriate to check an employee’s body fat or prescribe a diet or exercise program. We were not trying to stay in step with current business philosophies.

Coming all at once at the end of the first day, a few people were shocked and some were upset. No one left without being a little offended, which was part of the desired effect. I wanted the participants to question some of their assumptions about their jobs and their company. I frankly could not see how businesses could expect to get anything done when the workplace was turned into a social club. I felt a job was about work, and the personal, political, and social aspects were important only when they were important to the welfare of the company. I certainly was happy if employees enjoyed their work, but I wanted them to understand that their enjoyment and fulfillment were not the focus of WordPerfect Corporation.

On the second and third days, I did my best to explain the principles which I hoped would govern our work at WP Corp. For many this was new information. At the time we did not have a company organizational chart, an employee handbook, any written job descriptions other than those written for the reps, or a widely published mission statement. How the company was supposed to work was a mystery to most employees.

The principles, as I defined them, included our purpose and objectives and a description of our form and function. The purpose of the company answered the question “Why does the company exist?” The objectives answered the question, “What does the company hope to accomplish?” The form of the company described who went where in the organization. Function described the policies and procedures which were used to define how the company went about doing its work. I did not believe that this why, what, who, where, how method of defining the company’s principles was the only way, but it seemed to be a good framework for our discussions.

Our purpose was to write, sell, and support the finest software in the world. It was not to make huge piles of money or to grow in order to provide continuing opportunities for employees or to raise money to help teenagers say no to drugs. While all of these other purposes were perfectly fine, our reason for existence was to provide the world with great software.

Our objectives were to conduct business fairly, honestly, profitably, and cheerfully, while avoiding debt and extravagance; to maintain an efficient organization based upon teamwork, honest and frequent communication, careful and thoughtful decisions, without bureaucracy; to provide employees with meaningful work, fair compensation, and all necessary assistance to do their best work; to develop useful, reliable, and wonderful software products; to market our products effectively, professionally, truthfully, and with excitement; and to offer excellent support for our products.

These objectives were not carved in stone. Bruce and Alan were fairly comfortable with them, but we were still making a few changes. There was some discussion that we should limit ourselves to business software to emphasize our focus on word processing. The objectives were, however, close enough to how we felt for me to discuss them. Alan did come to two of the lectures and seemed to approve of what I was saying, but he was hard to read, because he was always so agreeable.

The form I envisioned for the company was probably the most difficult part for everyone to accept. In my mind I saw three groups of people in the company. The first group, the Board of Directors, defined and published the principles, made the major decisions affecting the direction of the company, and decided the basics of what everyone was to do.

The second group, which I called the advisors, was responsible for training, supporting, and evaluating the employees in the company. I purposefully avoided the word “supervisor,” because I did not want anyone bossing anyone else around. The advisors were expected to treat the employees who reported to them with respect and kindness. They were expected to let employees know very clearly when they made mistakes and then help them understand how to improve their performance. Advisors were not allowed to be overbearing, disrespectful, or unfair. They were expected to care about the employees they were supposed to help and not to care too much about their title or position in the company. Advisors were expected to give each employee who worked for them a written job description containing the job’s purpose and objectives and to perform a regular evaluation of performance based on what was stated in the job description.

The third group I called managers. These were the remainder of the employees, all of whom had responsibilities to fulfill or manage. I liked the idea of calling everyone in the company a manager. I wanted every employee in the organization to feel like their duties were important. In an ideal situation, the duties of all managers would support the purpose and objectives of the company.

The concept of an advisor left many thinking I had lost my mind, so I spent the last half hour of the second day reading from Peter Drucker’s book The Practice of Management. I read Chapter 12, “Managers Must Manage,” from beginning to end to confirm for them what I was saying was not completely off the wall. Although first published in 1954, this chapter explained better than anything I had read what it was I was trying to say.

Drucker wrote, “the manager should be directed and controlled by the objectives of performance rather than by his boss,” and “If the manager is, however, controlled by the objective requirements of his own job and measured by his results, there is no need for the kind of supervision that consists of telling a subordinate what to do and then making sure that he does it.” He further wrote “If a one-word definition of this downward relationship [between a manager and a subordinate] be needed, ‘assistance’ would come closest,” and “The vision of a manager should always be upward–toward the enterprise as a whole. But his responsibility runs downward as well–to the managers on his team. That his relationship toward them be clearly understood as a duty rather than as supervision is perhaps the central requirement for organizing the manager’s job effectively.”

I believed what Drucker wrote. The advisors were there to assist the employees, not to tell them what to do every minute or keep track of their every move. An advisor was a teacher, not an overbearing supervisor. Managers should be controlled by their objectives, rather than over the shoulder instructions from a supervisor. The job of an advisor was a duty and not an opportunity to boss people around.

On the last afternoon I tried to explain how I thought the company should function, which was the hardest part of all. I could have written out every policy and procedure, but I was much more interested in teaching a few requirements for governing actions and decisions.

The first requirement was that we worked as a team. I used the story of how two students approached a college exam to try to explain what I meant. The first student took the exam without looking at notes or books and without getting help from anyone during the test. This person was very smart and managed to get a fairly good grade, but he did not get the highest grade in the class. The second student in the example talked to the professor before the exam and learned that she could bring notes and books to the test, discuss possible answers with other students, and ask the professor for help if she had trouble during the test. The second student received the highest grade, which was a perfect score.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in business work like the first student. They work alone and make decisions alone, perhaps so they can claim all the credit if they succeed. Employees could be much more successful, however, if they followed the example of the second student, who was smart enough to ask for help. I wanted everyone in the company to work like the second student in the analogy. I hoped they would go to co-workers for suggestions, make use of any information available, and consult with their advisors and other experts around the company as needed. Our work was not a personal effort to gain acclaim. It was a team effort where asked for help and helped each other so we could all do our best work.

The next requirement was that we needed to communicate freely and frequently. In many companies it was common for supervisors to keep information to themselves, conceal their mistakes whenever possible, and never allow subordinates to go over their heads. I wanted a company where information could flow freely without regard to formal lines of communication. I imagined a room filled with light, without any portion remaining in darkness. I wanted a company where no one kept secrets and where everything was kept out in the open. Advisors who expected their employees to be so loyal to them that they would not take problems to someone else were exactly the ones I wanted to kick out of the company. Any loyalty should be toward the company, its purpose and objectives, not to individual advisors. Advisors who did not want the light to shine in their domain did not deserve their positions. Lines of communication should be allowed to go in any direction. If employees made mistakes, then the mistakes needed to be known so they could be corrected and avoided in the future. I wanted a company where employees could make mistakes, admit them freely, and learn how to do better without fearing for their jobs.

I emphasized planning as the third requirement, and part of planning was to always count the cost. We wasted a lot of money by neglecting this principle over the years. For example, the 4.2 workbook cost us about $2.30 to produce. The 5.0 workbook, which had only a few more pages, cost us over $7.00. Who approved the increase? No one. One person in publications thought we needed better paper. Another thought we needed to use more color. A third thought we did not really need to get three bids, and a fourth thought we needed a better cover. We were shipping 150,000 workbooks every month and spending $675,000 a month more than was necessary. We were wasting more than double the amount we were spending on salaries for the entire publications department.

As the fourth requirement, I asked employees to listen to their hearts as well as their minds. I was not asking people to make emotional decisions, but I did want them to listen to their feelings, especially their misgivings and their second thoughts, before they made their decisions.

Alan, Bruce, and I relied on our feelings a lot. It would drive some people crazy to have us change our minds after sleeping on a decision, but over the years we had learned to be careful if we had second thoughts. Our misgivings and impressions, although subjective, generally came from some objective information which had been noted, but not thoroughly considered. If we took the time to understand why we felt badly about something, we almost always found a good reason and a better course of action.

People rely on their feelings all the time in non-business settings. When looking for an apartment, clothes, or someone to marry, we make our decisions based on our feelings. Many times we actually know we do not like something before we know why. If we examine our feelings closely, however, we can usually discover what it is that makes us feel a certain way. Sometimes it simply takes time to figure out that the reason we did not want to rent a certain apartment was because of the yellow linoleum in the kitchen or the small windows in the bedroom.

If we rely on feelings to make personal decisions, I do not see why they cannot help us to make business decisions as well. Once an attorney friend from New York City asked me for advice. He worked for a law firm near Rockefeller Center and was considering taking a job in the Wall Street area. I suggested he take a day off and pretend to go to work for the new company. I asked him to take the subway he would take if he accepted the job, walk to the new office building, and go up the elevator to the floor where he was likely to work. Then I wanted him to ask himself how he felt about the new opportunity. He took my advice, and as soon as he walked out of the subway exit on his way to the new office, he knew he did not want the job. He remembered how much more he enjoyed working near Central Park.

I especially wanted people to consider their feelings when making hiring decisions. I would get very discouraged at those advisors who made it a point not to let their feelings play a part in their decisions. While I did not want anyone making quick decisions based only on first impressions, I did want people to consider how they felt about the applicants they interviewed in addition to the applicants’ qualifications. If they disliked someone, they should try to figure out the reasons for the dislike and eliminate the misgivings before offering them a job. Once they understood the reasons for the negative feelings, they could make a more objective determination.

The last requirement was that we should all work to avoid bureaucracy, including any unnecessary meetings, any meetings which were longer than necessary, and any unnecessary reports. If all employees learned their duties and governed their own actions based on correct principles, then many meetings and most written reports could be avoided. People should certainly talk and share ideas, but not in three hour meetings with 25 people. I especially disliked the Monday morning staff meeting. I thought it was ridiculous to tie people up in a meeting when the telephone lines were overflowing with calls from customers who had waited all weekend to talk to us.

I promised everyone in the classes that if they fulfilled these five requirements when they made their decisions, they would not get in trouble with me if something went wrong. They would, however, get into a lot of trouble if they worked entirely on their own with their own agenda, even if their work was good. A decision was correct only if it was consistent with the purpose and objectives of the corporation and how the company was supposed to function.

I admit I was not giving advisors a complete picture, but I hoped I was giving them enough to do a good job. If we could work together, communicate openly, plan carefully, listen to our hearts as well as our minds, and avoid bureaucracy, then I was sure we could do a good job for ourselves and our customers. If everyone knew the purpose and objectives of their job and worked to fulfill the purpose and objectives of the company, we could accomplish anything. We could take on Microsoft or anybody else and win if we would set aside our personal agendas and work together.

Of course, not everyone agreed with what I was teaching. Some classes ended in heated discussions. A lot of the advisors did not like the idea that they would have to be nice to people. They enjoyed being bosses. The most controversial idea presented was that any employee could and should be able to talk to anyone else in the company, including members of the Board. Many advisors wanted lines of communication strictly enforced so they would never look bad to their own advisors. Many did not want to bother the Board with little problems. I did not want the Board to be bothered with little problems either, but I also did not want to prevent people from approaching us with big problems. I had a hard time sympathizing with those people who wanted to keep a tight reign on the people they advised. I could not understand why anyone should expect to be hard-nosed and difficult. I was difficult and ill-tempered at times, but at least I regretted it.

The lectures left a lot of holes that still needed filling. I spent a lot of time after the training was over meeting with advisors, discussing how to write job descriptions, how to perform evaluations, how to set salaries, and how to handle employees if they refused to improve their work. I did not have all the answers, but I felt we were moving in the right direction. If nothing else, after the training a lot more employees had something in writing which explained what it was they were supposed to be doing.

Go to Chapter 12