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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Features

Joy-full Work

Can work be fun? Dennis Bakke presents a radical new perspective on job satisfaction.

Before he became founder and CEO of Applied Energy Services (AES), one of the world’s largest energy corporations, Dennis Bakke and his business partner talked a lot about the elements of a successful organization. That’s when Bakke got an idea — a big idea. “Let’s try to make this company the most fun workplace in the history of the world,” he proposed.

"A ball made of rubber bands. You wouldn’t expect a high-powered CEO to keep such an item in his briefcase — unless that CEO is Dennis Bakke. The Joy at Work author uses the ball to explain how each person in an organization is essential to its success.

It was the early 1980s, and the then-fledgling company Apple Computers had become famous for hosting Friday afternoon beer parties for its employees. That wasn’t the kind of fun Bakke had in mind for his new company, and neither were workplace morale programs or board games in the break room.

“When I started thinking about fun at work, I thought about the biblical basis of creation,” says Dennis Bakke, whose many family connections with Seattle Pacific University include brother Ray Bakke ’65, former Alumnus of the Year. “Work was meant to be an act of worship. It’s all about entering into the master’s joy.”

These are concepts Dennis Bakke tried on for size while building AES from the ground up — concepts that, according to some, contributed to the company’s success.

Twenty years later, Bakke sat down to write Joy at Work. The book, published by Seattle-based PVG in March 2005, has enjoyed accolades from the likes of former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp; founder of Prison Fellowship Chuck Colson; and former President Bill Clinton, who called Joy at Work a “book that challenges us to rethink the purpose of business in society.”

If you’re looking for insights into leadership, Bakke won’t send you to Fortune or Harvard Business Review. He points to the parable of the talents instead. “It is a story about decentralization,” he says. “Work is about letting people take risks and try to make something useful happen with their talents, gifts, and resources. And when they come back, you say, ‘Well-done, good and faithful servant.’”

Too many Christians shy away from the business world, asserts Bakke: “They get kind of stuck thinking that the only way they can make a difference is through the church, through ministry. But most heroes of the Bible didn’t work in the church. Joseph was working for a secular king, and he saved hundreds of thousands of people from famine. At AES, we met the needs of over a hundred million people by making their electricity. I think that’s significant to God, as is driving a taxi cab or growing wheat.”

Bakke suggests that this might be one of the biggest paradigm shifts for modern-day Christians. “If you’re a restaurant owner, it’s not just about seeing your work as a way to evangelize,” he says. “It’s actually about serving people excellent food, and giving them wonderful service. That is an end in itself. It’s something that God would find significant.” That shift in perspective, he argues, allows any task — even the mundane — to be joy-filled.

On a recent visit to Seattle to speak at a luncheon sponsored by SPU’s School of Business and Economics, Bakke picked up a copy of Seattle magazine. The cover story, a feature on the city’s top 47 companies to work for, caught his eye.

“This is about everything but the work,” he says, rattling off typical workplace incentives like the ones featured in the article: days off for community service, home mortgage assistance, adoption assistance, company-sponsored gym memberships, and president’s fireside chats.

“My favorite is ‘number of paid days off,’” he adds with an ironic laugh. “In other words, the best places to work are supposedly the ones you don’t have to work at. Since no one believes that work can be fun anymore, the redeeming factor ends up being the cool perks. It’s ludicrous!”

Bakke is the first to admit that some might call his ideas radical. After all, aren’t progressive benefits an essential part of attracting and retaining quality employees? Jeff Van Duzer, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific, says both views are valid: “I think benefits do matter. But Bakke’s point, which is a good one, is that you can’t measure a good job by the benefits.”

And the measure of a good company? Bakke says it has everything to do with the leaders’ ability to “let go.” He encourages supervisors to give up “the ball” and give their employees a chance to run with it.

To illustrate this point, he keeps an unusual object in his briefcase: a rubber ball made of hundreds of rubber bands bound together. “I use it to remind people about what it means to be a team, yet still have independence,” he says.

Though Bakke, who retired from AES in 2003, is now president of the nonprofit organization Imagine Schools, he simply calls himself an “advisor.” Instead of over-managing, he lets his staff make most of the decisions. Even more unusual, he lets them set their own salaries. In a recent email to his employees, Bakke spelled this out: “I want you all to set your own salaries this year,” he wrote. “Make sure you get advice from others, but you have the final call.”

You’d think this would be like giving people the green light to inflate their incomes. But that’s not how it worked out. What Bakke found when he implemented this system at AES, and now at Imagine Schools, was quite the contrary. “The employees self-regulated. Very few public companies will try these kinds of principles because they are just too afraid of their shadows, and they don’t have courageous CEOs.”

Courageous or not, Bakke’s critics see flaws in the principles of Joy at Work. “Bakke has outlined a philosophy of treating employees that is directionally correct as it focuses on engagement and creating meaningful work for all levels of the organization,” says Michael Erisman ’92, a human resources executive who has worked with such companies as General Electric, Pepsico, Qwest, and Microsoft. “However, there are some aspects of his approach that are problematic. He assumes that all employees desire the accountability and responsibility for the bigger-picture decisions and results. This is an approach that focuses on a Western culture of winning that may not fit all employees.”

When it comes to the concept of finding joy at work, Van Duzer asks some questions that emerge from SPU’s vision for engaging the culture:“Does your work have meaning? Is it trying to accomplish something worthy? Are you being the person that God created you to be, or are you just a cog in a machine?”

Bakke agrees these questions are key. “I think the business school at Seattle Pacific is so much farther ahead of most I’ve seen,” he says. And mere mention of the “cog-in-a-machine” idea really gets him going.

“That’s not how God intended us to work,” he says. “The American workplace has so many holdovers from the Industrial Revolution. There are still bosses out there who treat people like machines.”

Bakke tells a story of a power plant AES acquired in Kazakhstan. “When I first went to visit, the people were so used to a certain way of working, they wouldn’t even smile,” he recalls. But Bakke kept going back, and eventually things changed. “Three years later, I listened for two hours as people told stories about how their lives had been changed — both at work and at home — because of the concept of joy at work.”

“If people are given a chance to use their skills, they’ll see that the fun is in the work, not the extras,” says Bakke. “It’s life-changing. And with the right perspective, any job can be joy-filled, even shoveling coal.”

By Sarah Jio

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