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Dennis Bakke
  Dennis Bakke

New Book Shows How to Find Joy in the Workplace

3/31/2005 --

Author Dennis Bakke's passion is to make work exciting, rewarding and enjoyable.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Dennis Bakke, cofounder and CEO emeritus of worldwide energy giant AES Corp. and author of the new book, "Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job," spoke at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan on March 21 as part of his national book tour.

The event was sponsored by the Ross School's General Management Club.

"Joy at Work" describes Bakke's journey to create a company where every person, from custodian to CEO, had the power to use their talents in making important company decisions. He says that while most companies were concerned with maximizing profits, AES was concerned with maximizing their ability to have fun and make a difference—a business model that not only improved the lives of its employees, but also improved its bottom line. Over two decades, AES grew to 40,000 employees in 31 countries with revenues of $8.6 billion.

In his book, Bakke says selecting a mission, or purpose, is crucial because it becomes an organization's definition of success. He told the audience that he was often asked about the differences between AES and competitor Enron. With that in mind, he asked them to ponder, "Would Enron have been a different place if it had had a different purpose?"

Bakke explained that while Enron hired the best and brightest employees, their mission was to conquer the world. He said AES hired bright people too but had a much different goal, focusing on serving the world. "And that made all the difference," he said.

Bakke said most people hate their jobs, mainly because they lack freedom. "We have political freedom. We have market freedom. But when it comes to jobs, almost always people are told what to do, when to do it and how to do it," he said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Finding purpose and creating joy in the workplace became a concern for Bakke during visits to AES plants around the world. It was there that he saw unhappiness in "real people, not machines." He said he met people with the same kind of loves, difficulties, troubles and aspirations that he had.

"They didn't go to business school and some didn't even finish high school, but in all the important ways they were the same."

Bakke illustrated his business concept with a basketball analogy saying that most people experience game settings as fun and rewarding, especially when they are playing for something important and have a key role in deciding the outcome of the game.

"It isn't about winning," he said. "Winning is not the key to a joyous workplace. It's having a chance to use your skills to make a difference in your organization."

His book states that while such analogies are not perfect, sports and games can help us understand what brings joy to the workplace. For example, Bakke said when he asks people what the most exciting time in a basketball game is, most people agree it's "during a championship game, scoring when there are two seconds left and my team is one or two points behind or the score is tied, and I have the ball."

Bakke believes employees, much like the player in his basketball analogy, should have a sense of control and accomplishment. In his book, he says all AES employees were encouraged to take the "game-winning shot," even when it wasn't a slam dunk.

In his struggle to give up power, Bakke looked to his Harvard days for a system to "give others the ball." He realized only one thing would work. "As the boss and leader, I had to change."

Bosses have fun because they have the ball all the time, but me having the ball at all the important times kept everyone else from having a chance."

Bakke even went so far as to limit himself to one significant decision a year. He doesn't believe in management of people, but management of systems.

His grassroots effort to start a revolution "may even start here at Ross," he said. His goal is to not only create joy in organizations, but humility in the top executives who run them.

It's that humility, along with love, that Bakke says are the two most significant characteristics of leaders. "Bosses need to love the people they lead so much that they're willing to give up their own joy and power in order to see other people act as human beings," he said.

"Every person is a thinking, creative person who wants to make a difference in the world. As leaders, if we find a place where we can think, reason, take action, make decisions that affect the outcome and hold ourselves responsible for that outcome, it's absolute joy. That's the revolution I'd like to start."

When asked how to apply his philosophies in the workplace without micromanaging, Bakke said he's "in-your-face" but doesn't control the outcome. Celebrate the individuals. Give them freedom to make their own decisions, but do it in the context of community, he recommended.

Bakke said leadership is about serving others. "There's some chance that you could overcome this intoxicating thing called power in order to make a world filled with joy for a lot of other people. And that's why I'm here. It's hard to give up that power. I still struggle with it today."

Bakke also said that people are people, and people need to be led. "I hope you aspire to be a leader, not a manager," he said.

Bakke was raised in Saxon, Wash., and graduated from the University of Puget Sound, Harvard Business School and the National War College. He is currently president and CEO of Imagine Schools, a company that operates elementary and secondary charter schools in 10 states. He co-founded AES in 1981 and served as its president and CEO from 1994 to 2002.

For more information about Bakke or his book, please visit

For more information, contact:
Heather Thorne, (734) 936-8421 or