[Zingerman’s has kindly offered Clubhaus readers a $250 discount on any ZingTrain 2-day seminar. See below for details!]
With its modern connotations of anarchy and chaos, the political philosophy of anarchism tends to get a bad rap. How is it, then, that Zingerman’s - co-founded by a University of Michigan history major fascinated by Russian anarchists - seems nothing less than a beautifully organized business model of inclusiveness? Well, in fact, there’s quite a bit of difference between anarchism and anarchy, as Zingerman’s Community of Business so easily points out.
Ari Weinzweig co-founded Zingerman’s Deli with his business partner Paul Saginaw in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, opening their small corner deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. With just two employees, they offered a small menu of specialty foods and sandwiches. Thirty years later, Zingerman’s (hailed “the coolest small company” by Inc. Magazine) employs over 500 people and has grown far beyond a speciality deli. In addition to its bakery, restaurant, and creamery, all of which champion local agriculture and business, Zingerman’s offers numerous business seminars from training to customer service, and Ari has penned several successful books on both food and business. His most recent, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader, tackles business leadership with the same practical and unique point of view that landed his last book on Inc.’s 2010 “Best Books for Business Owners” list.
We reached out to Ari to ask a few questions on his business philosophy, and he was kind enough to take the time for some wonderfully detailed responses. The interview has been split into two parts, so tune back on Monday for the next half of our conversation!
CH: Can you talk a bit about your relationship to business as a “lapsed anarchist?”
Ari: I actually focus on “anarchism” as opposed to anarchy—the latter is generally associated with chaos whereas anarchism is anything but. The anarchists were a pretty significant group of thinkers whose historical peak was probably from the middle of the 19th century through up until maybe WWII. They came from all countries and all classes. They were not Communists or Socialists—in fact those two groups were regularly at odds with the anarchists (in Russia, actively at war with them). The most overt premise of anarchist thought was that we needed to get rid of government in order create a truly free society. The underlying approach through was all about freedom and respect for the individual—freedom from restrictions that were imposed by the state, by big organized groups, by any group that imposed itself on others without the consent of those it was imposing on. Mostly, to me, anarchism was all about respecting each person for who they were, encouraging people to be themselves, a celebration of free will, free thinking and free speech, diversity of views, free association, and working—freely and collaboratively—together to build a better community. […]
Why “Lapsed Anarchist”? Well, because I really long ago let go of the idea of getting rid of government. While I don’t have any big affection for it, neither do I have a better way to do things that I believe would work. So I still believe in anarchism conceptually, but I stopped practicing that most overt, negative, “get rid of government” part of it a long time ago. That’s where the “lapsed” things came from. What I do believe in strongly are all the positive pieces. Respect for free choice, the individual personality and creativity, freely choosing to do the right thing, treating everyone as an equal, etc.
The reason it ended up so prominently in the book is that while I was working on the book I happened to be rereading a lot of the old anarchist stuff that I hadn’t really looked at since I’d been in school. [Invited to speak at the Jewish Studies department of U of M last fall for a talk titled “Rye Bread and Anarchism” (both to which he confesses a long standing passion), Ari brushed up on works by Emma Goldman, Rudolph Rocker, Voltairine de Cleyre and Jo Labadie (both from Michigan), and Paul Avrich.]
Ari: In rereading it I was blown away, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. There was this whole body of work that lay beneath the overt stuff about getting rid of the government. It talked a lot about building positive workplaces, about respect for individuals, about how organizations have to be made up of great free thinking individuals in order to be great themselves, about how people in the world (and the workplace) needed to be respected and encouraged to be themselves in order to live full lives and contribute fully to the world around them. There was even a lot of stuff written that today would be getting headlines for promoting “Buy Local.” Sound familiar? The funny thing was that it was all written like a hundred years ago and then pretty much written off.
Which made me decide that what we do here in the ZCoB could kind of accurately be called “Anarcho-Capitalism.” I just sort of made it up in the moment, but I think it works. It’s all about respect, treating everyone as an equal, freely chosen collaboration, independent decision making, effective self-organizing, encouraging people to be themselves, sharing information openly, diversity in every aspect, contributing positively to everyone and everything around us. About using the free market in positive ways, to benefit everyone involved, not to just maximize profits for shareholders.
With over 500 employees, it must be difficult to maintain the same level of inclusiveness that would be possible with ten or twenty employees. How do you go about reconciling those ideals with a much larger (and still growing) company?
There’s not really any simplistic answer. There are couples who live in the same house for forty years but have very little meaningful communication, and there are small businesses with ten or twenty people who have terrible communication. I think that to be inclusive we:
a) write a long term vision of greatness that details just how inclusive you are and tells some of the stories of how inclusive you are. If everyone is clear that inclusiveness and connection is a critical part of your organization’s preferred future, it’s highly likely you’ll get there.
b) create multiple systems that create inclusiveness and connection. For us we have any number of ways of doing this. Two of the most important are our use of open book finance—everyone here is involved in managing the business through our weekly huddles which include reporting, forecasting and decision making, and in which the various businesses and departments are basically run. The regular huddling provides a guaranteed way to help people communicate. The other is that all our meetings—with very few exceptions—are open to everyone here. On top of that our guiding principles call for lavish sharing of information—we work at it constantly. And our organizational change process—which we call Bottom Line Change and in teach in our ZingTrain “Leading with Zing” seminar—requires a wide range of inclusion in any change. The short answer is, “It’s not easy and like everything else that’s meaningful in life, you have to work hard at it.”
What are some ideas or challenges you’re grappling with now that you’re at this point, and what does Zingerman’s company vision look like for another ten years from now?
I think that most of the challenges are the same always—the core challenges are really what’s outlined by the Twelve Natural Laws of Business, in Part 1 of the book. Having a clear written vision of greatness, offering compelling products and services, to keep improving, to stay focused, to be open to new learning, to be as appreciative of everyone and everything around us as possible, to never take anything for granted and watch all the details. Those things really never change. In the moment we’re dealing with creating succession planning so that after Paul and I are gone, things are clearly mapped out in terms of who owns the shares and how decisions are made, etc.
I can’t really stress the visioning work enough. There are four essays about it in Part 1 of the book. And we do a two day ZingTrain seminar on it. It has very literally changed our organization, and changed the way people here approach their lives and the world. It’s amazingly simple, incredibly powerful and completely counterintuitive to the way most of the work world is functioning (or not functioning I guess).
[See the company’s 2020 vision, written in 2007, here.]
Special ZingTrain discount:
Register and pay for any ZingTrain 2-day seminar between now and December 31st, 2012 and get $250 off the regular price of $1250.
Use the discount code FINOM (which means delicious in Hungarian, as are all the new Hungarian baked goods from Zingerman’s Bakehouse) to register any number of people for any number of seminars! You’ll get $250 off each registration!
[Photo credits: Zingermanscommunity.com, Zingerman’s Press]