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No bosses? This CEO makes it work

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

Chris Rufer has brought innovation to an industry not accustomed to outside-the-box thinking: tomato processing. After founding Morning Star, a California tomato packer, in 1970, Rufer became the first processor to market tomato paste in a 300-gallon “bag-in-box.”

But it’s his personnel policies that truly differentiate his company. Rufer views the traditional relationship be­­tween supervisor and employee as “forced” and “artificial.”

As a result, he has structured Morning Star as “bossless.” With more than 2,000 workers at the peak of the tomato season, performance evaluations occur by committee. There are no managers to administer reviews; instead, groups of peers handle it.

The reviewers focus on each worker’s output and progress in advancing toward self-defined goals that Morning Star calls “steppingstones.” Examples include number of gallons produced and number of tomatoes sorted.  

New hires sign a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU) that lists their priorities for the coming year. If your job is to evaporate water out of tomato pulp, for instance, you sign a CLOU to remove a specific number of gallons of water every week.

Rufer has set up whiteboards, chalkboards and TVs all over the processing plant. Everyone checks the displays for updates on what each worker is producing and what remains to be done.

When conflicts arise, Rufer has established a four-step process: work directly with the disputant to resolve conflict, ask a third co-worker to mediate, form a panel of six to 10 peers to iron it out and, if all else fails, bring in Rufer to join the panel and render a final verdict.

— Adapted from “The Boss Stops Here,” Matthew Shaer, New York.

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