I recently had the opportunity to visit the Bloomberg Tower, the corporate headquarters for the Bloomberg financial media empire. It was an impressive place, to say the least. When you enter, the main area for greeting visitors kind of looks like the world’s nicest airport waiting lounge, if we actually lived in a world where airports were fundamentally designed to be places of comfort and elegance. As soon as you enter, you are greeted by a huge open-air pantry where visitors and employees alike are encouraged to take whatever they want to eat or drink. Anthropologists say that we take each other out on dates because a fundamental aspect of building relationships is through the sharing of food. Bloomberg understands this.
As I went through the building, I got to see a pretty cool exhibit that displayed every generation of the famous Bloomberg terminals on which Michael Bloomberg built his empire. I remember when I first worked with one of these terminals in the early 1990s, before the advent of the World Wide Web, when the idea of a detailed and proprietary network—backed up by a unique piece of hardware through which to access that network—seemed like a good idea. In the years that followed, the notion of Bloomberg machines seemed increasingly silly until you realized that the interface is part of the value. It delivers information distraction-free, in a relentless drive toward results. The legion of Bloomberg apps that have driven this interface forward in a number of ways shows that Bloomberg’s proprietary approach stayed relevant through constant tinkering and improvement—a valuable lesson for anybody to learn.
The building also featured one of the world’s only curved escalators, which is something you don’t really think about as you’re riding it, because you are descending through a beautiful glass chamber through which you can see television production studios and the like, which draw the attention like a light draws moths. Seriously, try moving past a live TV studio in action and not look at it. Your eyes will betray you every time. The effect continues once you’re on the main production floor, where there are bullpens devoted to the various written media, radio, more broadcasting ... etc.
The whole place is a series of workstations that offer very little division between themselves. There are partitions just high enough to interfere with accidentally making eye contact with your colleagues if you look up from your screen or keyboard. But even then, those partitions are made of glass, just like every other wall in the place. The entire tower is made of glass, and the only walls that are opaque in the entire place are in the infirmary or in the restrooms. Everything else is, essentially, transparent. For a building devoted to the media—an industry that is at its best when it is informing and enforcing some kind of accountability—the lack of opacity was especially appropriate.
So when I finally saw Michael Bloomberg himself—the world’s 10th richest man, by the way, and a fellow who turned down the chance to make what would have been a pretty compelling Presidential bid this year—it came as a kind of surprise … and kind of not. He was sitting at his workstation, which was indistinguishable from every other one in the place. He had stacks of papers like any other writer, in part, I think, because like anybody with a cube, there just isn’t enough room for all of your stuff. The person working next to him wasn’t pointed out to me as a Name; it was just another Bloomberg employee. One person worked on tomorrow’s headlines, while the other had a contacts list that includes heads of state.
And that is how Bloomberg wants it. Long has his workplace been known as the kind of place where there is no privacy, where everybody is totally accessible, and where even the CEO is at a simple desk where literally anyone in the company could walk up and tap him on the shoulder. When he was pointed out to me, he was pointed out simply as “Mike,” and it was clearly a point of pride that it’s okay to call Bloomberg by his first name. Not all executives of such influence are comfortable with such familiarity. But in a building where there could be few secrets behind its see-through walls, a leader who is in the heart of everything didn’t seem so strange, really. It seemed like the only logical outcome, in fact.
We talk a lot about “tone at the top,” and I think that even in the most well-meaning discussions, there is still a lot of empty rhetoric surrounding it. Just as people love to point out how Enron had a gorgeous employee conduct manual that clearly nobody took seriously, I get the sense that a lot of folks talk about tone at the top without a clear idea of what it actually means to put it into motion in a way that helps companies build better cultures of compliance. There seems to be no single way to do it; just as every organization is unique, so too is the way in which top leadership can best lead by example. Some companies do it through robust town meetings. Others do it by working out in the middle of a glass building. All of them have their own challenges and offer their own results, but in the case of Bloomberg, I definitely got the feeling that this was one case where people who live in glass houses show that they’re not going to throw stones, because there’s no place to hide them.
Bloomberg is not a perfect company, and its products are not perfect, either. I still kind of bristle at the thought of having to use a standalone device to access their data. I think that sometimes Bloomberg journalism produces some questionable stuff, like when it ran hatchet jobs on people I worked with or against entire industries that I thought were getting an unfair rap. But imperfect as it may be, at least I know that if I had a problem with the outfit, I knew where to direct my complaint; I could bring it all the way to the guy in the middle of it, if I wanted. And perhaps since everybody knows that, there is incentive toward best practices. That’s no so much tone at the top, but motivation from the middle. But if it builds a better company, then what’s not to admire?