Every Nerd at The Nerdery is a Co-President. We believe in distributed leadership. We’ve had one President: Luke Bucklin, who co-founded our company with me and Mike Schmidt. Luke called all of us Co-Presidents just before his tragic passing. We took it to heart. We carry it forward.
All of the things that engage and motivate the people of the millennial generation are the same things that engaged and motivated each of the previous generations: Being part of something that matters to them, and the empowerment and responsibility to have a legitimate impact on it.
That said, the evidence of disengagement is everywhere, and you don’t have to look far to find someone who doesn't care. About their company, or their country, or their school, or their team, or whatever. Now, if you ask your grandpa why this is, he’ll tell you a story about walking uphill both ways to school and that we’re living in the so-called “Entitlement Generation.” He may say we’re all going to hell in a handbasket because the millennials don’t have any work ethic and don’t care about anything.
I have two problems with grandpa’s opinion. First, and least importantly I guess - I have no idea what “hell in a handbasket” means, but I have a feeling that grandpas have been saying that about next generations since hellbound handbaskets were a thing. And second, the notion that we’ve somehow bred an entire generation of people with no pride in the things they spend their time on seems ridiculous to me.
I’d tell grandpa that engaged young people are the lifeblood of The Nerdery, the software company I started almost ten years ago. At The Nerdery, I lead a company of about 450 Nerds. Our success as an interactive design and development company depends just as much on the co-leadership of those other 449 Nerds.
The Nerdery partners with creative minds and big thinkers to engineer and execute their interactive projects, including websites, mobile and social media. With offices in Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City and voted by our staff onto multiple top workplace lists, we’re the professional home of web developers, UX designers, QA engineers and other Nerds. Moving toward our vision to be the best place in the world for nerds to work, in 2012 we analyzed past decisions to ensure that future choices are grounded in company core values: Constantly push boundaries; Integrity in all circumstances; Win by empowering people; Be humble; Solve problems pragmatically. Founded by three programmers in 2003 (although I’m not much of a programmer anymore), The Nerdery has made Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing private companies in our first six years of eligibility. For year-to-year job growth, we were featured in Inc. Magazine’s December 2012 edition as Hire Power Award recipient. We recently won a BOLD Award from the Association for Corporate Growth for embracing a culture of distributed leadership.
In Luke’s last published media interview, Biz Journal asked for his tips on managing and motivating people. Luke said: “Go beyond just treating people fairly. Understand their career goals, and work to help them achieve success. Don’t make them earn your trust – give them your trust to make decisions and stand behind them when they do.”
Luke believed in empowering people – and in our case, Nerds. Luke always said if you do the right thing, trust people and spread the leadership, the right things would happen. We would succeed. We have. He did. A few weeks before Luke’s tragic plane crash, he wrote the last of his many epic all-staff emails. This time, instead of his usual “We did it” or “Let’s go climb that mountain” he said something a bit different. He wrote this:
“I remember a day when there were no managers, no directors, no coordinators and no specialists. We only had Presidents. Well, maybe one President and a couple of Co-Presidents. Forget about your titles. Put your business card on the desk in front of you. Look at it. I am here to tell you that this is not your title. This card does not define you. You are a Co-President. You are bigger than your defined role, and you are much more than your job title. Play your part – transcend your job title, be a hero.”
Now imagine you just got done cleaning the bathrooms, or writing a piece of code, or whatever your daily responsibilities happen to be, and then you read something like that. And not only reading it, but believing it’s really true. Believing that you are that trusted and empowered, to be a Co-President, it’s crazy. I can tell you from experience what that does, it makes them want to live up to their title.
While Luke’s Co-President message was sent to Nerdery staff just a few weeks before he passed, he was articulating a shared belief in distributed leadership that was already the key to our success. Win by empowering people is one of our company’s core values; I can’t possibly overstate how much of a win-win proposition this is for us. There’s nothing as powerful in business or life as a person who’s engaged in a mission and empowered to see it through. All of our success comes from our peoples’ passionate engagement in their work. We believe in letting people succeed or fail by letting them try. Entire departments exist because of our steadfast belief in empowering people to follow their passion, and in turn, lead.
Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Co-Presidency is about rolling with the democracy of good ideas; let the best ideas win, no matter whose they are.
We look for ways to put more control in the hands of our employees every single day, and the results are unquestionable. People care. Just one passionate Co-President, Mark Hurlburt, inspired our company and community to give away time and talent to worthy nonprofits through The Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge, our 24-hour community-service event at which more than $4 million in professional web development services have since been freely-given to 114 nonprofit organizations (Luke would still call this just a good start). We have a User Experience department that has become 40 UX designers strong because one person, Mike Johnson, stood up and said we should help clients and developers begin their interactive projects with a well-realized end in mind. Same with our Quality Assurance team – Kai Esbensen convinced us we’d be better off with specialized QA engineers scrutinizing our software for bugs; because of Kai’s idea, he now leads a team of 37 QA engineers. Our COO started as a programmer, our VP of marketing started as a programmer, our CFO started out as a project manager, and down the line. In my experience, people being “ready to lead” is a formality. Anyone can be an effective leader if they are passionate about what they are leading. At the slightest hint of someone wanting to take ownership of something, we put them in a position to try.
Daniel Pink says people are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. I couldn’t agree more, and I believe that Co-Presidency is the embodiment of that principal. Give people vision and purpose instead of rules and regulations. In fact, drop as much of that stuff as you can stomach. Give them the freedom of being Co-President, armed with the picture of success, and I promise you’ll see a level of engagement like never before.
At my company, where the vast majority of people fall into the aforementioned “entitlement generation” group of millennials, people solve problems before I know they exist. They figure out how they can uniquely contribute to our vision, using their skills and talents, and they use their Co-Presidential freedom to put those passions to work for the greater good. They treat the company as if its success or failure reflects on them personally - as if it’s their company - and that’s where the magic happens. Growth, profit, success, sustainability - the things every business really wants at the end of the day - these are all the side effects of an engaged team. If millennials feel entitled, why not embrace it. What they feel entitled too is an organization that empowers them to succeed.
As an illustration of the power of Co-Presidency, I want to tell the story of Mark Seemann. Mark has been an employee of mine for the last eight years, is great at his job, and Mark is a total nerd. He is a programmer by day and in his spare time, plays chess, enjoys fencing, and once wrote pi well into a thousand digits on the whiteboard walls of our office. If you look up the definition of introvert, most likely you’ll see a picture of my friend Mark. I still remember when we hired him, one of the stipulations of his even coming to talk with me was with our assurance that he would never have to talk to a customer. Picture him making a statement like that to grandpa. While everything I just said about Mark is true, these aren’t the things that I talk about when I tell people about him anymore. Mark has become a visible cultural leader in our company. He organizes a number of events including our bi-annual nerdy olympics - called Pentathanerd – yup, winter and summer games, and a huge part of our culture. He founded an employee newsletter, he routinely stands in front of hundreds of co-workers to talk, and he influences our success every day in his own unique way. He does this on his own, and with no direction, oversight or mandate from the broader organization. Everyone at my company knows who Mark is, because Mark is out front and Mark is making a difference. One of the proudest moments of my career was in 2011 when he addressed a room packed with corporate vice presidents, college professors, and community business leaders at a Top Workplaces event - talking about how he finally found a place where he could be himself and actually make a difference. As an aside, when he was walking up to give his talk, I heard someone a couple of tables away say “Look, they actually are nerds!!”
Thing is, we’re all nerds. You’re a nerd about something – whatever you’re passionate about, whether it’s baking cookies or crunching numbers or writing science fiction. The common denominator between a music nerd, a sports nerd and a comic book nerd is engagement. I believe that Mark has made his transition because Co-Presidency gave him the power and confidence to make a difference. He wanted to contribute to something with the autonomy to put his nerdy skills to use, and Co-Presidency gave him that power. He’s incredibly valuable to our company just as the damn-good programmer we hired years ago – but he’s become much more.
While every Nerd can choose to add “Co-President” to their email signature, they do have actual titles based on their role, like “Principal Software Developer” or “User Experience Designer” or “VP of Nerd Experience” (NX, or HR in laymans terms). And we actually have a fairly normal reporting structure; people have bosses, but it’s not a bossy dynamic. And yes, we have a leadership team that includes senior staff and department heads, but we all make it clear to everyone in the company that we don’t just welcome their opinion – we expect it and will respect it. As far as promoting and rewarding people goes, let’s just say that we’ve created the opportunity for people to create their own opportunities here.
Our development committees are an opportunity for developers to be leaders in the technical direction of the company. The development committees are here to serve the developers, and make us a better company. They empower our developers to lead The Nerdery through technology direction and thought leadership, and they are the procedural body for each discipline. We will rely heavily on our developers to provide ideas on how to move our disciplines forward.
A culture of distributed leadership is inherently a culture of learning, and teaching, and limitless possibilities. When Nerds say they learn more in their first month with us than elsewhere their whole career, I can’t help but feel proud of this model and the choices we’ve made. Any success we’ve had has come from having distributed leadership where we are all a Co-President.
In the world of business – the world I have experience in – the president of the company is the person you would expect to be the most engaged in the business, and the most motivated to see it thrive. Presidents care because they’re in control of their own destiny. Success is theirs to achieve or theirs to lose. The President cares because, ultimately, the person who can most impact their day-to-day happiness, finances, and quality of life for them and their dependents – is them. But those powerful motivators and I don’t think they should be reserved just for a single, solitary President, acting alone.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The answer to our engagement problem is polar opposite from how many businesses try to improve. It’s not more rules and regulations; it’s not micromanagement, or policies on things like Internet usage or working hours. The answer is less of all of those rules, way less.
Nobody cares how much the president of your company checks his Facebook account because at the end of the day – the company’s performance is the only measure of his effectiveness that matters – today’s worker understands that inherently, and becomes disengaged immediately when useless rules and outdated policies that threaten to turn them into robots.
Today’s worker needs real responsibility to be engaged. Today’s worker needs control of their destiny. So I propose that we give it to them. Why not let them work from home, or choose their own hours? Why not let them be the champion of an initiative they might not be ready for, but if they win could better the company? Why not just tell them what success looks like and then get out of the way while they achieve it? Why not win by empowering people as Co-Presidents?
I hate to be the one to tell you - but command and control is dead, and has been replaced by something even better - empowerment. I believe that this “entitlement” thing grandpa complains about could actually be one of our greatest cultural assets. People are yearning to be empowered. It could propel us to a time of amazing prosperity, but we have to make a shift to take advantage of it.
One of the tools we have for transparency and Co-Presidency is this thing called The Buzz, our internal forum where anybody can post about anything, essentially, and they also can post anonymously about something. The Buzz is an incredibly valuable tool for education, and teaching, and shared thought leadership in terms of broadcasting what we collectively know about interactive technology, and the processes and procedures of the business that we’re in, and how to become better at all of it by working together. We like to believe we’re in a culture where there are no repercussions for bringing up things that you don’t like, but when we created The Buzz one of the things we said was let’s make sure we weren’t just walking the walk; we said, this is an internal tool for anyone to bring up whatever’s on their mind, or make suggestions, or whatever, so we needed to include this “anonymous” option, so that if you do have some lingering concern that there may be repercussions for bringing something up, we’ll just take that off the table. Our goal is that you can actually say what you need to say. We’ve uncovered some great things through The Buzz – we’ve found out that a some people don’t like our health plan and maybe we should rethink it. We’ve also had what I think is inevitable when you match anonymity with feedback, we’ve had some less-than-helpful posts that have upset people, but overall it’s a good tool and I’m glad we have it. There is an open dialogue going on there. Somebody will make a Buzz post that is potentially controversial, or they’ll want to rethink the way we’ve done something for years, and the post itself is usually helpful because it’s eye-opening but most of the time we’re aware that this problem exists, but I think what’s really valuable is the pages and pages of discussion where everybody in the company is thinking about the problem and coming up with ideas, and people are discussing on five different threads within the post why or why not some solution is good – and I think that has contributed to people feeling engaged. For one thing, because they actually can be engaged in every one of those problems. Everybody wants to contribute, and everybody has different ways to contribute, and there are some people who are very active on The Buzz, and I’m seeing their thoughts and learning from their feedback on things all the time, so we’re opening up this whole new way for people to contribute although maybe they wouldn’t feel comfortable with other avenues. Instead of having to Google something when momentarily stumped, our Nerds can just ask their fellow Nerds – collectively, we’re pretty un-stumpable. Just ask the Nerd next to you, or post your question on The Buzz.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that if I walk behind someone’s desk I never have to see someone hit the X to close out their Facebook page or whatever it is they’re doing, except maybe with a new person who doesn’t yet have an understanding. But I just believe in trusting people, trusting that they’re making the right decisions.
What I believe we’ve been successful at is building a place where people feel they have real ownership in the company and the goals the company has, and the things we’re working towards, and what we’re trying to achieve. And if you think something’s not right, we want you to be able to say it’s not right, and if you think we’re doing something well we want you to be able to pat your friend on the back, and if you want to lead something new – if you want to move out of your traditional role and be a leader in something you care about – you’ll not just have the opportunity but encouraged to go out and do that.
We want engagement all the way up and down the chain – everyone in the company to not just care about what they do, but also care about the end result and what the company is ultimately trying to achieve. In our case, that’s 450 people watching our back every day, making sure that we’re going down the right road, that we’re making the best decisions we can at any given time, and that we aren’t doing something without the point-of-view of the one who might best understand it.
There are a lot of things we do well here from a technology standpoint – we have a lot of smart people, doing cutting-edge work all the time. But what I’ve always thought makes us special, different and successful is the culture that we have, and the passionate engagement of our people. That’s the thing that’s really unique about us as a driving factor that might not be immediately obvious to people, but is something that’s really important and is what got us here.
We have this vision for the company that is to be the best place in the world for nerds to work, and the only way to do that is to make sure that the people who are here want to be here, really contributing to the things they’re passionate about, and feel like their opinions can be heard, and that they’re leading if they want to lead – they’re being the kind of fulfilled people they want to be, without constraints.
Giving away decision-making control might sound like chaos, and it may feel that way to you for a while, but this will pass. The shift, is control. If you’re asking yourself how much control you should put in the hands of your staff, the answer is simple – as much as you possibly can. Give them the freedom of being Co-President and you’ll see a level of engagement like never before. I have no idea how much time they spend surfing the Internet, thank god, and could care less. The more the better as far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re performing well at their job. Measure what really matters and let go of command and control.
I can’t emphasize enough how important culture has been to The Nerdery – it’s absolutely the secret of our success. And, when I say culture I’m not talking about all of the crazy things that we have out there, like beer kegs in the kitchen and dogs all over the office. Those things are part of our culture, but individually they are not what makes us the company I’m proud of. What I mean is this: We work every day to make sure that people legitimately want to be there with us, and legitimately want to be part of what we’re building. We believe if we focus our efforts on that, everything else will take care of itself.
Nearly every element of our culture grew organically from the mind of one of our employees. We didn’t create the culture, we empowered our people to create it for themselves and then got the hell out of their way. We’re crazy. Everyone says so. There are huge liability concerns, we’re putting productivity at risk every day by allowing people to manage their own time and priorities, etc., but people respond to unconventional responsibility. They just don’t take advantage of i because they appreciate the openness, trust and opportunities to make their mark.
However, it’s not like we just show up for work and do whatever we feel like doing; we’re actually quite structured, with work orders and time-tracking (we’re huge data nerds). We also have handbooks, policies, etc, but we don’t solve many problems by updating them. We solve a problem by studying what motivated it to happen, and adjust the motivation, create a new incentive, or both. We almost never have to just “enforce a policy”. If we do, it’s a sign we need to change something. In mid 2006 we had a problem in that productivity was low. We had to constantly ask people to fill in their timesheets, and morale suffered. We tried going around and reminding everyone, all the time, that their timesheets need to be done, and that it was their job, but badgering everyone all the time was failing miserably. So, we decided to manage the motivations. We created a metric called PBR which measured employee productivity. Then, we put it everywhere – on the homepage of our internal website, in our presentations, everywhere. Then, we created a bonus pool based on the average PBR of the entire development team and added carrots, like Xbox games, a foosball machine, etc. Almost immediately, things started to improve – we went from billing approximately 70% of our available time to around 85%, adding thousands of dollars per week to the bottom line. This taught us a really valuable lesson: Everybody wants to be good at their job. If you don’t tell them if they’re doing good or not, they may slide into “not good.” If you give them an objective way to tell, they’ll work hard to be better without asking them to. It’s not important to us “when” people get their work in, as long as they do. We have a group of people who drop everything to play hackeysack at the same time every day; but they could play all day, if that’s the secret to their productivity or work/life balance.
Co-Presidency is a different way of thinking about leadership, but the alternative is a lifetime of swimming upstream, and an un-engaged group of people reluctantly swimming behind you, or sinking like stones around your neck. I propose a change to how today’s leaders think about engagement. Notice that I said “leaders” instead of employees, or students, or team members, or citizens. This is not a generational problem. The solution lies with leadership, not employees. As a leader, getting your people to “care” is your job. Wishing for engaged people won’t engage people. Leaders need to know what motivates their teams.
Every new Nerd gets a copy of Luke’s “Co-President” email as part of their onboarding experience. We give them a Co-President bracelet. Also, a coin. One side of the coin has our vision: We will be the best place in the world for Nerds to work. The flip side has our core values.
Along with Win by empowering people, our core values are: Constantly push boundaries; Integrity in all circumstances; Solve problems pragmatically; and Be Humble.
I’m not so naive to think that a few words on the wall make anything easy. However, I do think they’re important ingredients, because paired with our vision statement, they answer two critical questions: What are we trying to accomplish? And, how are we going to make decisions to get there?
I want to share a real-world example of how these values come through in decisions we make. All our Nerds, as part of their employment agreement, sign an agreement not to compete with us if they leave. Now based on what I know and some of the things I’ve seen out there, we likely have the least restrictive non-compete of any company in our industry. Basically, we could change the wording of the non-compete part of this contract to just say something like “just be cool, man.” We’ve had employees leave and go to work for direct competitors. They invariably bring lessons we’ve learned the hard way to those companies – letting them solve problems faster and giving them our competitive advantage. It sucks. I hate it. It hurts the company, and to be honest - it kinda hurts my feelings.
However, we don’t change it. And it’s not because we’re pushovers, or not paying attention, or whatever. If you’d have asked me why a couple of years ago, I’d have said something like “Ah, I just wouldn’t feel good about changing it.” But now, after soul-searching our values, I can tell you exactly why.
We believe in our vision – to be the best place in the world for nerds to work – but we’re humble in knowing that we can’t be that place for everyone, every time. We also believe that people need to be empowered to be their best, and that extends beyond the walls of The Nerdery. If we’re not the best opportunity for someone, we believe they should be empowered to pursue the opportunity that is. Integrity in all circumstance holds us to that principle, even when it hurts. But we also know that we’ll continue to succeed if we do the right thing. And we’re quietly confident that if we continue to solve problems pragmatically, we’re good. Being real and sticking to what you believe in, no matter the cost, doesn't make you strong, it makes you indestructible.