For most companies, promoting someone to president would be pretty straightforward, but few companies have had the history of the Nerdery.
First, and depending on when you count, the job of president seems pretty well covered already by the something like 462 co-presidents the company already has. Everyone who works at the place carries a business card that says “Co-President.”
Beyond that, what made this more than a simple business decision is the memory of the last executive who held that job, and how the post came to be vacant. In 2010, the plane of co-founder Luke Bucklin went down in the mountains of Wyoming, and longtime employees had since come to assume that no one would ever have the title of president again.
With the recent appointment of company insider Tom O’Neill, however, the Nerdery seems to have made another step in putting that tragedy behind it. More important, what’s very much alive at the company is Bucklin’s approach to leadership.
Bucklin was becoming well-known in his industry even before news broke in October 2010 that his plane had gone missing. He was just one of three founders of the Bloomington-based software development firm, but he was the face of this growing company.
He was also the driving force behind the co-president concept. Here is how he described it in a 2010 all-company e-mail:
“I remember a day when there were no managers, no directors, no coordinators and no specialists. 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.”
His colleagues since his death took that idea and made it a fundamental part of working there. There is today an evergreen internal job posting for co-president, a job that reports to co-president(s). Business cards have the title, and so does an e-mail signature for most employees, with a link to a page on the website that explains what it’s all about.
The more conventional job of president went unfilled, as co-founder Mike Derheim took the title of CEO and others at the company took on additional responsibility.
Taking time to transition
By not replacing the position of president the company showed a lot of wisdom, said Teresa Daly, co-founder of the executive coaching consultants Navigate Forward. Particularly at smaller companies built on personal relationships, she said, “when there is a tragic event, people and companies don’t always make good decisions.”
Now, three years later, it’s Derheim who gets up in front of audiences and asks “what if everyone in the company was a co-president?”
He explains, as he did in a TEDx presentation in North Dakota this fall, that it was Bucklin who taught him the value of trusting employees long before they were proven trustworthy.
Derheim framed his talk around the common complaint of many executives about younger employees lacking enthusiasm and dedication.
Nonsense, he said. Maybe all that’s happening is that a more traditional management structure based on command and control just doesn’t work as well anymore.
He pointed out that no one cares if the president of the company spends 20 minutes scrolling through his personal Facebook page. What matters when measuring the performance of the president is the performance of the business.
“Transcending your job title means trying to make the Nerdery better,” O’Neill said in a recent conversation. He knows that not quite every staffer sees the value, he said, but entire departments now exist because of co-presidents who took the title seriously.
The software developer Kai Esbensen, for example, had insisted the company needed specialized quality assurance engineers scrutinizing new software for bugs. His idea, and he now leads a team of quality assurance engineers.
The Nerdery has grown significantly since 2010, from about $14.2 million in revenue to a projected $53 million or so for 2013. As the owners discussed the evolving leadership needs of the company, they were confronted with the fact that no one had held the title of president since Luke Bucklin did.
They considered other professional titles for O’Neill, such as managing co-president, but “the problem we kept circling back to is the English language has one word that everyone can understand and explain for Tom’s role inside the company,” Derheim said. “The reality is this is the title for what we’re asking Tom to do.”
A lifetime appointment
Derheim retains the title of CEO, but he made it clear that O’Neill is in charge. O’Neill had been serving as chief operations officer and previously was chief strategy officer, but now the entire management team reports to O’Neill and he is accountable for the company’s financial performance.
“When Mike and Mike Schmidt, the other co-founder, approached me about the opportunity, I was really excited about taking on the role,” O’Neill said. “I wasn’t that excited about taking on the title. When Luke passed away, and Mike decided and I guess maybe all of us decided to retire that president title for a while, I had worked under the assumption for the next three years that there would never be a president.”
He was, he said, most nervous about how the news would be received by his fellow co-presidents, a concern that turned out to be entirely unfounded.
He is still one of them, of course, and has assured everyone that he would keep wearing his co-president bracelet.
Co-president, he said, was a “lifetime appointment.”