Not long ago Meredith Bronk, 43, the president of Open Systems Technologies (OST), was having a beer on the rooftop of OST headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With her were two app developers, young employees in their 20s. "I asked them a ton of questions," she recalls.
After "Want a beer?" most of the questions focused on their professional development. Bronk estimates that OST, a seven-time Inc 500 company with $108 million in 2013 sales, has hired about 30 under-30 app developers in the last six months. So the question of their professional development is vital for obvious reasons (employee engagement, employee retention).
But it's important to Bronk for one more reason, which has to do with what her own life was like between ages 25 and 30. She remembers making career decisions and feeling as if she had to justify them to certain people in her life. "I felt judged mostly for decisions that were right for me," she says.
Back in the 90s
When she finished high school in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Bronk initially hoped to go to Notre Dame. It mattered to her for all of the usual reasons, and two more: Notre Dame was her father's alma mater, and Bronk was born in South Bend.
She didn't get in. So she happily attended Alma College, staying in Michigan. After college, she left the region, taking her first job in Arizona as an accounting clerk for American Stores. "She worked there for four years and was promoted almost every year," writes Mike Nichols, who recently profiled Bronk in the Grand Rapids Business Journal. "But by the summer of 1995, an ended relationship and a sense of dissatisfaction led her to return to Michigan to be with her family, who had moved to Grand Haven."
Bronk told Nichols she suffered through a "quarter-life crisis," living with her parents in a new city.
In returning to Michigan, she made what she calls "a sharp left turn." Many people in her life wondered what on earth she was doing. They couldn't see why someone getting regular promotions in the sunny southwest would just up and leave. "I didn't handle myself in the best possible manner," she says. "I still feel sadness for people that I hurt."
But what she remembers, too, is that people questioned her decision. They questioned it because she appeared, on the outside, to be successful. They questioned it without deigning to ask her what was really going on on the inside.
Gratitude for Getting a Chance
In her first years back in Michigan, she continued to work as an accountant. She felt hemmed in and underused, as if her abilities in leadership and management ranged above the sometimes limited purview of non-executive accounting functions. She came to OST in 1998 as the seventh employee. (Today, the company has 155 employees).
At the time, she was 28. Cofounders Dan Behm and Jim VanderMey were eager to find a project manager. Someone, Bronk recalls, who could be "a single point of contact for all our customers." The company's key techies were so busy at client sites, they were hard for clients to track down. The company needed a communicator-coordinator for its full plate of projects.
Talking to Bronk, one gets the feeling she'll never forget the way Behm and Jim VanderMey allowed her to florish as a manager and a leader, in those early years. They took a chance on her in the role, even though she'd never done something quite like it. They walked the walk of empowering employees.
And they really walked the walk when, in 2002, they allowed the employees--there were still only seven--to buy out the company. Today, 37 employees own a piece of OST. The shareholders "all treat this like this is our company," Bronk told me late last year. "There's a huge pride in ownership."
Learning to Ask, not Assume
So there she is, drinking beers on the roof with two young app developers. She asks them how they'd feel if their day-to-day managing consultant, who works with them most frequently, were also tasked with overseeing their career development. After all, who'd know their talents and workloads better?
"They totally disagreed," Bronk says. The developers told her it would be better to let Rob--their manager at OST who is more big-picture focused--handle their development, and let the managing consultant focus on project success.
The point here is not that the employees preferred their career development to be in the hands of a leader with a big-picture focus. That's not unusual. But what's all too unusual, even in 2014, is company presidents like Bronk actually asking employees what their preference would be (rather than unilaterally assigning someone, or altogether sidestepping the touchie-feelie topic of talent development).
Following the rooftop chats, Bronk met with several other young app developers, pursuing a similar line of inquiry. They, too, preferred the Rob approach. It was a fascinating moment for Bronk. She explained it recently to OST's marketing intern, who is one of her mentees. "I told him, 10 people in app development told me I was wrong," she says, laughing.
Coming Around Again
It's not hard to trace Bronk's flexibility and humility with young employees--and her investment in their development--to her own time as an under-30 employee in the workforce. "Professionally, as I lead young people in their 20s, I want to show them that we aren't making any assumptions," she says. "I'm very conscious of my own experiences."
You can argue, of course, that an employee's development never ends. There's always more to be learned, especially in the realms of coding, technology and software. Bronk herself recently role-modeled the concept of continuing education by attaining her long-sought degree from Notre Dame, completing the school's executive education program.
For her, the degree was just another step in developing her own talents to the fullest extent, and not allowing one's previous job roles--or on-paper credentials--to serve as a limitation.