Luke Bucklin was famous for his companywide e-mails, usually written around midnight after he had had a couple of glasses of wine. Meant as much to entertain as to inspire, they were laced with both Donkey Kong references and insightful leadership lessons. But of all the late-night e-mails, perhaps the most meaningful was the one he sent on September 8, 2010, just weeks before the plane he was flying crashed outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, killing him and three of his sons.
"Our job titles are designed to empower us, not to limit us!" Bucklin wrote. "Put your business card on the desk in front of you...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."
Bucklin, along with Mike Derheim and Mike Schmidt, co-founded Sierra Bravo, a Bloomington, Minnesota-based Web development firm, in 2003. In 2010, the company changed its name to The Nerdery. Mike Derheim, now the company CEO, believes Bucklin wrote that e-mail because he was having the same concerns any leader of a fast-growing company has. As the organization grows, how can you give employees a real stake in the game? Bucklin never knew how fundamental the concept of co-presidents would become to the business.
The company has added 300 employees since Bucklin's accident. Derheim and Schmidt have honored Bucklin by giving all employees the title of co-president. That's not just a quirky title. According to Derheim, it means employees have both the freedom and responsibility to do what's best for the business, regardless of their rank. On Day One, every new employee learns about Bucklin's story, and the company spends hours training new hires about what it means to be a co-president.
"They've formed groups in charge of improving the monthly staff meeting and researching our health insurance options," Derheim says. "It's not that any one of these things has made us great; it's just the attitude that does."
Of course, Derheim says, this is an attitude his employees have, to some extent, had all along. When Bucklin's plane disappeared, it took six long days for search parties to find the wreckage. During that week, the company cleared out a conference room and lined it with maps of the mountain range where Bucklin crashed, and employees from every department worked night and day to aid the rescue effort, scouring maps and e-mailing rescuers.
"Between the time Luke's plane went down and now, we've taken the things that made us who we are and institutionalized them," Derheim says. "We rallied around this concept: We lost our president, but we are all co-presidents, and we're not going to let this tragedy hold us back."