Tag Archives: leadership blog

West Michigan Woman Magazine features OST’s Meredith Bronk

3 Jun
Meredith Bronk in West Michigan Woman Magazine

Meredith Bronk, President of OST, featured on the front page of West Michigan Woman Magazine

AUTHENTICITY. You hear the word frequently from Meredith Bronk. Some say she’s often the only woman in the room. Meredith says there are plenty of women in technology; that leadership isn’t about gender; that collaboration at Open Systems Technologies, where she was promoted to president April 1, is so strong no one notices when she is the only woman.

OST is big on authenticity, on being the best at what you do. But employees and families come first. Maybe that’s why OST feels like family—another Meredith word. One of three daughters, she has three daughters: Tori, Talia, and Ainsley; fourteen, twelve, and ten. She and her husband, Kipp, worked together at OST for nine years; since 2007, he’s run the household as a stay-at home dad. It’s about making the choices that work best as a family. “There’s no playbook.”

Meredith and Kipp have a partnership. “I’m modeling to my daughters that we’re equals.” That’s huge. She tells them, “Your dad does things differently than I do.” That’s hard. “I want to be the über everything—wife, mom, employee. Am I giving enough of what it means to be ‘Mom,’ not just a strong woman? Will it ever be enough? Still, she connects. “We have a dinner table game. You talk about your day’s high and low points. We all do it. When I’m gone, I call and say, High/Low.”

Authenticity colors Meredith’s world: “Demonstrating authenticity—deliberately, in a humbling manner.” She thinks about it with her daughters, telling them we don’t always have the answers. She seizes opportunities. She wants to be an influence for young women. “I have the opportunity to teach them every day.” She’s had an opportunity to tell her daughters she didn’t do her best on an exam, because she wasn’t well-prepared. “Sometimes, you won’t do great—but it’s what you do about it.”

Meredith began playing softball as a nine-year-old, and continued through her Alma College years. She’s coached since Tori began playing; she’ll cease when Ainsley stops. It’s a chance to be influential; a message for her daughters. “I love teaching. I love the life lessons we learn from team sports.” At a parents’ meeting each season, Meredith talks about her goals for their daughters—teaching them love and respect for softball, helping them learn and understand. She learned to love the game when her dad coached, and carries the lessons learned: Authority matters. Show respect. Seek to understand. “I apply that in so many areas of life. Figure out what you need to do to be successful.”

The lessons go back to an All-Star game when Meredith, twelve, lost her cool at bat. The umpire ejected her from the game; her dad ejected her from the field. She couldn’t fulfill her pitching role, and her team lost. She let failure affect what she needed to do. “We can’t afford to not be a team.” Teaching that in business is part of leading. OST employees aren’t big on titles and reporting structures; they do what’s needed. Meredith recalls co-founder Dan Behm (former president, now CEO) pulling weeds. “It sets an example. No one is better or worse than anyone else. We all have a role to play.” She’s proud to work with Dan. “He’s authentic. He puts himself out there.” He’s a mentor who was instrumental in her recent graduation.

Meredith grew up in South Bend, Indiana, enjoying Notre Dame and its surroundings. Her father is an alumnus. (She applied there as an undergraduate.) In May, she graduated from the university’s Mendoza College of Business Executive MBA Program. For nearly two years, she spent a weekend monthly on the beloved campus. “So many people sacrificed for me to be able to do this.” Her family was supportive: parents, sisters, husband and daughters, Dan and his wife, Barb. The OST team shared pride in Meredith’s pursuit. “I think part of it was aspirational—inspirational—people wondering, ‘Could I do that?’” Success at Notre Dame was a dream come true. She learned confidence comes in embracing yourself as a leader; knowing you don’t have to have all of the answers, because capable others could help; exploring strengths and gaining from others’ strengths.

She’s authentic. “I’m humbled by the fact I’ve been given certain gifts and talents.” Meredith wonders whether she does them justice. During a conference, she thought a conversation was missing the boat and said so. “As a woman, you have to challenge the absurdity of what you see around you, in a respectful way.” There’s a desire to see everyone do better. Meredith strives to maximize her talents, and help others improve. She welcomes those who help her, calling on folks who tell her if she’s getting it wrong. She advises, “Be who you are, all of the time.” OST has grown substantially, but remains “who we are.” There’s trust here. Dan, Jim VanderMey (chief innovation officer and cofounder), and Meredith have run OST for sixteen years. Jim is the visionary—“chief geek.” Dan knows sales. Meredith “gets it done.” Everyone has weaknesses, but they leverage each other’s strengths. Shortly after Meredith’s promotion was announced, an application development team leader asked if she was nervous. “Of course! I have a responsibility every day to one hundred fifty families. Am I ready? Yes. Am I confident? Yes. Am I excited? Yes. Am I nervous? Yes. All of these are true.”

Meredith enjoys talking about being a leader first and woman second. Drawing girls into technology is big. Other strong women in technology usually represent more typical leaders; Meredith encourages girls to explore their passions, to pursue them wildly. She talks of problem-solving, working with people, empathy, analysis. She wants to lose stereotypes and see more innovation—getting that female Steve Jobs. “It takes a societal change that’s only just begun.”

She wants to empower girls. “I have a responsibility to further movement, to encourage their passion.” The unwitting, not unwilling face of a movement. “As a female technology leader, you have an opportunity to spur a movement—to be a face that represents possibility. You can’t be what you can’t see. Create the idea.” She asks, “Where are you getting your influences?” and “Do we use influences for good?” With power comes great responsibility. And for that, she’s grateful.

“Gratitude is one of the biggest gifts you give.” Meredith thanks Kipp for his role in their home, and when he does things. He does the same with her. “Satisfaction from gratitude is powerful.” She’s grateful for what she has, and never stops teaching and modeling gratitude. “I have been blessed beyond belief.”

Which leads to a favorite phrase: “I’m spoiled, but I’m gratefully spoiled.” Spoiled—but not rotten! When her girls “throw it back,” saying, “We’re spoiled— but not rotten,” Meredith doesn’t mind. “They’re modeling behavior.”

With authenticity.

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By Amy L. Charles, West Michigan Woman Magazine

4 Leadership Skills That Define ‘Servant Leadership’

21 May

By John Vancil, Director of Professional Services, Open Systems Technologies – May 17, 2013

ost-appdev

Good leaders spend time thinking about being good leaders and how to be great leaders. They think about what it means to be a leader, and especially in our world of professional services they ask themselves, “How do I provide effective leadership to a group of highly motivated, self-directed, super-smart people? How do I infuse the idea of accountability and ownership throughout the organization while not being seen as directive and authoritarian? How do I provide the support and care required by our values and culture while still making sure we have the framework and processes needed to delight our clients and scale appropriately for growth?”

The easy answer is the model which is very hierarchical and authoritarian. When the boss yells “jump,” the response is to jump first, then ask how high and jump again. (As an aside, I hate it when I am referred to as someone’s “boss.” It provides an immediate and negative visceral reaction in my gut.)  This leadership methodology is prevalent in larger bureaucratic organizations such as the Federal Government or the US Army. In fact, the first thing you have to do when you join the Army (or any other branch of service) is spend eight weeks in basic training learning how to say “yes” and take action as directed without hesitation. (They pretend that they are teaching you how to shoot a weapon and throw a hand grenade, but the fact of the matter is that what they are really teaching you is to do what you are told, when you are told and in the manner in which you were taught. There is no room for debate on the battlefield!)

The directive and authoritarian model is one which works well for the military, but does it translate well into the business world? I would argue that in some cases it does, in modified form. The larger the organization, the more difficult it becomes to manage without directive leadership. A huge, multi-national such as General Motors or General Electric (they even sound militaristic) would be very difficult to lead without being structured and hierarchical.

Another model, which closely aligns with the directive and authoritarian model, is one which is based upon fear. The boss is to be feared and if you don’t ask how high when she says jump there is a good chance you will be out on the street, and your family will starve while you search for cans to return at the Super Walmart. Not a pretty thought! No one wants to work in that sort of world, but it is so prevalent across corporate America. Why? I believe that it is because it is easy.  Once the authority has been established and the direction has been stated, it happens. No more effort is required, no consensus building,  no empathetic discussion, no input from anyone not desired or requested. I liken it to the rules around aspirin at the local high school. You will get suspended for bringing aspirin to school because the application of common sense is hard and fraught with risk for the school leadership. Therefore a blanket rule is enacted, and—voilá—it is all so easy now. Bring aspirin to school and get expelled. No “ifs, ands or buts” and no difficulty making the decision.

These models do not work as well in great professional services organizations. The team is too smart, too motivated and has too many other options to stay in such an environment. And (by the way) those models aren’t any fun, and we better be having some fun because if you aren’t having any fun why would you stay someplace if you do not have too?

The best way to describe the style I believe works best for these organizations is “Servant Leadership.”

Servant leadership is the idea that we (as leaders) are there to serve the needs of the team and the individuals that make up the team. We exist to remove roadblocks and provide the service needed to allow the individual to excel and to succeed and to provide insanely great service to our clients. We exist to provide continuous improvement that makes it easier to develop and provide repeatable and profitable solutions to our client’s toughest problems. We exist to move heaven and earth to find a way to deliver a commitment when another client’s need has trumped the schedule. We exist to remove the burden of responsibility for the little things, so that the team can pay attention to the big things. (That’s one of the reasons Google has free lunch and all those snacks and fridges full of pop. No need to sweat the small stuff around where to go for lunch or having the change for the vending machine!)

Sounds simple right? Like with many things in life that is not the case.  There are competing responsibilities around silly things like setting strategic direction, expense control, gross margin management and bottom line profitability which sometimes work at odds to being a servant leader. But the really cool thing is that while those are important responsibilities, they really do come second to the responsibility to provide servant leadership. Should it be that way at your company as well?

So what does Servant Leadership look like? Here are some ideas for a servant mindset which might help to set the tone.

  1. Set the right priorities. Employees first, then clients, then profits. This runs counter to many other firms who put the client first. This is not an accident.  My belief that if we serve our employees and take care of them, then they will serve and take care of our clients, and that in turn will serve and take care of profits.
  2. Ask the right questions. What can I do for you? How can I help you accomplish that goal? Who can I talk with to smooth the way? How am I serving your needs? What do you think we should do?
  3. Communicate clearly. Don’t let there be any more ambiguities in communications than are absolutely necessary. Work hard to make sure that everyone is aligned and understands the mission, their part in it and what others are responsible for as well.
  4. Walk the walk. Whenever you see the opportunity, put the employee first. Fly the remote employees and their spouses in for the annual kickoff meeting. Take your direct reports to dinner or a ball game. Include their families in activities. When you see an employee out at the same restaurant where you are dining, pay for their dinner. Make sure your team knows that you value their work/life balance as much as they do through your words and actions.

Simple, yet difficult.  Done right it will make working at your company, and being a leader for your teams, so much more fun and so rewarding!

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John Vancil

John Vancil

John Vancil is a twenty-five year veteran of the Information Technology field, currently holding the position of Director of Professional Services for Open Systems Technologies (OST) in Grand Rapids Michigan. During his career, John has held numerous development, support, management and staff level positions with companies ranging from enterprise (Electronic Data Systems, Baan) to the SMB space (Nucraft Furniture, OST). Today John is responsible for a $20 million dollar services operation which encompasses Data Center Solutions, Application Development, ERP and Advisory Services, BMC/Enterprise Technology Management, Security and Managed Services. As a servant leader, John has helped OST to grow service revenues by greater than 25% per year for the last three years, while maintaining a client satisfaction score of 9.78 on a scale of 10. John shares his life with wife Amy, daughter Catherine and Lambeau the world’s most exuberant Golden Retriever. When he is not attending to the needs of his teams at OST, John likes to golf, fly-fish, compose and perform music and hang out with the family.