The Innovators

10 Up and Coming Leaders to Watch

The Innovators


WE CELEBRATE AND ENCOURAGE INNOVATION.

Innovators push the boundaries of the known world. They're change agents who are relentless in making things happen and bringing ideas to execution.

Richard Sheridan, Menlo Innovations
Illustration (C) Brett Affrunti

Joy Division

Richard Sheridan, Menlo Innovations

Last February, three months into a job with IT support firm Dynamic Edge, Lisamarie Babik was invited to resign. After 10 years with custom software developer Menlo Innovations, the veteran programmer couldn't catch on with her new company's old-school thinking. "I had been at Menlo so long that I thought the world had gotten better," she says. "I guess it hadn't."

Occupying a 17,000-square-foot, repurposed food court in the basement of a seven-story parking garage, the 50-person company has a flexible, open office with no walls, doors or cubicles, and few rules. If workers want their table in a particular spot, they just move it there. "An organization of joy should be identifiable from every angle," Sheridan writes in his book. "They need to see it and hear it for themselves from the first moment they encounter your space."Perhaps Menlo had become too innovative for its employees' good. Founded in 2001, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company employs unconventional tactics to make "joy," not profits, its primary goal. Co-founder Richard Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, hopes the company's experimental methods--which include pairing programmers at shared workstations and instituting a boss-less hierarchy in which anyone can contribute to decisions--will eliminate the fear, ambiguity and doubt that stifle most operations.

He contends that Menlo's employees benefit greatly from the company's methods. For example, paired programmers are able to learn technical and interpersonal skills at breakneck speeds and make (and recover from) mistakes more quickly--all while sharing a keyboard and mouse.

"The amount of technology you've been exposed to here, the number of domains you'll deep-dive into, the number of projects that actually see the light of day ... give you a leg up on most others who are still figuring out how to make coffee in the conference rooms," Sheridan says.

All this is accomplished within strictly maintained 40-hour workweeks, with no possibility for overtime. Anonymous reviews on Glassdoor lament Menlo's underwhelming pay and lack of private space, sacrifices Sheridan acknowledges. And because these things are not for everyone, staffers sometimes leave.

But after Menlo, they can struggle to fit in at other companies. Babik says that while working for Sheridan, she matured into a "fearless creature," unafraid to speak her mind. So, rather than offering her resignation at Dynamic Edge, she suggested the company create a new position just for her. Today, as the "Dyneducator," Babik employs Menlo's practices at her new company by orienting new employees and producing training materials. "You don't stop being a Menlonian when you leave," she says. "You're changed--you can't turn it off."

Menlo's paired workers and open communication channels constantly create friction and teach resolution. "You and I are going to have interpersonal conflict with one another, guaranteed," Sheridan says. "What if we make the opportunity for it to happen every minute of every day, and then coach people in how to deal with the conflicts as they arise?" That may sound like a killjoy--but clearly, it works. --John Patrick Pullen

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This article was originally published in the March 2014 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: 10 Up and Coming Leaders.

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