The old-school boss who delivers orders from his corner office has gone by the wayside. In an increasingly casual workplace, today’s best-loved—and most respected—leaders are loosening their ties and seeing their modern workers for who they are: human beings. To accommodate the complexities of juggling work and home life in modern-day America, the heads of these three companies have brought flexibility, compassion and inspiration into their offices—and the result is not only a growing contentment among their workers, but even the growth of the business itself.
Business: Business consulting firm
Location: 1233 NW 12th Ave, Ste 101
1-yr Job Growth: 64%
Hiring: Senior project leaders
It hardly sounds like a radical business plan: “We decided we were just going to sell our work in town,” says Scott Demorest, one of the three founding principals of Acme. Except that Acme is a business consulting firm, and in the standard industry model, consultants travel for weeks on end to advise their clients in every city but the company’s own. Tired of the jet-setter’s life, Demorest and his partners, Peter Lizotte and David Kelleher, set out to change the way consulting was done.
To dedicate themselves to projects they felt a personal connection to, as well as reserve more time for their families, the trio began to build a client base exclusively in the Portland metro area, beginning with Bonneville Power in 2002. Today, Acme has 17 consultants working on a variety of complex projects, such as helping an international sportswear company develop a new global e-commerce strategy.
“When we tell applicants, ‘We’ll get you off an airplane, but you’re still going to work on incredibly interesting stuff,’ they can’t believe it,” says Demorest. As a result, Acme receives hundreds of applications for every opening. Current employees say they’re thrilled to be able to eat dinner with their families and to fly only during vacation time, which starts at three weeks per year. Acme adds an additional week of paid volunteer time, and after only four years employees receive a six-week paid sabbatical.
Why so generous? The three principals say the companies they previously worked for merely paid lip service to helping employees achieve any real balance between work and life. At Acme, Demorest points out, it’s the real deal: “It was a core value from Day One, because we wanted it for ourselves.”
Policies & Perks:
Health Insurance Premium: 75%. Hours per week required for benefits: 25. Retirement plan: 401(k): 50% match up to 6% of salary. Vacation days:
0+ years, 15 days. Yearly turnover rate: 5%. Vision/ dental plans, domestic partner benefits, subsidized commuting, subsidized continuing education, fitness facilities/discounts, and paid sabbaticals.
Business: Design consultancy
Location: 334 NW 11th Ave
1-yr Job Growth: 16%
Hiring: Designers, copywriters, consumer analysts
Walk into Ziba, and you might not be able to tell who’s boss. Fifty-year-old Sohrab Vossoughi doesn’t have a posh corner office. In fact, he doesn’t like sitting at a desk at all. Instead, the Tehran-born founder of this product-design consultancy constantly walks around the studio, asking his employees (110 in all, of 33 different nationalities), “What can I do for you? Do you need help?”—sometimes in four different languages.
So it’s no surprise that Ziba’s motto is “Check your ego at the door.” Since founding the agency 23 years ago, Vossoughi has grown the firm into an international company with clients like Sirius Satellite Radio, for whom it conceived and designed the Sirius S50, the first portable satellite radio. Known for staying ahead of global trends, Ziba also was one of the first to send its own social scientists to study how people interact with objects, so that its designers could create more meaningful products for consumers.
Vossoughi’s employees say there are two basic rules when working for him: Never call him “boss” (he prefers “friend” or “colleague”), and never satisfy yourself with anything in the “good enough” range. By creating a collaborative environment where people are inspired to do their best work, Vossoughi has been able to retain top designers for decades. “It’s rare for creative professionals in their early 30s to choose to stay in the same company for 10 years,” says graphic designer Chelsea Vandiver. “But I’m still here because Sohrab has found a way to continuously challenge me.”
Vossoughi admits that Ziba is not for everyone—just those who demand a great deal of themselves. “I want you to blow me away with your work,” Vossoughi challenges his staff. “When you make me feel small, I feel good.” It’s not something you’d expect to hear from the boss, but that attitude is what’s inspiring Ziba employees to transform design across the world—from a new line of computers for China’s largest PC maker to an interactive Discovery Center for South Waterfront.
Policies & Perks:
Health insurance premium: 90%. Hours per week required for benefits: 30. Retirement plan:401(k): 3% contribution of salary . Vacation days: 0-1 year, 15 days (add one day per year after, with max of 22 days). Yearly turnover rate: 10%. Vision/dental plans, domestic partner benefits, and subsidized continuing education.
Business: Visual communication consultancy
Location: 926 NW 13th Ave, Ste 240
1-yr Job Growth: 50%
Hiring: Project manager, consultant
“There’s a reason the best business plans are sketched on napkins,” says Aric Wood, CEO and president of XPlane. “Simple drawings are easier to understand than a 120-page document.”
That’s the theory behind the “visual thinking” company headquartered in Portland. XPlane helps other companies communicate their complicated ideas and processes to the world through moving and still images. For example, when Boeing launched a new business, Avchem, it hired XPlane to create an eye-catching infographic detailing Avchem’s services so that investors could quickly understand exactly what the new company would do. “Technology is accelerating the amount of information available,” says Wood. “We cut through all the clutter to help people communicate visually across cultures.”
So far, he’s succeeding. Since joining XPlane in 2003, Wood has grown the company from 12 people to 55 worldwide, and turned it into one of the fastest-growing firms in Portland, with Fortune 500 clients such as Intel. He did this, in part, by giving employees flexible schedules and time to dabble in their own creative pursuits while on the job. Wood encourages staff to allocate 10 percent of their energy to “innovation projects”—essentially creative free time—because as Wood sees it, “You never know where the best ideas are going to come from.”
Policies & Perks:
Health insurance premium: 70%. Hours per week required for benefits: 32. Retirement plan: 401(k): 100% match up to 3% of salary. Vacation days: 0-2 years, 10 days; 3+ years, 15 days. Yearly turnover rate: 16%. Dental plan, domestic partner benefits, formal flex-time policy, formal telecommuting policy, subsidized continuing education, and fitness facilities/ discounts.