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MTW Puts People First

This fast-growing outfit creates major e-commerce applications. But its core product is its culture. “We thought that if we started by creating a place where people liked to work, we’d achieve our financial goals.”

Life as an IT consultant can be financially rewarding, even intellectually challenging. It’s just not very much of a, well, life. It’s not unusual for an IT consultant to be on the road for four days every week, writing code and installing systems, and to stay late on the few days that he or she is in the home office. Why do so many smart people put up with such a punishing lifestyle? It’s the price you have to pay for being part of a fast-growing professional-services industry.

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MTW Corp. isn’t willing to pay that price. The company, which is headquartered outside of Kansas City, provides software and Internet applications to the financial-services industry and state governments. It has an enviable track record. Since 1996, when Ed Ossie, 45, president and COO, left Texas Instruments to join MTW, it has expanded from a 50-person outfit with $8 million in revenues to a 200-person powerhouse with $31 million in revenues.

The company has an even more enviable record of challenging conventional wisdom on the human side of the enterprise. MTW takes its people, its intellectual capital, and its evolving culture seriously. “Task teams” make many of the companywide operational decisions. Its technical advisory council, which sets the technology agenda, includes two elected members. MTW has built seven software-development centers around the country that serve as home bases for its employees. These regional centers make it possible for clients to come to MTW, rather than the other way around, which saves employees from the wear and tear of travel.

“We thought that if we started by creating a place where people liked to work, we’d achieve our financial goals,” says Richard Mueller, 55, MTW’s founder and CEO.

It’s a commonsense insight that even the smartest professional-services companies tend to ignore. One of MTW’s key tools is an “expectation agreement” that establishes a set of mutually agreed-on objectives between an individual, his or her boss, and the team. The agreement gets updated every six months. An expectation can be as simple as getting one day off a week to care for an ailing parent. “Usually, people feel they need to develop credibility before sharing that they have a particular challenge in their lives,” says Mueller. “We’ve found that if we give people the benefit of the doubt and draw them out, we rarely suffer because of it.”

Where MTW people work is as important as how they work. Most MTW employees are distributed among the company’s seven regional offices. Employees like that arrangement because they can work near their homes and can also participate in MTW decisions on a day-to-day basis. (After all, on-the-go consultants spend far more time in their clients’ offices than they do working with their own colleagues.)

And participate, they do. Employee groups make many of the company’s core operational decisions. For example, a technical advisory council explores emerging technologies and looks at how those technologies might be applied to various markets. The council also develops standards and documents best-practices guidelines. Headed by MTW’s chief technologist, the council originally had six appointed members, until those members decided to add two elected seats. “We added those two seats because we wanted to create a democratic process,” says software designer Rao Mulpuri, 33. Each council member is in charge of a subgroup that meets bimonthly on a specific market or technology.

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Decisions do take longer to accomplish by committee, Ossie concedes. “But the buy-in, trust, and confidence in the outcome is well worth the time,” he says. “And for me, on the back end, the process is simple: I provide the stamp of approval.”

Aaron Shumate, 27, approves too. He left Andersen Consulting to work for MTW as a business-development manager. He realized he needed to make a change when he found himself, night after night, longing for home while inhabiting a corporate apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now he works in the Kansas City office, closer to his family. But “the biggest difference is the amount of responsibility and the voice I’m given in the decision-making process,” he says. “That ownership gives me energy at work every day.”

Contact Richard Mueller by email (rmueller@mtwconsulting.com), or visit MTW on the Web (www.mtwconsulting.com).

Sidebar: Culture Club

Of the many teams that help to make decisions for MTW Corp., only one — the Culture and Communications Team — reserves a chair for founder and CEO Richard Mueller. President Ed Ossie is also an active participant. Why? “Because if we get the culture right,” says Ossie, “then that drives the whole company.”

The group has 12 members and meets by conference call at least once a month, though it often meets more frequently. One recent project was a companywide survey of “guiding principles.” The team was charged with identifying a dozen principles, along with a list of questions for evaluating how well MTW was living up to them. Senior systems analyst Chayan Dasgupta, 32, came up with his questions by asking coworkers for suggestions.

The survey asked employees to rank 12 principles — trust, integrity, customer satisfaction, and so on — by importance, and then to rate the company’s adherence to each one. Employees ranked “learning organization” as one of the top three, but indicated that MTW was failing to live up to its goal by a wide margin.

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Results were posted on MTW’s intranet, frank criticism and all. MTW doesn’t claim to be perfect, but it does try to give employees a hand in addressing imperfections. “People recognize that this is an evolving endeavor,” says Mueller. “And they appreciate being part of the process.”

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