The man with no title Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008
When Mark Schwartz hands you his business card, you’re not going to find his title of CEO on it.

The same goes for his 100 employees at Product Development Technologies Inc.

Those missing qualifiers aren’t the result of a printer mishap. Instead, they represent a deliberate departure from the title-chasing political undercurrents that plague much of corporate America.

“We have a check-your-ego-at-the-door, flat hierarchy here,” Schwartz says.

That philosophy has paid off in big results at the product development firm that Schwartz co-founded in 1995, as revenue has jumped from $8 million in 2004 to more than $13 million in 2007.

Smart Business spoke with Schwartz about how to promote a flat structure by rotating roles without sacrificing the talents of natural-born leaders.

Q. How do you gain trust?

One way that people trust you more is when you don’t wear your title on a sleeve. We don’t have titles on our business cards.

You asked me what my official title was, and I told you, but I don’t have that on my business card. We try to keep everything on a level playing field.

Q. How do you maintain a flat hierarchy when certain employees are leading projects?

The way you do that is to turn over a lot of projects. You’re going to find yourself the head of one and the subordinate on another. You quickly learn that what goes around comes around just by the simple fact that you’re going to get the opportunity to lead, and you’re going to have the opportunity to be a team member. It just inherently builds in a structure of fairness.

If you’re assigned this project, you run it like a business. You run it so it’s per the budget, per the deliverables, per the quote. You manage the customer relationship. You manage the resources. You can be the head of a project and have two years of experience and be telling a guy with 15 what to do.

You may have a team that’s helping you, or you may be doing the work yourself. You’re not being told what to do.

It’s great when the employees feel a sense of ownership in the company. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and puts a spring in their step. It makes them enjoy their job.

Q. Some people naturally make better leaders. Do you take that into account when you rotate and put different people in charge?

What ends up happening is that the guys that are the most diverse, most experienced and best leaders end up leading the bigger projects. We might have a project that’s $500,000 that will tend to be one of those guys. But then you’ll turn around and have a $100,000 project that someone else might lead, and (the natural leader) will roll up his sleeves and be helping out.

I feel like I have 50 years of experience. That’s because you’re doing stuff at such a rapid pace so early, you’re really pushing your boundaries all the time. You get exposed to so much.

Q. How do you hold employees accountable when they’re leading a project?

You have to have some sort of central, enterprisewide tracking system. Everyone can access it from anywhere: from home, from a hotel room, from wherever you are.

It’s not something that allows us to micromanage someone. They track themselves. In other words, if someone is hanging themselves and you’re giving them too much rope, it becomes obvious to everyone. It’s not, ‘You’re not being fair to me. You’re not giving me big projects.’ You say, ‘No, it had become obvious at this point that maybe you can’t handle those bigger projects, and everyone’s on the same page.’

The measurement system is so public that everyone will be agreeing to it. It’s not unlike someone batting third and realizing, ‘I’m only batting .225. I should be moving down in the order to bat eighth. I realize that now.’

Q. How does such autonomy benefit employees?

There’s the old saying, ‘Give someone a lot of rope. They can either do good things with it or they can hang themselves.’ We inherently trust that people are going to take the ball and run with it and do a good job. We have systems in place to make sure that’s happening, but then someone doesn’t feel like they’re being micromanaged.

When you trust someone, people rise to the occasion to live up to that trust. That’s healthy.

A huge benefit is particularly to the youngsters. There are people with less experience. They get a taste of running something way before they would ever even touch it at corporate America. When I was at (another company), young guys would come in and they would work three, four, five years, and they would be lucky if they designed the case of a battery.

We’ve got guys here doing the whole cell phone — not right out of school, but pretty quickly they’re doing stuff way beyond their years.

HOW TO REACH: Product Development Technologies Inc., (312) 440-9404 or www.pdt.com