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For Tech CEO Meredith Bronk, Leadership Is About Learning

Alma alumna shares with students her advice on leadership, mentorship and work/life harmony.

Meredith BronkMeredith BronkDuring Meredith Bronk’s interview for a job at Open Systems Technologies, the CEO asked her where she saw herself in five years. She told him that she wanted his job.

Seventeen years later, she did exactly that. She’s been at the helm of the Grand Rapids-based tech company since April 2015. Her former boss and mentor, Dan Behm, started planning her transition more than five years ago — a rare approach for a tech company.

“Most technology companies, when the founder exits the business, the business goes away,” says Bronk, a 1992 Alma College graduate who majored in business administration. “But our commitment to our employees means we’re into this forever, for the long haul.”

Open Systems Technologies develops custom applications such as mobile apps, websites or other technology solutions for business problems. The company also sells hardware, servers and storage for universities and companies.

Recent projects include: Creating hand-held barcode readers to scan wristbands to speed up the lines at an amusement park; developing an application for an apple orchard that could scan and grade the quality and texture of apples to be sold to a fast food chain; and helping to create an app for a healthcare provider in West Michigan, so patients can get their medical records, make new appointments and communicate with their doctors.

Bronk’s new role puts her among the few women CEOs of tech companies.

“We as women have a perspective that’s different than some of the other perspectives at the table,” she says. “When you see things that no one else sees, find a way to bring it up. Bringing a new perspective to the table is absolutely critical, I think, to helping to change the dynamics in how thoughts are brought to bear.”

<em>Meredith Bronk</em>Meredith BronkThe key to innovation is being open to those creative ideas — even crazy ideas — and acknowledging that failure is an option, she says.

“We have a saying at OST, ‘anything goes,’ and ‘we’ve got your back,’” says Bronk. “We want to hear everybody’s crazy idea. And the ‘we’ve got your back’ means if we try it, and it doesn’t work, we’re all here together.”

Bronk visited Alma to share her experiences with a spring term class on strategic leadership taught by President Jeff Abernathy and Professor Greg Baleja.

“The best leaders are learners,” she says. “Good leaders will put people around them that are smarter than them.”

Another piece of advice she had for students: Reflect.

“It’s easy to look at the road in front of you, but you gain perspective by also looking at the road behind you,” she says. “The lessons that are learned are back there.”

Work/life balance — or “work/life harmony,” as she prefers to call it — also is important at OST.

“You have to get a peaceful coexistence of the different competing interests in your life, so family, work, health, community, faith,” she says.

“It’s never exactly perfect; it hasn’t even been for me at least.” says Bronk, who has three daughters, ages 11, 13 and 15.

She credits Alma with giving her the foundation to be a successful leader.

“The intimate level of relationships that you’re able to form at Alma College, the opportunity to get involved in so many things — almost the expectation to get involved when you’re on campus — affords the opportunity to learn how to work in small groups, to learn how to work in larger groups, to learn how to find what’s the right fit for you,” she says.

“All of those things I learned as an Alma College Scot, I’m applying today.”

Her time at Alma was a formative time and allowed her to mature in a safe environment.

“I made stupid decisions — but I was surrounded by people who didn’t let them be catastrophic, they didn’t let them be defining,” she says. “They let me mature in a way that allowed me to really flourish.”

When she sat in the classroom recently with Baleja — her former advisor — she reflected on his words of encouragement.

“I didn’t have a great freshman year, first term here, academically,” she says. “He really kind of helped me stay focused, which I do with the people that I mentor. Sometimes mentorship is as much about reminding people of their own capabilities rather than teaching them.”

The softball field was another place where she grew as a leader.

“When I talk about leadership and I talk about my journey to leadership, softball is always part of it,” she says. “The lessons learned on the field correlate to the same challenges that you face in leadership in business, in life, really: How to win well; how to lose well; how to show compassion and grit and competition and hard work and the opportunity to be a part of something that’s bigger than just me.”

She acknowledges she wasn’t the best softball player.

“I didn’t actually play much,” she says. “I was a number three or number four pitcher, but everybody else on that team was better because I was part of the team.

“Learning how to be a leader, even if you’re not the one who’s standing in the middle of the field, is an opportunity that I have even today,” she says.

“Influencing others and being aware of the dynamics that are going on between people, whether it’s a pitcher and a catcher and a first basemen on the field or reading peoples’ strategies — I learned that on the field, and I apply it every day.”

— Erica Shekell

Story published on September 18, 2015