People & Places

Linda Barnes rises to the top of Geonetric

She brings to reality an idea for a workplace without supervisors

Linda Barnes, chief executive officer of Geonetric, poses for a portrait in the Geonetric office in Cedar Rapids on Nov.
Linda Barnes, chief executive officer of Geonetric, poses for a portrait in the Geonetric office in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 29, 2016. Barnes was promoted to CEO of the health care marketing, intranet and website design company in October, filling the role of former CEO, owner and founder Eric Engelmann, who is now executive director of NewBoCo. (Liz Zabel/The Gazette)
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Linda Barnes never thought she’d see the letters “CEO” next to her name, but after 10 years at Geonetric — a Cedar Rapids company that provides marketing, intranet and website design services to the health care industry — she stepped into former Chief Executive Officer Eric Engelmann’s shoes in October.

Engelmann recruited Barnes when she was working for Alliant Energy in 2006. She’d been managing the company’s performance and electronic communications department for five years when Engelmann invited her to join Geonetric as vice president for business development.

“We were a young, scrappy company run by a bunch of crazy entrepreneurs making it up as we went,” Engelmann said. “She brought a much-needed experience and corporate perspective to the company.”

Between working for Alliant — where she led efforts to rebuild its intranet, website and brand — and her Northwestern University master’s degree in business administration, finance and marketing, Barnes brought the perfect storm of skills to help a company she said was “struggling to tell its story.”

“When I see areas that aren’t performing as well as they could, I have a natural instinct to want to help,” she said.

In her first few years with Geonetric, Barnes revamped its brand, developed a communications strategy and built a marketing team.

Then, in 2008, executives at Geonetric began to explore an “agile management” style, which trades traditional management hierarchy for a team-based model intended to empower employees to be accountable to themselves and their teams, rather than a direct supervisor.

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The switch was met with some pushback, Engelmann said. Questions were raised, such as: What would workflow look like? And how would they transition?

Not many companies were working under this model, Engelmann explained. But he had a vision and knew just the person who could work through the details and “make it actually work.”

In 2013, as the company transitioned to “agile,” Barnes role transformed into vice president for organizational agility.

The theme of the management style is that employees are able to work independently and efficiently, bypassing delegation and approval of a supervisor in order to get work done faster for a client.

“You don’t have a boss to report to; you’re just trying to make the customer happy and that’s it. Doing right by them is ultimately the goal,” Engelmann said.

An added bonus, he said, is that having no managers means less workplace politics.

“There’s no corner office to compete for. No managing up. No expending resources to make your boss like you more,” he said. “All energy goes toward the client.”

But not having direct supervisors has flaws.

No one person has hiring, firing or promotional abilities within the team. Employees don’t have supervisors to turn to for career guidance or feedback. They are expected to self-organize, prioritize and execute work as well as resolve conflicts on their own.

Of course, someone has to make big decisions, Engelmann said. That’s where the executive team comes in.

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“We make sure we’re in the right business, have the right people on the bus and the right culture we want to build,” he said. “But any sort of day-to-day, the teams make the majority of decisions. Employees can ask for counsel and advice, but we don’t require it. It’s just a very different environment.”

Said Barnes: “It was the craziest thing I’d every heard of. But it’s OK to try something and have it not work. Failure is when you don’t even try.”

Over the course of three years, Barnes built “strong, self-managing teams” that became the backbone of the company. She designed and implemented ways to make the structure work by rolling around the office in her desk on wheels, stopping to talk with each team to determine what kinds of issues it was facing so she could help work out the kinks.

For example, Barnes determined how employees could get raises and promotions: If an employee feels ready for a promotion, he or she pitches it to the team and it’s put to a vote. If an employee feels he or she is better suited to be on a different team, the employee simply goes and does that. If work needs to be done and someone is available to do it, that employee steps up.

“There’s no ‘that’s not my job’ here,” Barnes said. “Everybody’s job is to build up their teammates.”

Barnes also invented “impact maps,” which show employees how they as an individual contribute to companywide goals.

Since their transition in 2013, Geonetric has seen growth and profitability every year, said Heather Stanley, Geonetric’s senior marketing communication strategist.

In fact, 2014 was their best year in terms of revenue and profit, she said, adding that employee and client satisfaction have improved with the transition as well.

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Meanwhile, Engelmann became less present at Geonetric and increasingly busy with the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo), an organization that supports entrepreneurship in the Corridor, of which he is the executive director.

“I’m a starter. I like to make things go from 0 to 1,” Engelmann said. “The entrepreneurial space is really where my heart is.”

Barnes had been promoted to chief operations officer and as the executive team continued to take on more responsibility in Engelmann’s absence, she saw a void.

“We were slowing Geonetric down by not having a CEO,” she said. She realized she could fill that role, so she stepped up and made her pitch.

“I never had my eye on CEO, but wanted to keep doing more and do it better,” she said. “I did a lot of soul searching. It wasn’t about ego, but about leadership. My job is to be a good enough leader that people want to follow and make Geonetric a success. My job is to make this the best culture possible and to empower employees to make decisions and power forward.”

The executive team voted her through, she said, making her CEO as of October.

Engelmann retains majority ownership and became board chairman for the company, but is otherwise no longer actively involved in the company.

“I’m excited to watch her keep growing,” Engelmann said. “We worked together for a decade. I learned a lot from her, she learned a lot from me and I’m excited to see where she takes it.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8364; elizabeth.zabel@thegazette.com

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