Executive of the Year: For Gonnering, freedom is DAM good management

When you’re a provider of digital asset management (DAM) software, you gain a pretty good understanding of organizational assets. For Widen Enterprises CEO Matthew Gonnering, those assets begin with people, the employees he calls the “Wideneers,” which is why he invests so much in professional development and culture. It’s this investment of time and money, and outside-the-box management philosophy, which earned Gonnering the Medium Company Executive of the Year award and our overall 2019 Executive of the Year.

Executive of the Year awards are given for business excellence, including turnaround stories, from the past year, but in Gonnering’s case, the seeds for the past year’s success were planted several years ago. WorldBlu’s certification of Widen Enterprises as a Freedom-Centered Workplace is one of those fruitful seeds. As Gonnering explains, a “freedom-centered workplace” is the antithesis of the traditional top-down command model. “The easiest way to explain the freedom-centered workplace is to talk about what the opposite looks like,” Gonnering explains. “The opposite of a freedom-centered workplace is a fear-based workplace. If you can imagine a very top-down, mandated environment that is culturally challenged — you just don’t like showing up for work every day. Information does not flow freely, it’s difficult to collaborate, and employees don’t know what’s going on, all of which creates fear within organizations.”

Not only is the freedom-centered organization open with information, its leaders are on display to be the point of “being very vulnerable with what they know and what they don’t know,” Gonnering adds, and so Widen’s project teams are empowered. Decentralization is a principle that calls for decisions to be made at the edges of organizations because, in his view, that’s where the expertise is and that’s where the knowledge of the problem resides. So, in general, the freedom-centered approach is a cultural attribute that makes individuals feel empowered as part of a team and as a grander part of the organization.

Asked if what he described as the fear-based organization is really the way business used to be done, Gonnering notes that it’s the way business still is done. “Frankly, it’s unfortunate,” he states. “We see, as we continue to grow and as we hire, that we have people come into the organization and they share experiences from previous employers, and they talk about how Widen is very different because of how we’re sharing information, what we make available, and how much is visible to everyone. So, the fear-based organizations are very much alive and well, unfortunately so.”

The spirit of Gonnering’s leadership is centered on the term “eudaimonia,” which is Greek for human flourishing. The eudaimonia concept has been around for centuries, but Gonnering learned about it from a friend in the MBA program at UW–Madison. His acquaintance was a Ph.D. in psychology and he was talking about the term eudaimonia from a psychologist’s perspective, but Gonnering started digging into it and decided to apply it from a business perspective because it resonated with him.

“When I show up here, we are very much a human-centered business,” he explains. “So, what do you and I want to do when we come to work? We want to create things. We want to know that we’re contributing. We want to know that things are meaningful. Everybody wants that, and in those fear-based companies, people don’t get a chance to do that because they are hired to do the job that they are told to do and that’s it.”

As he began to understand eudaimonia more in depth, Gonnering started to frame it in the business environment and link it to the different dimensions of wellness focusing on social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, occupational, and physical wellness. He made a particular point of this because he believes that for workers to flourish, Widen needs to be sound across many dimensions. “So, if we can focus on multidimensional wellness and we can build programs and allow opportunities to do that, then we’re all going to flourish together,” he states. “In fact, that’s a value statement for the organization — to flourish together.”

Widen also uses a strategy model called “playing to win” after the book of the same title by A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and strategy consultant Roger Martin. The company educates employees on the model, applies it throughout the organization, and most importantly, makes it visible to everyone. “Everybody maps to it, and so we have an application that we use that shows what our vision is, shows what our five-year strategy is, and our vision is a 15-year vision,” Gonnering explains. “It shows our five-year strategy and shows our objectives. Then our teams get together, and they create their own team objectives every quarter. Every quarter, they map to an annual objective, which connects to playing to win, which connects to our vision. So, everybody can see how they contribute day-to-day, to quarter, to year, to five years, to 15 years.”

Global growth

Widen Enterprises supports more than 600 global brands and clients. More growth is projected for 2019 for several reasons, and one of them is that Gonnering felt confident enough to open a European headquarters in London. Widen already had a fair number of customers in Europe, and seven of the company’s roughly 140 employees work in London, with a couple more job openings that should be filled by year’s end.  

Widen’s European thought process was logical and spoke to growing organizational confidence. “We have a few dozen customers in the European market now, so the first mindset we had was let’s get into that market to make sure we’re properly taking care of the customers we already have there,” Gonnering explains. “Then we started to look at the competitive landscape, knowing it pretty well already, and said, ‘There are competitors in Europe that are also in the U.S. market that we already beat, that we already know we’re better than, and we can win versus those competitors already.

“So, we think that some of the future customers in Europe are being underserved by the competitors that are over there, and we started our business development effort because we believe we can better serve customers in the European market than the European players in our same space. So, that is an active effort right now that will pick up pace as our marketing and business development efforts increase during 2019 and beyond.”

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Europe, however, is only part of Widen’s growth projections, and that’s due in part to additional products and services that Widen is adding to the mix. The company is known for digital asset management, which is the management of images, videos, and audio, and the branded content that marketers and creative teams build. The company sees the opportunity to move beyond visual content problems and address the challenges the same audience — marketing, creative, and product teams — have with how they organize product information with descriptions, keywords, pricing, and other details.

“It’s about the combination thereof, and how those join together to be presented in an ecommerce environment or distributed into a dealer network,” Gonnering explains. “So, we are going to solve problems related to product information, and not just the visual information that we’re currently managing. That market is called product information management. So, from digital asset management, we’re going to keep our efforts there, and advance into product information management, otherwise known as PIM.”

With some customers also in the Asia-Pacific region, a physical location there also is in the works, but not for a couple of years. “Our pursuit of Asia and the Asia-Pacific region will likely be in 2020 to 2021, and we will be setting up service operations there to help take care of those customers, at which point in time, once we get into 2023, we would probably start more active business development in that region,” Gonnering says. “Business development itself would just be in the U.S. and Europe and support and service operations would be created in the Asia-Pacific market in probably 2020 or 2021.”

How about South Korea or China? “No, we looked at three different communities,” he adds. “We looked at Kuala Lumpur, which is in Malaysia. We looked Bangkok in Thailand, and we looked at Singapore. Of those three, the person that traveled there, our head of global strategy, she is making a strong recommendation for Singapore. It’s got global flare to it, so we like the perception that Widen has an office in Madison, in London, and in Singapore, but it’s also easy to do business there. It’s very expensive, though, so we need to be conscious of that with our funding model just being from operating capital, but that looks to be where we can find talent and where we can best serve our current customers, and then use it as a beachhead to launch business development efforts in some other areas. So, perhaps Japan and other areas where there is strong growth and customers that might need the services we’re providing.”

Strong performance

Executive of the Year judge Joe Pleshek, president and CEO of Terso Solutions Inc., one of three past honorees who selected this year’s class, praised Gonnering for demonstrating a consistent commitment to the professional and personal development of all Widen employees. “He is a leader who clearly leads from the front,” Pleshek states.

For Gonnering, the award is significant for the organization, and he compared it to “acing” an employee-performance review. “To be selected by a group of peers is, frankly, more meaningful. It’s kind of like how we do peer reviews internally. A manager’s review of an employee is not as effective as a peer review of an employee. If you’re being selected and talked about amongst your peers in a very favorable way, then it’s much more meaningful. I feel what it means to the organization is much more significant because of the peer evaluations and the nomination process that was conducted. So, I think it’s outstanding for the company.”

For more details about the Executive of the Year event and to purchase tickets, visit IBMadison.com/ExecutiveOfTheYear.

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