Top Places to Work

Executives get back in the trenches at the companies they run

“The magic is in the people who work for you,” said Aron Ain, 56, chief executive of Kronos, based in Chelmsford.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
“The magic is in the people who work for you,” said Aron Ain, 56, chief executive of Kronos, based in Chelmsford.

At first glance, the leaders who run the four companies that ranked the highest in this year’s Top Places to Work survey appear to have little in common. One is a 35-year-old registered nurse who, with the help of his father-in-law, started a home health agency dedicated to the mentally ill; another is a former international development worker and photojournalist who got into the social well-being business; the third is an unassuming bank president who used to make his employees pay a quarter every time they cursed; and the last is a Long Island native who wears a gold chain under his suit jacket and whose software company just hit $1 billion in annual revenue.

They are all men, white men at that, and that seems to be where the similarities end. But they are connected by their dedication to keeping employees happy — not only because it is a decent thing to do, but because they know attracting and retaining good people plays a huge role in building a profitable company.

The executives’ companies came out on top in their respective size categories, from MeYou Health, a 66-employee company that develops health- and fitness-related apps, to Kronos, a human resources software provider with 4,000 employees around the world. They recently sat down with the Globe to discuss their philosophies on creating a vibrant, employee-centered culture.

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“The magic is in the people who work for you,” said Aron Ain, 56, chief executive of Kronos, based in Chelmsford.

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In an effort to get these leaders to see their companies through their employees’ eyes, the Globe asked them to get back in the trenches for a few hours and perform an entry-level job. For Brandon Howes, who founded Comfort Home Care in Methuen in 2007 and was the company’s only nurse for the first six months, going out with a visiting nurse reminded him of the challenges they face in the field, especially when dealing with bipolar or schizophrenic patients. Howes frequently gets calls from staffers asking if they can continue to see a patient for free, and because the company does a lot of this already, he can be quick to say no. But seeing the needs and circumstances of patients firsthand again reset his perspective.

“It softened my heart that these patients really need the care,” said Howes, who grew up in Hudson and got a degree in psychology before he went back to school to become an R.N.

Brandon Howes
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Brandon Howes

When bank president Michael Jones tried his hand at a being a teller at Newburyport-based Institution for Savings, the employees put out a “teller in training” sign in front of his window. Unlike most bank presidents, Jones had never worked as a teller, and even though he had been trained on the basics, he had no idea what to do when a woman came in with only her debit card to withdraw $20. The next customer’s payroll check wouldn’t scan into the system, and Jones accidentally shortchanged him by 53 cents. The experience made Jones realize that his employees never know what challenge will appear next at their windows.

“My first day I think I was off like $25,” said Jones, a 47-year-old Portland, Maine, native and father of four children under the age of 13, including twin boys. “I certainly have a newfound respect for everybody who works that teller line on a daily basis.”

Teller Mary Ann Padellaro looked on as Michael J. Jones temporarily took over her duties.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Teller Mary Ann Padellaro looked on as Michael J. Jones temporarily took over her duties.
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Respect is often what it boils down to. Chris Cartter, a 59-year-old Cheshire, Conn., native who runs the Boston health care software firm MeYou Health, hasn’t had a single engineer quit in the company’s five-year history. He attributes this in part to a culture where each employee is valued and not expected to pull “caffeine-fueled pizza-driven weekends and all nighters.” At regular catered lunch meetings to demonstrate products, positive feedback is the norm.

“Even the shy, reclusive engineer will stand up in front of everybody and share their work and get recognized,” he said.

Chris Cartter and product manager Liana Leahy
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Chris Cartter and product manager Liana Leahy

At Kronos, Ain records video blogs to keep his far-flung employees informed, customizing them for different countries, including Diwali greetings for workers in India and Chinese New Year wishes for employees in China. The company also live-webcasts its annual town hall meetings, during which employees around the world can submit questions, “so we make a global company act like a local company,” Ain said.

Sharing the wealth with employees is also a good way to earn their loyalty. At Institution for Savings, the bank pays 100 percent of workers’ health care premiums, provides a 10 percent 401(k) match, and offers a profit-sharing plan for everybody, including students who work part time over Christmas break.

A surprising characteristic that inclusive leaders share, according to the business research organization Catalyst, is humility — admitting mistakes, learning from criticism, and seeking help from others. And the winning chief executives agree.

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Humility is crucial in software, Cartter noted, where failing is part of the culture. Jones’s good-natured misadventures at the teller window demonstrate his willingness to make mistakes in front of his employees. At Kronos, every Thanksgiving the executives don chef hats and dish out turkey and mashed potatoes to their employees in the cafeteria. Howes, at Comfort Home Care, makes a point of telling new employees that all their bosses started out at entry-level.

If all else fails, they say, don’t take yourself too seriously. Two years ago for Halloween, Cartter, a nontraditional executive who favors motorcycle boots, came to the office dressed in a suit.

He was, he said, the scariest person in the room.

2014 Top Places to Work

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

Clarification: This story has been modified to clarify Kronos’ field of commerce.