Mary O’Neill on Treating Employees Like Customers, Saying ‘No’ to the CEO, and Doing the Work that Needs to Be Done

Meet Mary O’Neill, workplace designer, artisanal bread baker, and Business Manager at Atomic Object. I recently sat down with Mary to hear her story.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews with Atomic makers.

You’re Atomic’s Business Manager. What does that mean day-to-day?

I’m the master of the machine that runs Atomic—keeping the company operating effectively for our clients and our employees. That includes a lot of different things, for example:

  • I support business operations for the whole company by doing things like reviewing legal agreements, negotiating leases, managing banking relationships, etc.
  • I develop our strategy and search for compelling employee benefits.
  • I help create and maintain effective facilities for our office locations, which included being Atomic’s owner-representative on our recently finished new building project. I was directly involved in the design of the building, set project requirements, made tough decisions, signed contracts, and managed relationships with our neighbors, local government, architects, contractors, etc.
  • I assist with Atomic’s hiring process by checking references and interviewing job candidates.
  • I also work on a lot of special projects as they arise.

My job also used to include all of Atomic’s financial operations, but a little over a year ago, we hired a full-time accountant (Adam Medema). Hiring Adam was an acknowledgement that my job had become completely unsustainable for one person; it wasn’t possible for me to single-handedly do everything Atomic needed from an operations perspective. We transitioned most of the financial operations to Adam, which has allowed me to focus on a wider range of other business operations needs, especially the delivery of our new space.

Adam and I work as a great pair—he’s someone I can collaborate with, and we load-balance tasks between each other. I’ve never had a pair at Atomic, and it’s gratifying. Adam is a degree-holding accountant, and I am a self-taught business manager with a B.A. in workplace design, so I really appreciate his perspective and expertise.

How did a workplace interior designer end up as Business Manager at Atomic?

I started working at Atomic in July 2002, working maybe 10 hours a week. I’d been laid off from my job at Herman Miller late in 2001, and Carl Erickson (Atomic’s CEO and my husband) needed help with the business side of a then-fledgling company.

The job was intended to “take some of the load off Carl while I figure out my next career move.” And I did everything I could do to free him up to focus on clients and growing our team. That meant processing payroll, invoicing clients, making sure we complied with applicable laws, filing our tax returns on time, ensuring the facility worked to serve our needs, provisioning us with the right levels of business insurance, negotiating and administering the benefits we offered, buying office snacks, etc.

The job expanded as Carl and I started working together, solving problems and figuring out how to make the company run smoothly. A lot of the work we did early on was born out of Carl’s and my desire to not just create a tiny startup, but to position Atomic for growth as a viable, long-term consultancy and an attractive employer–for example, being forward-thinking and generous with employee benefits so we could hire and keep good people.

The nature and complexity of my job increased over time as the company grew. The more people we hired, the more activity there was with the hiring process, benefits, facilities, etc. More client projects meant more invoices, and the flow of money increased. My job scaled roughly in parallel with the company. My leadership role evolved as I earned the trust and respect of people around me. I worked hard, lived Atomic’s values and led by example.

Why haven’t you gone back to interior design?

When I graduated from college, I thought I’d always have a job related to my degree. But sometimes unexpected life circumstances create enormous opportunity. And a smart person who works hard can teach themselves to do all kinds of valuable things.

I wasn’t “born knowing I wanted to be a business manager,” but it was an important thing to do at the start of Atomic. And I was at a point where I didn’t know what my next professional move should be. So instead of waiting for a brilliant insight, I just dug into the work at hand to help my family. It was an active choice to jump into something unknown but necessary, rather than passively waiting to be inspired by something else that might have seemed like a better fit with my education and prior experience.

What do you like about being the Business Manager?

I like that my work is varied—I do a lot of different things within my job every day. I’m activated by change. I enjoy it. For Carl and me, Atomic is a team effort. Though we do different work, it’s something we do together, and 99% of the time, it’s fun.

I also like the fact that I get to help people, which sounds cliche, but I find it very satisfying to have a positive impact in other people’s lives.

What do you find frustrating/difficult about it?

Sometimes, I have a hard time understanding the technical context our makers work in. The nuts and bolts of software design and development is still a pretty abstract concept for me.

I have a very three-dimensional, spatial orientation, so it’s sometimes hard for me to fully understand the physicality of software. I’ve asked Carl, “Where is all the code right now?” I want to imagine the physical location for all the software we create.

You and the CEO of Atomic are married to each other. Does that change how people see you?

I think so, but I don’t know for sure. Over time, I have hit a few rough spots with some people who have (incorrectly) assumed that I’m just Carl’s surrogate and don’t hold my own opinions, stand on my own, or add my own value to our work. I had to say, “I’m not Carl’s yes-woman—never have been and never will be.” And I tell Carl all the time, I’m his biggest fan and his toughest critic. Nobody will be more honest with him about how things really are.

For about seven years, I was Atomic’s only woman employee. There were times when that was kind of strange and hard, but a vast majority of the time, it was fine. Part of that could have been because of my partnership with Carl, but more importantly, I’m comfortable in my own skin and I’ve enjoyed the privilege of working with a great group of men. And I love the fact that Atomic is 11 women strong and growing. That’s awesome.

What skills do you need to be a good business manager at Atomic?

I need to be aware of what’s going on around me. I need to respond to the needs of other people, but also to anticipate them. With employee benefits, you have to look forward and see what you can improve, to think, “What can we offer that we might not have, balancing costs for all parties?” When we were considering enhancing our parental leave, Carl and I asked ourselves, “What would be best for the baby? What are their needs?”

Also important is extreme task organization. I’ve had to learn how to delegate, something I had a hard time with early on. Daily, I ask myself, “Is there someone who could do this better? Someone who wants the opportunity to do this?” Delegation is important to get more things done, and it creates more opportunities for other people—to learn, to shine, to help me deliver great results.

Name something surprising that you think has made you better at your job.

My education and tenure at Herman Miller taught me about what attention to detail really means, not just dotting is and crossing ts, but the details of human experience. My mentor would always ask me what a design detail would be like to touch, not just how it looked or how it functioned. Focus on your user, and think about another human’s response to your work product.

As the Business Manager, Atoms and clients are my users. I focus on their experience at Atomic—resolving details thoroughly, thinking through them carefully and with empathy.

It was also very useful in our recent building project. We hired an architect, but Carl and I were very directly involved in the design of the building. Together, we are a powerful pair in thinking creatively about architecture and crafting spaces that solve real business needs. You’ll see evidence of that in every room of our new workplace.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to work with my hands. I’ve been a bread baker for a long time; I’m both self-taught and have taken some classes. Cooking has always been an important creative outlet for me. It’s a great way to express love and bring people together.

I enjoy reading, and the discipline my book group offers me. And I love to travel. Taking myself to a different place can be an amazing, mind-centering thing. Changing my venue inspires me and changes my worldview in meaningful ways.