The rise of Mr. Hilarious – From a small garage start-up to Managing Director at imc
No. We’re not talking a Hollywood script for a new Vince Vaughn comedy. We’re telling the story of a Managing Director at imc. He reveals his most important task, and what work-life balance means to him today.
“Full of shenanigans” – that’s a beautiful phrase, right? It’s the first thing that came to mind when I first spoke to Oliver Nussbaum. It sums him up perfectly, as if the phrase was coined especially for him. You will soon understand why.
Olli is a Managing Director of imc Austria. In the late 1990s, he started an e-learning company – while dropping out of university and long before anyone had even heard of e-learning. When imc AG bought his company in 2008, he was kept on the payroll. In 2012, he became Managing Director of imc Austria, a role he now shares with his colleague Marc Müller.
In this interview, he shares how his understanding of work-life balance and career success has changed over the years, what he considers his most important task, and what really drives him up the wall.
Job | Managing Director imc Austria
Working in | Graz, Austria
Worked at imc since | 2008
Super power | Enthusiasm
Favourite food | Piccata Milanese
Hello Olli! Thank you for taking the time. What exactly does Managing Director mean? Can you explain your role in one sentence?
One sentence? OK: I know a little bit of everything, but nothing in-depth.
Respect! That was short and sharp. Can you explain it a bit further?
My job is to ensure that things run smoothly. Essentially, it is my responsibility to create a working environment for our employees that provides them with everything they need while also making them satisfied and keen to come to work. I clear their path as much as possible and remove obstacles so they can focus on their actual job. People want jobs that meet these four criteria: a great work atmosphere, interesting tasks, flexible working hours and adequate remunerations.
In recent years, priorities have shifted, and money has become less important. Of course, pay has to be fair. Yet, few will stay in a job if it falls short on the other factors – if the work atmosphere is poor, the employer is inflexible, or tasks are repetitive and boring.
Let’s talk flexibility. In 2022, imc introduced a flexible working time model under the motto: “100% flexible but not 100% remote.” How are you realising that in Austria?
Here in Austria, our team comprises 27 members. Most of us come to the office at least once or twice a week. We hold all our important team meetings on a Monday, and we all come in that day. The other four days are flexible. Some come in almost every day, others really only do on a Monday.
We were absolutely certain that we wanted to remain flexible after corona – especially when we saw that productivity shot up by almost 30% when we were forced to work from home! I keep a close eye on working hours to avoid overtime, and I strive to keep fluctuation close to zero. What you need to consider is that after 5, 10 or even 15 years with the company, the wealth of knowledge a team member accumulates is so profound that it becomes almost impossible to replace them.
This is why it is so important for me to create employee satisfaction, so that both our new and our long-time employees say: I love working here!
Sounds like a very relaxed approach. Many a traditionalist might even accuse you of not actually working.
Well, no. One glance at our output puts paid to that suggestion. Of course, I do place a lot of trust in my employees, and I put them first – as a person. However, I can only offer that flexibility if our corporate objectives are met. I expect absolute honesty, team spirit and a willingness to take responsibility. We are a team and think as a team. If one link in this chain becomes a burden on others, I will remove it sooner rather than later.
A person who compromises the collective effort, refuses to take responsibility for their work or offloads their tasks onto others will not have a future with us. I communicate this very clearly from day one to ensure everyone knows the script.
What exactly do you mean by honesty?
Honesty really is something I deeply care about. I am always totally honest to myself and others. The opinions I hold are not always that popular. Some will dislike that. However, I also don’t have an issue with others giving it to me straight. As a Managing Director, I need to be able to handle that. It is part of my job, and I would rather people let their frustration out on me than on my team. Our hierarchies are very flat. We don’t just preach an open-door policy because it’s cool. Everyone knows that they can come to me with any issue whatsoever. And they do.
To get back to your question: Honesty already starts during recruitment. I communicate our flat hierarchies very clearly from the outset. The last thing I would want is new team members getting the wrong idea about promotion opportunities and the like. Our structure naturally limits traditional progression through the ranks. Where we are not limited is in constantly offering new and exciting client projects and novel products like the imc Express authoring tool we developed in Austria.
Now, I also expect openness and honesty towards and from our clients, and I expect dealings to be on an equal footing. I cannot promise or sell anything our clients don’t need. It really is that simple.
Let’s talk about you and your career. How did you train for this role? What was your career path?
After finishing high school, I went to university to study business management. But I successfully dropped out after a few years. Nonetheless, that time was very valuable to me. For instance, during my semester abroad in Colorado, USA, I studied computer design. This was in the mid-1990s. Back then, you could hardly even find a PC in Europe.
I learned a lot about graphic design and got into intermediate and small film production. That sparked the idea to create my own learning videos. Thus, I got together with my former partner to start an e-learning company. The thing is, in the German-speaking region, nobody really knew what e-learning was supposed to be, and nobody understood what we were trying to do.
That was a really exciting time. It was huge fun. We had a proper garage start-up. We hired a room right above the employee shop of a Siemens branch. So, you could walk into the building and buy a washing machine with your computer-based training.
As the company grew, I took on different responsibilities. I handled sales, for example. At some point, my studies got in the way, so I dropped them to give all my focus to the company. We grew to 25 employees across the DACH region, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, that is, before selling the company to imc in 2008. That was a massive change for me personally. All of a sudden, I went from being an entrepreneur to an employee. That said, I think more like an entrepreneur now than I ever did before!
What characteristics do you think a Managing Director needs to bring to the table?
Above all, you need great social skills and empathy, and be a good judge of character. You also need to know what really matters. You cannot waste time with micromanagement. You need to delegate. A good Managing Director must be able to hire people who can do things better than them – without any hint of fear. I consider that a key competence.
On the other hand, you also need to have experience in the business and the environment. You also need to be open-minded, draw on a broad knowledgebase, and have at least some understanding of pretty much any issue – enough to enable you to judge how important or urgent these issues are, and how your market and your customers think.
In a nutshell, there are three things I consider crucial: First of all, social skills. That includes the ability to hire the right people. Secondly, a healthy approach to delegation. Thirdly, keeping an eye on the big picture without losing focus.
How would you define professional success?
My definition has changed many times over the years. During different stages of my life, professional success meant something different to me. In the beginning, I always wanted more: more customers, more revenue, more employees. I wanted to see the company take the big stage. The sale to imc seemed like a perfect fit for that ambition.
Today, I primarily define success by how satisfied my employees and how happy my customers are. I no longer need to be the centre of attention. I’m happy for others to take the credit. For me personally, status symbols and other financial aspects are now taking a backseat. Work-life balance has become a bit of a buzzword, but the “life” part is very important to me. In the past, I lived to work. I have become a lot more relaxed. It has been a few years since I put in a Christmas shift.
I also think that success means not taking things personally and developing a certain detachment while preserving your capacity for an emotional response. Taking breaks, trying to see the positives in anything, being able to laugh at things. The Dalai Lama said something along the lines of: “I love it when people laugh, because that is when they have new ideas.” My goal is to spend the rest of my working life in a way that allows me to retire but makes me want to come to work, simply because I enjoy it.
Let’s also talk about negatives. What really gets your hackles up?
I cannot stand deliberate incompetence. We briefly touched on taking responsibility earlier. What really drives me up the wall and – to me – is very much a sign of incompetence is when people deliberately approach something with tunnel vision.
When they refuse to look to the left or right and claim “I wasn’t told to do that” or “It never said that in the requirements specs.” It’s not a healthy mindset. If you are responsible for a project, you really have to take responsibility. You have to make sure that it works. Of course, you can and should consult specialists – but ultimately, you are responsible. Responsibility is not something you can dump on someone else.
Another thing I take great issue with is unfounded accusations. I think I made it very clear that anyone can come and tell me what they think. I don’t want them to mince their words, but I do expect these opinions to be plausible and have a basis.
To be quite honest, I also drive people around me nuts. I come late to meeting, I talk too much, I’m not perfect. But let’s carry on.
To round things off – Tell us about a funny experience you had at imc.
There’s been more than a few! This client contacted us with an issue, and we were struggling to really grasp what was going on. So, we asked her to send us a screenshot of the error message. Now, she took a slightly complicated approach: She opened a screenshot image in the editor, took a photograph of that and send us that photo. It showed the wall behind the computer, adorned with an image of a naked man. Of course, we all had a good laugh about that.
Some of the other stories I’d rather tell over a beer and off the record...
That might be the right thing to do. Thank you very much for this interesting and very entertaining interview, Olli!
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I have been working in the Marketing & Communication Team at imc since March 2019.
Communication, creating unique content and social media are my passion.
"One can not not communicate" - Paul Watzlawik.
To explain complex content in an understandable way and thus make the topic of e-Learning accessible to everyone is an exciting challenge every day.
Privately I love to read, play poker and travel a lot.
I am always happy to receive feedback or suggestions.