**This ongoing series profiles exemplary business leaders who believe in leveraging technology as an accelerator to reach a heightened level of betterment.**
I have had the pleasure of knowing Dave Marble for five years, and I have always been struck by Dave’s commitment to betterment, evolution and change. As CEO of OSHEAN for the past six years, Dave has infused these principles into the organization—always in search of the next great innovation or cultural component to weave through the business.
I had the chance to visit with Dave a few weeks ago to get his thoughts on everything from how we as leaders can better understand the needs of our employees to how to more masterfully succeed with a technology implementation. Here’s a look at our conversation…
Can you tell our readers about OSHEAN—your purpose, mission, and core offerings?
Since 1999, we have been providing fiber, Internet, cloud access, advanced IP-based networking and security solutions to nonprofit Community Anchor Institutions in the Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts area. We have 160 members made up of universities, K-12 schools, libraries, hospitals, government agencies and other non-profit organizations and we provide them and the communities they serve with innovative Internet-based technology solutions.
I tell everybody that we are a little bit weird in that we have 600 miles of fiber and are running a complex big IP technical network yet we are a nonprofit. We are essentially a member community that operates a service provider network. We are also passionate about helping IT leaders gain a more strategic position within their organization.
How do you define workplace excellence?
Workplace excellence is about striking that balance between productivity and culture. Have you ever seen the movie “Office Space?” There are some cool analogies in the movie depicting life in a technical workplace. In one scene, the lead character describes his life at work and essentially details that he really only works about 15 minutes a week because he just doesn’t care. Workplace excellence begins with caring about something and rallying around a company’s purpose. The truth lies deeper when you realize that company purpose only gets part of the way to motivation and that the rest is personal and everybody cares about something different. An engineer might care about the technical side of things. Someone in finance may care about balancing the numbers. Some crave leadership paths and others want to be individual contributors.
This January I wrote an article in the Providence Business News about how every leader’s greatest challenge is how to balance culture and production. I read a statement from Bill Belichick that he gave when asked about the culture of the Patriots. He said, “Emotion is great and can be a big part of it. In the end, we can all sit around and kumbaya all day. But if you don’t block anybody or you can’t tackle or you can’t kick, then I don’t really know what you have.” He is talking about that balance.
Workplace excellence is about understanding what people actually care about and figuring out a way to integrate that and balance with the production the business requires. OSHEAN has a wonderful company purpose that is a great thing to rally around but for most people, what drives them is deeper and personal.
How can leaders better figure out what their employees care about?
For me, it’s easy here because I have 22 employees and I can just talk to them directly. But when I was the VP of Optical at Lucent I couldn’t because I had hundreds of people working for me so I had to educate and drive my management team to get them to understand their staffs as individuals. At OSHEAN, I try to understand what my team is doing at a work task-level and for themselves personally and professionally. I want to know what they are trying to accomplish in their career and how I can support them. Right now, for example, we have two people working towards their masters in cybersecurity who we are supporting not only financially but from a time perspective by giving them the time to study.
In today’s day and age, our employees need to follow tracks that are meaningful to them. It’s up to leaders to help motivate them. Culture is very important to me. I have been in the business long enough to know that if work loses its meaning disengagement follows. It is amazing how much you learn about these things simply by asking and it is equally amazing how many leaders don’t do it.
The challenge then becomes how to measure workplace excellence. I believe this is custom to the company. There are so many example frameworks I tend to become a bit skeptical beyond a really good set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). KPIs that are measurable and roll up to the operating plan is my objective and I will say, continue to be a work in progress here at OSHEAN.
How have your thoughts about the intersection of people, process and technology evolved through your career?
Adopting technology and a process to support that technology is complicated. Take Office 365 as an example. Beyond email and calendaring, the technology offers a number of tools like Planner, Teams, Groups, Yammer, etc. When Planner came out, I wanted to use it and start tracking our projects, tasks and meetings online. It’s an interesting tool that allows us to categorize every task by person, department and by associated vertical market and client. It was very tough to get people to use the new technology and to follow the associated process. I had to rally my managers to enforce using Planner with their teams and I had to show people the value of the process. It was simple to implement, but it was hard to get it off the ground. We had the same struggles when trying to leverage Yammer, a simple company chat space. The impact of social behavior behind the use of technology is always underestimated.
Successfully balancing people, process and technology can be hard. As a leader, you have to realize that some people won’t take to a particular technology for a myriad of reasons. They can be afraid or think it’s too complicated. Motivation and persistence is crucial and you have to be realistic in your adoption timeline assessment. This understanding is the same when we implement in internal business process or roll out a new service to our membership.
I’ve also come to realize that some people have the acumen to make and lead change more effortlessly than others. Leadership isn’t for everyone, as they say. When it comes to people, process and technology, you need to have a blend of people who can be out there driving those changes, and the truth is many organizations lack that type of person and others fail to develop leaders who do have the acumen. That person is hard to come by, especially in tech. Fortunately, we have some really cool people here who are just itching to do just that—to bring in the next great thing and drive it. It’s why we were the first Research and Education Network in the country to run through Internet2’s new cloud exchange; we ran the proof of concept and now we are doing software defined automation across that platform mainly because we have great people here who eat that stuff for breakfast.
What is the No. 1 business challenge you think all organizations face as it relates to excellence in the workplace—no matter their size and industry?
Balancing culture and operations. In a technical world like ours, we are nothing without operations and innovation. Our network is a critical lifeblood of our members so culture could take a back seat if we let it. The best engineer will leave a company if they hate the culture. Maintaining both the operations and innovation curves, while having a great culture balance is hard. You have to reach that balance all the way down to the individuals who ultimately are the ones who enable you to execute against both spheres. Of all the things I wrestle with, this one is truly the most elusive as it defies concrete definition. I do know this, you can’t begin to understand it if you don’t ask your people.
How can business leaders adjust their behavior and approach to start to be more excellent?
At the highest level, leaders can’t be afraid to try something new. Some of the things I have tried didn’t work, but you keep adapting and changing perspectives and learning inside and outside. In tech, this is the lifeblood of innovation and survival. Constantly inspire your team to come up with ideas. There is no way any one of us can be the smartest in the room on all things, nor should we be. To increase excellence, leaders should focus on hiring and developing people who are just flat out smart, and passionate about your business. Then figure out how to let them blossom by breaking down roadblocks in their creative paths.
One of the best parts of the OSHEAN ecosystem is the fact that we are a member-based community so we talk with our members all the time. We collaborate and build stuff together, and our national ecosystem of research and education networks exchange ideas all the time. Our level of collaboration is some of the best I have seen in the business.
By the way, did I mention fun? It sounds a bit hokey but incorporating fun into your culture actually works!
You may also to read the following interviews from our workplace excellence series: