He’s coming around to the benefits of an occasional work-from-home day, but like many of us, Mike Olsen, Senior Vice President at Consolidated Communications, can’t wait for the return to the normal 9-to-5 in a post-pandemic world. “Me personally, I was not a work-from-home person. I like going to the brick and mortar—I’m all about seeing people, culture, that type of thing, but I’ve learned that whenever things go back to whatever the new norm is, it will be more productive for me to sometimes work from home, especially [during] a long travel week.” During his recent appearance on JSA’s Data Movers podcast, the people-oriented Olsen talked personal and professional observations surrounding COVID-19, the importance of listening, the person he’d most like to have dinner with (Iowa sports fans, don’t miss this one) and why the future is in the cloud.
The New Normal
As a sales professional, Olsen is no stranger to the ebbs and flows in service popularity over time. COVID-19 has certainly given way to a host of trends in residential and business telecom needs that Consolidated, a top 10 fiber provider serving residents, businesses, and wireless and wireline carriers across a 23-state service area, must meet. In many ways, the pandemic has forced the adoption of cloud and emphasized the need to be diverse, Olsen says, particularly with a larger-than-ever-before work from home force. While some companies are talking about permanent work-from-home set-ups, many are examining a hybrid model.
“Our homes have become a workplace,” said Olsen, who has observed Consolidated vans driving back and forth in his neighborhood, helping facilitate the transformation of homes to work environments.
As for Olsen, nothing beats connecting with team members in a brick-and-mortar environment, though even he has come around to the productivity work-from-home days provide. “I think it’s opened up businesses’ minds [that] we need to be flexible.”
As for service adoption, many companies are coming to Consolidated with an urge to move forward more quickly as the changing environments call for quick assimilation into a new way of working.
“Companies that were maybe holding back projects want to do them and they want to do them now,” Olsen said. “We need to become faster than we were before because that’s what businesses are demanding. They’re demanding services much quicker, much more flexible.”
Consolidated is ready to meet the need. As a big but agile organization, Consolidated has the benefit of being quick to respond to new customer needs.
“We’re large, but we’re not one of the big guys. And when you’re that way, you can still be swift and nimble, which we have proved to many customers in 2020,” Olsen said. “Everybody’s asking for 10 gig, and we need to continue to grow as a company.”
A Look Back
As for changing priorities, Olsen’s seen them before. With more than 27 years at Consolidated Communications, Olsen started his career in telecom around the time of the 56K modem. Back then, video seemed like a foreign concept, or at least one that was likely to never catch on.
When he heard in 2010 that video was on track to outpace voice in a year, he was skeptical. Fast forward to 2021, and nothing could be truer.
“If you weren’t an adopter of video, boy the pandemic taught you to be an adopter of video,” Olsen said. “If I ever get a voice conference bridge, I really don’t know what to do anymore because I’m so used to video, I’m so used to seeing somebody across the screen.”
Another trend that stands out to Olsen from his tenured career is the huge shift in networks. Originally built for voice, networks have since undergone major upgrades to facilitate data.
A Look Ahead
Over the next five years, Consolidated is pushing toward the most aggressive expansion in its company’s history, pledging to provide 1.6 million fiber passings by the end of 2026. This year alone, that includes providing service to more than 300,000 homes. In addition to residential services, being able to provide better bandwidth to businesses along the way as they build fiber routes to residential areas is just the icing on the cake for Olsen. “Everybody is going to win whether you’re residential or business,” he said.
Many of the passings will be in smaller towns or even rural areas. So it’s natural that Olsen sees business going hand in hand with community service in the areas Consolidated serves.
“Corporate citizenship was really, really important to us,” said Olsen, who said charitable efforts are focused around critical needs and education. “It’s really attracted great employees. We just do not have the turnover like most companies or industries do because of that corporate citizenship.”
Get to Know Mike
As for professional advice, Olsen says an important skill for anyone, no matter your role or industry, is to master the art of critical listening. Much can be learned from opening your ears instead of your mouth, especially as a leader.
“One of my mantras is, practice the 95/5 rule. Listen 95% of the time, speak 5% of the time because you learn so much by listening,” he said. His other tip is to hire strong leaders.
“Leadership really matters. When you have strong leaders in place, nobody leaves. People want to work for people more so than money,” Olsen said. “If you don’t have turnover, your company is going to be much more successful.”
As an avid sports fan, one person Olsen would love to listen to and learn from is Kirk Ferentz, the head coach for the University of Iowa football team who has led a top 20 program year after year, even while bringing in lower-level talent.
“The five-star [athletes] are what Ohio gets and what Alabama gets, but [Ferentz] takes 2–3 star kids out of high school and turns them into great college players,” Olsen said. “I would be very intrigued about how he stays disciplined and how he’s changed to keep that program in such great shape.”
But to find out why “The Blind Side” is his favorite film, you’ll have to catch the whole podcast here.
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