Episode 269: Lessons Learned from Mark Holland CEO and Chairman of Ascend Staffing

Episode Summary

Being true to character is one of the most rewarding principles of highly successful leaders. While honesty and integrity might lead to sometimes recognizing a mistake and eventually losing a client, at the end of the day, the other side of the coin brings you the fulfilling feeling of having done the right thing. There’s nothing like looking your spouse in the eye and letting them know you are doing your best at being honest and ethical, regardless of the consequences.  


Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you might be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and I am thrilled to have a close friend, wonderful human being, terrific executive as our guest today. Welcome, Mark Holland.

Mark Holland: Wow. I thought you’re going to say somebody else. Thank you so much, Steven. I am so honored and delighted to be able to share a little bit of time with you today.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, good. And to our listeners, it’s always a privilege to be with you and the very fact that you tune in to this says so much about who you are, and the blessing that you are to other people, both professionally and personally in your lives. And so, kudos to you for your efforts. I’d like to tell you just a little bit about Mark to start off with. Mark is CEO and Chairman of Ascend Staffing. This is a Utah-based company that’s grown from three offices into 37 offices in 12 States during Mark’s tenure. And Ascend Staffing is among the largest staffing companies in the United States, like in the top 1%, not to mention one of the top staffing companies in the world. So, it specializes in light industrial and non-clinical hospital staffing and it has been helping people and companies come together since 1969. I’ll just tell you a little bit more about that.

Steve Shallenberger: Mark founded in 1995 Ascend HR Solutions, which is an HR outsourcing company, and Ascend was listed as number 17 in the Inc Magazine’s 500 list in 2000 and has just continued to grow and play such a major role in his industry. We’re going to have fun talking about Mark and Mark’s background, his experience. He loves people. As a CEO and a leader I know one of his passions is to bring the very best out in people. He is married to a wonderful lady, Wendi and they have four children that are right now 15 to 22. And I’ll just say I have had the privilege of associating closely with Mark for many years. We’ve been members of the same forum with the Young Presidents’ Organization, we’ve traveled to different places and Mark has my total admiration. Now, I’ll just also say I know Mark is committed to helping his employees because he’s had Becoming Your Best train his employees. And that’s one of the things I think he prides himself in. So, we’re going to hear from Mark now and looking forward to it. So, Mark, let’s just start off. What are some of the things that bring you the greatest happiness in life?

Mark Holland: Oh, this is like a get on board question from YPO, right? We were watching a movie – we’re trying to get my youngest, Ella, who’s 15 years old, acquainted with the movies that I love, and we kind of mix it up a little bit. And so, we were watching the Bucket List and I had Wendi on one side of me, and then Ella came up and snuggled up on the other side of me, and we watched that movie, it was just… Boy, that’s a little piece of heaven for me.

Steve Shallenberger: Life doesn’t get any better than that – those kinds of experiences – does it Mark?

Mark Holland: Correctamundo, that is yes.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, let’s get into it. So, Mark, we’re going to kind of hit this interview from different sides. And I know our listeners are going to pick out some really great things today. So, let’s start with the business side. What are some of the key lessons learned that you’ve had that have helped you and your business be successful?

Mark Holland: Yeah, great question, Steve. And by the way, thank you so much for your friendship and your mentorship. You’ve been an amazing guide for me in my life and the things that I’ve learned through Becoming Your Best truly have been transformational, so thank you. And maybe that leads me into one of the first things I’ve knocked around a little bit is the power of networks, the power of associating with people that are like-minded. I think it’s easy to get off on the wrong foot and take a little step in the wrong direction – maybe this way is a little bit easier, maybe it’s a little sneakier or something. My experience, as I watch in life, is that one day if we start down a tough path, we’ll wake up one day and look around the table and find ourselves surrounded with like-minded people. On the other hand, if we try to tell the truth, if we do our best to honor our words and do the right things, even when it’s difficult, boy, you look around the table and you’ve got friendships like Steve Shallenberger and others that you’re just proud to be associated with. And so, I think the first thing is, really, we just try to do the right thing. We get into enough trouble through accidents and so on, that I just don’t want to be creating any additional purposeful skeletons in my closet, if you will. And so, we just try to do the right thing, and then we don’t have to worry about what we said because we’re just doing our best; we’re not trying to cover up stuff, and so on. And so, that’s probably one of the things that come to mind, Steve. As I focus on business, boy, the older I get, the more I understand that relationships are everything. My networks within the industry, with YPO, with my neighborhood, with my church, those folks, they just become such an important part of my life, and finding those people that I want to hang out with and be like-minded.

Mark Holland: From a business perspective, as I reflect on our successes and failures, and it’s interesting that I go more towards the failures than I do successes because we learn so many important life lessons. And so, part of that guides me to being willing to take educated risks and being willing to fail. We lost almost half a million dollars when we didn’t have it in a technical venture. It was just a mess and never really worked right. But you know, out of those mistakes and errors came some wonderful things, including Ascend HR that you mentioned. And so, I think being willing to take educated risks and being willing to fail and pick yourself up and dust yourself off and get out at it again. Maybe one other thing, or if there were two, maybe just over the years – and we’ve been doing this for a long time – hire slowly. I mean, we go through a very rigorous hiring process. So, by the time that you come on board with Ascend, we really know who you are, and you know who we are. And it just I think eliminates challenges and frustrations and potential upsets that wouldn’t work for either side. And then finally, and truly from a professional perspective, nothing is more important than family. And you may hear that again from me today, but having life balance, and knowing why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. And for me, the family is certainly one of them, my faith is very important. And so, having this balance in our lives that we just kind of keep resetting and making sure that we’re focusing on the right things.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, that’s great, Mark. Going back to one of the first points that you brought up, which is really being honest and maintaining high integrity, being true to character. How have you found the best way to do it? Because to violate that principle destroys trust in every way and it closes doors and eliminates opportunity. And of course, the opposite is true, when you have high trust, it creates more opportunity. So, what’s been your experience of how you can be true to your own character? How can you stand up for what you believe and do what you talked about?

Mark Holland: Yeah, I think a lot about legacy. I’ll share an example. A mutual friend of ours, Rick, was an early mentor in my life. And the first company that I was running, was a development company. And we had taken a lot of startup money and some from some very influential people in Utah. And as I got involved with the business, I realized that all that money wasn’t being championed as it should. There was nothing illegal necessarily, but we had several divisions and we were using it in divisions that we really shouldn’t have. And I was getting called on the carpet and now all of this is unfolding for me, Steve, and I realize what kind of a mess we’re in because if we lose funding, our business is gone. Well, I’m single at the time, I’m 30 years old and I can start over but I’ve got 15 families working for me that are depending on me. We recruited, they left University positions, and so on. It was horrible.

Mark Holland: And thank goodness for Rick, we sat down and he was on our board at the time and he was just a great guy. He was like, “Mark, I know you’re getting counsel from others, influential board members to kind of use a smoke and mirrors kind of explanation that would try to soften the blow on what was going on and everything’s going to work out.” Rick said, “Mark, you’re just going to have to do the right thing here and let the consequences follow because you’re never going to be on the wrong track if you do the right thing.” Well, it was interesting, because we went through, and as miserable as it was because I got in trouble with a board member, we just laid it out. The key investor, his right-hand guy who had come to have a reckoning with us ended up on our board. And he was talking to me a couple of years later, and he said, “Mark, we actually came out to shut you down that day. We already knew what had happened with the money and if you’d done anything, besides tell the truth, it would have been the end of the business.”

Mark Holland: Now I can share another example with a client where we told the truth, we had done some things we shouldn’t have, we found out about it, and we corrected it and we lost our second-largest client. And so, it doesn’t always end well, but my point is that, boy, in both cases, when I went home, and I looked at my wife, and I looked at my kids, I was trying to honor who I am, who I want to be. And I think maybe that’s a long answer, but the short answer, Steve, is just trying to be true to myself. So, I don’t need any more of those skeletons, they happen by accident as I mentioned earlier. And so, just to be honest to myself, so that I leave a legacy with my kids. And when my wife looks me in the eye, she knows I’m doing my darndest to be straight, to be honest, and have integrity. I don’t know if that gets you where you were hoping, but that’s my cut.

Steve Shallenberger: I think that’s very helpful for all of us, is that you stand up for what you believe and come what may. And I might add that Mark has been recognized because of that type of integrity as a leader in the community. He’s been the Vice-Chair of a major University Board of Trustees, he served on the Governor’s Council, he’s been a Chair for Young Presidents’ Organization, and also, it’s called the Young Presidents’ Gold Organization – the seasoned individuals that are older, of which Mark is not one, of course. But people learn about what you’re made of and that’s what they want to see in a leader. That, of course, along with the ability to lead, and Mark has that capability as well. One of the things that have inspired me about Mark is that he loves something – he talked about earlier in our interview already – about being around the table with other people and what you can learn from that. And YPO, we call it forums, well Mark has been not only in the State and in the US but an international voice for forums. Can you tell us about that, Mark? And how those can be helpful for you in your life and how can our listeners maybe create a forum or friends that are sounding boards? And what’s the value of that from your point of view?

Mark Holland: Yeah. That’s a good reflective question. We’re in the process of getting Steve, who is my right-hand guy into the position of Chief Operating Officer and getting him into YPO. And I was talking with the membership board about this.

Steve Shallenberger: A different Steve, right?

Mark Holland: Yes, that’s right.

Steve Shallenberger: I know. I’m your right-hand man too. Okay, keep going, buddy.

Mark Holland: That’s right, you’ve just been a great friend of mine. It’s interesting because, why would he be a good member? And the first thing that came to mind is he’s trained in the YPO process. Well, how do you get trained in the YPO process if you’re not in YPO and this is a business? And so, the short answer, Steve, is that when we run our executive meetings, when we run our senior management meetings, in fact, when we start every meeting, we start with a get on board question. And this is part of the protocols that we’ve learned in the forum. So, we ask an intimate question, kind of like the one you started off with at the beginning here. And what happens? We end up learning a little more about each other, we end up having a little more empathy and if I’m willing to stretch and get outside of my comfort zone in my sharings, then I allow others to be able to do the same thing. And pretty soon we’ve got a pretty amazing, powerful team that is full of trust and can value diversity and yet, comes together on the important stuff. And so, I think for me, the training that I received in the forum, centers around not having intention but figuring out a healthy way to have conflict, for example. We talk about the process, good timekeepers, we talk about lifelong friendships, and so on. And so, I think this training that we did – you know, local level, regional level and then like you mentioned, at the international level in Melbourne – is really transformational. If you look at the power of networks which is a huge, huge success story in my life, that the networks that have helped me to grow and learn, really the power of forum drives YPO. And so, the intimacy, the process. Am I being clear enough?

Steve Shallenberger: I think that’s exactly it. And we might define for our listeners that a forum – or in Mark’s case – is an executive operating group, is a group of people and you create an environment where you can talk about things. And I love it, Mark. I just noted down having an onboard question to start your meetings with, and the impact that can have, but you can also throw out key concerns and issues and test your thinking. And there’s something magical that happens when you have a small group of people that you can confide in and say, “I’d love to see how you see it.” Right, Mark?

Mark Holland: Yes, I agree. I’ve had discussions with folks and we tend to be a very family-oriented company. And there are very good companies that are much more matter-of-fact, professional business-like, but for me, really it’s just such a… For example, each quarter we each take a turn doing an exploration. And it’s a very intimate process where we get to know each other quite well. I talked about a family member that struggles with depression and I was just in a very difficult dark place and we were very careful about not shooting on somebody; like trying to tell them what they ought to do about it, but it’s more of a ‘share your experience’. And so, by the time I had kind of talked to my heart, I’m very vulnerable because I love this family member dearly. And then I’ve got my colleagues going around the table, six or seven of them, not giving advice, not telling me what they think I should do, but sharing from their heart what memories that stirred with them. And boy, I felt like I was loved and that my colleagues understood me. And then other people have been able to share other experiences. Well, some people might say, “Oh, my goodness, that’s not business. That’s something way beyond business.” And I would say probably. But if you’re a family-oriented business – and the bigger we get, the more we hang on to that – then maybe sharing those intimate levels and knowing what’s in my heart and what’s in my colleague’s heart maybe that’s a way for it to continue to work for us and we try to follow these processes as we work through our system. And so, it’s interesting, it creates its own dysfunctions, but we’re happy to live with it.

Steve Shallenberger: Right. Now, Mark, I know that your clients – the companies that your firm serves – are really loyal to you, that you have a close relationship. What makes that work? Like, I mean, that’s pretty special. I think that’s one of the things that makes you a special company.

Mark Holland: Oh, well, you’re very kind. It’s hard to beat face-to-face that intimacy, right? We went out to a reasonably large client that we acquired through an acquisition. And boy, after 20 minutes, we just hit it off with their Senior Vice President, we were laughing together and we were talking, he understands what some of our challenges are and we certainly understand what his challenges are. Well, he ends up getting a different opportunity in a different State. And as luck would have it, they needed temporary staffing. And it was really, it made me just as warm as can be when Curtis gave me a call and said, “Hey, let’s talk again.” Well, I think that that deep connection, and then also, we talked a little bit about honesty. Yeah, we do follow up. And yeah, we’re going to have people that had a bad day and are going to walk off the job or had a better opportunity and not show up at all. And so, our job is to be honest about that, but also be able to perform at a higher level and really do what we can to minimize those challenges. And so, I think a combination of the friendships, the relationships, and then being able to be in our metrics and our processes because we are a very metrics-oriented company. If you’re a client, you want to know why your employees are walking off the job, we have a process that tracks that very closely. We meet quarterly with our clients and go over those processes. So, we can say “There’s a smell here, that’s very difficult where you’ve got seven great supervisors, but one is really difficult to work with and maybe we can both do some training there.” And so, some of these things kind of have helped us with the strengthening and relationships and longevity of our relationships as well. So, thank you, Steve. You’re very kind about that.

Steve Shallenberger: No, you bet. Well, thanks for the background on that. And Mark, if you had the chance to sit down with someone who is just joining your team, what would be one or two things you would say to them about what it means to be a great team member?

Mark Holland: Oh, well. I think it’s important as a part of our process to make sure that everybody gets a voice. And so, maybe some advice that I would give is to have the courage to speak up and make sure that you’ve been heard. And if you haven’t been fully heard that to push a little more to make sure that you have your voice. And if we allow everyone to have a voice, Steve, I think it cuts out a lot of the backdoor politics. And boy, I would just strongly recommend that if you have a frustration, we voice it in the team and we don’t do it behind closed doors – that’s just a quick recipe for frustration and probably disconnecting with the group. So, I would say engage, make sure you have your voice. And then the other thing I might mention is, if you really love what you’re doing, let us help you find something else that you do love. Maybe internally, or maybe it’s outside – either one is okay because life is too short not to love who you work with and love the job that you’re on.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, well, that is great advice. Yeah, not being able to talk about your concerns and expressing yourself or doing it through gossiping or talking behind people’s backs, that is a dead-end street and never works.

Mark Holland: Boy, that never works. Yeah, it just turns into a messy dysfunction that can destroy companies. And we have to be very careful about coaching out of that kind of stuff.

Steve Shallenberger: So, I love your ethic of encouraging your people to have a voice and it’s okay, and you can share, and let’s talk about it. That increases the trust in your organization, too.

Mark Holland: Yeah, thank you.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. Well, I’m always blown away, Mark, by how fast these interviews go. We just have a few minutes left, so let’s switch to the personal side for a moment. What are two or three of your biggest lessons learned in life and why? And what experiences taught you those lessons?

Mark Holland: Oh, okay. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is a direct result of my brother-in-law, Emil Harker – just a wonderful man and certainly one of my very best friends. And so, he’s a marriage and family therapist and he got on me about a theme in a very positive way about assuming good intent because it’s not my nature, Steve, to assume good intent. I look at things with a critical eye and often in business it serves me well, but as you can imagine, that’s not the best approach when it comes to family or close friends. And so, my journey with Emil and really being able to open myself up personally to just try to assume good intent, don’t try to look for what’s the story behind the story, or what’s their angle, or whatever the case may be. But I found that over the last handful of years that I’ve been on this journey I’m a better husband, I’m a better father, I’m a better friend. So, good intent would certainly be one of those and I owe that to Emil.

Steve Shallenberger: Nice.

Mark Holland: More recently, I’ve been on a kindness journey and I really focused with Wendi my bride, who I love dearly, and being kind of a driver hard type A personality, sometimes I can be a bit unbearable to live with. I come home, and I leave my CEO hat on and I start bossing people around, or I have a bad day and I’m kind of grumpy. And so, this kindness journey I’ve really been focusing on, visualize, if you will, taking off my CEO hat, hanging it on the peg, and putting on my father, husband hat. Now, how do I want to portray myself? What’s the first thing I want to do when I engage with Wendi? If something sets me off, how am I going to respond? I need to find a little more space between that stimulus and response. And boy, the discussions that Wendi and I have had as a result of this, and she was just talking to me last night that brought a tear to my eye about just how she noticed how much more kind I am and how I’m trying – and I don’t always succeed, for sure. But I think the whole idea that we can change and that people can make a difference in our lives, those are two examples of Emil and Wendi that I really want to make sure I emulate and I can grow as an individual. The things that we’ve done with you, Steve, on Becoming Your Best is just another wonderful example of how if we really put our minds to it with mentorship and focus, we can and we do change and we become better, we can actually become our best.

Steve Shallenberger: Alright, well, that is an inspiration, that’s great advice for all of us. Now, before we end up, I do have one final question. I think our listeners deserve to hear what your honeymoon was like with Wendi. If you enjoy Indiana Jones movies, you’re going to love this.

Mark Holland: Yes. We decided we were going to go to the most remote place in the world that we can find. Now, keep in mind we were broke, trying to buy a company. But we found a way to take 17 days and disappear into the jungles of Papua New Guinea. About as wild as you can get. We were yeah, within two miles from some active head hunters, we took canoe trips and bathed in rivers with crocodiles and we didn’t know there were crocodiles until a guy told us to get out of the river and get back in the boat. We said, “Why?” And he goes, “Well, because the crocodiles are coming.” So, anyway, it was a wonderful way to start a marriage, and what a great adventure. And life continues on with Wendi and my family in that great adventure. Yeah. So, thanks for asking, that’s a fun memory to share.

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. All right, well, Mark as we wrap up, what’s one final tip going into 2021?

Mark Holland: Boy, let’s go home tonight and tell our significant other we love them and give them a great big hug. The same for our families because in the end, nothing is more important than our families. And so, maybe that’s my tip for 2021: more hugs and more expressions of love.

Steve Shallenberger: Alright, well, that’s the deal. Well, to Mark, to his wonderful company, and his family we wish you all the best as you continue to go out and make such a positive, great difference in the world.

Mark Holland: Steve, thanks so much. It’s been an honor to be able to talk with you today and I truly appreciate it.

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And to all of our listeners, we wish you a great day and a wonderful experience as you keep doing the same and becoming your best. Well, see you now, until the next time.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.

Mark Holland

CEO, Ascend Staffing

CEO of Ascend Staffing, president of intermountain staffing, and father

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