Posted 3 years 15 days ago ago by Admin
After listening to Erickson Incorporated’s Vice President and General Manager Hayden Olson for an hour, one is not sure whether he just concluded an executive interview or finished a life coaching session. The momentary confusion is resolved upon reflection that Olson views all facets of his life as interconnected by his faith and calling to coach others. Thus, he can approach family life as building a high performing team as he similarly does on the job at Erickson where his team building is based on interpersonal relationships and caring. Away from family and work, he’s either coaching personal growth and fitness at the non-profit he founded, or he’s being coached by his “Core Four” board of mentoring friends to which he holds himself accountable for personal and professional growth. The interview all comes together when one realizes that Olson is not only an executive at one of the leading global rotorcraft manufacturing and aviation service providers of utility aircraft, but he’s also a determined, uplifting coach who expects himself and his teams to consistently perform. Olson is Nick Saban in a Fred Rogers’ cardigan. Actually, he’s more likely to wear athletic gear and a T-shirt; which is how he inauspiciously started his business career.
“The sun is shining in Oregon in the winter, so it’s got to be a good day,” is how Olson optimistically begins our interview. He’s particularly partial to sunshine, having grown up in The Sunshine State, when his engineer dad worked on the Space Shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center. Immediately after Olson graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2003, he and his best friend, who had designed popular T-shirts on the UCF campus, packed up a U-Haul to strike action sports gold on the California West Coast. “I went out there with him to manage the business side of our new venture,” says Olson, but what Olson managed was to learn valuable business lessons on what not to do when running a small business. “We did pretty good, but didn’t have enough capital to build a brand in California,” he says. “I learned a lot about cash flow and inventory turnover the hard way.”
After two years in the California business school of hard knocks, Olson returned to Florida and worked for an American Express public accounting subsidiary. But he didn’t sit still behind a desk, he says, “I flew all over the country, and world, each week and only saw home in Melbourne (Florida) on weekends when I rested.” During one of those brief respites, Olson and his neighbor struck up what became a life-changing conversation for the young road warrior. His neighbor worked for DynCorp International (the corporation provides a range of aviation services to governments worldwide, including Uncle Sam). He mentioned that DynCorp had just recently went public, Olson’s role at American Express was to guide public companies through the process of addressing their deficiencies in financial reporting, so Olson quipped, “Instead of paying the outside big boy accounting firms $400/hour, you all can hire me to work you through the process.” Olson’s phone rang a week later. In 2007, the aviation business unit hired him to be their in-house man to assist with their Sarbanes Oxley implementation and resolution of internal audit findings. Moreover, the big business agreed to what Olson really wanted. After the process control issues were addressed, they’d give him a shot at business management.
DynCorp made good on their agreement. The new business manager found working in the field was a whole different world than processing reports in the back-office. Actually, it was a whole different country: Columbia, which is where Olson was sent to find out why DynCorp’s home office wasn’t getting timely reports from its subsidiary in Bogotá. “My management said, ‘You fixed us here; go fix the international stuff,’” Olson summarizes. He hit the ground in South America and learned the laws, policies, procedures, and structures. But Olson learned something far beyond local laws and policies. He really learned that sitting in a home office doesn’t necessarily allow one to see what’s happening in a field office, especially an office in a developing economy. “It was eye-opening to be in a hangar and see the power just shut off for the rest of the day,” he says. “We were thinking back home that they just weren’t being responsive. Getting to know people personally and see their austere work conditions, gave me empathy. They were actually working as hard as they could possibly work in a challenging environment. That was a big deal to me. It allowed me to come back to the U.S. and give our office understanding of the actual situation. We were able to change our home processes to accommodate some of the issues happening in the field office.” After fixing the miscommunication from Colombia, DynCorp also sent Olson, as their strategic manager for global business, to Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Middle East, places where you see real poverty and the stark dichotomy between the really rich and really poor. “It changes you,” he says.
Seeing global poverty up close isn’t the only thing that changed Olson when he grew as a DynCorp manager. During this period, Program Director Mike Bozeman pulled Olson aside at a meeting and said words most any employee yearns to hear, “We don’t want to lose you. We want you to question us and challenge the status quo. I’m concerned that you will get too frustrated by the (corporate) culture here. I want to invest in you. Pick a degree you want to earn and pitch us on how it will help you to move this organization forward.” Now, that’s an offer you really can’t refuse! Olson then added three letters after his name: MBA. Obviously, Olson has moved on from Dyncorp, but he still appreciates the mentoring he received from Bozeman. “My seven years under him was transformational,” he says.
Helped and Humble
Olson is thankful for Bozeman, but that’s no real exception, as he also appreciates many others. “As I came up through my career, I had people that dug in beside me and taught me for whatever reason,” he says. “My success is a byproduct of everybody else supporting me and teaching me. It’s been awesome. When you have that environment and approach, everything becomes a learning and growing opportunity.” However, it’s too self-deprecating to credit his success solely to others. When Olson came to intersections of opportunity along his career path, he turned right onto them. “I jumped into opportunities that stretched me and embraced those opportunities with open arms, perhaps because I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into,” he says looking back. Still, he’s quick to take the spotlight off himself, saying, “I had people, right beside me positionally, that supported me through challenges and people above me that reached down and extended me a hand to pull me up by willingly teaching me.” Didn’t he have some failures along the way? Most people do, but Olson doesn’t acknowledge failure, “Failure is when something bad happens and you don’t learn from it and quit. I don’t believe that’s happened yet.” Yep, the guy’s a coach.
One life lesson that Olson has carried with him was learned when he was a cabin leader for Kids Across America. As the kids came rushing in to begin their camping adventure, the head leader told Olson and all counselors, “These kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Olson says he spent the next several weeks learning that aphorism the hard way and took the lesson to heart. It has become a foundation for his leadership style. He elaborates, “It’s not only about new kids coming to camp. Fundamentally, it’s really about interpersonal relations, whether it’s trying to make a sale, doing a business development agreement, or coaching one of your employees. Until that employee knows that you really care about their personal development and their professional development, they’re not going to be super interested in what you have to say, whether it’s a critique to make them better or whether it’s praise.”
Realistically, leadership is more than showing your charges that you care about them. It also includes the nut and bolts of setting priorities and delegating responsibilities. Olson has a guiding North Star for that too. “I once heard a military general say that his job really changed when he got promoted from colonel,” he says. “He no longer had to personally execute, but had to lead and set the conditions for all his direct reports to be ultra-successful.” Here’s Olson’s takeaway for executives: “An executive’s job is to no longer execute. My job is to set the conditions, whether that’s resources, training, organizational structure or personnel development, to make each member of my team very successful in what they do. I believe if I can see each member improve and succeed, the byproduct of that is growing business results.”
Olson’s principals and philosophies interweave throughout all areas of his life’s tapestry. What is good for business also applies to his family of three young girls, all under the age of 11, who are homeschooled by his wife, Lauren. “People usually separate their business and family life,” he begins, “but I tend to look at our family to see if we are performing as a high performing team: Do we have common values? Are we pursuing something? Is there psychological safety and support for each other even when we come up short? The same business team principles also apply to personal life, even though we usually see those spheres as separate. My family is more important than work. They’re each awesome and I love them.” When asked what his greatest accomplishment is, Olson pauses to ponder and answers that his family becoming a high-performing team is it. “We make mistakes, but we’re learning from them and getting better as we grow,” he says.
Olson draws inspiration from the example his own father set. “My dad wasn’t a talker, but he just modeled sacrificial generosity,” Olson says. “He was always selflessly serving others. He was a hard worker and always was the first to volunteer to help someone in a time of need. He didn’t talk about these things. He just did them and I watched his actions growing up. I learned a lot about giving and the joy of giving by watching my dad.”
The joy of giving leads us to the nonprofit Olson founded, Element Fitness, that teaches fitness and wellness through the lense of five life elements by providing donation-based fitness classes. He says, “About eight years ago, I started personally doing CrossFit because I was way out of shape and I believed a bunch of lies about myself back then: I thought I was too injured, too old, whatever.” So, after physically rejuvenating, Olson took a respite from his current job at Erickson in 2016 and started hosting functional fitness classes as a means to life coach participants. (Erickson had hired Olson from Dyncorp, initially to help business development and financial management of the government business.) “I have a whole trailer full of workout equipment for the nonprofit. We offer workout classes to whoever wants them; ranging from students or people that were laid off, who can’t afford high-level coaching and training, to professional athletes and doctors. In a workout, titles and positions don’t matter. It’s about how much effort you have. It’s about pushing yourself physically, but more so about breaking through mental barriers that hold you back.,” he says. When Olson returned to Erickson after 18 months, he relinquished his managerial responsibilities at Element Fitness, but still coaches weekend and 5:30 a.m. classes before reporting to work at Erickson. As coaching is his passion, it’s no surprise that leading the classes is his main hobby. “That’s what I spend my spare time doing because it’s really who I am,” he says. “I’m a coach both at Erickson of a business team and a fitness coach away from work. In both roles, I have to get people to trust me to make adjustments to unlock potential they didn’t even know they had. That can happen in a workout; that can also happen at work.”
Where does all this motivational drive come from? Olson finds fuel in his faith. “Faith is probably the most important part of my life. It helps guide me. For me, spending time in the Bible is most important,” he shares. Still, he takes in much more than his go-to Bible. He also reads “a ton of business books.” Some faves are: Extreme Ownership, Team of Teams, and Traction. Outside of business books, right now he’s also reading The Joy of Movement by Dr. Kelly McGonigal about the benefits of group fitness, and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that explains how to unleash the creative inside of all of us. “So that’s on the mental and emotional side,” says Olson. “I feel like we should be constantly and intentionally growing emotionally, mentally, relationally, and spiritually. I also think it’s incumbent for me and everyone else to challenge ourselves in these areas.” (His hardest physical challenge was training for and finishing a recent triathlon.)
Rotorcraft Challenges and Erickson Opportunities
In addition to challenging himself, Olson also thinks that the rotorcraft sector is being challenged, but it’s a trial that Erickson Inc. is positioned to turn into an opportunity. Olson sees the biggest challenge for the rotary-wing sector as the volatility of the end market (the market of customers like the oil and gas industry who purchase rotorcraft services.) When a downturn happens in a customer base, it ripples throughout the rotorcraft industry. “As our rotary-wing customers markets fluctuate, it’s very hard for helicopter operators to acquire increasingly expensive helicopter assets and maintain those assets,” says Olson. “The cost of new helicopter technology keeps rising and the cost of that technology gets scary high to invest in and maintain, if you don’t have a stable market you serve. I honestly think the misalignment between a very asset-heavy business (like rotorcraft) and a very volatile end market is what creates a lot of challenges in the market today.”
This misalignment that Olson perceives also creates opportunities for Erickson. “We at Erickson are sitting in the middle of all this. We are a small enough OEM that can take some new technologies and integrate them into legacy models to enhance that legacy’s application performance in its niche-specific mission set and also enhance the legacy’s sustainability. When we successfully integrate new technology (e.g. engines, avionics, composite rotor blades) with tested and proven legacy models we have an application that does its specific job very well and the new substitute for that is going to be very expensive because by the time when newly integrated models are finally certified by the FAA they cost a lot of money.” An example of this approach is the recently announced development agreement that will integrate Sikorsky’s modern Matrix (autonomous) technology into Erickson’s fleet of S64 Aircranes to fight wildfires. Olson says, “There probably isn’t a more honorable way to commercially use Matrix technology than fighting fires.”
Olson is big on honor, whether it’s his family, his faith, his rotorcraft career, or charitably coaching his community.