We’re hurting at SDN Communications. Business is fine, exceptionally good in fact, but the hearts of our 120 employees are collectively breaking.
In these early days of 2022, we’ve had more than our share of illness and untimely deaths in our work family – seriously ill employees, spouses, and board members, even some unexpected deaths. Cancer, not COVID, has been our biggest enemy.
While we ache from each of the heartbreaks, the February 23 passing of our visionary and former, long-serving CEO Mark Shlanta casts a dark shadow over our office. I recently completed Mark’s South Dakota Hall of Fame video nomination, which tells his career story (watch it below). But as we try to find our bearings in his passing, I think about the more personal leadership gifts he taught me that didn’t make the documentary.
Here are the top ten.
1. Value people
I met Mark 20 years ago. He was three years into his CEO role; I was a reporter growing weary of the daily story grind. He pitched meeting for breakfast. In that initial contact, I realized this boss was different. He played no games and made clear he wanted to leverage my talents and contacts for SDN. He made an offer based on what he believed I’d bring to SDN. He taught me you get a better employee when you pay for a person’s value rather than setting compensation based on their last paycheck. He also believed in people developing and learning from mistakes. He expected us to try new things.
2. Be fearless
One area where he shouldn’t have assumed invincibility: driving. His multi-tasking, penchant for speed, and risk-taking in bad weather contributed to a many-a-death grip for me. Two trips stand out: One early in my SDN career – a day trip to Rapid City and back. Freezing rain on the home stretch didn’t slow him from speed-skating his Ford Explorer. Too new to object, I simply prayed. I quickly learned to be more vocal, eagerly offering to take the wheel. More recently, another Black Hills adventure aimed us right into a major blizzard. His maneuvers included a call to a Nebraska consultant for a weather check because Mark thought we could out-flank the storm by looping south into the Husker state and coming around the storm’s backside. Thankfully the consultant dissuaded him.
He was also fearless in fun. At one SDN Christmas party, he and I were called on stage to have an air guitar competition. I can’t remember who won, but he made it clear to me we had to be fearless on that stage for the sake of employee enjoyment.
And of course, Mark pitched fearless business ideas. Often, we as staff, or even the board, scrambled to keep up with his expansive view. From placing fiber in remote places to building a local data center, he kept our company out front. Employees and the board trusted him because he’d proven he could turn visions into results.
3. Control your temper
In 20 years, I only saw Mark seriously lose his once. He barked at an out-of-line manager in an internal meeting. It shut down the room. The other closest encounter involved an uncomfortable issue I had to bring to his attention. I understood he wasn’t mad at me, just the situation. His patience, even when the situation didn’t deserve it, qualifies him for sainthood.
4. Details matter
Those of us close to Mark teased him relentlessly for his “Rain Man”-like recall, particularly when it came to South Dakota interstate exit numbers. We’d taunt him by naming obscure town exits, and he’d spit out the exit number correctly. Every time.
Even his personal life was in a database. No lie – he once created a spreadsheet to calculate the exact day his wife, Peggy, had been with him longer than without him. Then he shared his spreadsheet with us, so we could make the same loving calculation for our spouses. That’s “Rain Man” romance!
His savant-like memory rarely missed details, yet he lost his keys or wallet more than anyone I know. But when it came to budget numbers or project details, he never forgot, and it resulted in his bosses – the SDN Board of Managers – having unwavering confidence in him.
5. Pick up the tab
An SDN attorney taught Mark this early in his career, and he passed it on to me as a young employee at SDN, probably because he recognized my media background never afforded me such luxury. “We’re a successful company, and we should act like it by picking up the tab,” he’d advise.
6. Don’t let a few dollars end a relationship
Similar to picking up the tab, Mark never wanted SDN to appear greedy. Meet the customer where they need to be in price and extend the term to make the deal work. It will lengthen and strengthen the relationship, he’d say.
7. Community matters
This was a big deal to Mark. It’s one of the reasons he hired me. He made it clear he valued community connections. When I told him in our first meeting that I had an interest in serving on the Sioux Falls City Council, I think it sealed the deal. My public service aligned with his early leadership on Forward Sioux Falls. We often discussed city and economic development, but he never once tried to unduly influence my vote. He respected that I had to assess needs of the entire community, not just the perspective of business leaders.
8. Support employees’ interests
Whether it was my public service or other employees serving on non-profit boards, Mark believed SDN should support employees’ time commitment and offer SDN's financial support.
9. Family first
Although deeply committed to his career, Mark understood neither he nor any employee can be successful if family concerns consume them. He encouraged generosity of time for employees dealing with outside concerns. Further demonstrating his family-first approach, his favorite events were employee socials where spouses or even children could attend.
10. Choose kindness always
If you met my boss, you know he lived by this cardinal rule. You could disagree with him, but it was never disagreeable.
His humility never let him brag about his career. He hated hubris. However, he couldn’t contain his pride for his wife, Peggy, and his four sons – Michael, Karl, Joe, and Scott. They brought him more joy than anything at work, and he generously shared them with all of us. Conversely, they shared all of him with SDN. For that, we’re eternally grateful.