For our latest installment of Creative Corner we spoke with Ben Waldron, Executive Director of Monmouth-Ocean Development Council (MODC). After ten years of volunteering with MODC, Ben turned his passion for giving back to the business community into a career. Whether you know him from MODC, from one of the dozens of nonprofits he’s involved with, or from the golf course – Ben has become quite a notable figure of the Central Jersey business community. Here, we chatted with Ben about his involvement with volunteer work, how a career in banking prepared him for this phase in his life, and how his family has impacted his career.
How did you get involved with MODC?
I was first introduced to MODC when I was working in my former career in banking. I started attending events, became active in the group, was asked to sit on the Board of Directors, and eventually worked my way up to the Presidency in the early 90’s. In 1999 our former Executive Director announced her retirement, and I was asked if I would consider applying for the job. I thought to myself “what better opportunity than to work for an organization that I gave over ten years of my volunteer time for.” I threw my hat in the ring, and seventeen years later I’m still here and enjoying the position.
What does a normal day at the office look like for you?
Most days start out with committee meetings. Our program committees are the backbone of the organization, and plan for all of the educational and networking forums that we host throughout the year. A good part of the day is spent on pulling together the details of those events – confirming speakers and venues and preparing the marketing materials to promote them. I am also active as a volunteer with over a dozen local business and nonprofit organizations, so a portion of my time that is not devoted to MODC is spent working with those organizations in some capacity. When you throw in a couple dozen phone conversations, and about a hundred daily emails, my day is typically quite busy.
How did your last job prepare you for your role at MODC?
As I mentioned before, I was an active volunteer with MODC for over ten years when I was in banking. I was thoroughly familiar with the organization, the membership and the staff, so the transition from “one side of the desk to the other” was relatively easy. And I always remember a comment made by one of my former bank presidents when he was addressing his senior management team – “A good manager can manage any environment, regardless of his or her expertise in a particular job function or department.” With that in mind, I drew on my 25 years of management experience from the banking industry and implemented similar methods and strategies into my new role as a nonprofit executive. From my perspective, I think it worked pretty well.
How do you inspire your colleagues to think creatively?
I’m very fortunate to work with hundreds of volunteers from our membership who sit on our various committees and help us to create the programs and events that make us what we are – a premier business advocacy and education organization in the region. There never seems to be a lack of creativity among those folks. And if things start to get a little “stale” in some way, I’ve found that by taking our committee meetings on the road to some location that is related to the mission or focus of the committee, it allows people the opportunity of thinking outside of the box. I also think that my involvement with so many other organizations around the bi-county area gives me insight into many things that I might not otherwise have been exposed to. This helps me be a little more creative myself, and to bring new ideas back to the committee meetings to help them work on future programs.
What do you do to get yourself out of a creative rut?
There’s two things that I’ll do when I’m feeling a creative frustration. First, I pull my staff together and we bounce ideas off of one another to see if there is something we are missing in our programming efforts, or if someone has come across something that worked for another group that we haven’t tried. Frequently someone will throw something out that has enough merit to pursue. The other thing I do is ask my wife for ideas. Even though she is not in the business arena any longer (she’s now an education administrator) she always has some great thoughts and ideas for me to consider. She graduated college with a marketing degree, so I respect her ability to be creative when I’m drawing a blank.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would probably say that I have two leadership styles – one for volunteers, and a little different one for work colleagues. In both cases I am definitely a lead by example kind of person. I worked my way up in my banking career from part time teller to senior vice president, and I never felt that I was “too good” to go back and do all of the mundane things that I did to get myself there. That is typically the way I manage my work environment. Working with volunteers requires a little bit of a different leadership style in that you have to allow them the opportunity of gaining their own rewards from what they are doing. People volunteer for different reasons, so you need to provide them with the vehicle by which they can achieve their volunteer goals. I believe that a successful nonprofit leader is one that can decipher the needs of those volunteers, and incentivize them to offer their time and talent to your organization.
If you could have any three people from history on your team at MODC, who would you choose and why?
I don’t want to sound cliché, but the first two people would be my current staff. Collectively they have almost 50 years of experience with MODC. They know the organization, and the people, inside and out. How could you ask for a better team than that? If I had to bring a third person into the mix, it would be a former bank president that I mentioned earlier. He was quite a business visionary, and I would love to draw upon that talent to help us grow our own organization in ways that I might not currently be able to see for myself.
How would you spend an entire weekend completely disconnected from anything work-related?
Doing my two favorite things – playing golf and sitting on the beach with my wife reading a good book. We spend a lot of time in Myrtle Beach where we can partake of those two enjoyments any time. And of course we would throw in an afternoon happy hour and a dinner at our favorite restaurant, the Aspen Grille, to fill out the weekend.
What is the most exciting part about your job?
I love going to work in the morning because I meet someone new, and learn something new, almost every single day. Because MODC is so diverse in our membership and our program goals, I have the good fortune of being involved with a plethora of interesting and prestigious people on a daily basis. I’m a social kind of person, so this aspect of the job is definitely my favorite. People think I’m kidding when I say I have one of the best jobs in the world, but in my opinion, it’s true.
What was your dream job growing up?
I started my banking career at 16 years of age when I was in high school. I decided to make that my profession and pursued my education accordingly. I never really had another job or profession that I had an interest in while growing up. I did, however, dream of being a fighter jet pilot some day because I love the thrill of flying a plane (I had a private pilot’s license when I was in my 20’s). But when I finally got to the point in my life that I could honestly consider doing something like that, I was too old to enlist in the service. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
How has family life influenced your career?
For the past 35 years, my family life has been everything for me – personally and professionally. I went through some very difficult times at the later stages of my banking career, having been caught up in a merger that didn’t go well for local employees. For a few years I jumped around looking at other jobs and careers trying to find some new direction. This was all very disconcerting for someone in their 40’s with a wife and kids. But through it all I had my family to bring me back to reality, and I could always count on them (particularly my wife) to give me the strength and courage to forge on until I found the right place to land. I knew that whatever decision I made for my career path was going to be acceptable, and I would receive full support at home to pursue it. I’m not sure I would be at MODC right now if I didn’t receive total encouragement from my family.
Name a recent time (business-related or not) where you felt like your hard work really paid off:
This might sound old fashioned, but I really believe that the best outcome of my 40+ years of hard work has nothing to do with me personally, but rather with my family. For my entire working life I have given 110 percent to everything I have taken on. I worked at jobs that I didn’t particularly care for, but it was for the benefit of my wife, and ultimately my two sons, so they could enjoy a close, loving family relationship. It was to allow my wife to be home with the boys to coach them in school and help them mature. I made many sacrifices, and worked very hard, to provide them with a good education so they could do what they wanted with their lives. I now have a grown family consisting of a well-respected CPA, an elementary school Vice Principal, and a wife who has achieved her dream of being a Principal as well. That all makes me feel like my years of hard work have really paid off.
What is your favorite word?
One that you couldn’t print (it’s what I call myself every time I hit a bad golf shot). Seriously, I’m not sure if I have a favorite word. I pride myself in not overusing words while speaking or writing (one of my pet peeves). If I was to have a word that I consider applicable to me, my life and my career, it might be “preeminent.” I’ve always tried to be just a little bit better at things than others while moving through my various careers. I’ve also thought that most of my employers have been preeminent in their respective industries. I can also say that I feel strongly that MODC is the preeminent business advocate at the Jersey Shore. So I guess you could put that word in the books as a favorite.
If you could pick one song to wake up to every morning, what would it be and why?
At this point in my life, it would probably be an old hit by the Rascals. I have some health issues that have given me a bit of a scare over the past couple of years, and it made me think about what’s important in life. Aside from waking up in the morning beside my loving wife, there isn’t anything much better than getting out of bed and thinking to yourself “It’s a beautiful morning . . .I think I’ll go outside for a while – and just smile . . . it’s your chance to wake up and plan another brand new day.”
What’s coming up next for you?
As with most people my age, retirement is on the horizon. My wife has a few more years to work, and I don’t want to retire without her being part of the plan. But that’s fine for now because I truly enjoy coming to work each day. Having had the experience in some former jobs of driving to work with a knot in my stomach, it is such a refreshing mindset to be able to think about good things to come in the day ahead. So if I have to continue working for a couple more years, I’m happy that MODC will be the last stop on my journey of employment.
For membership information, upcoming events, and to learn more about their mission, please visit MODC.com.