For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District, Engineer Division chief, the words respect, integrity and professionalism are a daily reminder about what’s important.
His mantra means giving people respect until they prove otherwise, not just demanding people earn respect. Integrity, he asserts, means actions speak louder than words; people must hold themselves and others accountable. And when it comes to professionalism, it isn’t his way or the highway; it’s about getting the mission done by focusing on the objective and not becoming handicapped by personal issues.
Though much has changed during his career, such as the use of electronic communication, people say his values, leadership and technical expertise have been a constant in the district for more than three decades.
"Mark Ohlstrom has been a stalwart member of the district’s leadership team and leadership development program, as well as the backbone of Seattle District’s reputation for technical competence and innovation both inside and outside the Corps," said Col. Bruce Estok, Seattle District commander about Ohlstrom’s USACE career.
His list of accomplishments is lengthy. His work with the Corps began when he was a junior at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. He was hired in 1978 as a student trainee making just $8,900 per year to help with flood assessment damage after severe winter flooding.
"I was impressed with the forces of nature and felt really bad for people affected by them—I wanted to work in water resources to help them," said Ohlstrom, who was drawn to a mission in public service as it has given him something to believe in. "I wanted to help the nation and its people to protect life and property and provide enhancements to the environment and minimize our impact on it."
During his tenure here, he led the effort to restore Howard Hanson Dam to operate as designed; coordinated the approach to dealing with dam safety and aging infrastructure concerns at the Lake Washington Ship Canal; oversaw excellence among technical programs related to Building Information Management, Geographical Information Systems and the district’s selection as the Regional Center of Expertise for Energy and Sustainability; he was also named the 2012 Army Career Program 18 (Engineers and Scientists) manager of the year.
"Mark’s departure will undoubtedly leave a significant leadership and technical gap," Estok said about Ohlstrom, who has been the Leadership Development Program corporate board lead for the past 12 years. "Though we are fortunate his legacy of developing the district’s leaders and technical staff will greatly mitigate the loss.
Ohlstrom said he believes the greatest treasure to any organization is its people and he’s spent a good deal of time and effort developing people at all levels of their career, not just those marked for management.
"You can be a leader in any position," said Ohlstrom. "You just need to be willing to ante up and give life all you’ve got."
And that’s exactly what he’s doing, he said, by retiring from the Corps and moving into the private sector.
"I’ve been in this position for nine years now and as an engineer, I want to try something new and different," said Ohlstrom, who admitted he lacks breadth and depth of knowledge how processes in other organizations work. "This retirement isn’t a knee-jerk reaction or spontaneous, it was just a feeling that it’s time. Good things will continue to happen to this organization with or without me. As an engineer, I wanted it all planned out but I found out it doesn’t work that way."
Though he said he knows the private sector can be tough, he said he isn’t expecting a panacea.
"All jobs are going to have a level of frustration," he said, acknowledging the new beginning he is embarking upon. "I just want to be making a difference in the career field, community and organization—it’s fundamentally engrained in me. It was a very hard decision and it hasn’t fully hit me yet and probably won’t until I’m walking out the door.
The biggest loss will be when Ohlstrom walks out the doors for the last time, taking 35 years of memories and history with him, according to Guy Green, the district’s Design Branch chief.
"Mark is a walking encyclopedia of the district’s history," said Green, who has looked to Ohlstrom through the years for his mentorship. "But he leaves a legacy of helping to build a collaborative team environment. He’s played a big part in our district’s passion for excellence."
"When some great leaders leave, there’s a big hole because they didn’t really develop others," said Green. "Even greater leaders can move on, like Mark is, without leaving a hole. Because of the way he has delegated, promoted, mentored, and coached, others will be able to carry on with his level of excellence."