Leadership in telecom—Brian Protiva, CEO of ADVA Optical Networking, on empowering people, innovating and making mistakes

For all of ADVA Optical Networking’s success, CEO Brian Protiva says that the company’s most important asset is its employees. He has developed a company culture that helps employees thrive in an environment where they feel challenged and can rapidly make decisions. He is also keen on developing innovations related to emerging areas like SDN and open networking.

Protiva has served as the leader of ADVA Optical Networking since he co-founded the company in 1994, making him one of the longest running independent optical and Ethernet vendors. Under his leadership, ADVA Optical Networking has become a top player in the Ethernet access device and metro WDM segments.

On being the CEO of a large company: Gareth Spence, our director of corporate communications and online strategies, always reminds me that I am one of the longest standing CEOs. I have been managing ADVA Optical Networking and avoiding the pitfalls of the optical industry. I am also keeping our employees extremely motivated, keeping our customers loyal, and driving innovation. As CEO, I feel my most important role is it is all about people. It’s finding the right people, the right talent and the right personal commitment. Then it’s enabling them with an environment where they’re challenged, happy and well fed with the right salaries and right incentives so they’re motivated to drive greater efficiency and a stronger ADVA.

On leadership: I am very passionate about what I do and have lots of energy. Hopefully that’s contagious. We empower people. What we want to do is find very highly talented people, give them authority and responsibility, and drive them to make decisions. What’s important in our organization is you’re allowed to make mistakes, but don’t make them multiple times. The most important thing is driving fast decisions and then realizing when you make a wrong decision that you change it. You don’t want to keep following the wrong path to prove your initial position was correct. No one is worried about it because if it wasn’t correct, it wasn’t correct. I am not totally hands off because I am passionate. I am trying to drive an aggressive decision-making environment, but I want our people closest to our customers to make decisions rapidly.

Challenges of driving growth: To evolve you need company structure. Back in the beginning it was a team of people communicating in a single room. Then, there are first organizations, departmental structures, quality metrics, and certifications to a midsized business where you become IT tool dependent. I think you need to make the right decisions on the process landscape and IT tools and couple that with the right people you can grow for years to come. Yes, you have to keep adapting as you grow, but ADVA Optical Networking has a strong commitment to IT. We use IT for automation, control, decision-making and processes. We try to do the right work at the right time with the right product with a focus on quality. I think those are the key things that have allowed us to grow as an organization. 

On the future: My view is people always told me that you’re a small company so you’re fine and out of the way. If you’re a big company, you have a lot of money, are politically powerful and have the means to survive. I have always said: never believe that. My view is it’s all about innovation. We’re in a network industry that continues to evolve quickly. Just look at this whole push to virtualization. Trying to change the model of proprietary network elements with hardware and software tightly integrated to a network that allows for choice and flexibility and bringing different innovations together. In general, we have to continue to adapt. We need to continue to drive innovation and I do believe that innovation is the key to make sure we’re part of that future.

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