Human resources may seem far afield from his time in the Navy, but it calls for a number of skills that Philip Dana learned during his service.
“I’m not afraid to put in the long hours and roll up my sleeves,” he says, a principle he’s cultivated during fifteen years in the Navy, and then zigging and zagging across industries and numerous parts of the world.
At his core, Dana describes himself as a “300-pound Irishman who loves people,” and that affability has helped establish him early in his HR career. Between his blue-collar upbringing and the discipline of military service, Dana perpetually feels called to “answer the need, make things better, and jump in with the team,” he explains. “It’s a big part of who I am.”
The son of a military family, Dana grew up in the Philippines before moving to Idaho and enlisting in the Navy shortly after school. After serving as a naval officer for six years and a HR/talent leader for fifteen-plus years, Dana found himself involved with The Honor Foundation, a not-for-profit transition program for Special Operations leaders to reenter the workforce.
It was there that he met future boss Marc Brown and he recruited Brown as one of their inaugural senior coaches. There, he helped transition Navy SEALs to the workforce, built up a relationship with Brown, and in 2017 was brought over to Zovio proper.
With Zovio’s rebranding from an online for-profit university to an education technology services company, Dana worked to execute major tech and HR improvements to aid Zovio’s bid to revolutionize the education industry. As vice president of HR operations, Dana focuses on his role leading a large team and filling seven hundred permanent roles a year across six different organizations across the company.
Previously, Zovio had been known as Bridgepoint Education Inc., the owner of online colleges like Ashford University. Now, the newly minted Zovio has transitioned chiefly to a supplier of education technology services, owning TutorMe, Fullstack Academy, and Learn@Forbes. From an HR standpoint, that presented numerous challenges from Dana’s perspective.
“The tech part clashed with the workforce,” he explains. “We were buried in paper and spreadsheets.” In Zovio’s old system, performing basic functions like creating organizational charts would take, on average, three hours to complete.
“To do a great job as a HR partner, you have to speak the language and know the business.”
Enter Workday, a cloud-based HRM system whose implementation into Zovio has been one of Dana’s biggest projects to date. From recruiting to onboarding to development and more, Workday was the advanced HR tech Dana was looking for to upgrade Zovio’s more traditional processes.
After a one-year implementation, the company’s renewed HR system launched in mid-December 2018, with Dana and his team spending the following year putting it through its paces. “It’s kind of like a racecar,” Dana explains. “When you first put it together, you don’t immediately take it racing. Workday also triggered us to change every single business process in HR, for the better.”
It wasn’t long before Zovio’s HR processes saw significant improvements, which Dana takes as a point of pride. “It leap-frogged us from 2000s HR activity to today’s age of what’s expected in order to manage an agile, nimble, date-driven, fast-moving organization,” he says.
All of this work, Dana explains, is part of Zovio’s new focus on bringing education tech services into the education sector—helping universities diversify their toolkit, giving students access to streamlined application and financial aid resources, and giving organizations the ability to effectively upskill their workforce.
“I want to start building a legacy of folks who have worked for me, to grow into world class HR leaders. If they can be better and more senior than me, so much the better.”
The success of Zovio’s Workday implementation, as well as his other HR work at the company, speaks to Dana’s discipline and collaborative leadership style. “I like to get into the trenches, listen, learn, digest new material, and understand how things are done,” he explains. “To do a good job, you have to speak the language of the business.”
Networking and connecting with people are some of his greatest joys in his line of work: “it fuels me and makes me happy,” he says. Whether with his team or with other executives at corporate functions, Dana values transparent, authentic, candid conversations about the direction of the company and what they can do to improve it. “If I can do it at an event where there’s football—Navy and Seattle Seahawks in particular—great food, and beverages, even better!”
In all the high-performing environments Dana has experienced, both in business and in the military, he sees the best leaders doing more fireside chats with their team to hash out what’s on their mind. For Dana, communication is key between him and his team. “I need to hear their input before making decisions.”
In his younger days, Dana admits he was a lot more gung-ho, pushing to work faster and harder and get things done on his own. But now that he’s a seasoned leader, he understands the value of passing on his knowledge and letting his team members take the driver’s seat with their own ideas.
“I want to start building a legacy of folks who have worked for me, to grow into world class HR leaders,” Dana says. “If they can be better and more senior than me, so much the better.”
Editor’s Note: In January 2020, Philip Dana left Zovio. He is now head of HR at Dendreon, a biotech company headquartered in Seal Beach, California, owned by Sanpower.