CEO Spotlight: Ron Roberts of FINN Partners

How to Form Character in Crisis, Develop Patience as a Leader, and Finding Mentors

Ron Roberts

Crisis communication and PR expert, Ron Roberts, shares his thoughts on developing character in crisis, forming patience as a leader, and finding a mentor.

Spark:  A part of your vocation is helping people deal with crisis. A lot can be said about the character that is revealed when you go through tough times. Can you talk a little bit about that link between character and crisis and what you've seen through the years?

Ron: It's been said by a lot of people that you can see someone's true character in a crisis situation. And I do believe that's true. I think that in a crisis situation, we kind of resort to who we really are. There's not a show. There's not any preconceived notions. It's basically it's who I am, who you are, it's in our DNA. And so in a crisis situation, when everyone is trying to determine what to do or how to handle it or how to respond, our true nature is where we start from and we can build from that. But a person with a strong character usually does well in a crisis situation. It's not a guarantee, but they usually do well in a crisis situation.

When you say strong character, what things come to mind that would comprise that care?

I think from a character standpoint, in a crisis situation, there's gotta be integrity. I think integrity is of utmost importance in any type of character situation. But one of the things I've learned in the most recent crisis is patience. I think that's a characteristic that is very important from a character standpoint, patience with others and patience with yourself. Sometimes we get impatient with ourselves, which leads us to be impatient with others. I think there has to be a sense of honesty in a crisis situation. A lot of times in a crisis situation, we try to cover up or fix it or pretty it up so that it looks better to those watching or looking. But in a crisis situation, there has to be a sense of honesty because in order for you to adequately attack a crisis situation or survive a crisis situation or resolve a crisis situation, you have to be honest with yourself. And about the situation.

You say patience is one of those character virtues. And for many leaders, many CEOs can be impatient because they want results now. Why is patience so important as a leader?

Well, I think going back to, you have to have patience. And I will say that patience is one of those things that over my career, I've had to get much better at. I am a hyper person by nature. So I tend to move fast. I tend to talk fast. And so sometimes I get in that pace and I want others to be at that same pace. And so I've had to learn to be patient with myself and with others. But I think in a crisis situation, similar to what we're going through now, there's a need for patience with a big dose of empathy. I think as a leader, in a crisis situation, we have to try to put ourselves in the place of the people that we work with or the people that work for us. For example, using COVID situation. There are people that I work with that have small children and I, my children are both grown and out of the house.

So for me, I have a room, I have an office upstairs, converted our guest room into my office. My wife is downstairs and I pretty much have replicated my office. But if you are in an or if you're working from home, you have small children, you've got to deal with noise. You have to deal with taking care of them. You have to deal with those kinds of things. And so I, as a CEO or as a managing partner, have to realize that just because I have a calm working environment that I'm in, it doesn't mean that some of my colleagues and some of my employees are in that same situation.

When I'm dealing with them in terms of scheduling a meeting, for example, I want to make sure I don't schedule anything around lunchtime because they're probably having lunch with their children or they have small children. I find out when their nap time is and try to schedule something around those times. So in a crisis situation, we have to be empathetic with those. We work with to try to make sure that we're meeting their needs as well as ours. We also have to be good listeners as I'm managing people as in management, because a lot of times our employees and our colleagues would tell us what we need to hear. And sometimes they may not tell us word by word, but we can tell by what they say. So we really need to be able to listen even more acutely in times like this, to what our colleagues are saying.

It sounds like there's a little bit of digging, going deeper beyond the surface to uncover some of these, maybe an unspoken and hidden needs of the people you manage?

It really is. It's, it's a whole lot easier for me to sit across from you and talk to you and work with you. When I can see your face, your body language. I can see all this stuff right now. It's easy, but when you're working remotely and all you have is a zoom camera, and you can see from here up, and you don't know the distractions that are going on in the background, you do have to do a little more digging. You have to be a little more intentional about the way you work with people.

A minute ago, you talked about honesty and transparency. Here's a Warren Bennis quote. “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws, his assets.” You talked about that a little bit, your own raw material. Talk about the raw material that helped form your character as a person preparing you for leaders.

For me, it goes back to my family and my faith. I am a believer in Christ. I grew up in a house that we went to church. I remember when I was younger and my mother forced me to go to Sunday school. And I was like, it's Sunday. I should be able to sleep. And so I've never known any other way, but I've learned from a professional standpoint, as well as a personal standpoint, that you have to have that strong foundation. Now, going back to the patience situation, there may be people that you work with who may not have as strong a foundation as you do. And you have to realize that, but that doesn't mean you lose your faith or your foundation.

Fundamentally my foundation in faith has really helped guide my career. I've been very fortunate to work with people when I first started working that had some of those similar values in faith and family. And so they showed me that you can have a successful career with a foundation of faith and letting your family be first. So faith and family was first, but then I've worked with mentors that helped me realize I got to see it in action.

If some of our readers are thinking, “I would really like to be mentored by a leader that I aspire to be.” Can you give any tips on how to seek out and to get a mentor?

That's an excellent question. And I have, when I was at that point early in my career, I didn't know. And so what I would do is I would watch people that were doing what I wanted to do. I would see how they handled their business. I would see how they handle their personal lives from what I could tell. And then I would try to find out if there was something I could learn from them. And I would learn different things from different people. So what I would do is I would go up to them and I would just start to talk to them. And I would do more listening than talking, just to try to find out, okay, what do you do? And how do you do it? And why do you do it?

So, for me, it was basically looking for people who were doing what I wanted to do and having conversations with them today, with, with communication being as, as it is and technology being as it is, you can, you could go to a conference or go to a seminar and hear the speaker. And they say something that really connects with you. And those particular situations, you can go online and reach out to them, maybe see what other seminars or conferences they have, or maybe try to set up a conversation.

I still think though, the best mentors are people that you have some type of personal knowledge that will be willing to give you that time. They will share with you what they know, and it may be someone you work with in your company. And maybe someone that, you know, from church, it may be someone that's a friend of a member of your family, and it doesn't have to be someone that does exactly what you do. It could be someone that you've seen how they lead, and you've seen how they've been successful. And you want to dig deeper or delve more into what has made them tick

Who comes to mind for you as an aspirational leader that has mentored you?

There are two people. There's one person who, if you're in the Nashville community, you probably knew of him. Sam Howard, he recently died. And Sam was one of the first African-American business leaders I ever had exposure to. And a lot of African-American business leaders were mentored by or learn from Sam and Sam made himself very approachable. And what he did is he talked about how to be successful without losing yourself. And they talked about the commitment that was taken. And now you have to go that extra yard from time to time and how you can't complain. Even got, as far as one day, he was telling me I had on a light gray suit. And he said, if you're going to a corporate meeting, you really need to have a dark suit. So make sure you get a blue suit or a black suit. And even if you wear it 20 times, get that blue suit or that black suit. That was very helpful because I saw someone that looked like me be successful. And he shared with me some of those obstacles or some of those challenges that he faced that I would have to face.

Another would be my first boss at DVL Seigenthaler, Hank Dye. Hank was the CEO of their agency. And Hank was very firm in his foundation, his faith foundation. And he had two sons and he made sure that we knew the importance of getting the job done, but he also talked about the importance of family and how that comes first. And I watched him do that.

You said the word commitment. Unpack that a little bit. Why is commitment so important in leadership?

I think it's very hard to be successful if you're not committed and committed means that you have a task or you have an objective, or you have a responsibility and you're going to do everything within your power to get that done. And as a leader, if the people that you work with don't see you have that commitment, they're going to feel it. As they watch it, they do it. If the boss isn't doing it, why should I do it? And that commitment means you're going to do whatever it takes morally. You know, I'm talking about morally and ethically. You're going to do whatever it takes to get that done. But it's basically, if I've got to have this done by five o'clock on Monday, I may miss lunch on Monday. I may come in early on Monday morning, but I'm going to make sure this is done and it's going to be done correctly.

It means you're not taking shortcuts. It means you're not giving your responsibility to someone else so you can go do something. You have to have that drive and that commitment in order to get it done and get it done correctly. Those are two different things. A lot of people will work to get something done so they can check it off on the list, but it has to be done and done correctly. That's commitment.

Can you talk a little bit about the corporate values of DVL Seigenthaler?

Yeah, I think it's been interesting when you look at the merger of our two companies, DVL and Seigenthaler, even though they weren't a family business, it was it was run as though a family business. Seigenthaler was a family business. So you had two agencies when we merged together that had that same culture of we're going to work together. We're team oriented. We're not focused on titles. We're not as focused so much on structure, but if there's a job that needs to be done, then we're going to do whatever it takes to get it done. And we're going to get it done together and we're going to get it done the right way.

So when it comes to corporate values and things of that nature, it's built in your culture and sometimes it's, it's written and sometimes it's spoken and then sometimes it's unseen. It's sometimes it's just the way you operate. But everyone within that company or that agency understands, this is the way we do things. And when it comes to values and, and mission and commitment and things of that nature, the best way to enforce those, or to make sure that they get done, it goes back to something that I learned from my mother. If you do it well, you get rewarded. If you don't, there are consequences. So if you have a culture or if you have values that you firmly believe in, I mean, firmly believe in when you see people doing those things, they're rewarded. When you have values that you firmly believe in and are committed to, and you see people that are not living up to that, there should be consequences. It's really that simple, but you have to firmly believe in it because if you don't believe in it, then it's not truly a value.

There are important discussions happening right now all over the country about diversity, inclusion, and racial injustice. Give us your thoughts on how to navigate those conversations.

I think about this a lot and I think a lot of elements of crisis go into it, but it goes back to something we discussed early on about crisis. You have to be honest with yourself about the situation. During this time where we're dealing with social unrest, social injustice, we have to be honest about the situation that we're in. Acknowledge it. And then we're really good about talking about things. We have to take our words and turn them into action, but it goes back to being honest about ourselves and about the situation. And that's difficult because a lot of times we may know what the honest answer is, but it hurts or it makes us uncomfortable.

And so we try to dance around it, or we try not to face it head on in a crisis situation. You gotta face it head on in a situation like this. We have to face it head on. And we have to be honest about what the problem really is, what the situation really is. Talk about it because in a crisis situation, a lot of there's a lot of communications in a crisis situation. Acknowledge what it is and be honest about that, and then talk about it, take those words and those plans and turn them into action, because it's really nice to mean well, and it's really nice to say good things, but until something is done, nothing gets done.

Hear more from Ron in our recent podcast interview on "How to Lead Well During the First 60 Minutes of a Crisis."

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