Kevin Rutherford, CEO of Nuun Hydration
Kevin Rutherford is the Chief Eternal Optimist (CEO) at Nuun Hydration, an innovative, Seattle-based company offering clean-ingredient lifestyle products for everyday hydration. He’s a positive, innovative leader who keeps purpose and mission at the core of his work. Kevin spent his early career as a Senior Brand Manager at SC Johnson and Miller Brewing Company before serving as Marketing Director at Kashi Company and eventually CEO at Caldrea Company. Kevin shares his people-first approach to hiring and evaluating teams. We also discuss how he leverages purpose and vision to build thriving cultures.
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HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDE
- How optimism became integral to Kevin’s leadership style (1:42)
- Lessons about people, inclusivity, and positivity from his career path (3:04)
- Connection to mission and purpose (9:01)
- Canadians’ unique scrappiness (10:57)
- His approach to building leadership teams (12:22)
- Culture add vs. culture fit (15:56)
- His experience coming into Nuun (20:30)
- Defining leadership competencies (22:35)
- How his team contributes to hiring decisions (24:10)
- The benefit of working with recruiters to make key hires (26:49)
- How the recent health and social crises have affected Kevin’s approach (31:54)
- Nuun’s success hiring virtually (36:26)
- Adapting to 2021’s accelerated pace of change (37:49)
SHOW TRANSCRIPT – HOW I HIRE PODCAST WITH Kevin Rutherford
Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast that taps directly into the best hiring advice and insights. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder of an executive recruiting and leadership consulting firm called Noto Group. My team and I have spent the last decade helping to build iconic consumer brands, one hire at a time. Visit us at NotoGroup.com to learn more.
I’m excited to welcome Kevin Rutherford to the show today. Kevin is the CEO, also known as the Chief Eternal Optimist, at Nuun Hydration. Nuun is an innovative, Seattle-based company that offers clean ingredient lifestyle products for everyday hydration. Before joining Nuun, Kevin was the President and CEO of Caldrea.
He’s also served as the Marketing Director at Kashi Company, and Senior Brand Manager at Miller Brewing as well as SC Johnson. We’ll discuss Kevin’s people-first approach to his work and he’ll share how he builds culture through purpose and vision, and how he evaluates the core competencies of leaders and teams. Kevin, thanks for being here. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:01:15] I’m stoked to be here. Always love chatting with you, and I’m looking forward to learning a lot from you today.
Roy Notowitz: [00:01:21] One of the things that’s really interesting about you, Kevin, is that you call yourself the chief eternal optimist or CEO, and that’s something I’ve always felt about you. You’re a positive force and I’m interested in whether or not you’ve always been that way or is this something that you’ve worked on and developed over time?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:01:42] Fair question. At times, I don’t think I’m an optimist at times, I’m like, you know, “Kevin, get with it. Come on.” You know, you do different personality assessments and whatnot, and done, done a few different exercises to truly distill down to, you know, who you are. And I think that’s just a constant growth learning curve. And if I could distill it down to one word, it would be the word “possibilities,” which correlates with optimism. Right? It’s like, it doesn’t mean you don’t see issues, but you see the possibility of going, “Okay. So now what?”
Roy Notowitz: [00:02:12] Yeah.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:02:13] Back to your point of, have I always been that way? I think so. I’ve done a lot of self-reflection back to when I was a kid. And I think about sports in particular, I’ve always felt like, “I can win this. I can, I can beat you.” Even if there’s just really no chance, but in my head, I’m like, “I can do it.” I just don’t give up.
Roy Notowitz: [00:02:31] That carries over to endurance sports for you as well. Right? That mindset probably serves you well.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:02:37] Very true. Very true. You know, I think it starts with belief in yourself and then belief in a vision and belief with a team and you’ve gotta be vulnerable and put your heart into it and say, “I can do this.”
Roy Notowitz: [00:02:49] I’m really interested in how this translates into your current role. But before we get into that, I wanted to go back to your first big career break. You know, who hired you? What was the reason you got hired? And can you tell us about how you got started in the industry?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:03:04] I think you and I have talked about my career journey a few times and there are, there are different inflection points that I think have taken me different ways on this journey. I talk about my career journey and I always start with Canada and the culture of Canada. And I think it’s safe to say per capita, Canadians say, “sorry” more than any other country, but I believe that there is something about an accountability that Canadians take with their actions.
I could be wrong, but there’s something about saying, “sorry,” is like, what could I have done differently? And, you know, when we talk about society and, and… from white privilege, uh, you know, I’m the white male from Canada. I actually, didn’t really, really internalize maybe the advantage that I’ve had. So there’s a lot of luck here in my entire career, from the first job out of university, I’ve always had somebody trying to pull me in or forward.
Somebody was part of the network that said, “You need to meet this guy Kevin.” I think that’s a really important note. So I truly like, I look at that and I go, every single instance. Someone can’t manage that. So my advice to people is, it’s a small world, live with a servant leadership mentality. Always leave a job or role, wherever that is, internally or externally, better than you came in. It was great advice I got. You can influence that. I can’t say everyone’s going to be as lucky as I have been.
Roy Notowitz: [00:04:33] So let’s talk about your career path. What are the different experiences that were additive to where you are today?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:04:40] My career started back in Canada at Loblaws as a Retail Buyer. It’s actually an incredibly leading retailer up in Canada. It’s interesting, the very start of my career, what I did learn there, that’s applied for me from a competency perspective in particular, is it helped me understand, because I moved into marketing after that, I understood the other side of the desk and who we’re serving from a customer, not a consumer specifically, but a customer perspective. And I would say that’s probably the biggest takeaway that has kind of stayed with me way back then. And my career then went to marketing because that was, that was a real passion point.
And I love marketing as I reflect on it, I think what I love about it is it’s about connecting with people. It’s really trying to understand what people need or want. I started in a very traditional tier one, if you will, CPG, consumer packaged goods, company. And that was SC Johnson, “a family company.” And I started there in, in Canada and they moved me to the U.S. back in 2001.
There’s many things, actually, I would argue SC Johnson set the foundation for me in my career, more than any other place. It was like taking an MBA real world is how some people would describe it. If you’re working at Procter & Gamble or SC Johnson or Clorox, right. That the list, the list goes on with some others… Kellogg, et cetera.
The fundamentals that I learned was one, around kind of marketing principles, data analytics, back then it wasn’t called performance marketing. It’s trying to make sure that everything counts and really getting some data analytics behind it and making impact with it. And then there was also cross-functional leadership.
I think I was emulating behavior that I was seeing early in my career. I was like, “Oh, I like that style.”
Roy Notowitz: [00:06:19] Yeah.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:06:19] And what was interesting is early in my career as the Brand Manager, I was leading people much older than me, more experienced cross-functionally. And yet I’ve just felt naturally there. And I feel like I was really welcomed. So I think there might be a style of inclusivity that I use and that optimism probably comes through and then people start to believe in themselves and then away we go, that’s held true throughout my career as well. SC Johnson also taught me how to assess talent as you’re coming in. So whether that’s internal performance reviews to mentoring, but also recruiting. So at SC Johnson, I had the privilege in the U.S., when I moved to the U.S. I had the privilege of leading all of the marketing recruiting. So that’s, that’s SC Johnson.
Roy Notowitz: [00:06:57] That’s a great background for hiring, to have all that experience.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:07:00] Yeah, I’m so grateful for my experience at SC Johnson. So the next part of my career, I like to say I went to another all natural products company, Miller Brewing Company. From a marketing skill perspective, what I learned was it’s really difficult to connect with the consumer on emotional connection. But if you do, it’s really powerful. If you think of it, the differences between Miller, Budweiser, Coors, like the big, mainstream brands. Sorry, beer folks, if you’re listening. They’re not that different, but there’s an emotional connection that the beer companies have done really well.
From SC Johnson, it was a little bit more like, what’s the benefit? What’s it doing for you? What’s the reason to believe? At Miller, it was like this emotional side. If I had one takeaway from a people perspective, I’ll never forget this little snippet of a conversation, when I was talking with the president of Miller at the time Tom Long.
And he said to me, something that still hits home as now as a CEO, like it’s still there and he’s like, “Kevin, here’s the thing. I sound like I’m saying the same thing all the time. Right? But I’m always campaigning, and not campaigning in a negative sense. It’s to make sure everyone keeps staying on message and they understand the focus and what we need to do in terms of priorities. And you’ll get bored of it before or everyone else. Right?”
The next stop on my career journey was life-changing on how I looked at business. I was working at the Kashi Company as a Marketing Director. And that career experience completely changed my outlook on business. Driving a business through mission values, purpose, like this team lived it and I loved every minute of it. And it’s just, it’s so much bigger than cereal for the team, especially. So much bigger.
Roy Notowitz: [00:08:51] Is that connection to mission and purpose what led you to Caldrea? It seems like a common thread that you really have to feel that connection.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:09:01] You’re spot on. And then create a sense of belonging for the team to this mission. When I went from Kashi, where I’d never thought I would leave and… because I just loved it so much, I had an opportunity where SC Johnson had acquired the Caldrea Company, and they were looking for someone to take over for the founder, my background kind of fit. And what I learned at Kashi, I kind of used that to develop, if you will, my playbook coming in, although I’d never been a CEO before.
So I thought I had a playbook. I dunno if I’m an optimist or naive. I don’t know which one, but I came in with a playbook in my mind and a lot of it was centered around purpose and mission and values. And it’s something that the team didn’t have, but it’s fascinating how it worked, because if you fast forward, a few years later, we made a top company to work for by Outside Magazine.
Roy Notowitz: [00:09:47] That’s amazing. I think that it’s an entrepreneurial thing. I’ve talked to lots of entrepreneurs and I know that for most successful ones, failure just isn’t an option. And whether that’s optimism or simply a fear of failure, whatever it is, it seems that you have that true entrepreneurial spirit. And, you know, that’s proven by your track record of growth at every company that you’ve ever been involved with. Is that right?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:10:15] Yeah. Yeah, that’s fair. I… it’s funny, because I haven’t started a company from scratch. I don’t think of myself that way, but, but I do think the mindset is similar. There’s also a kind of being resourceful and scrappy mentality. And if you go back in my career at. Miller Brewing Company, like there was a scrappiness that we did and we did things under the radar and then popped it forward. And we did it at Kashi. It existed. At SC Johnson, we did it too. So I think that entrepreneurial spirit as you call it, I think it actually existed even within a big company.
Roy Notowitz: [00:10:48] We talked about this when we connected on the topic initially, about being part of your Canadian experience, can you, can you elaborate?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:10:57] I do think there is possibly a correlation there. And the reason I say there’s there’s a correlation is the depth of resources in the U.S., just like, think about the size of the population, the size of the economy, therefore, the size of the opportunity. Comparatively speaking to Canada, although much larger in landmass, but much smaller, obviously with economic opportunity and number of people, you really need to be resourceful.
The depth of resources just isn’t there. And so you think much more like a generalist, you’re the, basically the expert of nothing, but the knower-of-all meaning, you know, what questions to ask or at least to try to get enough to move forward. You know, analysis paralysis just doesn’t work in Canada because you don’t have enough data to keep going. You just, “I got enough. Let’s go.”
Roy Notowitz: [00:11:44] Right. That’s interesting. So that’s part of your lived experience and you translate that into your work now, even though you technically may have more resources in the U.S.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:11:55] Yeah, I think, I actually think it translates really well in the U.S. because I have several friends from Canada that have come to the U.S. and actually done really well. I do think there’s something about, “I’ve got enough. Let’s go.” Because you just assume that there isn’t more to get, there’s no more deep pockets to go find it.
Roy Notowitz: [00:12:15] How did your approach to building leadership teams evolve from working at SC Johnson to Nuun?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:12:22] As you asked that question, I’m thinking, “My gosh, I have been, I’m really fortunate that I started at SC Johnson.” Because they, they really do focus on culture and people. It’s a different type of culture than probably what I’m trying to build at Nuun and before at, at Caldrea. But it’s very inclusive. And so I learned that early-stage in my career. That inclusivity, listen first, right? The Covey-ism of, “seek first to understand then to be understood.” In fact, we even had training just to give you a perspective for SC Johnson, is when you are working on advertising, which is, advertising, as I like to say to the team, even today in the digital world it’s the same, it’s the same idea, just a different medium. “Advertising is not the most important thing we do, but it’s likely one of the highest profile things we do.” And so think about that. So it’s so high profile and then you’ve got, when you’re assessing ads, you’ve got like this agency and then you’ve got multi levels in, in a boardroom at SC Johnson.
So this inclusivity is really interesting. The person that speaks first is the most junior person after you see the ads. That’s a lot of pressure by the way, for the junior person. You need to make sure that your voice matters. I hold true to, now as the CEO, so I guess on a hierarchy, the most senior person, right?
I hold true to speaking last. Other than if I’m leading the meeting, I’ll kick it off and set the tone. I do hold true though, and I’m certain the team at Nuun and previous teams would attest to that is I’m not shy in speaking my mind, I can talk way more than I should. But I’m also, I’m very conscientious of being one of the last to speak. Like I really do. And so if, if folks aren’t talking, I will try to pull people in, right? Like, “Roy, what do you think?” And like pull that out. And if there’s someone missing in a room, meaning their voice has been missing, I will consciously be thinking about pulling those voices in. And so that really did start back, I think, at SC Johnson and that, that’s held true.
I think where I’ve evolved is there’s a common thread that I think purpose and mission bring that I didn’t think about earlier in my career. I thought about, how do we win at market share? Like it was, it’s a little bit of like a scoreboard game in many ways. We all have to be passionate about the mission. Like we have to be all in on that. The diversity of thought is how to bring that to life. One of my favorite stories is when we were looking to hire somebody, a senior person in operations, at one point, there was a very talented individual, really great, honestly, I thought great culture fit, really embraced our mission.
However, as they got to know a little bit more about the team at the very end, they said, “I’m out.” I think they almost thought we were a little bit cult-like because we were like obsessed with the mission and they were like, “I need to separate my work from my personal life.” I think that’s really difficult with a purpose-driven company.
I’m not suggesting we’re trying to intrude on your personal life, but the purpose and mission is, is very much about making positive change in the world. In our case, it’s around, you know, hydration that empowers the world to move more. So it’s about movement. Just like, like we know that movement is that, is at the core of this. And if you, if that doesn’t get you going, you probably shouldn’t come to Nuun.
Roy Notowitz: [00:15:37] Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the things that’s really interesting. You want it to be inclusive for everybody, but you’re also trying to stay true to the core values and what people are trying to accomplish as a team. When it comes to being values and purpose and mission driven, where does this start in the hiring process for you?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:15:56] I would say that like, the early stages are first and foremost, making sure that the competencies, results of the past and impacts reflect kind of, you know, fitting in helping accelerate our roadmap, if you will, like, how we want to proceed forward. So that’s where it starts. You know, the, the folks, when we’re hiring, we’ll see a pretty good breadth of cross-functional leaders when they’re interviewing not just the function where they’re being hired into. Within there, there’s a commonality of the mission and trying to understand, “Hey, what’s your thoughts on that one? You know, are you embracing that?” In the, in their own way they’re going to try to tease that out.
To be clear, it’s not culture fit you’re looking for, you’re looking for culture add. That’s a really good modifier. I don’t want a bunch of Kevins on the team, right?
Roy Notowitz: [00:16:44] That’s been a differentiation in terms of how people think about culture. It’s a common theme this past year, and I think it’s a good direction for that to become the language for how we think about culture, experience, and talent. So let’s talk about that. You know, you have a really strong group of people working there and I’m sure at least one person didn’t feel like they were necessarily a fit. So how do you, how do you create an inclusive culture?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:17:12] It’s a constant evolution. For me, I believe that culture is alive. It’s a living ecosystem, right? It’s relationships, it’s connections with people. And so the strategy of what we’re going to do lives within the ecosystem. Where I think a lot of companies and leaders miss, is they think the other way around, it’s like, here’s our strategy. What do we want the culture to be within there? That’s that bucket. There’s this bucket. If it’s alive, you need to constantly nourish it. Which also means you need to adapt. Right? If you know, it’s a drought, I need to add water. Oh, it’s been raining a lot. I don’t need to add water. And so with every new person that comes in or every person that leaves or someone’s having like maybe something going on in their life and it’s affecting their work relationships that can happen.
It directly correlates. So you have to be constantly shifting. I will say that we, we have this challenge. All right, so one of the things about the evolution of Nuun is when I was first coming into Nuun over seven years ago, we were for the most part, a lot of endurance athletes. Like Ironman triathletes to ultra runners, marathoners.
It was, it was the vast majority, not everyone, but the vast majority. Today, I would argue that our team reflects much more of our, instead of the core of how we started much more of the expansion market. You know, “I believe in movement and I know I need to get my heart rate up and sweat and, and hydration. So I hike and I commute to work by bike. And that’s my exercise.” That’s amazing. Like truly, that’s amazing. That reflects, I would argue, the bulk of our team today. Of course, there’s Ironman athletes and et cetera, et cetera, but not necessary. And so, and I can be part of the problem by the way. I’m so appreciative of some people on our team in particular that have the courage to come to me and say, “Hey, Kevin, that didn’t feel inclusive.”
Meaning. “All right team, let’s, let’s take on this challenge together, and we’re all gonna do. I’m gonna just gonna make this up, a 5k run,” which actually probably wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that I would say that or, or longer, but I’d say, “5k, we can all do that,” but not everyone wants to do that.
And so, I think the balance here is how do you still stoke the fire of some of the people that are the core and find connections within, there’s kind of subgroups, but how do you also find ways to connect the different subgroups to make something big that everyone can do? And that’s a constant struggle because I think I keep trying to make sure that it stays alive of unlocking your personal best, and my personal best is different than your personal best. And sometimes I, I lose sight of that. So it’s, it’s a constant challenge, but I don’t want people to be afraid to try and miss as well.
Roy Notowitz: [00:19:48] Well, and you don’t have to be a hardcore athlete like you are to be inspired by performance and what that stands for.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:19:56] Totally agree. And Kashi was the same thing. Right? At Kashi, our mission was around we dream of a world where everyone embraces natural health. And when I think about that mission, we lived it, but it was to different extremes. Right? So back then I wasn’t a plant-based eater and there were probably a handful of people that were vegan on the team. People are on different stages of the journey.
Roy Notowitz: [00:20:18] So one thing we talked about was when you came into Nuun, you had to formulate a strategy and evaluate existing capabilities of the team. Can you share that story?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:20:30] Yeah, absolutely. So Nuun started 16 years ago and I started, so I guess I’m at the… somewhere that midpoint of the company. And the growth trajectory had started to soften. It wasn’t negative, but the growth wasn’t going at the same trajectory. And so the board felt like, “Hey, we need a change.”
So I was basically trying to figure out what was working. That was my first objective, not what wasn’t working, what is working and how do we put the amplifier on it? And one of the things that I wanted to do with Nuun was I go, “Listen, I think this, this brand can go from this ultra athlete, long distance person to much more of a wellness brand. Like it can bring more people in. If it’s good enough for athletes, why can’t we have this for everyone?” And in order to do that, I had this fundamental belief around nutrition that expanded beyond our portfolio and it was around clean ingredients. And what’s better for you and better for the planet. So natural, clean ingredients.
So that leads to the Vishal example. And I’m talking with Vishal, who’s giving nutrition science advice and guiding us as a company, as a sales rep in Chicago. I’m like, wait, what? This guy has a nutrition degree and he’s in Chicago and he’s advising us already. If we’re serious about this, and it’s, it’s truly a platform of where we need to go to grow and be best in class as a company we need to invest here.
So Vishal is a great example. Today he’s a director in the company, but moving him into Seattle from Chicago and then leading product development, it’s such a great growth story, but it was really leveraging what his skill set was and what matched with the company’s needs of where we were going.
Arguably, maybe the, one of the best transitions I’ve seen in my career of something completely different, but yet he matched so tightly with where we had to go. He’s a great example of someone who’s developed into a really strong company-wide leader, his growth trajectory on that one is, is a great example and he’s on our leadership team today.
Roy Notowitz: [00:22:25] Let’s talk about that. So how do you evaluate leadership competencies internally or when you’re recruiting people externally? What do you look for in a leader?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:22:35] I think that a leader is there to serve others. I guess, in the words of the Red Bull of business consultants, Tom Peters, we’re in the business of people. People serving people serving people. I just love that summary because I think it says it all. It sums it up. Here’s why I say that, I think a leader takes accountability. So when something goes right or wrong, more wrong, you take full accountability. When, when right, you quickly pass off to your team because their win is your win.
So that is a key, key tenet. I think the other one is a leader, rather than focusing inward. They focus kind of outward and that’s again, speaks to the servant leadership mentality that I mentioned. And I think the other one, I like to use the terminology of energy giving. I think that speaks to the possibilities optimism, energy giving to me means I believe in possibilities moving forward.
So let’s, let’s talk about the negative. Let’s talk about the issue. Let’s resolve that. I’m with you. Let’s solve it, whatever that, how can I help you? And then let’s go. If you can’t get that ability at any given moment or day on energy giving. Just try, try to minimize your impact knowing it’s just not my day. We all have those because what you do impacts others. You are who you surround yourself with.
Roy Notowitz: [00:23:57] When you’re interviewing candidates, how do you evaluate whether or not they default to that energy giving mindset versus the opposite of maybe looking at the negative elements of a situation?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:24:10] Not easy to pull out, truthfully. That said, I think one of the, the alarm bells that that should go off for anyone is if, especially an interview, if you’re you’re pointing blame at an individual and what they did wrong and what that might be, it doesn’t mean you can’t say, you know, there was a challenge here. My question would be, “So what, what do I do about that? How do I help resolve the issue?” I will say that I’ve had learning in my career where I’ve had a gut instinct about something where I’ve heard the not taking an accountability and it was somebody else. And what that may be. So I have this big belief in people that also means my team.
And so when our team, when we’re assessing and we’re debriefing on a candidate, it’s like, “But I didn’t see that. I really see this, and this.” I’ll go, “Mm, I agree on the competencies, really great competencies, but this individual they’re missing this.” Like there’s a lack of accountability and the team convinced me otherwise, I’ve gone with the team and sometimes they’re more right than I am, don’t get me wrong. But the example I’m thinking of in this case, I’m like, “Oh gosh, I, in hindsight,” and they would all agree, in hindsight it’s like, we knew this.
Like, it wasn’t just like a nuance, it just, it came across throughout. And I had plenty of specific examples that it should be enough information to say, “I realize that all of you love the capabilities that an individual would bring and I do too, but this person isn’t going to work with the chemistry of the team because they’re lacking the accountability and energy giving. And here’s why.” and I think you’ve just got to hold strong when it comes through, when it comes through that, that tightly.
Roy Notowitz: [00:25:46] You also talk about empowering the team and enabling them to make decisions. Do you allow that to happen just as a learning experience around hiring? Because that’s painful and costly and time consuming, or are there other ways that you think leaders can maybe help elevate the capabilities and awareness of these things within their leadership teams before the hiring process?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:26:11] I think you’ve got to trust the team to make the decision. And, and I would say I default to that. The example that I’m referencing, that would be a very senior level in the organization. And so therefore the costs, good or bad, I think just have more ramifications. So I might, I might. I need to weigh in a little more on that.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:30] Right.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:26:30] We have a very broad cross functional team that’s looking at this and I think you’ve got to trust the team on what they choose. And, and I I’m, I’m there 90% of the time with them, quite honestly.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:41] What are some of the things that you do to increase your knowledge of a candidate or to increase your confidence in those decisions?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:26:49] So when the stakes are high, I think there is, there is a benefit to getting expert help like yourself out there. And I think a great example of that is when we hired Jerry.
Roy Notowitz: [00:26:59] Jerry’s the one hire we worked on together that was consequential at Nuun. Just for context.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:27:05] Massively. Yeah.
Roy Notowitz: [00:27:07] What were the elements that you think brought clarity to the decision that you were making around that hire?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:27:15] What I found working in this case with you, and I know this isn’t about you, but there is something to be said about somebody has this objective expert voice that can help us assess and say why I think this is a really good fit for the competencies and how you’ve described your culture. Then we can then probe a little bit more to get that color to see whether or not we agree.
So in this case, you know, the individual, amazing individual and leader on our team is… it’s a great example of that success. I don’t know if we would have found Jerry to be on our team without really working with an external partner in this situation for the real need that we had in terms of thinking not just CFO but also COO mentality. And he’s, he’s just been, he’s been a game changer.
Roy Notowitz: [00:28:01] Also raising growth capital was another element of his experience.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:28:05] Yeah.
Roy Notowitz: [00:28:05] And I think that really added significant value in the short term, but also through this whole trajectory you’ve been on.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:28:13] I think it was Jerry’s first or second day. We were together in a conference room interviewing investment bankers.
Roy Notowitz: [00:28:22] If I’m reflecting on that experience, you were very clear about the goal of the business and what you wanted this person to achieve. Right? So you had said earlier that the business strategy was the first thing and all those elements kind of layered in.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:28:38] If I were to kind of structure it in my brain and, and how I approach it is strategy, structure people. It doesn’t mean people’s the least important. What it means is what’s, what’s the path that you want to do to win? What’s the structure that helps facilitate it? So we knew we needed this position that would get this strategy. These are the competencies we need, and then let’s talk people and then let’s make sure that it’s a culture add to the team. And that’s, that’s exactly what he did, but, but it’s that order, right? So think strategy then structure, then people.
Roy Notowitz: [00:29:06] That’s a great framework. So when you’re hiring now that you’ve had that clarity around those elements, how does that process translate into a hiring methodology?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:29:20] Well, I guess if you think about like annual plans, right? So when you think of strategy, you go like what’s this year going to look like for us? And then the three-year roadmap to succeed. And then what’s the structure today? And then moving down the road to facilitate it. And what’s the type of leader? So I think the challenge that a lot of folks struggle with, including myself, is trying to understand what that future state is that, that individual has the potential to grow into it.
Or they’ve already done it before. They can get you there quicker, depending on who you can find and match. And so I think it’s getting as clear as you can, as to what success looks like for your business strategy and for your team’s strategy for the structure.
Roy Notowitz: [00:30:03] I’m reflecting on some of the calls we’ve had over the years, you’ll call me and say, “We need to hire a Director of this or a VP of that.” And ultimately, we’ll go through this process of exploring that role and… which is a good thing, but ultimately three out of the four times, you’ll say, “You know what? We actually don’t need that job. So we figured out a way to make it work with the existing team.”
And perhaps that’s the Canadian scrappiness we talked about. I think that’s really interesting. You’re always thinking about the capabilities of your team and different approaches to flowing talent into the areas that you need the business to focus in on.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:30:39] I learned something about myself from some psychologists when I was interviewing at Miller Brewing Company and Miller puts you through a battery of psychological tests; IQ tests, you know, EQ right? And then they summarize later. So I got in, I don’t know how that happened by the way, but, so I got, I got, I got in. And so they then take you through and you meet with a psychologist to, “Hey, here’s what you need to learn a little bit about you and what we’ve assessed.”
Only one thing’s really stuck with me. It correlates with what you just said, which is any, anything to an extreme by the way is not good. So, I have this innate reliance on my gut, my, I, like I build a hypothesis, but, but I’m never stuck on it. That’s the thing, I will quickly go, now I go prove or disprove it. So that’s what you just described. And it’s kind of the way I think it’s like, “Hmm, I think this is the answer.” So the positive is there’s a willingness to put something out there. So at least it gives a guiding light to then say whether or not that really was a light or not. And then you can divert.
Roy Notowitz: [00:31:45] So as we think about what’s going on in the world right now in 2021, how have these huge health and social crises changed the game for you?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:31:54] So 2020… and let’s talk about that in particular. Right? So you’ve got a health crisis of a pandemic. You’ve got a politically divided country that permeates within all cultures of all companies and sports teams, anything.
Right? And then you’ve got the social unrest and social uprising that really came to a head after the murder of George Floyd in particular.
Roy Notowitz: [00:32:13] Yeah.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:32:14] So if I were to tell you, like prior to 2020, that those are going to be at the forefront of conversations that I’m having. Like that, those type of things, macro level, little company Nuun. No, no, like not… like that’s outside our company. But it’s very relevant and it’s absolutely changed the way we do things.
So let’s focus on inclusivity, equity, diversity, right? We started a more formal training around DEI in Q4 of 2019. The reason why we did that, honestly, we were missing the mark when it came to diversity on our team and inclusion in the sense of equitable treatment. And, and in some cases, maybe that’s absolutely true. The perception is definitely there, so therefore it’s real. And that was more of a gender focus. And so when I first started at Nuun, it was probably around a 70:30, maybe 75:25 male to female ratio. Today, it’s 50:50. Okay. That sounds great. Well, sort of, so if you take at the upper part of the organization, it’s male dominant.
Okay. We need to get more diversity to reflect our target consumer and to reflect the world. Again, staying consistent with our obsession with the mission. So if that isn’t consistent with you, then we have to keep finding diverse talent. So we were really focused primarily gender-wise. And what do we need to do to get better and realize the systemic biases that we had there?
What we weren’t really focusing on a lot at that time, and that’s where 2020 changed us saying, “No, we need diversity beyond gender. We really need to focus there.” And we were not doing that very well. And now today on our hiring practices, we are trying to find more talent across many different ethnicities, race, gender, et cetera.
We’re putting into practices on that one that we didn’t do before. We didn’t do before. It wasn’t that we didn’t not do it. We were just like, we posted a job in whoever comes in, that’s what we get. But like what you project out is what you’re going to attract. So we basically were getting a lot of more Kevins. And so we’ve really worked on that. Our marketing communication reflects that there’s more diversity in our marketing, and we want to attract the best talent with a very diverse group.
We do blind resumes. Now blind resumes are only going to help you on this from a more diverse talent. It’s good to take away bias. That’s awesome. But to get more diverse talent, as you know, if we’re not bringing in diverse talent, it’s still a blind resume of the same group of people. We’re far from perfect on that one.
The other one, I would say this, if I could, is the health crisis. One of the things that it’s done is it’s forced us all to work differently, remotely, virtually. So here we are talking remotely together. I think our original intention was actually to get together in Portland.
Roy Notowitz: [00:35:05] Yeah we tried that several times and then it kept getting pushed out. So here we are doing it virtually.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:35:13] I will say this though, we have embraced virtual conferencing for many years. In fact, when I was introduced to Zoom, I think it was four years ago and someone on our team, Jeff Dean, super smart guy, a leader on our teams, like “We should try maybe Zoom.” And I go, “What’s that?” And we did.
Roy Notowitz: [00:35:31] Four years ago, that was ahead of its time.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:35:33] Exactly. The reason why we were doing that is inclusivity on our team is really important to me. And so you have a team in Seattle, which is about roughly half of the company and half the team is in the field. Field sales and field marketers, field marketers, now, are doing different things because there’s nothing for them to do in market.
But the field sales folks, but it’s like half the teams out there. And I go, how do we make them feel part of Seattle? And how do we build off the energy of them? And I said, phone calls are not enough and really wanted to, to bring video into it. So it was more of a two-dimensional conversation. That’s worked incredibly well. And so we, fortunately, made this transition to a virtual world seamlessly. I guess the one difference is, when we go back to whatever the new normal is, the requirement to be in office, as much as we really wanted people there, there’s no way it’s going to be where it was.
Roy Notowitz: [00:36:21] How has hiring people virtually been working for you during the pandemic? Has that been an easy shift?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:36:26] I think it’s been very successful, actually. We have a lot of new hires in the last year. Like honestly, I think all of them are doing exceptionally well. So that says our assessment of talent and, and culture add, and they assessing us as coming through. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I thought it would be, but it’s not.
Roy Notowitz: [00:36:45] Do you think that’s going to continue after at all levels?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:36:49] I think it will for us, but you know what, there’s still several industries that I think really want to go back to the way it was. You know, as, as you know, I’m speaking with financial investors and I’m setting up Zoom calls with them and, and, you know, what’s fascinating to me is some of them still don’t put on their video.
Roy Notowitz: [00:37:08] I was on a regular conference call the other day. And without the video, I felt like there was something missing in terms of the connection, the difference between a video call versus a phone call. I think we’re getting a lot more out of those calls now in terms of connecting on a personal level than maybe before the pandemic, where it was more of a novelty and unusual. We’re getting comfortable with it, I guess.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:37:34] 100% agree, by the way, I will say worth noting is Zoom fatigue is real. Again, anything to an extreme right? Becomes a negative.
Roy Notowitz: [00:37:42] So is there anything specifically that you’re excited about as you think about the future for yourself and the company?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:37:49] I would say we’re yet at another inflection point, we, we grew significantly in 2020. And so, you know, 2020 can be described as, from a business perspective and the digital transformation omni experience, it’s the year of the accelerant. So people are shopping in different ways, right? So there’s a saying that I once heard that I’ve repeated many times, “As fast as the world is moving today, it will never be this slow again.” 2020 took that to a different level.
Roy Notowitz: [00:38:19] Yeah.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:38:20] And so the, the focus point for me is really having us think and act and behave and structure like an omni experience company. And so how do we build more digital capabilities? The team’s doing such a great job there. And so that transformation is going to continue to be, and so like we’re going to continue to accelerate growth and I think that’s going to be a key, key component.
And I say that, because, think about this one, the part where I actually haven’t figured out how it evolves as the traditional sales role. It’s changing before the team’s eyes, because how you deal with buyers is now on, you know, virtual conferencing, trade shows don’t exist. There’s just so many differences. And what does that mean? And then what skill set do we need to help infuse for talent for them? Like how do they, how do we help them grow in a new world that’s still shaping? Like, we’re still trying to define it. It’s the one area that I’m like, I don’t know what that means.
I will say, as an example of what we did to show how we’re embracing the change is e-commerce, digital commerce, if you will, so from DTC to e-commerce retailers, that’s actually moved from the sales organization to the marketing organization, which it’s like a massive revenue generator. So it might seem counterintuitive to people. But how you win is very much digital marketing, how you succeed, how you reach, how you connect. So that’s a big transformation happening right now, and that’s going to continue to accelerate.
And so because of the pandemic, people are thinking about two things that I think will make the world a better place. Preventative health and investing in their health. So whether that’s hydration, resilience or moving, like, people are thinking about that more than ever across all age groups. Right? So when you’re younger, you think you’re invincible. That’s not the case anymore. People are thinking about that. Love that.
Two, I’m hopeful on this one. And I think it’s also made us rethink the impact on our planet. And I think we can be a catalyst for that change as well. So as you know, we’ve chosen not to do a ready to drink or like, how do we reduce our reliance, so it doesn’t mean it will go away, but our reliance on like one time use single use plastic for every consumption we make? And I think we can continue to push that boundary at Nuun. And those are two things that I, when I think of game changing for the world, that’s what gets me excited. And that’s what we need to push forward.
Roy Notowitz: [00:40:55] You’re squarely in the middle of those circles.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:40:58] Yeah. And that’s, that’s, that’s a fun place to be.
Roy Notowitz: [00:41:00] Yeah. I feel fortunate this past year, a lot of our clients are in the healthy, active lifestyle sectors. And of course now these things are becoming more ingrained and in the consumer mindset. So I want to circle back and just talk about your future and how do you see your career evolving in the years ahead?
Kevin Rutherford: [00:41:21] What’s in the future for me? First part, I’m here now and I’m all in with the team at Nuun. Like I’m all in. Of course, I don’t know what the future holds and we should always be growing our mindset and what that looks like. I think it’s really important that I emphasize that because that’s how I feel and that’s how I live, eat, and breathe. I’m all in. I’m right here, right now.
One of the things that I’ve really become passionate about is around, I love speaking. And I think maybe there’s an opportunity for me to share what I’ve learned over my career journey and get out there in front of people and share that so they don’t have to recreate the wheel and they can maybe learn from my mistakes and what’s worked.
Roy Notowitz: [00:42:03] That’s the whole reason for this podcast, to, to create value and to talk about an imperfect science such as hiring, and to help people who are, you know, learning how to take their hiring to the next level. And there’s not a lot of content out there for that.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:42:19] Yeah.
Roy Notowitz: [00:42:20] Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast. You’re such a great, positive influence, and I always appreciate when we have the opportunity to spend time together. You have such a great outlook and your success is obviously not a surprise, and I’m always inspired by what you’re doing in your leadership, and thank you so much for, for joining us today.
Kevin Rutherford: [00:42:44] Roy, thanks for having me. It’s, I’m stoked to be here and I love chatting with you and you do incredible work. I admire you as a human and you as a leader.
Roy Notowitz: [00:42:53] Thanks for tuning in to How I Hire. Visit HowIHire.com for more details about our show. How I Hire is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, and all major listening platforms. Follow us wherever you listen to get new episodes as soon as they’re released. You can also leave us a rating or a review.
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