March 2, 2021

Ethical leadership to make a difference with David Rutstein | Changemaker

Ethical leadership to make a difference with David Rutstein | Changemaker

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with David Rutstein, former general counsel at Giant Food. David shares inspiring stories in his journey, what an ‘Ethical Will’ is, his 10 principles for leadership, and most important of all—how to lead with integrity and have an impact in the community.

Some highlights:

  • David Rutstein shares how his grandparents’ community leadership inspires how he leads and mentors younger people
  • How getting rejected at Penn Law School led him to the Greater Washington DC DMV Region 
  • David’s 5 impactful objectives in his retirement
  • What an ‘Ethical Will’ is and why it’s so important
  • How persistence helped David in battling health issues
  • David Rutstein’s 10 principles for leadership



Also mentioned in this episode:

Raymond R. Dickey, former senior partner at Danzansky, Dickey, Tydings, Quint and Gordon

George Bloom, head of the public utilities commission in Pennsylvania

Edward Friedman, Solicitor General

Israel “Izzy” Cohen, former chairman of Giant Food and Supermarketing Pioneer

David Rubenstein, co-Founder of the Carlyle Group and author of  How to Lead



Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

MahanTavakoli.com

 

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 

PartneringLeadership.com



Transcript

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. Thank you for joining me on this journey of learning and growth. As I have conversations with these magnificent leaders, I am really enjoying them, and I know you are too based on your feedback. 

So keep those emails coming mahan@mahantavakoli.com and feel free to leave me a voice message at PartneringLeadership.com, there's a microphone icon, you can click on it and leave me a message there. 

Now this week, I am really excited to be having a conversation with David Rutstein. David is one of those very special people that I have known for over 25 years. When he was general counsel of Giant Food, he was kind enough to have conversations with me, helped me in connecting in the community, and take me under his wings. 

It became one of those things that I cherished over the years, initially conversations with him at the Giant cafeteria, the Giant headquarters cafeteria, and then eventually at the Daily Grill in Bethesda. 

David is absolutely a magnificent person and I'm sure when you listen to the conversation, you will get a sense of that for yourself. He is really values driven and has real important leadership insights that he shares all throughout, including 10 leadership principles toward the end of the conversation. 

Now, if you're enjoying these conversations, don't forget to subscribe or follow depending on platform of choice. If you listen to the episodes on Apple podcasts, please leave a rating and review, that makes it easier for other people to find the podcast. 

Now here's my conversation with David Rutstein. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Dave Rutstein, welcome to the Partnering Leadership podcast, such an absolute pleasure for me to have you on. 

David Rutstein: 

Well, thank you so much. I've been looking forward to this. Once you invited me, I hadn't known of this process, but I'm anxious to seek to respond to anything you ask me. So an open book.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Dave, you have been a friend and mentor for 25 plus years. So some of your magnificent story, I have grown to adore, including the fact that you grew up in a coal mining town called Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And I know that had a significant impact on you those days and on your leadership. How did it?

David Rutstein: 

Well, I can respond to that in several ways. First of all, it was quite a depressed area economically. And so you grow up with a sense of moderation and modesty, and you grow up with all kinds of people. So that in itself was important.

But I think most of all, the role that my family played in that community was the major influence on my life beyond any other. I think, if we have a theme of this conversation, it’s probably luck. It's that I've been fortunate, in this case, I've been so fortunate to have a lineage, to have role models within my family that I was able to observe as a young person growing up and I viewed it as a sense of responsibility to try to emulate them now for the rest of my life. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I know your grandparents were leaders in the community and your mom served as a great example of leadership for you too. 

David Rutstein: 

Yeah, without going through the full story, it's the story of the American dream. My grandfather escaped from Russia. He was the one selected to do that. He came to New York. Didn't speak English. Got into the jewelry trade, just selling in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, which at that time was like oil boom town. 

He, long story short, anticipated the coming of the automobile. Was very smart, very resourceful, and started what may have been the first, but certainly one of the first chains of auto parts stores in the world. Very successful at one point, had 24 stores in the coal region.

But more than that, he and my grandmother were, I think without question, and I'm biased, the matriarch and patriarch of that community in terms of their participation in community work and in philanthropy.

One quick story, which I think says it all. When my grandfather died, I was 17. And we began to hear from people, all of them Holocaust survivors in the Wilkes-Barre area, who were sworn to secrecy during my grandfather's life, my grandmother knew but she wasn't talking. 

In which the stories then began to be told. And there were 13 of them who surfaced and we don't know how many there really were. But stories like “they set up a business for me”, “they educated my children”, “they bought a house for me”, and “they believed that charity was best anonymous.” And I think if I stopped with that story, you'll understand why they were role models for me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Absolutely, Dave. And all throughout your career, you represented that and you represented them really well. Now, I also know you had a counterexample to a role model in your father. 

David Rutstein: 

Well, you had mentioned my mother who was extraordinarily strong. She went through a difficult divorce when I was four years old. My father, only one way to say this, left us. And so, yes, in thinking about role models or perhaps reverse role model, he became world-renowned, he was the first professor of preventive medicine at Harvard Medical School, but wasn't particularly a people person.

And I've thought just as I've thought about those in my family who I should try to emulate, I've thought in a reverse way, perhaps I should use that as an example of what not to do. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Which is why I know family for you has been number one, number two, number three, in all of your priorities and in life.

David Rutstein: 

I always say family is number one and I've never figured out what's in second place.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yes and that’s fabulous.

David Rutstein: 

And I'm so, I get back to the word fortunate. I've had a marriage with my wife, Rana, who also grew up in Wilkes-Barre about 53 years, which should be a model for others. She's the most phenomenal human being that I've ever met. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now Dave, you went to University of Pennsylvania and were set on wanting to go to Penn Law, what happened there? 

David Rutstein: 

Well, I guess it shows and we can talk about what examples I might try to leave for others. It shows you can't plan everything. I had a wonderful experience at Penn coming out of this smaller community. 

In the big city, it was kind of overwhelming, but I had a wonderful experience at Penn without getting into details and want to become a lawyer. And frankly, maybe it was ego involved or whatever, I just assumed that I would go to Penn Law School. Well, I got a rude awakening the afternoon that I opened my results of my law boards, which were horrendous. And I never would be able to qualify, even to apply to Penn Law School with that terrible result. I had again, by way of example, which shows you you can't plan. 

It was in a serendipitous way that I happened to go to a cousin's wedding in Boston, coming back to Philadelphia on an airplane, sat next to someone, it was my sophomore year, and he said “what would you like to do?” I said “I'd like to go to law school.” He said “where would you like to go?” I said “I'd like to aim high and stay right here.” He chuckled and he said “well, I'm a professor at Penn Law School.” 

He drove me back to my dorm and said “if I can ever be of service to you, let me know.” That was the first call I made, I guess, speaking of lawyers, you're allowed to make one phone call. The phone call that I made was to Paul Michigan. And I later came to understand what a renowned constitutional scholar he was. 

He canceled his appointments that afternoon, made a phone call to a renowned professor at George Washington Law School, I'd never heard of this school, named Monroe Freedman and said “I'd like you to meet this guy.”

I went on a train on Monday that led to being accepted at George Washington that led to my entry into Washington, all serendipitous and ultimately what we'll discuss about whatever it was I did in Washington. You can’t plan.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

There is some luck that you couldn't plan, but you are also very persistent because you wanted to get a position and work for Danzansky and Dickey, which was a DC based law firm here. You applied and didn't hear back from them  and then what happened? 

David Rutstein: 

Well, one step backward when I graduated law school, I became, high sounding phrase but not as high sounding a job, a deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, but we decided we wanted to come to Washington. And so I applied to five firms and got three quick negatives, one maybe, and never heard from the fifth firm.

My wife, as she's guiding me through my life, said “that's wrong, pick out the name, the top name, and send a letter, explain that they didn't answer.” Which I did and that was Danzansky and Dickey later Danzansky, Dickey, Tydings, Quint and Gordon. And I was interviewed there. 

And in talking with a senior partner, Ray Dickey, who was quite active in Republican affairs nationally, he said “oh, one of my great friends is George Bloom who's head of the public utilities commission in Pennsylvania.” I listened. 

The next morning, I went to my boss, the solicitor general, and said “I'd love to meet George Bloom.” “Why is that?” “Well, I just met somebody who I'd like to have a conversation” 8:30 in the morning, that next morning, Edward Friedman calls George Bloom and says “I'm sending somebody up to talk to you.”

And I had a nice chat with George Bloom. He apparently then called Ray Dickey and I was hired within that week. About four years later, Ray Dickey and I were trying a lawsuit and we had a law and he said to me “did I ever tell you why I hired you?” I said “no.” He said “there's not one out of a hundred that would have gone to find George bloom the next day.” He said “I figured you could move well.” So that's, again, you can't plan these things. Sometimes you have to make them happen. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you did being at Danzansky and Dickey, Giant Food was the firm's largest client. 

David Rutsein: 

That's right. And I tried a couple of cases for Giant. Izzy Cohen, who is an icon in Washington and still within so many people's memory, probably the leading grocer in the United States, brilliant man. 

I've just been made a partner at the law firm, this was eight years later, he said “you're coming to be our lawyer at Giant.” I said “really? I didn't, hadn't heard that.” 

And I didn't mention this before, but it took three rounds. I couldn't imagine leaving what I had just earned, but he came back the third time and then I decided I would do it. I figured the company would be sold within five years. Turned out I was there for 22. 

Again it's, I guess in old baseball, we would say "Tinker to Evers to Chance", one thing leads to another. I got to Washington, I got to Danzansky and Dickey, I got to Giant and none of it was planned. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And at Giant you were, to a certain extent, the face of Giant Food in community. And you did get very involved whether in the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which eventually you served as chair of the board there, or the Meyer Foundation. You really took on community involvement to a different level. 

David Rutstein:
Well, there’s a short answer to that one, Mahan. And that is what I said in the beginning. My family, including my mother, who was active in everything, following her parents, and then I followed her. It was just the natural thing to do. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So the natural thing to do is that community involvement, Dave, one of the things that I've shared with you is that a younger version of Mahan in the mid 1990s, you were kind enough to have conversations with me and mentor me through the years.

Whether at Giant Food, we were meeting at the Giant cafeteria, or eventually later on at the Daily Grill in Bethesda. What was it in you that got you to mentor so many people and have such a big impact on them as you did for me? 

David Rutstein: 

Well, I guess it’d be easier for those other people to describe this, but, and again, in modesty, so I won't dwell on it, but people, even when I was in high school, would come to me wanting my judgment.

And it led all the way through to Giant in the sense that when people said, well “what does a general counsel of Giant too?” I said “most often it's exercising judgment.” So people came to me and what evolved from that was that, I said you know, I can probably serve a role in helping younger people, not because I'm any brighter than they are. They were brighter than I was. But just having the experience enables that. 

I was quite interested too, in the subject of diversity early on. And I suppose it was uncommon, still is, for a white male to be in charge of diversity. Today that couldn't happen, but that was one of the roles I served to Giant. 

Now you mentioned mentoring. I was the last senior, one of the senior management to leave Giant when the company was sold, and the Venable Law Firm came to me and said, they very much liked me to come. I said there were two problems with that. I just bought a home where I'm sitting now in Naples, Florida, and I didn't want to practice law.

And they said “that's fine.” And I said “well, it'd be unusual.” They said “what do you want to do?” And I said “well, certainly bring in business that goes without saying, but no billable hours”, but I said “I want to mentor young people to get back to your question.” 

So I had the privilege of interacting with, I'd encountered exactly, might've been 50 young lawyers and I was there 12 years. And that's a role that I played, they all didn't work out and mentoring is chemistry, but there were some good situations, not the details of which we'll discuss, where people, I think, may have wanted to come back and get more advice and that was very comforting to me. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And Dave, you mentioned being an advocate for diversity. I've been in many board meetings and other places with you. Having seen the fact that it's not just you saying it, you were a real advocate way back when, on making sure there is more representation, more diversity and more opportunity in the different organizations that you were involved with. 

David Rutstein:

Well, one of the things you learn is that there is a lot that is said about fairness in employment, and then minority of companies use the word minority, a minority of companies that actually do something about it. And during the years I was there, I was very pleased that it was a personification in the sense you look around and there’s people who advance in the company and you played a role in that.

And my deal always was with people, that if we worked hard to bring them up through the ranks, their obligation in turn was to reach down, bring others with them. And I think that works better than anybody else because human relations really undergird diversity. When you get to know somebody, the differences disappear. To me, tolerance is built one-on-one to get to know people, and then you don't much think about anything else. So we tried to encourage that.

Mahan Tavakoli:

And you did a fabulous job with that. Now I know with your so-called technical retirement, you had objectives and you are doing more than ever. 

David Rutstein:

Well, I wrote out knowing I would be with you. I wrote out this, I don't know if you can see it. It says “act old later.” So I've tried not to act old. I mean, I'm 76, but by virtue of yoga, which I've done for 30 years, I try to be very physically active and I'll digress a minute. Although I think it's germane to what you're asking. 

I knew I was gonna retire from Giant. And then I knew I was going to retire from Venable. I flunked retirement, I guess, from Giant. And I thought long and hard over long period of time, couple of years, about what I would be doing if I retired, and I had an epiphany on a given day that most people, when they begin to plan for retirement, think about the activities that they're going to be engaged in.

It's a cliche that, so I'm going to travel more, I'm going to read more, but it all of a sudden struck me that there is a predicate to figuring out what you will do. The real question is why you're going to do it. And what certain stage in life you do ask yourself for the rest of your life, which is indeterminate, what are your objectives in life? And I'm truncating this and distilling it, this was over a long period of time, but I came up with five objectives for myself. 

The first was that it was important that I stay stimulated. Keep your mind going. The second is to be productive, but not too productive cause that's the reason you retired. The third is to connect with people and I have determined after eight years of retirement, that that's the most important. 

See, down here in Florida, particularly men who've retired, who their day is made if the one phone call they hope to get that day is received or it's the opposite if it's not. I said to myself fourthly, that I want to help people. And finally, that I wanted to stay physically active. 

And so I had originally 23 things I wanted to do. And I did a consumer reports matrix with full circles, half circles or empty circles with a matrix, putting the five objectives across the top and you know, working on charity, it wasn't going to keep me physically active so that was empty. Doing more yoga. I was running again, I was still running at that time. That's physically active. 

So I then use that as the planning tool. And I've tried to stay with it ever since and that's been a while. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And that's fantastic, Dave. I also know you have something called an Ethical Will. What is that? 

David Rutstein:

An Ethical Will is a letter which you write to those who follow you, largely your family. Explaining to them, what the values were in your life. It's not an legal laden document, it’s not a biographical document. I did this, or I did that. It is instead lessons that you've learned in your life. Now that Ethical Will, I wrote mine almost 10 years ago, seven pages, which is the one thing I've asked my family to keep. It's on archival paper, so it won't, acid-free paper. 

And then I took to deciding, maybe in line, in parallel with mentoring, that I might want to teach that. And so I guess 25 or 30 times, I've taught a course on Ethical Wills. I have one tomorrow morning. I've taught in Washington and I've taught down here in Florida. And it's been a great satisfaction for me to see that about 80% of the people when they enter the room, they never heard of an Ethical Will, they think it’s some legal document, it's not.

But when we finish after some workshops, we keep tissues around because it becomes very sentimental and people say in some instances, I guess I've had maybe 150 people that I've taught, some of them said it changed their life and it's helped their relationship with their family. So long-winded answer, but that's an Ethical Will. Some people now call it the Forever Letter. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And it is a beautiful letter and it's a beautiful process for anyone that chooses to go through it, Dave. You're the person that introduced me to the concept.

David Rutstein:

I will add one thing and it was central to the Ethical Will. I had lung cancer 19 years ago, never having smoked a cigarette. Was found incidentally. There was a heart scan, I went for the new heart scan test. One of 39 pictures, the x-ray technician inadvertently moved it and they found something in my lung. Long story short, I was operated on a Johns Hopkins and I survived and well. 

Now I've had 18 surgeries. The last one was last year, I had seven hours of brain surgery, meningioma. But there's a lesson there. It taught me and Hopkins wrote it up, my story, as the persistent patient, you have to take control, the doctors won't do that for you. And secondly, when you have a setback and I've had 18 surgeries, but I feel a hundred percent extremely active everyday. And again, luck and fortune come into play. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And deep valued principles. I know you also have 10 principles for leadership. Want to briefly touch on each one of those because they are significant and important for our audience to hear. The first one, be hard on the problem and easy on the people.

David Rutstein:

Ray Dickey again comes through because I was tough with somebody and he called me aside as a young lawyer and said just that: be hard on the problem, but be easy on the people. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Take responsibility, give others the credit. 

David Rutstein:

You get a lot more done that way. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Welcome all points of view, but then act. There are some problems only you can decide.

David Rutstein:

Well, that's right. I think, you know, when you're in a position of responsibility, the toughest problems come to you and you have to decide them. Otherwise, I mean, one of my great joys has been to bring other people along and bring them in, along in their careers. The women in the law department started off as secretaries, they became paralegals,one became an attorney, so you give them room to grow. You want to not act for them, but let them act for themselves. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Interact with your people on a personal level. 

David Rutstein:

Izzy Cohen taught me that just by osmosis. We would go into a store together and he would remember that there'd been a family illness in a particular staffer’s family, he asked about that. Because you underestimate, when you're in a position of authority, what it means to take an interest in their lives, apart from what they're doing for your company. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And that's one of the many things that I know made Izzy really iconic, his humanity, not just his grocery smarts.

David Rutstein:

Totally.

Mahan Tavakoli:

 Surround yourself with people smarter than you.

David Rutstein:

That's easy to do in my case. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

I would argue that. Listen.

David Rutstein:

Well, that relates back to working with people and hearing all points of view. We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Modesty and humility - don't have all the answers. 

David Rutstein:

That'll get you much further than if you think you're the smartest person in the room, which you're usually not.

Mahan Tavakoli:

Something that is very relevant at this time for a lot of leaders, Dave. Be calm in a crisis, never let them see you sweat. 

David Rutstein:

I had a wonderful colleague at Giant, a real estate lawyer who always stuck with me. We were going through a difficult problem and he stopped and he said to me, he said, you know, the harder the problem gets, the more calm you get. You know, it's the proverbial story of the duck. You're only seeing the top of the duck. You're not seeing the legs moving fast underneath. That I think builds a sense of confidence if you have a team. If you lose your, that sense of calmness, I think they will too. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

Transparency, open door and open book. 

David Rutstein:

That's a cliche, but you get a lot further that way. No secrets. 

Mahan Tavakoli:

And number 10, which I have definitely seen you exhibit all the 25 plus years I've known you: integrity above all. 

David Rutstein:

Well, that's the difference between a long distance runner and a sprinter. People observe what you do. I'll leave for others as to how they judge one's integrity, but central to my life.



Mahan Tavakoli:

So Dave, now obviously you've had an impactful career, a wonderful relationship with your family, and so many people that you have helped along the way. If you were to give advice to a younger Dave Rutstein and younger leaders that want to be as impactful as you have been with respect to their leadership, most specifically, what advice would you give them?

David Rutstein:

Well, I suppose I would repeat what we just talked about. The principles that I've tried to live up to. And to repeat, luck plays a great role. To be in the right place at the right time is just so important. I wouldn't have been able to do the community work that I did and Izzy Cohen wanted to be the one out there. I wouldn't have gotten to Giant without what I've described, I wouldn't have gotten to Washington. 

So, you know, you can point to these situations where a person, and it was part of the mentoring where people would get down and I would say, just keep an open mind, keep doing what you're doing, work hard at it and things will turn out right sometimes when they seem like they've gone in the opposite direction.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And Dave, in addition to these principles and your own brilliant insights, are there any leadership resources you find yourself recommending to leaders as they want to develop themselves? 

David Rutstein:

Well, most recently, David Rubenstein just wrote a book on leadership and that would be something, since he does what you're doing exactly today, interviewing people who have had roles that might teach someone something. And that book, I just read it most recently, it was just written, it would be something that I think you would get a broad spectrum of lessons from that book.

I think too, there's a book and it relates to leadership in a way, much of what I did over the years was either to negotiate or mediate. Did a lot of mediation because I liked to get people who were quarreling and they ended up not hugging, but not fighting. There's a book called “Getting to Yes”, which is written by the negotiation team at the Harvard Business School.

I've been able to apply that book in so many situations, to figure out what the objective is, and figure out what people's interests are as opposed to the positions that they might be espousing at a given time. You figure out what people's interests are, and you can usually get a soft landing for everybody in that way. So the book “Getting to Yes” is something I would probably want that younger person to read. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Dave Rutstein, you mentioned luck a few times. It was definitely my luck to have met you 25 plus years ago and have had the honor and privilege of getting to know you and learning from you. And I really appreciate the time you took to share some of your experience, background leadership insights with the Partnering Leadership community.

David Rutstein:

What meant most to me by this experience is that we've continued our deep friendship. I thank you. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Thank you, Dave.