In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Rynthia Rost, former GEICO Vice-President for Public Affairs, and the current executive advisor to IBM International Foundation. Rynthia Rost talks about the importance of finding your voice and using it to impact positive change.
● How Adler’s management was changed because of young Rynthia Rost’s confidence to speak up.
● The importance of finding your voice and speaking up to advance progress in communities and organizations.
● Rynthia Rost on representing women and people of color in leadership.
● How leaders can find their voice and why they should take more risks.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Anthony (Tony) Williams, former Mayor of Washington DC
Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia
Robert M. Pirsig’s Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Connect with Rynthia Rost:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming. Rynthia Rost to the conversation she currently serves as executive advisor to IBM international foundation and spent most of her career at Geico where eventually she was Geico's vice president of public affairs, and served on the board of the insurance company and the Geico philanthropic foundation.
Rynthia has been a person that has contributed to positive change where ever she's been from when she was 14 on through her experience at Geico, and now at IBM, including the many regional organizations she's been involved with, whether it's the Washington board of trade, the economic club in DC, or to federal city council.
She is the kind of leader that looks for opportunities for change and takes action to make it better for everyone else. I love the conversation with her and celebrating leaders like Rynthia.
Keep your feedback coming. I love hearing from you too - Mahan at Mahan Tavakoli.com. There's also a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. Don't forget to follow and or subscribe depending on your platform of choice, that way you will be first to be notified of these podcasts episodes and share them with at least one other person. Let's get more people to become true partner leaders.
Now, here is my conversation with Rynthia Rost.
Rynthia Rost. Welcome to partnering leadership podcast. I am really excited to have you with me today.
Thank you, Mahan. It's great to be with you.
You have had such an impactful journey every interaction I've had with you, you've had that dynamite smile and energy and enthusiasm of leadership. So first things first, whereabouts did you grow up Rynthia and how did your upbringing impact the kind of leader and person you became?
Ah, good question. So I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, the middle child, five kids. I went to the Catholic schools in Savannah, and then right before I left Savannah to go to college, I went to Windsor Forest High School. Great place to grow up, but you know, truthfully, it was the segregate south, born in 55, I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, when Bobby was shot. I remember things that I'm old enough to tell you, I remember things about for whites only, and for colored only, and that kind of thing.
So I grew up in that environment and didn't know that I shouldn't be the person that I have become. And so I'm excited to tell you about that particular journey.
Rynthia, you have a spark in you that you seem to even have back in your teenage years. When you were 14, you put a suggestion in a box at Adler's
Yeah, Adler's was an Oglethorpe Mall. You know, anybody who knows Savannah knows that at some point in time, downtown Savannah suffered like a lot of other you know, small towns, and everybody drove out and moved out to the big mall, Oglethorpe Mall to do their shopping.
And as a 14 year old, who was at that point, attending a school called Windsor Forest and, you know, having been bused to Windsor Forest formerly from Beach Junior High School, I decided that I needed an after-school job. And I went into Adler's, I was shopping with my mother, and it was also during the era of you know, civil rights. And I said something to my mom. I said, "mom, there aren't any black people behind the cash register was here." And she said, "Oh, well, You know, there's a suggestion box over there, go and say something."
My mother has always been my instigator. She's a school teacher, you know, and you know, she's a child, she wasn't a child. She was an adult in the civil rights era. And so I, I did, I went over and I put down. "I'm buying shoes in your store and other things, and I don't see anybody who looks like me, behind the cash register." And I put it in the suggestion box. And lo and behold, Mr. Adler himself, who was an Adler department store, he sends me a note and says, "well, if you can pass the pen and paper tests, you can work for us." I was 14 and you know, there were still child labor laws. So I went in. I took the test. The pen and paper test is a math test, you know, and you add and subtract, uh, showing you have the ability to do computation, so I did, I passed and he sends me a note and he says, "well, you know, if you can get a social security card, (because back then you didn't get a social security card earlier on), you know, you can come and work for me." I got the social security card and I went to work for him and worked for Adler's department store.
So yeah. 14 year old self was a bit of a rebel at my mother's instigation, I would say.
Rynthia, It also takes a lot of confidence for you to follow through on what your mother said and persist until you got that job at Adler's.
That's true. That's true. My mother instigated a lot of things too. I also when, so I, like I said, I was at Beach Junior High, and this was the era of you're going to have to be bused to integrate schools.
It was a horrific time and I was going to be a cheerleader at Beach High School because I was going from the, I think it was the seventh to the eighth grade or eighth to the ninth grade. And I'd already tried out and all of the blacks in our neighborhood in Sun Valley, Savannah, Georgia, we're going to be bused to Windsor Forest High School, and I was gonna lose my place and the cheering squad, me and my best friend Kathleen Grant.
And so we went to Windsor Forest the week before the football team was supposed to take the field. They still didn't have a black cheerleader. And I said to my brothers who were playing on the team, I said, well, you know, They want you guys, but they don't want us. And I had already tried out, why don't they just let me cheer and my brother says well? What do you want me to do? And I said, I don't want you to play unless they let the cheer. So they scheduled a tryout for me, and Kathleen Grant and I, we became members of the cheerleading squad.
So this whole thread of things about protest, and I think everybody in my generation was imbued with this notion that you should speak up and you should speak your truth. And if you don't ask for something, you won't get it. And if it's fair, you should ask. For equity. And for fairness. I didn't know that I probably shouldn't have done those things in the early seventies, late sixties, but I did.
Rynthia, leaders like you having spoken up and your teenage years, and then later on in organizations are the reason we've had the advancement we've had so far.
So I think that's great advice to everyone to hear that we do need to speak up in order to cause there to be progress in our communities and in organizations.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I believe you have to find your voice and then you have to listen. You really do have to know what you're talking about before you just spout off something. I don't believe that just being vocal and being agitated and coming from a place of just anger and contrariness is the point. I think the point is always to look at something and say, what can I really offer here? That will be, you know, that will be positive and productive for everybody involved.
Because if I couldn't pass the pen and paper tests, then, you know, I couldn't pass it. But at least having the opportunity was the thing to do. And if I couldn't do the flips and precision cheers, that I should be the cheerleader. But if I could do those things, if you give me an opportunity and a chance to do those things, you know, then, then do that, but finding your voice and asking for the opportunity, I think that's really important.
So then was going to law school, a natural progression of all of this for you.
Like I said, I was one of five kids. I had two older brothers and two younger sisters and probably about that, my, my grandfather, Mr. Glover was an old time barrister who basically taught all the young white clerks at Bowen and Bowen law firm in Savannah, Georgia, where the courthouse door was.
He had the relationship with all the judges. He worked for this guy named Sonny Seiler. That name, it should be infamous. I mean, he, he has this bulldog, you know, Georgia bulldog and he's a character in this movie called "Midnight in the garden of good and evil," which is a true story.
But my grandfather said to me that, you know, me and my brothers at the time, there was the three of us that one of us was going to come back and work with Bowen and Bowen law firm and that we should go to law school. So he told me I should go to law school. So that's why I went to law school. It was because of my grandfather, Mr. Glover. Yeah.
And you had a wonderful career in law, Montgomery County state's attorney then worked at the federal equal opportunity commission and eventually were assistant general counsel at NPR National Public Radio.
Yeah, that was my favorite job. I thought it was going to be a star.
Yeah. I understand. When you were there while you were assistant general counsel, you really wanted to become a reporter more than anything else.
Yes. Yes. I thought, you know, I mean, everybody comes into NPR, you know sideways, you just want your one opportunity, and when somebody is out sick and then they said, you know, we need somebody to read the news. I thought that was going to happen to me because I spent my life, you know, when I was an appellate law clerk to David Mason and the court of special fields of Maryland, I used to get on the highway drive from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland, where his offices were, and I would listen to NPR and it was like, Oh my goodness. You know, my dream is to be a reporter on National Public Radio `cause I wanna, I wanna say what Vertamae Grosvenor says when she talks about, you know, being a food anthropologist, you know, coming from, from the low country and talking gala, you know, I was like, "Oohh, I want to do that." You know. NPR was just so great.
And then when I got hired to work for NPR to work for Bill Buzenberg and then Adam Clayton Powell III, I was like, Oh my goodness, it's gonna happen. It's gonna happen.
And at that point in time, what happened for me was Nina Totenberg called me up and said, I understand, you know, Clarence Thomas. And I said, well, yeah, he's like a third cousin, second remove, you know, I mean, we're all related in Savannah. And she says, well, you know, he's going to be a Supreme court justice. I said, "Clarence? Okay" and then she wanted to know what I thought of Clarence, She said that, she said, I'm coming by your office and I'm going to interview you, or maybe you can come down to the studio. And so I thought, Oh my God, this is my chance. You know? So she came up, she interviewed me, [but] she didn't use any of it, I guess I didn't say all the right long things about Clarence. That's all I got to say about that. You know, so anyway, I was like, yeah, yeah. Um, he's sort of a cousin. I went to his swearing in, I was, you know, at the Capitol and pushing, she's like anything that I said.
you didn't end up becoming a reporter after all.
No, I had a great run. Um, at some point in time, Delano Lewis became the CEO of national public radio, and he was on the board of directors of Geico. And he was on the social responsibility committee of Geico at the time, which was, it wasn't a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway at the time, it was really, you know, it was an ESOP and employee stock option plan program, and they had had some issues and he had recommended me because of the work that I was doing at national public radio and getting us our new home.
So I did a lot of sole source agreements, we had to get bonds for the building, and we had to do first agreements and that kind of thing. And I had to find programs, you know, for which we were doing outreach to the community in order to show the district of Columbia are bonafides, with respect to the bonds.
And so I spent a lot of time doing that as a reward, you know, introduced me to my boss, Geico and said, you really need Rynthia Rost in your life.
And I understand Rynthia that your first week there, you had a test that could have ended your career at Geico, but it did it.
Yes. So at the time that I went to Geico, 1994, I believe the district was in receivership. And I know for a fact that Anthony Williams was the head of the district, that was under a control board and he was trying to find the money for the district of Columbia.
We had an issue related to SG. It's a very arcane kind of thing, but in a nutshell, it's when people don't collect their cheques, we hold them and the States then buy for those checks because they have been abandoned by their rightful owners. And Anthony knew that there was some escheat money somewhere and he had sent a request for that, and they'd also, the insurance commissioner had also sent a bunch of. Questions about other things.
And so the CEO who had hired me along with the general counsel and the legislative council, were looking at these questions and looking at these requests, and here I am five days into the job, but I only report to one person and he's, they're asking, they're saying, well, we don't have to do this and we don't have to do that, and you know, why do we have to answer these questions? And I didn't know any better. I said, "well, because you've been requested these questions by a viable city government and by the insurance commissioner, we have to answer the questions even if the answer is, 'We're not going to answer your questions', but if they've got 10 questions there, the lawyer in me came out, then you at least have to make a show to answer those questions."
And my two compatriots looked at me like "what?". And the CEO looked at me and said, okay, well let's answer the questions and I was like, "Oh," cause he could have fired me right then and there. And it was interesting. From that moment on, I looked at him and I thought to myself, he wants a straight shooter. He doesn't want the emperor who has no clothes on. He wants someone to tell him straight up, what should we do? What should we not do? and I might not take your advice, but I at least want somebody in the room to not look to me and say, I'm gonna just going to say what you want to hear. I'm going to have a contrary opinion and I'm going to have a rationale behind it. And that became who I was within that organization.
Rynthia, I know that's one of your strengths. And one of the things that I talk about with respect to great leaders is that they actually give way and opportunity to people like you to speak up, to push back that makes the entire team and organization better. I know you had many chances to continue speaking up what you thought was the right thing to do at Geico at the most senior levels, including with strategic planning.
And sometimes it was really touch and go for me. I remember being in a business planning meeting and, you know, we're taught to think like owners, it's one of the kernels of truth and inspiration from this magnificent guy that I worked for, my mentor, my, the CEO of Geico. And, and so it was like, think like an owner, speak like an owner, find your voice, say what you need to say.
And I'm defending my budget. I'm defending my organization in my public affairs organization, which I'm growing throughout the United States as Geico grows from the number nine to the number two property casualty company in America. And you know, maybe three, four, five years ago when I'm still about 20 years into my career, I get somebody who pushed back on me. And who says that I'm not showing the right amount of interest and earnestness with respect to where we are and what we're doing. And I lit into this person, I went off. This was this storied, well connected, long-term chief officer of the organization. And he said these things and I was, and I just, I went off. I said, "you really don't know what you're talking about". And here's what. I have been doing, and here's what has been accomplished. And I kept going and finally, you know, the chief operating officers said to me, "Rynthia, Rynthia, you don't want to go there". Cause I think I was about to call him something. And I looked at him and he didn't crack a smile and I didn’t crack a smile.
But it's part of my personality. I think as part of my shtick, they were like, and so I said to the person, I'm really sorry. You know, I was just, it was a moment. And he said, "now I know what a battered wife feels like" and I was like, "Oh my goodness. That was not my intent". So I left the room, I went upstairs and I saw the chief officer as I was getting off the elevator and I said, "I am really, you know, I don't, I lost it." He's like "no no no, you did exactly what you were supposed to do." And it was an epiphany for me because what it was was I'm a leader. I'm a part of senior management. I have an obligation and a responsibility to think like an owner to speak like an owner, to have a position, to be passionate about it, to be civil.
But in those rooms, when you're talking about your company and you're talking about the viability of your company and the profitability of your company, if you don't feel passionate about it, then you shouldn't be in the room. And it's one of the things I've learned from the 26 years that I was there being in the room when we were talking about this business that was so beloved by all of the senior managers in that company, that this is our company and we want to be profitable, but we also want to give the best service to our clientele and we want to grow. And we want our shareholders to think of us as the best company. And it was, it was an education born of 20 some odd years of being in the room, talking about what's most important for this entity that so many people depend upon.
And, and I mean, the clients, the clients who want an affordable peace of mind by having insurance, and I mean employees who depend on the company not to try crazy things, but to do slow as she go dignified and reasonable growth of the company. And it's an amazing company still to this day. I love Geico. I really do.
I learned so much. I mean, I wasn't supposed to be a corporate executive. I had sued corporate executives from the very beginning of my legal career. I mean, I was a legal services attorney and then I was an EOC attorney. I was suing companies cause I thought they were like the evil empire.
And then I went inside this extraordinary organization working for some extraordinary people. And I said, "I like this. I like this better than filing a class action lawsuit and, working on consent decrees and trying to rectify, um, so-called rights or wrongs." when in fact, what you really are trying to do is to show that you have capacity and you have ability and you just need that opportunity to show it.
And so I felt like I had the weight of people of color and women on my back. And I had to show up for them, I had to show up for me, but I also had to show up for them and, and I had to show up for people who said, well, I don't, you know, this is such an experiment.
26 years ago, to have an African-American woman walk into your organization and immediately put her in a position of vice president and then have her embody what you know, is supposed to be, this is what corporate behavior looks like. This is what a woman in corporate America sounds like. These are her, her priorities. These are her goals. These are the sacrifices that she has made, will make. And I think that's pretty much what I wanted to do. I wanted to walk that walk for, for everybody and I think I did.
You did Rynthia from the 14 year old that made Adler's better by speaking up to then the business executive that was given the opportunity at Geico, but also spoke up to advance women, advance people of color and opportunities, and to help Geico serve its customers better.
So you spoke up all throughout and I know in your career with Geico, you made a significant difference whether it's with respect to female representation and or people of color as Geico grew over the years.
Yeah, I did. And I also, I took that out. So the strength that they gave me. Internally. I took externally, I went to the board of trade for instance, and I said, "you need to have some women on your board and the executives." well they said "Okay." I did that, The economic club, Mary Brady will tell you, you know, I wasn't one of the first few women after they admitted women to be at the economic club and you know, it just kept going from there, it was like, I would go in and I'd say, I think you need better representation. I'm here, I raised my hand. And they took me up on it.
It wasn't just Geico and it wasn't just national public radio or legal services corporation, or Adler's, it's been everybody. I found my voice. And again, I have to give that to my grandfather, Mr. Glover was an amazing man. And my mother, I have to say, you know, as a school teacher who always sort of pushed me, forced me to use my voice and unused my power, which was, I guess an intellectual power and, and a curiosity and a sense of equity that she taught me, I guess, that has stood me in good stead.
So now it's onward and upwards, and how do I give that back? How do I pay that forward? And how do I reach back continuously to make sure that, that I'm doing that for others?
So you obviously had tremendous impact both, as you said on Geico, but also specifically using the platform that Geico provided you to making changes in organizations regionally and beyond.
Eventually you decided to retire from Geico, but retirement is not in Rynthia's future, because right from there, you decided to jump into the executive opportunity with IBM.
Yeah. So IBM. I think everybody, at some point in their life wanted to be at big blue. I remember key punchers. Back in the day, it was like, how do you do this? You know, it was a mystery to me, the uniforms, they used to talk about how to dress for success inside big blue.
And when I told the chief global corporate social responsibility officer at IBM, that I was retiring, he said, "Oh, wait a bit. I have this deal for you." And he told me about P-TECH.
And it's about new collar jobs and it's about education policy, and it's about taking public education, ninth grade kids through 14, two years of community college with an associate degree, getting a technical education in AI or blockchain or cybersecurity or coding, you know, something that is pertinent to us IBM, and to our industry partners, you know, whoever they may be, who, whoever we serve, like at Geico, or children's hospital or Verizon.
And so he was explaining to me how the educational system of today isn't equipping or the high school education, isn't accepting kids to leave high school and be competitive. And we've got all these entry-level jobs. We're doing it internationally, but we're not doing as well in the United States. And I was like, "Oh, wait a minute. So our kids. In the United States, aren't getting opportunities that young people internationally are getting." He said, "Oh yeah, we're like at two or 300 countries." And I was like, "and you're not in the United States." And he says, "no. I mean, we've got maybe a hundred and" I say, "Oh, wait a minute. I got some kids in Anacostia, at Wilson. You guys need to come to UDC because they've got these amazing programs." And so he roped me in, this is just a wrong on his part. By feeding my background as a boys and girls clubs kid, and then a member of the board of the boys and girls clubs as a girl scout from Savannah, Georgia, a place where it was originated to a person who was on the board of the local girl Scouts to all of the youth organizations that, I like my soul and which are the soul of my associates when I was at Geico, I would say, we got to do girl Scouts. You got to show girls how to take a car apart and put it back together, top off fluids and change tires. And they were like, yeah, you know.
So here was this other challenge and he caught me at a weak moment and I went back in I'm back in now I have a year's contract, we'll see what we can do. The person who hired me has since moved on, but you know, I'm working with Justin Dixon now to determine what's the viability, how do you replicate this, and how does it become a part of the firmament of public high schools? Because it's gotta be something that the high schools take on and that the community colleges take on, especially when you think about having an education that doesn't cost, but provides a pipeline to a good paying entry-level job. And that is, you know, technologically imbue. So that's, that's what I'm doing now. And I really enjoy it. I'm working with a great team of people.
And knowing you, I have no doubt. You will have an impact both with this and the many future iterations of your life. You're not just going to be a chicken farmer in Virginia. Rhynthia.
Yeah. I have a farm. I have a 25 acre farm with my daughter in Purcellville, Virginia. And, we put in, we put in a Fort and a zip line. And, uh, chicken palace. I mean, this is the chicken palace. We have two chickens, basically one they Foxy and the other name, Brown, Foxy Brown, and they provide enough eggs for us to live off
We've got our own couple of wells and you know, there's lots of pasture and we get to see the horses come by for hunt country, but used to have some cows up at the top of the ridge and neighbors all around have horses and, and it's an idyllic place. It's a great place to one day, settle down and live.
Right now I'm in New York city in Manhattan at 160 central park West. Uh, I love to get back to the farm at some point and, and really make a go of it again. I'm a country girl at heart.
Now, Rynthia, If you were to look back and give advice to the younger leader that you were, what advice would you give to young Rynthia?
Ooh, that's a good question. The advice that I would give would be to take more risks. I was risk adverse, I think initially and I had to be prodded on. And there were times when something came up, and I took the lesser of two evils with respect to that particular thing. This is a little thing, but it's a big thing.
When I got out of Fisk University and I had the choice to go to Harvard University as a waitlist and Indiana University for two year program, that they were going to pay the freight of. I decided to go to Indiana University.
Well, I met my husband and that's all good. But I really wanted to go to Harvard and I could've waited out and I could've worked for that year as a buyer for Bloomingdale's in New York city, but I was afraid to come to New York city, I was afraid I couldn't take that risk. I'm I'm from Georgia. Savannah Georgia. So if I had done that, maybe I would have been a buyer for Bloomingdale's and I would be CEO of Bloomingdale's. I love clothes. You know.
The clothes part of it would be nice, but I have to tell you, retail is not a good place to be in right now.
No, no, but everybody always needs clothes. And when Anna Wintour is my favorite person on the planet, so instead of me realizing my dreams of retail craziness, I bore a daughter who became a model and who moved to New York and the rest is history. So I guess I live vicariously through her.
That is fantastic. Now, Rynthia, are there any, when people reach out to you books or resources or anything on leadership that you typically find yourself recommending to people?
Yeah, I remember there was something that I read early on. It was about a message to Garcia. I don't know if you've ever heard of that, but I think it's the most important thing that you can think about for yourself.
It's like when somebody asks you to do something, or when you have a task to perform, do you have the independent wherewithal to figure out how to accomplish it? And I think it's a story of Teddy Roosevelt and he has this guy come to him and he says to him, I need you to get this message to Garcia.
And he didn't tell him how to, who Garcia is, or even how to get to him. And he gets the message to Garcia. He has to go through borders, he has to go through tribal warfare, he has to get down to Mexico and he has to say, "the rough riders are on the way." And that was the message, but there was no how and where and why, and any of that. It was the task at hand. Are you that person? So find that story. I think I read it in, I was a little kid when I read this story and it meant a lot to me. Then the other thing that I read, is from a guy named Pirsig, and it's the art of motorcycle maintenance Zen in the art of motorcycle maintenance.
And the reason it's important is because, right now we are being eaten away by the technology. That's all around us. And it's a story about this guy and his son who is slowly going crazy. He has some type of developmental disability. And so he goes on a long ride motorcycle ride, and during that ride, he is showing how humanity is being overcome by the machines and then our inability to, to fix those machines and our disconnect from those things that, that give us purpose, and what can any of us fix anymore?
I mean, can you fix your radio? You used to be able to fix your radio. I mean, used to be able to fix your TV, even if it was just putting something on an antenna, or your car, when I first got to Geico, I had to go through 80 school and learn how to take a car apart and put it back together. I had to learn auto nomenclature because I had to say, I knew how to adjust the car.
What kind of labor went into fixing that bumper or taking the dent out of that bumper, or could you get OEM -original equipment manufacturer- parts I mean. And I went back to that story is like, yes, we've lost it and we keep losing it. So coming back around again to what I'm doing now, and an appreciation of Pirsig's story about where in fact are we as human beings, we're not that far away from machines, but do we understand and appreciate how close we are and how we need to do the math and the trigonometry and the coding and understand these devices that are part of our hips, you know, and then a part of our brains. And I really recommend people to read. Zen in the art of motorcycle maintenance.
What beautiful advice, both in understanding new technology, but also connecting with our humanity, Rynthia. You have shown leadership, in part because of your grandfather, in part because of your mother's urging, in part
It is part of who you are, from age 14, putting that comment in a common box and changing the store, to eventually helping change both an organization that grew to become the Geico that it is today, but also the entire community. Every organization you've chosen to get involved with, you have made it more diverse, you have added value to it.
And now working on helping youth connect with this technology and have opportunities. That is your leadership of humanity and empathy. I really admire and appreciate that Rynthia.
Rynthia Rost: Thank you. Thanks for letting me share it.