Decision Dialogues Episode 09 - Ruthanne Roth

On Episode 9 of Decision Dialogues, Jennifer Faherty and Mark Willoughby have a conversation with Ruthanne Roth, Founder and Managing Partner of Aster Talent Partners. Ruthanne discusses her decision to branch out as an entrepreneur after working in marketing and as a partner and managing director for various financial talent agencies earlier in her career. She cites her willingness to take on risk in the pursuit of success, but also how she has moderated her gut instincts with data and advice, as primary drivers of that success.

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Transcript

Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager, and Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Jennifer Faherty, who is Chief Client Experience Officer at Modera, and I will be chatting with Ruthanne Roth. Ruthanne is the Founder and Managing Partner of Aster Talent Partners, a recruiting firm focused on the specialized needs of the alternative investment industry. Thanks for joining us, welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Jennifer.

Welcome, Ruthanne especially—thank you for being here today as our guest. So as Mark mentioned, you are the founder of Aster Talent Partners, so why don’t we start there with you telling us about your firm and how you founded the company.

Great, thank you. Great to be here! I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you all. So as Mark mentioned, we are an executive search and talent advisory boutique. We’re a very niche player, in that we focus exclusively on working with bite size firms, and our clients range all the way from newly created fund managers all the way to the more established publicly traded private equity firms that are household names for us all.

So why that niche, in particular? How did you come up with that?

You know, I started recruiting when I was living in New York and worked for a firm that was specialized in alternative investment, and when I went off on my own, I really had the realization that, you know, I couldn’t be all things to all people, and decided to go with this strategy of just traveling in a pretty narrow lane and knowing it as best as I can. So it’s been somewhat fortuitous that there’s been so much growth, and so much growing needs for talent and much more strategic talent to support the funds that are growing and multiplying. So it’s been a lot of fun.

Was it always that niche? Or did it evolve over time?

It’s been this niche. You know, we do some portfolio company work when it’s something that’s adjacent to finance, but we’ve been kept extraordinarily busy working primarily with private equity, hedge funds and venture capital.

That’s great. And so you talked about having recruiting experience and then starting your own business, were there reservations about starting your business? Or can you kind of give us a little bit of a story about how that decision happened?

Yeah! As I had mentioned, I started recruiting when I lived in New York and moved home at the beginning of ‘09, which was sort of a—as we all probably try not to remember—was a crazy time in the financial services world. So I came back to California, and sort of had a little bit of a Frank Sinatra moment, I call it. You know, “I want to do it my way”—and decided to go off on my own and started my first recruiting company.

That was about 10+ years ago, and looking back in retrospect, I really was living in a bit of an “ignorance is bliss” world, you know. I didn’t realize how hard it would be in some ways, but on the positive, didn’t realize how positive it would be in others. So I wish I could say that I had a really well thought-out business plan, but it was really an opportune time for me both personally and professionally, and I’m delighted that I took that leap.

That’s great. And it’s true sometimes that ignorance is bliss, or that’s not quite the right phrase, but like, not really having that kind of experience before, or plan really, sometimes can have more ability to take risk, or kind of, you know, kind of jump in, right?

No, I think I’ve always been a very risk friendly person in my life. And as I get into the later stages of my career, and I look back and sort of marvel, if that’s the right word, at the chutzpah, I’d had in earlier stages in my career, and maybe would be much more calculated in those risks today. 

How long into your career before you decided to go out on your own?

Just shy of 10 years in the recruiting business.

Do you feel like you left at the right time to go out on your own? It sounds to me like maybe you left a little bit earlier than you had intended.

You know, it was a good time for me, personally, because going back to risk tolerance, which I think is a really important thing for any entrepreneur to sort of hold the mirror up and know what degree of risk a person is able to take: I was single, didn’t have children and was able to really—I was at a point in my life where I could take that risk. And, you know, I knew that my worst-case scenario would be moving home and having to sleep in the twin bed in my old bedroom at home, which probably wouldn’t have been an ideal thing for me at age, you know, at age 40. But I knew that my worst case scenario was going to be okay, and that I would land on my feet.

So one quick question before I hand it back to Jennifer: If I got it right, you combined deciding to found your own firm with moving back home—or cross country—both at roughly the same time?

At roughly the same time, exactly. I mean, it was a perfect, I guess, trifecta of events—just both with personal and professional. And also, you know, I was at a larger recruiting firm that was focused on financial services that was going through a period of distress as a lot of firms in the industry where, you know, it’s almost counterintuitive, but starting a company at a time of distress, when you have the opportunity to build the infrastructure, define who you are, learn, you know, prove to be valuable.

And as a business owner, you must have had to surround yourself, and still do, with good people, support. So in the beginning, and also now, who do you surround yourself with? How do you help make your decision making easier with the support networks that you have?

That’s something I definitely have had to work at, and it’s a muscle that I’ve developed. Because it’s hard to delegate, when you’re a business owner—and it’s hard also to admit that you don’t know the answers to everything. And it’s important to have somebody who’s going to challenge you. You know, my husband, who is in investment banking, and is very analytical, has been a tremendous sounding board for me. And the people who work with me today, we all bring very different skills to the table. In my old age, I think I’ve developed a pretty healthy self-awareness around my strengths as well, and more importantly, a healthy self-awareness around my weaknesses. I think the point you bring up around hiring, for your weaknesses, is absolutely critical.

Yeah, and you’re in the recruitment business. So in some ways, you’re kind of applying that to yourself, and kind of as you help other people do the same thing?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

There must be so many rewarding parts of your job, and I’d love to just hear about some of like, what you find most rewarding in terms of, you know, both as a founder, and managing partner, and then also in just your coaching capacity when you’re talking to people and recruiting them.

Yeah, I mean, working with people—and people make really big decisions based on the work that we do. I mean, 90 plus percent of the people who I place are professionals who are minding their own business until they get a phone call from me, and I take that very seriously. Because, you know, people are leaving jobs and making very impactful decisions on their both financial lives and their professional lives, because of opportunities that we present them. And when somebody gets their dream job, or you present something to them that they’ve never thought of before, and created an opportunity, I think that’s enormously rewarding.

I’ve also just in the 20+ years that I’ve been doing this, have found enormous satisfaction in what I’ve learned from people, and the friendships and people that I’ve met from doing this. It’s a relationship business, and you have to enjoy being a relationship person. And just being able to build relationships with people who are very different from me—I mean, I’ve recruited for different levels of positions throughout my career, and there have been times where I’m working with candidates who come from diametrically opposite backgrounds from mine, and being able to find a point of commonality with those people and, and learning from them—you know, you never want to be closed from who you can learn from—has just been tremendous.

Yeah, I mean, in some ways, you know, we have a lot in common in the sense of, as financial planners, we kind of come across our clients and decision making points of their lives and, you know, and the podcast is called Decision Dialogues. So, you’re really at the heart of that decision making process.

So I’m not sure if you can answer this, but do you see patterns in how people make decisions, or what some of those tradeoffs are that they’re looking at, as they’re making them?

Yeah, and it’s funny—every person, or every candidate that I place, does go through a very different process, because people are at different points in their lives, whether they’re the breadwinner for their family, whether they’re going through personal situations, whether they have financial distress, whether they’re able to make a financial risk, you know. Those are all very important decisions.

One of the soundbites that I find myself saying, which people say to me often, because you build such a trusting relationship—similar to what you do with your clients—and when somebody says to me, “Ruthanne, what do you think?” I often find myself saying, you know, “I can’t play God in your life.” And you know, people, I mean, just because I have a very high tolerance for risk, and I haven’t always been as analytical about my decision making as others are, you know, you have to honor and respect the process that each person has.

Let me turn the spotlight—I think this is a good segue—because what you said earlier about your own decision making, around setting up your own firm: We’ve spoken to a lot of folks on this podcast series, Ruthanne, and many of them, like you, have started in the corporate world—and have made a decision to be entrepreneurial at some point. It’s amazing to me to see the contrast in how our various guests have made their decision. Some have been very analytical, and have planned it out for two or three years. It sounds like we have a contrast in you, in that you welcome risk, and it almost sounds like you’re making your decision on your gut instincts, am I right? But can you expand on that?

Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. And earlier, when you had asked about the types of people I surround myself with, and I think of my husband, who’s in investment banking, and, you know, he thinks with his head, and I think with my, you know, with my stomach, right? Or with my gut. My gut, my intuition, and my instincts have served me well in my career, but I can’t say 100% of the time.

But you know, what’s important I think, is that—as we do this series, you know, for some people, for some of our listeners, they need to be planned out. But for the folks like you who operate on gut and feel, it can still work out fine.

It can still work out fine.

You can follow your own path, and for you, it seems that your gut, while not being precisely accurate, is accurate enough that you’ve had a tremendous amount of success.

Well, thank you. Yeah, it’s been fun. I feel fortunate that my brain works in a way that lends itself to the work that I do, and to the decisions that I’ve made

People like you who operate by gut and instincts—when you look back: Are there any parts of the decisions you’ve made that you’ve gone, “Oh, my Lord, why did I do it that way?” Is there any advice you can give to people like you?

Oh, my gosh, how much time do you have? I mean, well, I think being a gut thinker, and working off of intuition is a very powerful skill for certain people to have—I think relying on good data is also really important. And there have been times where I’ve had an idea for a practice or a product where I was sure everybody would buy it, and I probably should have taken the time to ask more people and to collect more data. And also just to crunch the numbers, you know, I, not having a head for numbers—thinking more analytically about like, what is the true profit? And baking in the opportunity cost of my time, the opportunity cost of the time of my team, and everything else.

So I do think things may have been—I mean, the result may have been the same, but the path from A to B would have been much more linear, had I taken more time to really study the data.

And there’s really a balance, right? Because I’ve seen it both ways—where people rely too heavily on the data. Especially, you know, that we’ve seen this a lot in marketing lately to where, you know, it’s become much more data-driven, which is great, but oftentimes they miss that element of the art of the marketing and things like that.

Yep. And recruiting has become like that, too. I often speak about recruiting, how it’s part art, part science, because there’s a lot of firms that we work with, they’re in financial services, and by definition, financial services is a very data-driven industry. And people are trying to apply objectivity to something that’s actually quite subjective.

Absolutely. So I love this phrase that you used about yourself. You said “risk friendly.”

Yeah. “My big MBA word.”

Yeah! How did that develop? Is that something you were taught? Or, you know, did you do so I always remember being that way?

Yeah, you know, my father, who was my hero, and somebody who I, you know, really modeled myself after, in a lot of ways really beat to his own drummer, and was fearless in a lot of ways. And I was always a very precocious child—not always, you know, to the best outcome, you know, maybe. But I was always a very precocious and confident child, you know, well, “Why wouldn’t I try to do this? Or why wouldn’t I work out? Or why wouldn’t this work out? Or, you know, why wouldn’t this person want to be friends with me?” And, you know, of course, there were a lot of hard lessons to learn through that in adolescence, but I think it’s always how I’ve been hardwired.

So he gave you a lot of advice, it seems. You’re influenced by him. What other kind of advice have you had along the way that has helped?

Yeah, one piece of advice that I wish actually I had learned earlier in my life is, you know, “Never confuse the need to tell, with the need for somebody to know.”

Yeah! 

So that that’s been a good piece of advice. “It’s better to be kind than to be right” has been another important piece of advice in you, you know, just in this job—you learn a lot from all the people that you interview and the things that have made them successful and how they approach interpersonal challenges or difficulties, because we talk a lot about that in the interviews that we do. And it’s sort of you know, and accumulation of all the little nuggets that you pick up over time.

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

So I’m going to pivot a bit. So I know we talked a lot about your business and the recruiting industry. I heard also that you’re somewhat bi-coastal in some ways. I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Once upon a time, I never thought I would miss the United lounge. But yes.

That’s right. I don’t know if that’s part of your business, or if that came out of something else?

Very, very much. So my recruiting routes are in New York, for the lion’s share of my career, the epicenter of the firms that we work with have been very New York-based. Interestingly, even pre-COVID, that is shifted a bit with California funds—a lot of capital flowing into California funds, both with venture and in private equity. And so I have found myself at least pre-COVID, a little bit less on airplanes than I otherwise would be, but usually it’s about every six to eight weeks.

And how has the industry and recruiting changed because of COVID?

You know, it’s been really interesting to watch. I think the biggest change is how people are viewing location. Because the workforce is a lot more mobile, people are making big life decisions and deciding to live in other places. We have funds that are relocating to other geographies. So there’s a lot of uncertainty around that.

And in some ways, you know, our jobs have become harder because where the talent used to be very concentrated on the coasts, today, clients are asking us to do searches where the candidate can be anywhere And sometimes there’s also a cost savings that’s associated with that. For example, if there’s a role that would cost just for the sake of easy math, $100,000 a year in California, is there an opportunity for that person to cost 100 minus x, if we hire that person in Arizona, or in a city that costs less than in California? So I think in some ways, our jobs are harder because the breadth in the candidate world, it’s just become a lot bigger.

Absolutely. So you’ve had to pivot your business and in some ways because of that?

Yep, we definitely have had to pivot. But there’s been some really nice silver linings to this business, you know, to COVID, as well. For example, we started a business around professional development, which I think clients—I mean, all organizations are looking for meaningful ways that they can create engagement, and also show their employees that their vested in their professional development, even though they’re not physically together. So, you know, with the expectation that trainings not be done physically, we can spread one training across California, New York, Texas, London. We’ve had trainings where we’ve had several hundred people engaged. So that’s been a really nice silver lining for us and a nice pivot for us coming from COVID.

There’s one part of your story that has me fascinated.

Uh oh! 

Well, there’s plenty in particular. So when you relocated back from New York, Ruthanee, and you set up your recruiting business, I think you mentioned that your epicenter was still in New York.

Yeah, I’m from the Bay Area, and I wanted to be closer to my family,

And you spent 10 years or so in New York City. And when you set up your recruiting firm back in California, the epicenter was still New York.

It was.

Talk to us about that, and whether you looked to network in the California area and build your business in the California area as well, that kind of has me intrigued.

Yeah. That came over time. I mean, having relationships and ties and trust in New York, even though I wasn’t physically there, that’s not something I would have been able to do earlier in my career. I think I was at a point where I had some really strong and meaningful relationships, and and some good reps—like enough reps to point to that—the fact that I was physically not there all the time wasn’t as much of a roadblock as maybe one would think. I also had a great team in New York.

And then in terms of California, the market in California has always been a little bit different. It hadn’t been as exciting and as busy, although I think that’s changed quite a bit over the past few years. Actually, 2018, I think I did—for the first time I did more revenue in California than I did in New York.

So you paid your dues in your corporate life building reputations in New York—you paid your dues.

I paid my dues.

So your clients in New York after you moved to California, didn’t care that you’re in California.

Most of them did not.

You mentioned you had a good team in New York. Did you start hiring out of the gate?

I did. Very quickly. I mean, we were fortunate that we got busy very quickly, and I was also fortunate that there were a lot of people who I had worked with in previous iterations in my career, who were open to a phone call from me to work together again.

Wow. Interesting. So really, New York drove your business early on, and gave you enough time to start getting a foothold in the Bay Area.

Exactly. Exactly.

And what kind of advice would you give someone starting off in a new business, whether it’s in this industry or another?

I have a few. I mean, the first thing I would say is, I’m the person who everybody calls when they’re thinking about these things, and I guess my sort of—I always tell people, “I’m the person you want to call when you need that final kick off the cliff, to do it, and to say, you know, it’s gonna be okay.” Because it’s really, it’s a hard decision to make, and it’s scary, and I fully recognize that not everybody has the same risk tolerance, and the same cushion that I had, when I started my business.

So my first piece of advice is, do it. Do it. And there’s always going to be an element of closing your eyes and plugging your nose and jumping in. And, you know, if you’re waiting to have all the answers before you start your business, you’ll never do it.

And the other thing I tell people is like, “What you think—today, how you envision things, and how it’s going to be in a year from now, I promise you will be different.” I cannot remember a time in my life ever, where I’ve haven’t said, “If a year ago today, you would have told me that I’d be doing X, Y and Z, I would have never believed it.” I mean—and that’s the great thing about life. You know, it’s unpredictable, it’s fun, it’s exciting. You know, you learn from your mistakes. 

The other piece of advice I would give is that it’s really important to take care of yourself in all of this. And when you’re a business owner and people quit jobs, and they join you and you feel, you know, a really deep sense of responsibility. But I take a page from one of my favorite podcasts I listen to by Scott Galloway and he always says, you know, “You got to put your own oxygen mask on first.”

My mother-in-law used to say that, Ruthanne.

There was a nugget in there though—I have to call you out because there was a nugget in there. So you’re risk friendly, you operate on your instincts, and you’re good. But I heard you say that you had a financial buffer—you were comfortable with a financial buffer before you went entrepreneurial. So it sounded like you felt comfortable from a financial perspective, taking a flyer or launching your own business.

Yeah, at that time in my life, my financial burden was different than it is today. I was single, I didn’t own property, and as long as I had enough money to pay rent, and, you know, go out to dinner from time to time with my friends, I was happy.

So I had pretty simple needs, I guess I would say, relative to my needs today. I’m at a different point in my career and I’m thinking about, you know, maybe there will be a time when I work less, and I’m generating less income, and I think my tolerance for risk today—ironically, even though I have a much I have a significantly larger buffer than I did then—but my tolerance for risk would probably be different today.

Interesting.

Because I would not want to jeopardize my ability—you know—my retirement.

Understood.

You know, I would say just hearing you in the last half hour, I think, probably one of the attributes of your success has been that you also know yourself very well. It sounds like you knew—you’re very self aware in terms of where you could take risk where you couldn’t, what you’re good at, what your strengths are, and, and what maybe where you might want to rely on somebody else. So I think that also is something that we commend you for and we’re really happy that you’ve had the success that you have.

Thank you.

And we’d love to end with the last question: What was the last non financial related decision you had to make today?

You know, what podcast I should listen to. I love podcasts, I love audiobooks. You know, I devour them voraciously.

Do you have a favorite besides the Scott Galloway one?

I do —another one that has Scott Galloway—Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. A few books that I’ve listened to recently: Atomic Habits. I would recommend that to everybody. I am a full groupie of Chris Voss and everything he’s written; Never Split the Difference, on negotiation.

Those are great resources. Thank you so much.

Yeah!

Thanks very much to Jennifer Faherty and to Ruthanne for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate your time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.

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About Ruthanne

Portrait of Ruthanne Roth

Ruthanne Roth is the founder and Managing Partner of Aster Talent Partners. Before founding Aster Talent she spent a number of years in recruitment and marketing. Since 2002, Ruthanne has made several hundred placements with multiple top-tier financial firms.

In recent years, Ruthanne has spent a great deal of her time placing Human Capital/Talent professionals including Heads of Human Capital, Talent Partners and other specialized roles helping funds to meet some of the most complex challenges on the people front. Ruthanne is Hogan certified, and regularly leverages Hogan assessment tools to guide and advise clients and candidates alike.

Before becoming a talent search specialist, Ruthanne worked in international and technology marketing at Oracle, Volera (a Novell subsidiary) and later the Commercial Branch of the French Embassy where she helped French technology companies to establish a presence in the USA. She is a fluent French speaker.

Ruthanne divides her time between the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City, nurturing relationships on both coasts. She earned her MBA from The University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, and her BA in International Relations from The University of California, Santa Barbara.

Disclosure

Modera is an SEC registered investment adviser which does not imply any level of skill or training. For additional information see our Form ADV available at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov which contains a full description of our business, operations and service offerings including fees. Statements made in the podcast are not to be construed as personalized investment or financial planning advice, may not be suitable for everyone and should not be considered a solicitation to engage in any particular investment or planning strategy. Statements made are subject to change without notice.