Aspiriant's CEO: Give others the space to make mistakes

InvestmentNews sits down with Rob Francais in our monthly 'C-Suite' series on management insights

Apr 5, 2015 @ 12:01 am

By Liz Skinner

+ Zoom
(William Mercer McLeod)

Rob Francais learned about sales and customer service at the young age of seven, working swap meets in Orange County, Calif., with his father.

At 11, he was running his own stand and figuring out that mistakes aren't the worst things that can happen in business.

Today, at 49, the chief executive of Aspiriant, one of nation's largest registered investment advisers with $8 billion in assets, believes in giving his employees the space to learn from their mistakes, too.

Mr. Francais says he's no longer trying to prove he's a good leader; instead, he's focused on giving the firm's 132 employees a sense of purpose.

He's found that one great approach is letting clients speak for themselves.

As for his own greatest challenge — time management — Mr. Francais has found his way around this deficiency.

LS: Tell me about your leadership style.

RF: Three words stick out for me: Empowerment, partnership and diversity.

LS: What's important about diversity with regard to leadership?

RF: There are some people who play the game not to lose; they come from more of a 'preventing mistakes from happening' perspective. There are others that sort of 'play to win,' and for them making mistakes is not that big of a deal. Both are ways to win the game and neither is better, but balancing those two perspectives out is really key.

LS: How do you seek to empower through leadership?

RF: People have to have a sense of purpose, a clarity of the mission. They have to understand their role, and whatever the rules of the road are — we'll call that governance, culture and compensation models. All that has to align the interests of the people involved, whether that's customers and the organization or alignment of interests of people on the team.

LS: Is leadership something that can be taught, or is it an innate skill?

RF: If you can't authentically be the leader, then it's not going to work. Teaching someone a formula that isn't coming from somewhere inside of them isn't going to be effective. I don't think you can be an effective leader from a taught perspective, but I think you can pull leadership qualities out of people.

LS: What are the most important leadership lessons you've learned over the years?

RF: I had to learn diversity. I had to learn how to embrace other people's differences and incorporate that. It didn't come naturally to me.

When I was young and first had to lead a team of people, I looked for people who were more like me, and that wasn't as effective. I figured out that I work well with people who are not like me. You can't reach your full potential without diversity.

LS: What is the role of a leader in an organization?

RF: You have to be the cultural governor. You have to create that sense of purpose and be the spokesperson. You have to make sure roles are defined and make sure the interests of the participants are aligned. It's making sure those pieces of the puzzle work.

LS: Where do you fall short as a leader?

RF: It's probably active listening. If there are issues, I seek more education, more information. In reality, it's probably the emotional component that's required. I think that exercising the emotional components of it and recognizing the emotional aspects of somebody's needs may often be the answer.

LS: Tell me about someone who really influenced your life.

RF: I had a mentor at Deloitte & Touche, Al Frank, where I started my career and he had an extraordinary passion for client service that was an 'above and beyond the call of duty' kind of orientation. That influenced me, and my father-in-law influenced me.

LS: What did you learn from him?

RF: The integrity and discipline that he applied to his own profession. He was a litigator and I got to work closely with him and I learned a lot through that experience.

LS: Were you interested in business at an early age?

RF: Growing up, my dad used to work the swap meets on the weekends, so I started interacting with adults and selling T-shirts and socks at age seven. My father would get me to handle transactions at a very young age, and there's a lot of negotiations that go on at swap meets. He'd let me do the deal and then he'd ask me what I might have done differently. There's no question, part of my leadership is allowing others to make mistakes and giving them the space to learn from them, because it was a very effective way for me to learn.

LS: Are you doing anything with your children to give them an early business experience?

RF: My son is less interested in that, but my daughter Kayla, who is 11, is very interested. If we are going to have a party or a lot of people over, she sets up a stand to sell stuff. If it's a hot day, she'll set up a snow cone stand by the pool. She's already learned the importance of selling what your customers want, not what she wants. She likes borrowing the money, buying the stuff and selling the stuff, but she doesn't like repaying. Business would be really easy if you didn't have to repay your capital.

LS: What kind of culture are you trying to foster at Aspiriant?

RF: A really strong sense of purpose. That we make a difference for the people we touch. We are thoughtful and we are fun. Every Wednesday the firm eats lunch together. Now we're in seven cities so obviously we don't all eat together every Wednesday, but the idea is that in each office co-workers know each other. There's about half an hour to eat and chitchat and then we have a short agenda, and that is very purposeful and thoughtful. It's things like a client story, where someone describes a client and talks about a service issue or something they've overcome with them. The client story is to connect our people to what we do for a living. We don't just do taxes and portfolio management and pay bills, there's a purpose, a family on the other end.

LS: What else do you do to foster a purposeful culture?

RF: Every year the whole office shuts down for three-and-a-half days and everyone comes to one city. I do a state of the union, updating where we are in the evolution of our organization, and discuss progress since last year and what we're working on. We give out core value awards, and an actual client comes in to talk about their values and the role Aspiriant plays in their life.

LS: What's the value of this first-person client account?

RF: It's to connect all of our people, so they can see the result of the work we all do as a team. You are not just the receptionist, you are not just the portfolio administrator and you aren't just the COO, all the work we do collectively goes into making a difference for families that we serve.

One year we had a woman come in, a widow who had three teenage daughters when her husband died. She talked about how Aspiriant had played an essential role in helping them survive that period. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. It shows how we make a difference.

LS: How do you encourage fun as part of the culture there?

RF: Every time we get together at our annual event we do team building exercises, and these are always really great. Last year we were in Scottsdale and we all had to build a boat. You had to work as a team to design it and build it, and then there was a boat race. When people get in their boats and they don't work as designed and they're sinking in the pool, it was a lot of fun.

LS: What qualities do you look for in potential hires?

RF: I look for someone who is hungry, has street smarts, has overcome challenges in his or her life and might be a bit of an underdog. Hiring also is always about building a team. I look for people I can work with successfully. I look for people who have different qualities than I do.

My assistant, Jill Schroer, is probably the best example. I'm somebody who [finds it] very easy to be present and in the moment, and the moment can carry me away. So I know I need somebody who is much more oriented to time and space and how these things connect.

LS: Do you have a favorite question to ask in an interview?

RF: One of the questions I asked her was, if she had a noon flight the next morning and she was leaving for a week, what would the hours from 7:00 the night before until that flight look like? She had her bag packed before she went to bed, and was starting to think about it the day before. That shows she is someone who is very time conscious.

LS: What's your answer to that question?

RF: I'm last minute. I probably wouldn't know I had a trip until 9:00 or 10:00 that morning. I'm not looking for someone who can help me get to the plane with the most efficient route, I can handle that part. I know how to screw things up and clean it up, I'm good at that. I need someone to make it so I'm not cleaning up so much.

LS: Do you do anything unusual when it comes to time management?

RF: I'm challenged as it relates to time. Whatever I'm doing I'm all in, which means I'm not thinking about all the other stuff I have to do that day. My time management is all about delegating to Jill, and I give her the authority to tell me what to do. On the weekend, if I have a Monday morning flight, she will set up a reminder on my calendar to print out my boarding pass or things like that. She knows I need that.

LS: What advice would you give to a chief operating officer who hopes to become a chief executive officer?

RF: COOs tend to be the people who are more preventers of mistakes. There's a lot of bigger picture things you need to focus on when you're a leader. The very things that made them successful as a COO are the very things that could hold them back from their potential as the CEO.

LS: So they need to have a different focus?

RF: For somebody coming into the CEO role, there's a different set of requirements for success that maybe you haven't been focused on in your prior role. So when you ascend and become the CEO, generating purpose for people and driving culture and being the governor of that and focusing on alignment of interests between people and the more emotional aspects of leadership, there's definitely an expansion that occurs. The buck stops with you.

LS: What kind of feedback have you received over the years about the way you manage?

RF: I lead with passion, I lead with energy. People say they enjoy working under my leadership and that I lead with integrity. They know I'll protect them but give them the space to grow and learn themselves.

As the leader, I'm not afraid to have been wrong about something. I'm honest about my weaknesses and I'm OK with them. I want them to be OK with their areas for development and be in a position to exercise and celebrate their strengths.

LS: You spent over a decade with Deloitte & Touche. What did you learn about management there?

RF: That's where I cut my teeth. That's where I learned diversity and working with people who bring something different to the table. I also learned that it's about partnership. The more you are willing to give of yourself and share, the more you get back in return in terms of loyalty and hard work and everything else.

LS: How are you a different leader today than you were 20 years ago?

RF: I'm more confident. Back then it was more about proving something, and I think today it's more about being something. I think I needed to prove to myself that I was a good leader. Now there's less self-interest in it and more being for the community. It's a sense of responsibility more than it's something that I want to do for myself.

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