As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Rutherford, CEO of Nuun.
With over 25 years of marketing and management experience, Kevin has earned a reputation for growing challenger brands into market leaders. At Nuun, he is affectionately referred to as the “Chief Eternal Optimist” for his unwavering enthusiasm in unlocking the full potential of both opportunities and individuals. Kevin is committed to the principles of servant leadership and believes that a thriving company culture is crucial to the success of any business. Under his guidance, Nuun has been named a top company to work for by Outside Magazine four years in a row.
Combining his years of experience at SC Johnson, Miller Brewing Company, Kashi Company, and Caldrea with a decidedly forward-thinking outlook, Kevin Rutherford knows that effective leadership requires recognizing the possibilities which exist within your industry, your team, and yourself.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Canada and have been a passionate athlete since childhood — from playing ice hockey throughout my childhood and young adult life, to now competing in Triathlon and Ironman races. The discipline and lessons you learn from sports and competition are something I have continuously applied to my work and leadership style at each and every level.
My career has primarily been focused on Consumer Packaged Goods. I started out at Loblaws, then moved on to SC Johnson Canada from 97 to 2001. In the later part of 2001, I came to the US to join SC Johnson Global through 2007, then onto Miller through 2010. It was there that I led the MGD Brand, which was a great experience. After my time with Miller, I moved on to a marketing director role at Kashi. That role really challenged me to think bigger, beyond just the brand’s product offering. It was a pivotal time in my career where the skies opened, and I was able to understand the purpose behind a brand.
My next career move as CEO for the Caldrea Company was one of the most prominent, as it gave me the opportunity to co-create the brand’s “why,” and really develop the company’s character, as well as the behaviors the team needed to enable our purpose. Another layer of learning was found through this role: I was not only understanding the importance of driving the brand purpose, but I also started to merge my professional and personal life.
That is what got me to Nuun nearly eight years ago. I am extremely passionate about performance, fitness and wellness and I feel as though Nuun exists at the intersection of that. I have had the opportunity to lead a team and drive a brand’s mission that I am truly 100% behind.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Early on at Nuun, I ran one of the Nike Women’s Half Marathon races with some of my team and had a GoPro strapped to my chest. I was filming and interviewing people throughout the race. While running, I noticed spectators leaning on the fence alongside the road, being super quiet and not providing the runners any type of cheer or motivation. So much to my surprise, I started jumping up and down, yelling at the bystanders, “C’mon, give these runners a cheer!” As I continued on, I was able to get everyone jumping up and down, screaming for these women, even as we approached the finish line.
This story really stuck out to me because in that moment I noticed what a little bit of energy can do to spark a reaction, and that it is so important to not always take yourself too seriously.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a mistake, rather an experience that had a few overarching lessons (and a memory to last a lifetime!). When I first started at Nuun, one of the first trade shows I attended with a larger team was EXPO West. We had rented an Airbnb and, given the close proximity to Disneyland, the house had a Disney-themed room. The story goes that I ultimately wound up in the themed room and, to make things even better, the sleeping scenario was a Cinderella bunk bed.
The team couldn’t believe it, especially given the bed was shorter in length than I was. My ‘mistake’ here was letting people take photos of me, given there are GIFs that still live on to this day! However, there is a lesson I took away from that experience and that was to “lead from the front.” A company’s tone, culture and values can truly be established by a leader. I was given the opportunity to not take myself too seriously in that moment as the CEO and distinguish a certain culture to kickstart my role.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would have to say my mom. She raised my sister and I as a single parent and throughout my childhood growing up in Canada, she always did whatever she had to do to support us. Her drive and motivation gave me the confidence I needed to take chances that I may not have otherwise. Once I reached a certain age, I began to recognize the importance of someone always having your back, because I was lucky enough to have always had someone in my corner — whether it was my mom, friends, colleagues or mentors. To this day, that is my biggest drive. How can I have my team’s back to give them the confidence to take chances, take risks and improve not only professionally but personally as well. That is the energy and support I want to give to those around me, thanks to my mom having shown me it at such a young age.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity in life and business makes the ecosystem stronger and more resilient. By having diverse backgrounds, you will have combined, different perspectives to creatively solve problems and create inspiring solutions. The positive outcomes will be magnified as a result. I believe it is important to have the team reflect the consumers we are targeting, to best fully drive our mission forward.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each. .
The first step is creating “psychological safety.” This term comes from an output by a Google study to find the highest performing teams and is something I have followed for quite a bit. It means creating a space through process and tone that encourages people to speak up, while also ensuring that everyone has a platform and time to be heard. For example, in meetings I prefer to speak last, giving others the opportunity to share their ideas, thoughts and creativity. Of course, there are times where a leader must step in to break the ice, but it is often best to stay quiet and listen first. Let others communicate out and build from there. As part of this, I believe you have to build trust and encourage some courage.
The second step is accountability. The key is to consistently hold each other accountable on ‘how’ we do things. In essence, our company, team and culture are only as strong as the lowest standard that we set, so it’s important that everyone understands expectations and that we’re all consistently held to that level.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives have a bird-eye view of the entire team. As the CEO, I look at myself as the coach who helps drive us (the team and the company) forward. There are plenty of other leaders helping the team succeed, however they are more involved in the day-to-day, while the CEO helps outline a future. We are in a position to help the team see possibilities. As a CEO, you typically have experience under your belt that can help guide you to a solution. A CEO has the ability to envision a future, and then empower and inspire others.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I would love to dispel the myth that CEOs have all of the answers. The truth is, you don’t; in fact, far from it. The reality is that the more you get removed from day-to-day work, the less you are as a subject matter expert. A CEO must rely on his or her team to truly help the greater company succeed.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I could have predicted that I would gain the most energy and be able to give the most of my energy when helping the greater team, connecting with individual teammates and helping foster their growth. A part of the CEO role that has been more of a challenge for me is aligning with key stakeholders, as that was new for me, and as I think it is for a lot of executives who step into the CEO role. What I’ve learned is that it is important to bring those involved at a higher level along for the journey, the challenges, the ups and downs. That way, they can hopefully be part of the solution when the time comes to troubleshoot or pivot the business. They play a major role in business and it is important as the CEO to keep all teams aligned and on the same track to success.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I truly believe there are three things that make a successful executive. This person is a leader that is: one-part visionary, one-part operator with a “healthy paranoia,” and one-part orchestrator in helping people accomplish more than they thought they could. Another key factor in my opinion is in order to be a successful executive, you must be comfortable with not having all of the control. Just as importantly, you have to be able to trust people. If your goal is to be an executive and you love working with people, coaching individuals and teams and helping people unlock their full potential, you’re on the right path. If any of the above does not excite you — then striving to be an executive will just distract you from unlocking your potential and peak performance. As an executive, you are an orchestrator and I continue to say, you’re in the business of serving people.
Every individual is so unique, and everyone has different, distinct needs. It’s a never ending cycle of helping the team work best together, finding solutions and all the while ensuring they are happy while doing it. But if you can see people’s potential and have the motivation to help those around you succeed, you’ll make a great executive!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
When I first started at Nuun, the chairman said to me, “It will be really interesting to see what you do here.” Looking back on that, my guess is he expected me to start fresh, given the climate of the company at the time. The business had been plateauing and I take it his immediate assumption was that I would default to starting over.
This is not what I did. Rather, I first said “timeout” and tried to get my bearings to understand what was going right for the business.
I believe we are constantly living as if the grass is always greener on the other side. My philosophy is to slow down, look around and find the ‘good’ or rather in this case, the strengths the company had, and from there amplify those strengths.
For example, our team had some great marketing assets that could have made a bigger impact if we applied them across the business. At the time, we had a fantastic partnership with Ragnar, and Kara Goucher, the highest profile Olympian runner on our team. First, we had to find ways to leverage their strengths to help us not only online, but also in-store and at events. This started to create a ground swell of momentum, as it opened a mindset of new possibilities. The best part was that the team had the solution, they just couldn’t unlock it cohesively across the business.
My advice for other business leaders is to focus on what is working, while also being solutions oriented. Go for that first, and 80% of the time the team is already doing great work. You have to look for it and find it, but most importantly, amplify it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My hope is that those individuals that I have had the chance to engage with throughout my career have felt an impact. Mainly, an impact to believe in themselves just a little bit more, to feel inspired to be the best version of themselves both professionally and personally. I want to help people believe in their own possibilities. It is their personal story, I am just there to help guide them along the way, in one facet of their life.
I also hope that I lead in a way that shows people there is so much more to life than work, but if you can combine your love for the two, you are on your way to a fulfilled life. Life is a grind, so you better have some fun doing it.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Leadership isn’t a destination. There are two perspectives that make this ring true. First, you can’t actually refer to yourself as a leader, only those that you lead can define you that way. Second, leadership is about a growth mindset. You can never stop learning and growing if you want to sustain as the team’s leader. So, in effect, it’s not a destination, as you always need to evolve to a leader.
- The importance of servant leadership. The single most important component of a thriving culture is a team that focuses on serving others. My role is to serve the team. The team’s role is to serve our consumer and customers. I have found that taking this approach makes others feel valued. The impact is a thriving culture and business. In short, outward focus versus inward will result in consistent and explosive growth.
- Lead from the front. I try to think that I am always on stage. Not in the sense of acting and being fake, but rather that I have a role to play to set the tone for the team. I remind myself of what tone I want to set and what energy I want to provide, so that the team can then feed off that in a positive way.
- Everyone needs a coach… even CEOs. Mentors are so important, professional and personal life coaches are an incredible support system to help you perform at your best. I continue to seek that for my professional and personal growth.
- Extraordinary exists inside. Eight out of ten times the team is doing great work. The grass is rarely greener on the other side, rather look for the strengths and amplify them. We are built to focus on solving problems, that is a good thing. Yet, there is most likely so much going right inside the company already. So, find those strengths as it is so much easier to build momentum on them versus solely fixing issues.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I continue to say that I’d love to see people embrace human power over engine power. Our human capabilities are so vast — and so many of them go untapped. I use that motivation in my everyday life, and I want other people to believe in their human potential the same. The hardest part for people is simply taking action. So, lace them up, take your first step and watch the changes happen with both your mental and physical health.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The renowned “Red Bull of business consultants,” Tom Peters’ concept has always stuck with me. We’re in the business of people, “people serving people, serving people.” For me, a team means that when one of us wins, everyone wins. This is a perspective I bring to everything I do in life, both professionally and personally.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This one is quite simple for me! If I could have a private meal with someone, it would have to be with Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks Coach. To me, he is the true definition of a ‘player’s coach’ and I admire that greatly. I would really love to get the chance to speak with him to know how he approaches culture.