As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Seth Rosenzweig of TEAM IMPACT, a nonprofit connecting kids with serious and chronic illnesses to local college athletic teams in order to build strong and therapeutic outcomes.
Seth Rosenzweig was named Team IMPACT’s Chief Executive Officer in August of 2016. A nonprofit leader with extensive experience in organizational growth and building stakeholder relationships, Rosenzweig directs the organization’s plan to build their reputation nationally.
Most recently, he served as assistant vice president for principal and major gifts at Boston Children’s Hospital Trust. Prior to that, he served as vice president of development at Combined Jewish Philanthropies and as executive director of development at The George Washington University.
Thank you so much for your time Seth! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Growing up, I was more focused on sports and what people thought about me than working hard in school to achieve my goals. College is where I found my place and my purpose. I got involved in a variety of initiatives at school and outside and realized there was more to life than personal accomplishments. There was an opportunity to make an impact, to leave a legacy to help others. I left college thinking I wanted to be a university President, given my experience in college working for the Department of Education and being engaged in a variety of initiatives. Mentors played a huge role in my success (they still do) and many suggested that I get some fundraising experience. Once I had a taste of mission-based work, I fell in love with waking up every day and feeling like I was making a difference in the world. I was able to work my way up the fundraising chain at a variety of amazing institutions but felt like I wanted more. I wanted to lead an organization to realize its true aspirations and to grow its impact on the world.
Relationships have been the key to my professional success. I always valued developing strong and trusted relationships — with mentors, with colleagues, with donors, with great people, etc. — and have realized that achieving personal success is not what matters; it’s how you do it and who you do it with that matters most. I also realized that balance in life is important — I strive to balance work with family with friends and with giving back outside of my job. This has allowed me to not burn out and to have an identity outside of work.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When you transition from college to the real world, there is no blueprint. I was extremely engaged in college but entering the real world, in some ways you feel like you are on top of the world but then you realize pretty quickly that you are starting from ground zero. I remember going for my first interview for a job I ultimately received. They told me the culture was very laid-back as it was in student life within higher education. They told me to come casual to the interview but I decided to wear the new suit that I just purchased. I went to the interview and thought I had tremendous experience and that I was ready to lead so probably came across as too confident. I found out later after I was in the role that many people thought I was too stuffy, wearing a suit to the interview. They thought that I didn’t listen or try to fit into the culture. I also found out that although I thought I knew everything, that they all had a tremendous amount of experience and were turned-off by my lack of listening and coming off two strong like I was ready to run the department. I actually found out that they offered the role to the other candidate but she turned it down so they were stuck with me. The lessons learned include the importance of cultural fit, being humble, be curious and don’t be over-confident and its ok to not have all the answers but show a willingness to learn and to be coached. We can all laugh about it now but it was a tremendous learning experience.
The one other experience that has stayed with me is when I received an award as the new professional of the year within student life from a professional association. After that moment, I let my guard down and made a variety of mistakes until I looked in the mirror and got myself back on track. The lesson there is never let your guard down, stay motivated and when you have success, don’t let up as it csan be the time when you are the most vulnerable. Stay humble and hungry!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The book that has always stuck with me is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I was obsessed with the notion of how to create good ideas and have them take off. What I’ve learned is that there are a lot of good ideas out there, but the challenge is execution. This book gave me a framework for how ideas can take on a life of their own and have a viral effect that becomes unstoppable, how you go from a nice-to-have to a must-have for everyone and how to reach that tipping point. It also helped me learn about what type of people to surround myself with — “connectors, salesmen and mavens.” Lastly it showed me the fundamentals around how to create “stickiness” which transitions from an idea to making people take action.
The best Podcast I have listened to is The EntreLeadership Podcast which gives great advice from a variety of great minds in this space including Simon Sinek and Seth Godin. They provide very timely and relevant advice. For example, one of their most recent episodes discussed how to lead in times of crisis. The key to this podcast is that it goes beyond just hearing about theories to understanding how to apply them and providing real life advice based on experience.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As I mentioned, I found my “why” in college: to find a career that allowed me to give back and feel passionate every day. When I joined Team IMPACT it was still in a start-up phase. It had answered the questions about the need for the organization based on demand and it had proof of concept. The key was to take a step back and truly understand our why and that if we achieved success, how would the world be different and what problem could we fix? Through that process, we developed our theory of change, shifted our service delivery, began measuring our outcomes/impact and developed a strategic road map to realize system change. We didn’t want to be seen as a “nice” organization. We wanted to be seen as an imperative organization that had the opportunity to do something powerful that no other entity could do. There was also a lot of work to do around culture. We developed our core values and weaved them into every aspect of the work environment. Culture matters. Having the right people in the right seats is critical. Having a shared vision for future success with buy-in from key stakeholders is critical. Unless you know where you want to go, you won’t realize your potential.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle is to value relationships. Relationships are what matter most. Progress cannot be made effectively or efficiently without strong and trusted relationships. Many times we look at personal achievements as the destination but achieving success with great people is what life is all about. Success is all relative and when I look back at my career to-date, what gives me the most joy is the people I have met along the way that have truly impacted my life and trajectory.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge has been the work/life blend, which can be a good thing. The fact that you can’t achieve balance or feel like you are being successful because your world has been turned upside down can be overwhelming. You have to balance family, work in a crisis, staying healthy and taking care of the vulnerable in your life as well as your own physical and mental health. For me, it was about creating structure and sticking to the plan. I have developed a more structured calendar that includes work and life -exercise, taking time for myself, parenting, home-schooling, connecting with friends virtually, etc. For me, if I can structure my days, stay positive and realize that things are not going to be perfect, I can be successful even in the most challenging times. I have also had to lower my benchmark of success and develop realistic goals in this moment.
My biggest challenge has been ensuring those important in my life — family and colleagues — feel safe and supported. As a leader, I have been focused on leading with transparency and compassion and trying to over-communicate to ensure those in my life can stay calm and safe in a time of uncertainty and fear.
Here are some tips that I have been following:
- Don’t obsess with watching and listening to all the details of COVID-19. Yes, it is important to have a baseline so you can protect yourself but taking breaks from the media and social media can lower your stress and allow you to stay positive.
- Take care of your mind and your body — eating well, meditation, exercise and sleep all matter. Be intentional around self-care.
- Connect virtually with others — we all feed off the power of social connections and interactions. Don’t let this pandemic stop you from connecting safely with those that matter most.
- Find balance and take time for yourself — do things that you enjoy, take breaks and try and focus on the positives.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
With the coronavirus forcing everyone to stay at home, the organization had to quickly innovate and shift our entire business model to a virtual one. Figuring out how to continue our work when fifty percent of the program participants (the children) are high risk, and the other 50 percent (the students) were no longer in school and together as a team wasn’t easy.
Yet, our student athletes have stepped up. All across the nation, athletes from our 580 participating teams have offered ideas on how they can stay in touch and continue our work. As a result, our program began running around virtual huddles — challenges and games across tech such as Zoom, TikTok, Spotify and more that allow the teams to regularly speak to their kids and keep them positive, focused, and physically and emotionally engaged. In turn, the kids have become pseudo mentors to the athletes by sharing their best tips to fight depression as a result of isolation. These kids regularly live with these challenges, yet the isolated feelings are new for most of the athletes. The athletes have found meaning again while stuck at home and have shown innovation and creativity in helping Team IMPACT to continue to run our program successfully. Here are links to some of these challenges and special events:
- Virtual Draft Days
- Wave of Gratitude
- One of our athletes, Abbie, a member of the Wake Forest Field Hockey team, is spending her time in quarantine making masks to donate to her local Michigan hospitals.
- Framingham State University’s softball team gave their match, Lindsey, a drive-by parade to say hi!
Further, in April we usually hold our annual gal (which is our biggest fundraiser of the year). The New England Patriots’ Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and other local sports heroes have attended. In lieu of this year’s event, we held an online celebration on Facebook and Twitter. The Zakim Bridge in Boston, along with the Prudential Center and the Vertex building, were lit for the occasion.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
In order to support your loved ones and family during this time, you need to take care of yourself. As they always say, you can’t love someone unless you love yourself. Self-care is the first step to put you in the right mindset to support others.
The one thing that has worked well with my family has been to ask good questions and be a strategic listener to truly understand their fears and worries. I’ve also been focused on validating their concerns, especially my kids’. Allowing them to feel their emotions but to ensure them that they are safe is critical. Sometimes people are embarrassed to have anxiety and depression and unless we give them a platform to be honest about what they are facing, we can’t help them solve these challenges.
I have encouraged them to find their balance and develop a structure that works for them. I give them examples of steps that I have taken around eating well, exercise, connecting socially with friends and being active but help them focus on what is going to work for them in terms of tools and coping techniques. Everyone is different but if you can help facilitate the conversation to help them develop their own plan, they will feel ownership. I also find creating a joint-accountability pledge has been helpful. Tell each other what your plan is to get through this moment and compassionately hold each other accountable. Also, there is nothing wrong with seeking mental, social, and emotional support, especially during this time of crisis. We need to remove the stigma associated with mental health.
I find that keeping things light, finding times to laugh or joke around, and not obsessing with the media reports can begin to normalize the situation. Find your trigger points and adjust to try and stay at equilibrium and surround yourself virtually with the people who make you feel safest and allow you to be vulnerable.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think this moment gives us a lot of time for self-reflection and for overall assessment. Here are some opportunities I think we will see:
- Treating each other with compassion and respect — this has been a humbling experience that has shown moments of compassion and brought us together. I hope this continues and translates into our society to treat each other with respect and kindness.
- Balance — This has forced us to balance competing priorities but has also given us a taste of what matters most in life. Hopefully this moment will be a wake-up call for many people — whether to simply have more balance or whether to chase their passion, etc.
- Humbleness — This situation has made a lot of us think through what matters in our lives and what role we have to take care of the less fortunate or support our neighbors, or even understanding the role we play in preserving the world.
- Appreciation for the little things — Seeing your friends, your kids being in the school setting or just being able to go out to dinner. Before this started, we took a lot for granted. Not anymore.
- More effective meetings and utilizing technology — We will not be afraid of virtual meetings or doing our day-to-day activities through technology. Although we miss socialization, we have also still been effective (and in some cases more effective).
- Improved flexibility, adaptability, and resilience — We had no choice and we showed ourselves how to handle true adversity
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think we will all be more thoughtful with our choices and actions. We’ll think deeply about our living — how we’re spending our time, our resources. Who we’re spending our time with, etc. Ultimately, I think many of us will live more intentionally. As an aside, handshakes may become a thing of the past!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We have continued to actively recruit new student athletes to the program, and families continue to sign up as well. Illness doesn’t take a time out for quarantine, unfortunately, and these kids are still in need of social and psychological support. Connecting with their teams — even virtually — has continued to help kids like Ben, who you can see here on his virtual draft day.
Perhaps now, more than ever, our program is needed. Children falling ill in the COVID era face even scarier circumstances — going to the hospital for treatments can be even more daunting. Therefore, I am also personally out every day reaching out to donors, potential donors, and partners to keep our program running. I am passionate about our mission and belief that no child should be sidelined by illness.
Further, we have learned a few lessons from the pandemic and resulting shut down. There are many advantages to being together physically. However, we will become more flexible in a way that benefits our employees and creates an even stronger, happier, productive, and loyal workforce. Being quickly forced into this work change created moments of truth for us. We may have had an advantage because we already had a distributed workforce with people across different regions, so we had the tech in place to pivot quickly. But we also discovered some new lessons that we’re using now and will continue to shape our physical culture once we’re all together:
- Flatten the organization and create sub micro teams that we delegate and organize around vs having just department heads being the key decision makers. Working virtually has, in some ways, made our decision-making process clearer and more efficient by flattening out and giving people more authority.
- De-centralize — be more disciplined around building decision making processes that don’t require a million meetings or box checkers
- Be more mindful about meetings — when to have them and when not to, identifying the most important issues to solve, staying within boundaries to reach the goals of the meeting, and ensuring that meetings end with prescriptions for action, not with a plan for another meeting.
- Over communicate and lead with compassion and transparency
- Working from home works. We’ve learned people can be effective, so we can lessen our restrictions on the traditional 9–5 culture and provide more flexibility in terms of hours, telecommuting, etc. Working from home can be less distracting — there isn’t someone walking down the hallway who stops and chats for an hour. It requires us to be disciplined (especially right now with schools closed, daycare, etc. — we have to be more efficient and effective, prioritize and focus. These are all good lessons that we can build into our culture.
- Innovation can still happen virtually — we will be more thoughtful and disciplined to get the best idea, not just use all good ideas.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Once you assess the potential damage and develop your sustainability plan for this moment, the key is to begin plan for the post-COVID future. Yes, we need to think about sustainability and cutting costs, but we have a mission to deliver and we need to make decisions that set us up for a strong bounce back. I would take the time to figure out your assumptions and scenario planning but also look at what you hope to achieve coming out of this moment and what you can learn and bring forward with you. You should evaluate decisions to balance sustainability and the ability to bounce back but start planning now for life post-COVID. Make smart decisions that set you up for success. Communicate the bounce back strategy with your team to get buy-in and continue to evaluate your roadmap. If we only focus on this moment, we lose the opportunity to lead forward. We must balance the two, focus on risk-mitigation and put ourselves in a position to win in the long run.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion. — Simon Sinek
How can our readers further follow your work?
Please feel free to connect with me directly on LinkedIn.
And please follow TEAM IMPACT across social channels!