Max Rutherford on championing for small and diverse businesses.
Polished and professional are the first two words that come to mind when you meet Max Rutherford, Vendor Partner Diversity Director and Small Business Liaison Officer at GSD&M, a full-service marketing and advertising agency in Austin, Texas. What you may not know is that he actually likes to “play in the dirt,” literally and figuratively speaking. While Rutherford doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty and dusty in his yard, he applies the same concepts of cultivating, nurturing and seeing things to fruition at work.
During his 12-year journey with GSD&M, Rutherford has managed, directed and provided leadership, strategy, development and implementation of the agency’s Vendor Partner Diversity and Small Business Subcontracting initiatives for the continuation and advancement of small business enterprise and vendor partner diversity efforts, internal and external agency and client supplier diversity goals and objectives for 18+ respected brands.
A true champion for small and diverse companies, Rutherford is passionate about discovering and engaging with them. “They are so talented, have so much to offer and bring so much to the table,” he says. Emphasizing that “he has their backs” and doesn’t need any convincing, Rutherford’s mission is to get the vendors in front of the decision-makers, so they don’t have to chase or prove how good they are. “It is critically important that we respect small and diverse businesses, their time, their core competencies and what they have to offer,” he shares.
While working on behalf of diverse companies, Rutherford has witnessed unconscious bias arise among decision-makers. He acknowledges that many times, they don’t even comprehend that they’re doing it. “It’s frustrating to see when they (diverse businesses) come in with so much excitement and get slapped in the face with ‘we don’t need you right now or we don’t think there is a fit for you.’ How do you know it’s not a fit if there is no engagement or conversation?” This is what drives Rutherford to do what he can to help.
When it comes to leadership, Rutherford’s core values and mission lead the way. “My leadership style has always been centered around my personal values: integrity, truth, honesty.” He believes in the old adage, “Many hands make light work.” By validating and respecting others, and by nurturing relationships, he finds that more progress is made. “When people are happy, healthy and focused, you get a lot more work done; there’s a lot more productivity.”
One of Rutherford’s most significant contributions to the organization has been establishing accountability within teams. Since joining GSD&M, Rutherford developed a customized goal-setting program where he was able to convert what was once known as creative groups to business groups. Rutherford set goals for the clients within each group by engaging the agency’s Account Leadership and their ideation teams in the process. Internal goals are then analyzed and set. “I institutionalized a goal-setting process and procedure that is measurable, accountable and can be supported and sustained,” he shares.
Recognizing that the world seems to be changing at a volatile speed, Rutherford stays relevant in the industry through constant conversation and collaboration. Rather than sitting back and observing the change, he believes in real engagement. “We’ve got to ask questions and some of them are going to be uncomfortable. Some are going to be challenging, but we have to be transparent and honest and forthright about what we’re going to do,” he says. Rutherford connects himself to industry leaders and gets involved with organizations that are forward thinking and providing insights on how to help diverse businesses. He also focuses on what is happening within different communities, noting what works for them. Adaptivity, flexibility and commitment are a must.
Rutherford believes that while we’re having the same concerns, drive and rhetoric today about getting small and diverse companies involved in procurement areas as we were back in the ‘80s, we’re still only talking about it. “My question is when are we going to execute on the things we already have in place?” Circling back to accountability, he says it’s time for organizations to anchor themselves to the point where they become serious and committed to seeing things through. “It’s not providing a handout; our vendors are looking for a hand up. They just need an opportunity to prove their worth.”