AGS Chief Ruth Batson on Empowerment, Open-Door Policies, and Her Gem of a Company

You could say Ruth Batson has practically grown up at the American Gem Society. She began at the organization 20 years ago, starting on the financial side, and eventually worked her way up to executive director and CEO in 2002. She talked with JCK about her management philosophy—including why she never screens calls, how she handles always having a new boss, and the importance of simply showing up.

How would you describe your brand of leadership?
My management style is simple: Lead by example. I don’t ask my staff to do anything that I wouldn’t do. If they respect what you do, they will want to work harder. You must be the employee that you would want on your staff.

We have an open-door ­policy. It doesn’t matter what our ­position or role is in the ­organization. I want to hear what you have to say.

Any advice you have received that’s really stuck with you?
I don’t screen my calls. Herb Bridge instilled that discipline into me. Every call is important. Why should I go through a gatekeeper? Who am I to judge what’s an important call? All the calls I get are important.

There’s a quote that Glenn Rothman told me: “Ninety percent of success is showing up.” I’m made it a point to be out there, to show up for events, to be there at our booth, and volunteer for different industry groups. 

I came from an accounting background, and people perceive accountants as somewhat introverted. This is an industry that requires a lot of face time. I learned early on that you need to be visible and outgoing.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
One of the best parts of my job—and the toughest part—is I get a new boss every two years.

How do you handle that?
It’s learning to work with all sorts of different personalities. Part of my job is to make the leadership feel good about what they are doing for the AGS and for the industry. The other thing I’ve learned to do is listen. When you work with a bunch of successful leaders, it’s a resource to draw from. I also make a point to visit the presidents in their hometowns. You see what they are like out of the boardroom.

How do you motivate your staff?
I know it’s a cliché, but I like to empower people. I’m not a micro-manager. I have a strong team of people, and I’ve also been blessed with directors who have stayed with us for many years. If there is one thing I can say about my staff—they love the work that they are doing. So it’s easy to work with that.

How do you hire people?
You look at whether they are a good fit for the culture and your team. You look for enthusiasm. One of the biggest requirements of my employees is that they are honest. That’s a big deal for me. I also tend to hire people who know more than I do in certain areas of the business. I am not afraid to hire people who are knowledgeable, because they make you look good and they help the organization.

Have any books really influenced you as a manager?
I’m reading a really good book called Tribal Leadership [by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright]. It talks about naturally occurring groups of people within organizations. For a leader, it is very important to move these natural and powerful groups from the mindset of “I am great” to “We are great.”

Good to Great is a favorite of mine and we had [author] Jim Collins at Conclave. There’s a section in that book specifically geared to associations.

Every year you put on Conclave and it’s a huge production. How do you manage that?
Conclave is our Christmas season. There are so many things that are worked out in advance. Once we get there, the train has left the station. So it’s preparation. I also have a wonderful team that makes it look easy. After Conclave, we have a team-building exercise, whether it’s bowling or a barbecue.

The AGS has an incredible 75-year history. How do you deal with a group so steeped in tradition and yet look to the future?
There’s a sign on my wall that says: “Infinite gratitude toward all things past. Infinite service toward all things present. Infinite responsibility toward all things future.” And that really defines our culture. It says to me we need to have respect for those who came before us. But also that this is our time and we have to make a difference. And then we have to build for the future. So every decision we make, every act that we take, we feel responsible about how we will affect others who come after us.

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