See It to Be It : Community Engagement Lead (w/ Ralph Smithers, Jr.)

On the twenty-third entry of our See It to Be It podcast series, Amy C. Waninger speaks with Ralph Smithers, Jr., a talented, versatile and experienced executive with broad experience. He leads diversity and community engagement at Encova Insurance. They speak about how he got his start in the industry, how he networks and promotes his work in the space he inhabits, and more.

Struggling with your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) work? Kanarys—a Black-founded company—has your back. Regardless of where you are on your DEI journey, we arm you with the insights you need now to take action now. From audits to assessments to data-informed strategy, we’d love to be the partner you have been looking for. Email stacey@kanarys.com or learn more at https://www.kanarys.com/employer.

We all know the interview process can be fraught and full of bias. We’ve teamed up with SurveyMonkey to learn more about your experiences interviewing so we can make the entire process for BIPOC candidates. Share your thoughts: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HLV9V5W And watch this space for the results!

Connect with Ralph on LinkedIn.

Check out Encova Insurance’s website.

TRANSCRIPT

Amy: My guest today is Ralph Smithers, Jr., who leads diversity and community engagement at Encova Insurance. He is responsible for managing the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts as well as managing the Encova of Ohio foundation, including relationships with community stakeholders. Ralph joined Encova, or [Motorists?], in 1989. He has extensive experience in a variety of operational roles including personal lines, commercial lines, customer service and human resources. Ralph was recognized as an outstanding diversity champion in 2019 by Columbus Business First and also received the President’s Award from the Columbus Urban League Young Professionals. In our interview today, we highlight his work in community service and as a community engagement lead for Encova. Please welcome Ralph Smithers, Jr. Ralph, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?

Ralph: I am great. It’s a great day to be working from home, and it’s a great day to be talking to you.

Amy: Thank you so much. So I don’t know when this episode will air, but at the time of this recording we are right at the cusp of schools shutting down, work from home mandates and all of that related to coronavirus. Hopefully by the time this episode airs this will all be a distant memory and something that we can look back on without too much sadness, that we all made it through and that we did the right things and we were able to avoid the kind of crises that other countries have seen. But assuming that that all happens and we are all still here looking to make great decisions about our careers and great decisions about ourselves and our companies, I’m here talking with Ralph today about his role. Now, Ralph, as I understand it you have two really full-time jobs at your company. One is as the diversity and inclusion director, officer, at Encova Insurance. I almost said [Motorists,] but you had your merger. And you also run community engagement for the company, and I want to focus–because we haven’t had a community engagement director, manager, on this series before, really talk about that role, what that means, how you got involved in that. That’s the part I really want to dig into today, ’cause I think there are a lot of lessons there for our listeners around not just what they can do in their work, but also how they can leverage outside activities to inform and to expand their roles, and also to frankly talk a little bit about what Encova’s doing in the community and help people understand the corporate responsibility aspects that companies have. So to start–there’s a lot there for a 30 minute show, but to start I wanted to ask you – how did you come to be in this role?

Ralph: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things about my background is I have a very eclectic background, and I started off in the industry doing traditional roles in underwriting and then later moved into learning and education, and I did that for a number of years.

Amy: And to be clear, the industry that you work in is the insurance industry.

Ralph. Yes. So long and short, I’ve worked for a relatively small company. Our company employs about 1,100 people, and when you work for a relatively smaller company you may, as we have at our organization, have opportunities to wear a lot of hats. I’ve had 13 jobs since I graduated from college. Going back, you know, for as long as I can remember, I was always interested or wired to participate in community service. I’ve had chances to serve on boards and be a volunteer and so forth, so in that journey I was able to kind of develop a level of expertise that was greater perhaps than my colleagues, and when an opportunity came to lead out this effort, I think that just the fact that I’ve served on some boards, I’ve been a volunteer maybe more so than others in my organization, it just was sort of a natural ask of “Hey, would you like to take this on?” It wasn’t necessarily something that I had planned on or applied for. In fact, in my career I haven’t actually applied for a job in over 25 years. It’s a matter of someone tapping me on my shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like you to do this.’ So that’s kind of how I got into it. It wasn’t necessarily planned, but I just try to make the most out of every opportunity that I get.

Amy: Thank you for that. Now, there was a lot in there I want to ask you about, but let’s talk first about–so board service may be a new concept for a lot of people. I know it’s something I’ve only learned about recently and I’m 20 years into my career, but coming into the professional world as a first-generation professional, these are not things that we know about growing up, right? My parents didn’t serve on a board. I mean, you know, I didn’t know anyone who did those kinds of things. So can you tell us a little bit about what’s involved with serving on a board, what your responsibilities are, and what you might want to consider if you’re thinking about joining an organization in that capacity?

Ralph: Non-profit boards is what we’re referring to, so these are all volunteer roles that we’re talking about, but they vary significantly. The more sophisticated the organization is, it’s more of a selection process and just raising your hand and saying, “Hey, I’d like to be a volunteer.” So I’ve had a mix of both ones I’ve volunteered for versus really having to go through an interview process and be selected. But board members are fiduciaries. Usually what they do is provide oversight to a non-profit, usually directly to the leader of the organization, so you in effect become that person’s boss. The decisions that you make not only have an impact on the organization and hopefully to the good, but also there could be some consequences if you don’t handle those responsibilities right. So, you know, as a fiduciary there’s a greater level of responsibility and expectation. Usually with boards, and it really varies, there’s a variety, and amybe I can go through some different roles and definitions. The first type of thing that you can get involved with is a committee. Maybe, say, a steering committee where your role is just to be a sounding board to the organization. You really don’t have any fiduciary responsibilities. You aren’t really expected to do anything other than just come together and listen to ideas and kind of give your impression of those to help provide direction. It’s always good to have a set of rear-view mirrors if you’re a leader, and that’s essentially what you would be doing as a steering committee member. Another role is that of a trustee. Trustees tend to have more of an oversight role of the organization, just to make sure that the processes are moving along. There are usually officer-type positions within a trustee group, but a different fiduciary responsibility than a full board member, which I’ll discuss here in a second, but usually that’s more of an oversight role, and you don’t, say, have an expectation that you might be doing a performance appraisal for the leadership or reviewing policies in great detail. So that’s the second level, and then the full board member is when you’re a fiduciary, and I’ll maybe just relay some examples of things I’ve encountered in my journey, but you provide oversight, you provide coaching, monitoring, supporting. You might be asked to be on a committee within that board, so there might be an executive committee that includes officers of the board, and then even going beyond that, most boards have an HR committee, a fundraising committee. Depending on the nature of the non-profit–for instance, one board I was on had a service delivery committee to just oversee the effectiveness of the organization, but there are some pretty big responsibilities with that. For instance, I’ve chaired a couple of HR committees on some boards I’ve been on, and one of the biggest parts of that role is to help with the performance appraisal of the CEO. So that might be an opportunity to get into some more advanced types of management than a person might be able to do in their normal job. A lot of the boards that have those higher level responsibilities also have some sort of fundraising type requirement, so that might be a personal financial commitment or it might be a give or get commitment, saying that ‘Hey, I have to raise so much money on behalf of the organization,’ or “I have to contribute so much money on behalf of the organization,” and so that’s where it gets into a higher level. I was on one board where early in my service part of the orientation is they issued an ID badge for me to get into their building, and I thought, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s kind of, like, something I’ll hang on my wall or kind of proud of,” but I had to use that thing to get in the building because I had a lot of work to do. I found myself in and out of their building at least every other week if not once a week. So it could be, like, another job, but it could also be very rewarding, and I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk about the networking and the reward as we go further.

Amy: Yeah. So one of the questions that I have for you is how important is employer support if you’re going to serve on these boards? Because it sounds like you’re doing a lot of work, probably that overlaps or conflicts with some of your 9-5 responsibilities, and I know you and I have talked and your 9-5 responsibilities go, like, 7-10, 7am-10pm most days and a lot of weekends. So how much employer support does a person need to have to participate in these nonprofits at this level?

Ralph: So it really depends. The support probably depends on the board, and what I always do when I’m either being asked if I’d be interested being in a board or if I’m being asked if we have colleagues that might, I always look for a one-pager to help document what the responsibilities are. So, you know, that might include “When are the meetings?” You know, are they after work or are they at 9:00 in the morning? Obviously that personal financial commitment. What type of events do I need to go to? When are they? Are they during the day or are they on the weekend? So I think that’s the range of questions for the individual, and then sometimes the boards are, you know, for better or for worse treated as fundraising vehicles. So if there may be an expectation that maybe you can help get your company to contribute a certain amount of money to the organization. So it is something that, depending on which board is selected, could really require a very supportive employer. It just depends what the requirements are. As a person, part of my role is to manage our foundation. It’s really advantageous as an organization for us to have associates that serve on boards, because they are providing financial and fiduciary oversight so that I know if we invest in that organization that they’re keeping an eye on how things are going, and anyone that’s listening to this conversation might just do a search or just be more sensitive to the news after hearing this, but I’ve read about a lot of situations where maybe things start going wrong at an organization, where, you know, it gets to a level where it gets into the news, so there’s a lot of responsibility. You’re putting your reputation on the line, but you’re also building a tremendous skill set and networking.

Amy: Yeah, so let’s talk about those skills. Here’s something that I deal with a lot when I’m coaching people or when I’m talking to people about getting promoted, right, into that first management role, and that first management role says “You need 3-5 years of leadership experience.” So I always coach the people that I work with to go find some volunteer leadership opportunities, and that still works and it still counts on your resume, and I wanted you to tell me a little bit about what are some of the skills or some of the accomplishments that you’ve been able to leverage from your volunteer work into your career?

Ralph: Yeah. That’s a great question. So I am one that believes firmly that service on a non-profit board is not only worthy of inclusion on your resume, it’s probably the kind of experiences that are usually out there to be had usually far exceed any kind of other education and training that you might be able to get at a typical seminar. So there’s a lot of levels of things, and I’ll try to be as specific as I can without rambling because this is something that I’m always excited to talk about, but the first part is just governance. I know that as a board member just kind of getting into that structure where you’re learning Robert’s rules of order and how to take minutes and how to run a meeting. That’s not a skill that you can usually go to a class for. That’s usually something that you have to learn, and just the whole fiduciary and governance part, you know, even when you have parts of the meeting, “Do we need a motion for this?” Those are things that are very relevant, and I had a chance once to attend one of our company’s board meetings and just got to see that “Oh, they’re using the same process here as I did in a nonprofit environment.” So I think that’s very, very relevant experience. I have been the HR chair for two of the boards that I’ve served on, and part of that responsibility has included doing a performance appraisal for the executive, and usually that is done in conjunction with a board chair, and the board chair is–in my case I’ve worked with board chairs that are CEOs of major companies and have been able to develop relationships with them. So one of the learning opportunities there or even in a general meeting is just “How do other people outside the organization that I work for lead?” And that’s been extremely enlightening for me. There are a couple of people that I work with on non-profit boards who ascended to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and I’ll even give a very specific reference. I was on the American Red Cross board here in Colombus and worked on a committee with a gentleman who I was really impressed with. He seemed like a nice guy, nice leadership skills. I got to know him a little bit, even had a chance to go to a reception at his house once, and then some years later–not many years later, but a couple years later I’m looking through our local business publication, and he just was promoted to be the CEO of Nationwide Insurance. So there you go. You know, Fortune 500-type person right there, and I’ve had other examples like that as well, and I kind of scratch my head, “How did they let me in here with some of the people that I’ve been able to network with?” And it’s just been–in my case I’ve been able to not only interface with CEOs and C-Suite people at other organizations, but I’ve also been able to interface with community leaders, you know, even in politics. I served on another board with the spouse of the former mayor of our city. So there’s so many different examples, and it’s kind of crazy how the doors open up with that. So there’s tremendous learning, and I guess the other thing is that if you’re just working in your own organization, you get familiar with what your organization does, but I think there’s a lot of value in seeing how other leaders operate and even how other leaders in organizations do reports. So you can pick up little things here and there, bring them back to your own organization, and they think you’re a genius. Like, “How’d you come up with that?” “Well, you know, someone else.” “I learned.” You don’t have to tell anyone where you got it from, but I’ve seen a lot of examples where I’ve been able to bring them back into our office, and, you know, it doesn’t hurt your credibility.

Amy: I think that’s fantastic advice, and the fact that you’re in there–you know, you kind of alluded to some impostor syndrome, right, where you’re around all these people that are amazing and doing all this amazing work, but you know, Ralph, I’d like to remind you that you’re right in there with them, right? You’re there for a reason, and I think that leads us very nicely into the networking piece, because, you know, you mentioned earlier “20 years in my career and I’ve never had an interview. People just tap me on the shoulder,” and people don’t tap you on the shoulder if they don’t know who you are and they don’t know what you’re doing, so that tells me you’ve done a really good job of not only doing the work, but promoting the work that you’re doing. So can you tell us a little bit about you do that? That’s something I think a lot of people are pretty uncomfortable with, that personal PR or personal public relations, personal promotion.

Ralph: Sure. Yeah, that’s a tough one for all of us. I think all of us get sort of annoyed or bored with those that are always congratulating themselves. That can be pretty annoying, pretty frustrating, and I guess for me I just try to be genuine, you know? I just try to get to know the people that I’m working with, and while I may walk into the room and say, “Oh, my God. How did they let me in here?” I have also found that there are skills that I have and talents that I have that those in the room may not have, and in many pretty notable cases I’ve been able to step up and take a leadership role and have that group kind of maybe ask the same question about themselves. Like, “Hey, how did I get in here?” So there’s definitely a lot, and it’s always a matter of just taking inventory and trying to contribute, listening, learning, you know, asking a lot of questions, not being afraid to ask questions. So that definitely swings both ways. As far as the promotion of it so to speak, I think that LinkedIn is a really great tool to do that professionally. I’ll give you an example. I’m on the board of the Colombus Urban League, and we opened up a new facility across the street from the main office a couple years ago, and it was a pretty big event in the city. We had the mayor among other people that came. It was sort of a groundbreaking. We all had hard hats and so forth and had a group picture, and when you have a chance to get in a picture like that and you tag–I mean, I was there. That’s an objective fact. I’m not saying anything more than that, but just saying “Hey, grateful to be on hand for the grand opening,” then if you’re networked with some of those people and you tag them and then their networks see it, then all of a sudden you’re getting a lot of people that are learning about your involvement that are, you know, just incredible, you know? Even perhaps reaching into a national level networking depending on who you’re with. So I think that if you are just doing that in a more genuine, natural way, and you just do that over time, then other people see that and they may be interested in getting you involved. There’s certainly situations I’ve been in where people have learned things about me through that process, maybe learned that I had a skill that they didn’t know where they’ve approached me about, “Hey, can I talk to you about this other thing?” And if you’re able to add value, it does kind of build your brand.

Amy: Absolutely. Brands are never built overnight, right? It takes lots of time and lots of work and lots of authenticity, and then you have to share that information with other people so that they can see you’re doing the work. I think people miss that, right? A lot of people think, “Well, if I just put my head down and work real hard that’ll be good enough,” but people don’t see how hard you’re working. They only see what you share.

Ralph: And I’d like to add one other thing to that, which is it’s good to have maybe a partner to help. You know, maybe someone else–you can praise or recognize someone else, and then they in turn down the road do that for you so that it doesn’t all look like it’s coming from the same place. I think it’s perceived and is in fact more authentic, and once you do some really hard work with these colleagues they become your friends, and they’re all but happy to take turns so that you’re not appearing to be total self-promotion but just genuinely letting the world know what you’re doing in the hopes that might make it better for whoever you’re serving.

Amy: Absolutely, and when you’re doing work in the community, I think it’s a little easier to put a spotlight on it, right? Because your accomplishments, achievements, contributions, are really for the benefit of someone else, and you can talk about community impact, you can tell the stories of the people that you’ve helped, you can tell the stories of the organizations and the work that they’re doing through your involvement. So the stories don’t have to necessarily be focused on you to be brand builders for you. Let’s switch gears just a little bit, Ralph. We’ve been talking a lot about the volunteer side, your role as a board member, but on your corporate side you have corporate social responsibilities related back to the community organizations that you and others serve. Can you tell us a little bit about what is–’cause I think this is something that a lot of people don’t understand, right? Most companies have a foundation. That foundation is set up to give back to the community, either locally, nationally or globally, and can you talk to us a little bit about why companies do this, what they hope to gain from it, and how we can learn more about what’s going on in our own companies?

Ralph: Sure. I heard someone from a large organization describe this once, and I hope I can do it justice, but the work that a company does through its foundation kind of becomes the identity of the company. That is a way for people in the community to see you, to get to know you, and make it such that it builds up your reputation, you know? And where that really comes in to play is it gives you a little bit of space in case something doesn’t go right. If something goes wrong, it’s “Oh, we understand. We know them, and whatever happened, you know, certainly wasn’t intentional,” and they may give you the benefit of the doubt. So there’s a huge element in helping people get to know you through your investments, and a lot of times if your company is a sponsor of an event you’ll be recognized. You may even have opportunities to speak at programs. But it just creates a confidence in the community that “Hey, these are good people, and they’re personal. They’re not just a building. They’re not just a paragraph in a business publication. They’re real people who really care,” and it really helps put names, faces and identities to help build up the reputation of an organization.

Amy: And so how can people learn, then–if someone that’s listening works for a medium-to-large company, how can they find out how to get more involved in this work, in this community involvement work within their company so that they’re building a network within their company as well as without?

Ralph: Yeah. The best way for people that want to get more engaged is to get to know whoever their leader is in the organization for corporate responsibilities, and those titles vary significantly from organization to organization. So it might be–like in my case it’s community relations. In other organizations it might be corporate responsibility. But I would just identify who those people are, and once you do that you can find out, for instance, what type of volunteer opportunities might be available. Now, a company like ours, we have an automated system that helps folks connect with volunteer opportunities and so forth. So for organizations that have that, they can leverage those tools. But I say just get to know the people that are involved. If you’re in an organization and you’re new and there’s some sort of newsletter or communication, usually the companies will feature people in the organization that are specifically involved in activities. Reach out to those persons that are being featured, find out what they do, and over time you can collect information to find out what kind of causes the company is involved with and then maybe find a place. I know that one of the roles that I have is–I love to place my colleagues on nonprofit boards. It’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of my role, when we can close a deal like that. So I’ve been able to do that, and that means an awful lot when we’re successful on that. The other unique thing about our company is that since I also have the D&I responsibility, we have kind of a unique process at our company where our associates review the applications that come in for funding. We make recommendations to our leadership about which causes we think should be supported, and they almost always go with what we recommend. I was able to get the leaders of our associate resource groups to be serving on those committees, so that helps ensure that we have a diverse lens on the decisions we make. It also ensures that we have alignment. And as we’re going through the different requests we have, I probably meet with 90% of the organizations that make an application. I’m able to impart, “Hey, they’re looking for a board member. They’re looking for this kind of volunteer,” or “This is the type of work they do,” and that information can be disseminated, especially through our other resource groups. Now, not everyone on there is a leader in a resource group, but most of ’em are. So that’s been another good way to disseminate information, but it’s gonna vary by companies.

Amy: I think that’s great advice. So just to recap, what I’m hearing from you is that if you can serve on a nonprofit board and you can do it with the blessing or the assistance of the organization that you work for, you’re not only helping your own career, but you’re helping the company that you work for make sure that they’re investing their dollars and their time wisely, you’re helping the nonprofit organization by giving them good direction and connections and perhaps fundraising opportunities, and you’re really building a stronger community as a whole. So there are so many reasons I’m hearing from you why we should all get more involved in the nonprofit groups in our communities and step up to a higher level of responsibility.

Ralph: Absolutely, and I’ll add just one other thing to that. We all have expertise that we may take for granted. I’ve worked in the insurance industry my whole career, and you’re around other insurance people who pretty much know the same thing you know, but then what happens–for instance, I got onto a smaller board, and I always make sure they have insurance because, you know, as a board member I don’t want any of those things following me home, you know? And I found out that this organization didn’t have insurance. I was able to help even contribute to the whole risk management discussion. So there may be skills you might take for granted that are coveted by these organizations, so it’s always a good practice just to participate and bring the best you have, and then collectively you can learn and you can contribute.

Amy: Absolutely, and you can also live your values in a very real and tangible and meaningful way, because you get to choose the organizations that you serve. So if there’s a cause that’s particularly important to you or something that speaks to your heart and you’ve got a strong why, you know, connected to that, it’s personally fulfilling as well. Ralph, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing. I’m thrilled that we got to talk about this and we got to record it so other people can hear it, because I know we’ve had similar conversations in the past, but to me this is just such valuable information, and I think it’s something that goes overlooked in a lot of career development conversations, and so I want to thank you very much for your time today.

Ralph: A pleasure to have this conversation with you. I hope that those are listening, I hope it prompts them to have a lot of questions, so much that you feel compelled to invite me back and we can continue to talk. The time went by really fast.

Amy: I would love that. Thank you so much, Ralph.

Ralph: Thank you.

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