Ruth goes “all in” for better coworker relationships
Ruth Ross learned how to play poker at age 10 from her father. Little did she realize that it would give her the skills she would use a Human Resources executive. But she didn’t stop at the kitchen table — combined with her love of travel, she’s played poker all over the world from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo.
In this episode, Ruth talks about how poker gives her the ability to work on her “gut instinct” to read others, which is often very useful in dealing with office issues. She parallels employee engagement with poker, saying that we’re each dealt a hand at work and we need to decide whether to fold or go “all in”.
Ruth is an engagement evangelist, speaker, and author at R Squared Resources. She wrote the book “Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career”. Prior to this, Ruth spent 30 years as a Human Resources professional, working her way up to Executive Vice President.
She graduated from Syracuse University with a BS in Human Development and Business. She later went on to get her MS in Counseling from Northeastern University.
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John: Welcome to Episode 31 of the Green Apple Podcast. Each week, I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion. If you or anyone you know would be a good guest, please let me know at greenapplepodcast.com. Now, let me introduce this week’s guest, Ruth Ross. I’m so excited for you to hear this, because after a successful 30-year career as a strategic human resources executive with top fortune 100 companies, Ruth Ross started her own company in San Francisco to focus on the critical intersection where people and process fuse together in organizations.
Based on her own experiences and research, Ruth wrote a book called Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career where she explores the epidemic of employee disengagement in corporate America. She’s also frequently invited to speak at industry conferences and organizations. Now, she’s with me here today.
So, Ruth, you spent 30 years in human resources.
Ruth: I did. I spent the first about half that time working for big corporations in New York City. Then in ’96, moved out to San Francisco, continued my career with two fantastic companies out here. I started out as an HR assistant. When I retired, I was an executive vice president of HR for a major company.
John: Wow. That’s impressive. That’s very cool. I also feel like my former HR people sent you with my folder to – we have to have a talk.
Ruth: Really large. I’ve got it.
John: Right. It was actually several shipments. That’s awesome. That’s so fantastic. What made you want to get into human resources?
Ruth: You know, crazy thing. I had gone to school. I went to Syracuse Undergraduate. I was a business major. That’s what everybody told me I was supposed to do. My parents, my guidance counselor. You take those tests to figure out what you’re really good at. A year into this, I realized that while I like numbers when it comes to adding up my check book and what’s in my accounts, I don’t really love numbers on an everyday basis. Decided that I really liked a psychological aspect of things, so I switched my major and eventually went and got a master’s in industrial counseling and psychology and moved right into HR from there.
John: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of weird how when you start out on a path that you think’s going to work, and then where you actually end up. Looking back, it’s very clear, but when you’re in the moment, you’re like “Oh, my gosh. I don’t know.”
Ruth: I talk to young alumni and college kids a lot about this whole notion of engagement, disengagement. I talk about things where you come out of school, and do you get a J-O-B, or do you want a career? Many of them say to me “I’m going a major that I have no passion about. It’s what my guidance counselor told me. I need to course correct before I get into the workplace.” I’m glad people are realizing it early on.
John: Granted, I wasn’t necessarily in love with accounting when I graduated, but by then, it’s too late. You’re in your last semester. Just ride it out. See what happens.
Obviously, being an executive in human resources takes up a lot of time. I can only imagine. But when you have free time and some nights and weekends, what are some hobbies or passions you enjoy doing?
Ruth: Well, I think the biggest passion that was a shared passion with my husband was travel. I was known in the office for taking the most exotic vacations. All of that. Travel was a really, really important part of our life. You can’t live in New York City and San Francisco without becoming a foodie – horrible as that word is. I always feel like I want to put it in quotes when I talk about it.
Those were shared passions. While he had his own hobbies, mine became something that I learned at the age of ten where my father taught me was learning how to play poker. He used to have a Monday night game with a bunch of fellow doctors. I was enthralled. I think back in that age, I just really liked the chips.
John: Right. The colors.
Ruth: But I was always a game player. At that point, I used to sit around the table, and every once in a while, they’d deal me in. I guess it’s not illegal if you’re in a home where no one knows you’re doing it.
John: I think the statute of limitations is fast. We’re good.
Ruth: Totally. I was ten a long time ago.
Eventually I practiced and play money online and whatever. A number of years ago, on a trip to Las Vegas, my husband encouraged me to just get out there and try it for real. It was incredibly intimidating. I quickly lost my money. I’m surprised I ever went back. But a love of the game came from that.
John: Right. Yeah. Wow. That’s so cool. I imagine every time you play, you remember those days. Being a kid at the grownup table.
Ruth: Oh, definitely. I used to talk to my dad while he was still alive about it. I’d tell him about certain hands, because everybody’s got what’s called a bad beat story. It was a fun thing, but back in those days, there wasn’t what’s now very popular. Texas Hold ‘Em. It was the old-fashioned stud or the game that the 80-year-olds play. It was fun to have that connection with him.
John: Yeah. That’s awesome. That is very cool. Do you have a favorite place maybe where you’ve travelled and also played poker?
Ruth: Well, I think Vegas remains the favorite just because it really is the Mecca of everything. There are so many options. But I actually played a game of poker in Monte Carlo. That was pretty cool.
John: Wow. Yeah. That’s pretty awesome.
Ruth: You have to convert it though into another currency. That was a pain.
John: That’s where that business major would have came in handy.
John: But that’s very cool that you’re able to combine all those passions into one. That’s so cool. Do you have I guess maybe a most rewarding memory or one of the coolest memories that you have?
Ruth: Yeah. It comes from the very beginning I was starting to play. That same trip where my husband encouraged me. We were staying at Win Las Vegas, which is a lovely place, but it’s also a very tough poker room. Lots of very aggressive and rich men. I was kind of the only woman.
The first day, as I said, I lost my money very quickly. The next day, my husband wanted to go to the gym for a long workout, so encouraged me to go back and play again. I sat down at the table, and I started winning. I was doing a lot better. I had more confidence in things. He ended up coming back from the gym and coming to find me at the tables. There’s sort of a rail and you can look in. He saw me with a lot of chips that I had just taken off this gentleman who was probably about 20 years older than me.
My husband had come over and kind of whispered to me and said “That guy looks like he could actually kill you.” We just started to laugh, because it was really clear that this gentleman – maybe it was a cultural thing. Let’s just say that he didn’t enjoy being beaten by a woman.
I took a few hundred dollars off him in the pot. We sort of laughed to each other. His second whisper to me was “I think we should leave right now.” That was one of those times when I cashed out and walked away. We just had a good laugh about it that time.
John: What a cool experience. It’s like the movies, you know?
Ruth: If looks could kill, I would not be having this conversation with you on the podcast right now.
John: Right. Hopefully, he’s not a big fan, because then, he’ll find you.
Ruth: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t think there’s a chance of that.
John: Right. But what a cool experience where you’re just in the pits, and then you and your husband are able to have a big laugh about it now. Oh, man. That’s so great. I can just picture that – I mean, was this like cigar smoking days?
Ruth: No. It’s no smoking rules in the poker room. Luckily, it wasn’t one of those backroom kind of deals. I was all good.
John: Yeah. I just feel like in the movies where it’s just like—all of a sudden, the cops walk in the front door, and everything folds up.
Ruth: I think the reason why I like playing it is that there is no smoking. It’s this one moment where you can sit there. I think the other reason is that you can sit down with $100, and if you’re halfway decent, can spend hours, versus sitting down somewhere else in a casino and being done in ten minutes. You use your brain.
John: Yeah. No. It’s entertainment. You’re also thinking. You can get your money’s worth there. As an accountant, do you think I would be excited – yeah, that’s the best thing for the buck.
Ruth: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. But I think for me, being an HR person, there’s lots of things that connect back to business and to the work I do. But for me, being in HR, I spent my career going off my gut and intuition and reading people. That’s 95% of what you do in a game like that.
John: That’s what I was going to ask. Were there any skills that you developed from playing poker and what have you? I guess just sharpening that gut instinct?
Ruth: Absolutely. That reading knowledge. That instinct of our people. So much of poker is about what’s your hand, and you blocking, when you have a real hand and trying to figure that out.
In HR, a lot of times, when you’re dealing with problems, people that might have had bigger folder files than you, it’s always a case of is it what this person said? Is it what the other person said? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? You’re always trying to ferret out what’s real or what’s a made-up story. That is so similar to what goes on in poker.
John: Yeah. That’s something I never really thought about. But super cool. Also great that you were able to realize that in the moment that hey, this is actually as skill that I’m using at work.
Ruth: I think – and I wrote about this a little bit in my book – not that I called out the fact that I was a poker player, but the analogy that I used is when you’re at work and you’re really disengaged, you’re basically dealt a hand. This is what it is. This is what my job is. This is the person that I work for.
You have to own it. You can’t wait for somebody else. You’ve got to decide. I’m basically going to go all in and buy into what this company is doing. Do I really want to be engaged? Or do I fold the hand? Ultimately, I made the decision to fold the hand and walk away from a big job.
John: Right. Yeah. That’s a great analogy for everyone. This is your hand. You either have to go all in, or you’re out.
Ruth: You’ve got to play it. You’ve got to decide if you’re going to play it. I tell people all the time that they need to own their own engagement. They really need to be a CEO – a chief engagement officer – and stop looking for someone else to blame in this scenario.
John: Yeah. Very good insights. I guess when you were doing the playing poker and what have you and had the HR jobs, was it something you talked about at work?
Ruth: I’d say I didn’t broadcast it widely, but there were definitely people that knew. There were some people that reported to me that I was very close to. They knew it. Really, where it became a bit public was a number of years ago when I was running human resources for the finance organization at this major company, I put on an offsite for the top finance leaders around the company up in Napa Valley, California, in this beautiful setting. One of the guys that I worked with, he was also a fellow poker player. He knew, and he said to me “You have this kit” – chips and cards and all that. He said “Why don’t you bring it with you, and maybe one night when we’re doing with everything, a bunch of us will play?”
Word sort of got out, and I had put on this amazing dinner on a long table on a deck overlooking the valley. At dinner, a bunch of people heard, and they said “Oh, I want to play.” Next thing you knew, we had about eight people sitting around a table after they had cleared out all the dishes on this gorgeous night. Lot of wine flowing. We start playing poker.
About 20 minutes into it, an earthquake hit. Yeah. Luckily, it was a small one. We like to say it was one of the most earth-shattering poker games we ever had. That’s story became legend a bit around the company. Unintentionally, more people found out about my hobby.
John: Right. Right. Because of the earthquake. I was going to say 20 minutes later, you had everyone’s chips. That’s what I figured you were going to. That is cool. How did people react when they heard?
Ruth: Some people thought it was pretty cool. Then what happened is over time, we used to have meetings in a lot of different locations. One year, there was a big leadership meeting in Arizona. Four or five of us – the guys called me and said “Hey, let’s go down to the casino that’s at the end of the driveway at this Wild Horse Pass Resort where there was a casino.” That was part of it.
We went down. A bunch of us played poker together. Other people – they were most finance people. A lot of bankers are really into craps and some other things if they went to a casino. They’d kind of go do their thing.
I think for most people, they just sort of laughed. “Hey, do we need to be afraid of you because you’re a shark?” To other people, it was just a passing thing they heard, and that was sort of the end of it.
John: Yeah, but it gives you a new dimension of “I would have never expected that out of Ruth”, but that’s cool.
Ruth: Yeah. It’s who you are. There are many facets of me. It’s not like people went “Oh, my gosh. I’ve got to go talk to her.” There are people that don’t believe that poker is a game of skill. They believe it’s gambling. Therefore, maybe they don’t love that. But nobody ever looked at me and said “Well, I don’t want to talk to you because you do something I’m not into.”
John: Right. If anything, it’s probably the opposite. It’s probably “I do that, too. Don’t tell anybody.”
I imagine that it just benefited your career as far as just creating those connections around a poker table when wine is flowing and you’re able to kick back and relax and create those connections with coworkers.
Ruth: You know, I would disagree slightly. I wouldn’t say that it was because of that. I think it was just the fact that one of my secrets to my successes in my career in HR was relationship building and connecting, and then being really good at what I did. I think that all of those things and the skills that I enhanced in terms of reading people come from the game.
I think it was more an outcome of how skilled I was at my job as versus “Wow, that’s a cool hobby” that just really enhanced my relationships. Once the coolness factor wears off, you still have to do the job.
John: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. We all have to be good at what we do. It’s just I find a lot of people that are good at what they do – that’s all they’re known for, or they’re not even known. It’s kind of a shame. But that’s great that the poker enhanced the career, so then you could be even better at doing that.
Ruth: I think it definitely did. But the other pieces – and I want to touch on something you were just talking about knowing something – my biggest secret to curing kind of the disengagement epidemic that’s out there is all about reconnecting with the people that work for you.
I really advocate having these connecting conversations that’s not a performance review. It’s not a to-do list. In those connecting conversations, when you’re talking to people about their life and what’s important to them, hobbies may and should come out as part of the conversation as you learn more about the person. It can really have a positive impact on engagement.
John: Absolutely. You can see people’s eyes light up, because that’s their true passion. I think it’s great too if you’re able to bring that passion back to work. It makes work more fun. Because if you talk about what you love a little bit, then hey, it’s not so bad being here. This is actually fun.
People talk about it a little bit, or if you’re able to play with some coworkers after hours at a conference, that’s a cool thing that you can create those connections.
Ruth: It’s just about what makes someone tick. We spend so many hours in the workplace. A ridiculous amount of hours. We need to see people not as human resources or human capital, which is how they’re called a lot, but rather, just as human beings. We need to get back to that.
John: Yeah. Wow. This is great. You should run this podcast. This is fantastic. No. This is so awesome.
Ruth: I should write a book. I think I did that.
John: Right. Exactly. Was there another hobby or passion that you would talk about at work some, or is that…?
Ruth: I really think it goes back to the first one I talked about, which is travel. I really got known for that. People started to live vicariously and ask me questions and restaurants. I became sort of the go-to person that is somebody was going to a particular city or they were going, they’d say “What restaurants do I need to go to?” or “What should I go and do?”
Those are incredible shared conversations in a workplace. I think it’s amazing how connected you can get to people when you’re talking about where to go in Italy or Charleston, South Carolina or New York or wherever that may be. That brings people together.
John: Absolutely. It’s amazing how it’s not work. You still get your work done, but just a quick little conversation or something over lunch. Just that bond that you create. They go, and they come back, and they tell you how great it was.
Ruth: It’s amazing. I’ve had those conversations with assistants all the way up to CEO. The best recommendation I ever got about food actually came from my CEO at the time when he heard I was going to Italy. We were having a conversation, and I mentioned that one of the places we were going to was Florence.
John said to me “Oh, my God. You have to go to Vivaldi for gelato. It’s the best I’ve ever had.” I wrote it down, and I came back, and I told my husband about it. We were in Florence three nights. We went there all three nights. Probably over 100 people. But that just came from a hallway conversation with my CEO.
John: Yeah. That’s so great. That’s so great. Such a perfect example. Now, we’re all going to Florence for some gelato, because I’m hungry right now.
Ruth: It was amazing.
John: That’s so perfect. That’s so perfect. One thing that I like to ponder about, because I have time, is when it comes to creating this engagement culture or culture for sharing, is it more on the organization to create that culture, or is it more on the individual to step up and, when appropriate or within a circle, share?
Ruth: It’s actually shared. I refer to it as “painting a masterpiece of engagement” where the analogy that I use is that if an artist was going to create a masterpiece, first, they have to take out a canvas, and that canvas has to rest on an easel. An easel has three equal legs. I truly believe that around engagement, one leg is owned by the C-suite to really set the tone and the direction and the importance of engagement as a critical business imperative.
The second leg really needs to be held by the managers who are really responsible for making that connection and being transparent and honest and really connecting and aligning the employee to where they want to go.
The third leg is held by the employee themselves who really has a role in this to bring their whole self into the workplace and be committed but also to make the effort to connect if they’re not seeing their manager do that.
Those are the three equal legs of the easel. I think that’s how you paint a masterpiece.
John: Yeah. That’s an excellent thing that everyone can picture. It’s important that there’s the managers there in the middle, because they’re the ones who are touching the employees on a regular basis or that in constant contact to reinforce that.
Ruth: They’re being squeezed in the middle. On the one hand, you’ve got their senior leader saying “Do more with less. Do it faster. Do it more efficiently.” On the other side, you’ve got employees who say “Talk to me. Care about me. Give me coaching and feedback.” The manager is an employee themselves, so they’ve got some of that. They’re just squeezed trying to figure it out.
John: Yeah. That’s tough. Absolutely. What are some thing that maybe you’ve seen other companies do when you were in HR jobs or what have you to foster that growth or that development of some sharing or that engagement?
Ruth: I think the first thing – and this didn’t exactly make me very popular with my HR colleagues when I first started going around the country talking about this – but if you notice, there wasn’t a leg on that easel for HR.
They like to believe that they own it, and I said “No. You’re actually more like the actual paint or the brush or the canvas, because you’re really the facilitator of the tools. But you can’t own engagement. Stop thinking you’re most important in this process.”
What you have to do is a good HR person is one that gets their CEO and C-suite to recognize that there’s a return of investment on this. You’re a finance person, right?
Ruth: Look at the numbers. There is absolutely a return on investment from a cost profitability and all kinds of other things. HR really has to be the one to help get that message across and then get out of the way and let the managers and the business work together to make this important.
John: Yeah. I can see why your HR friends weren’t too happy about that. “She’s not invited to the meetings anymore.”
Ruth: Good. Thankfully. Oh, my God. I finally got out of those long meetings.
John: You’re like “I’m taking my chips, and I’m going home.”
Ruth: Exactly. Take my money off the table.
John: That’s hilarious. That’s so funny. Really quickly, what might be some barriers that you found for people that have this hobby or passion but they don’t really want to share it at work or talk about it?
Ruth: You know, I think you have to just be your most authentic, true self. Throughout my entire career, sometimes, that got me in trouble; sometimes, that got me promoted. But at the end of the day, I really had to be who I was and be my full, authentic self, and be okay with that.
This is a part of who I am. If this is something that helped me in my career, then I’m not ashamed of it. I’m okay with it. It doesn’t mean I have to shout it from the rooftops with everyone, but if it was a situation where it came up, hey, this is who I am. This makes me better at what I do. I can read people better. You know what? That’s cool.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. Like you said, you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops. You could share it within a small group. You’re at the conference. Yeah, sure. Let’s play some poker. That’s what I do.
Had the earthquake not happened, maybe not everyone would have. But it doesn’t matter. You own it. That’s what you do. It’s great too that you realize it was a skill that enhances your job even. There’s no reason to shy away from it.
Ruth: Hundred percent. It definitely enhanced my job.
John: Yeah. No. This is so great. So great.
Ruth: Now, you’re going to play, right? You’re going to come meet me and we’ll play?
John: Yeah. Exactly. For pennies and nickels.
Ruth: Totally. I’m a one-dollar table. For me, it was never about the money. It’s about the enjoyment of it and just using my brain and enhancing my skills. It’s not about “Oh, my God. I’m going to go win or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.” I don’t play those stakes.
John: This has been awesome. I think everyone has really enjoyed getting to know you more. I have a rule where we can’t really hang out and play that game until we do my 17 rapid-fire questions.
Ruth: My temper’s getting hotter and hotter as you speak.
John: Yeah. I hope you have a seatbelt and you’re ready to go, but – 17 really fast. First one: cats or dogs?
Ruth: Dogs. Totally. Allergic to cats.
John: Oh, well, that would be a good reason. How about a favorite color?
John: Blue. Mine, too. How about a least favorite color?
John: Brown. That’s a good answer. That’s a solid answer. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?
Ruth: I’ve never seen any of them. I’m not into science fiction.
John: All right. How about a PC or a Mac?
Ruth: Oh, Mac. Totally.
John: Yeah? When it comes to a mouse, right click or left click?
John: Right click. Do you have a favorite Disney character?
John: Pluto. That’s a good answer. Yes. That’s a fun one. That’s definitely a fun one. How about a favorite band or a musician?
Ruth: Oh, I’ve got so many. It depends in the moment. I’m a huge Adele fan, but I’m also old school like Led Zeppelin.
John: Oh, wow. Yeah. You just put it on mix and go.
John: That’s cool. How about diamonds or pearls?
Ruth: Pearls when I was younger. Diamonds now. I got my first pearls when I was 13 at my bat mitzvah.
John: Oh, wow. That’s fantastic. I thought you were going to say you won them at a poker table. That’s so cool. How about – balance sheet or income statement?
Ruth: Balance sheet.
John: How about, do you have a movie that makes you cry?
Ruth: Dirty Dancing.
Ruth: Don’t put baby in the corner.
John: Very good. Do you have a favorite number?
John: Thirteen. Why is that?
Ruth: Because I was born on Friday the 13th. My mother was born on Friday the 13th. My mother-in-law was born on the 13th. My husband blew it by six minutes by being born on the 14th. It’s a good number.
John: Your husband blew it.
Ruth: Six minutes. 12:06 AM on the 14th.
John: You don’t remind him of that every day?
Ruth: I never did. No.
John: That’s very funny. Do you have a favorite actor or actress?
Ruth: For actress, I’d have to say Jennifer Lawrence. For actor, because he lived where I grew up and I met him and he was one of the nicest people in the world, was Paul Newman.
John: Oh, wow. Very nice.
Ruth: I just ran into him in the local ice cream parlor.
John: That’s very cool. Just three more. Do you have a favorite TV show of all time?
Ruth: I’m really into reality TV like Amazing Race and Survivor. Going to old school, it was Dallas.
John: Oh, Dallas. Yeah. I was a little too young for that, but I was a big Dallas Cowboys fan growing up. My parents used to let me stay up to watch the intro because they had a flyover of the Cowboys stadium. Then I had to go to bed. I remember that theme song today. It’s crazy.
How about this one? Sudoku or crossword puzzle?
Ruth: Crossword puzzle.
John: Yeah. Then two more. Pens or pencils?
Ruth: Oh, pen, colorful, flair, totally.
John: Okay. And the last one: the favorite thing you own?
Ruth: The favorite thing I own right now is something new that came out of something sad. But I was just looking at it this morning. My husband passed away suddenly last year. We had season tickets to the San Francisco Giants. Fifty-seven was the age my husband died. It was also the year we were born.
Someone worked with the Giants to get made a Giants baseball jersey with “Sandman” which was his nickname on the back and 57, and it was signed by most of the Giants. Totally cool. Framed in my house now.
John: That is very, very cool.
Ruth: Very cool. Sandman 57. I love it.
John: That is fantastic.
Ruth: Not what you expected me to say, but it’s a favorite thing in my house.
John: No, not at all. I can’t think of anything better. Very cool. Very cool. Well, thank you so much, Ruth, for taking time to be with me today. I know everyone really enjoyed all the stuff that you jammed in here in this short episode. Thank you so much.
Ruth: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.
John: I hope you enjoyed hearing Ruth as much as I did. I love how she said that you’re dealt a hand at work, and just like in poker, you need to decide whether to go all in and be engaged or fold.
Be sure to check out Ruth’s book Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career through the link at greenapplepodcast.com. While you’re there, please click the big green button and do my anonymous research survey.
Thank you so much for listening and sharing this with your friends. Now, go out and be a green apple.