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Watching George Floyd’s murder on TV shook Rob Cohen to his core. He was well aware of racial injustices and inequities; he had already implemented diversity, equity and inclusion policies at IMA Financial Group, where he serves as chairman and CEO. But he realized he needed to step up to create even greater change. On this episode of the Voices of Experience podcast, Cohen explains the “listen, learn, then lead” approach he used in response, the best way for a company to build a healthy culture, how he juggles competing priorities and how he keeps things interesting, 34 years into a job.

Show Notes

Headshot of Rob Cohen

Rob Cohen

Rob Cohen is the chairman and CEO of IMA Financial Group. He currently serves the boards of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation, Colorado Succeeds, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Denver Sports, Downtown Denver Partnership, Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., United States Olympic Museum, United States Olympic & Paralympic Foundation and Visit Denver.

Table of Contents

1:14 “No Way in Hell”
3:02 Keeping it interesting after 34 years
6:15 Reacting to George Floyd’s murder
8:59 Approaching DEI as a white person
12:34 What’s next for DEI at IMA
14:47 Creating a good culture
20:34 Balancing life’s “platter”
24:08 Attracting today’s new, talented workers
27:54 “Write your dreams down”
29:54 Show notes and credits

In this episode:

Related articles and information:

Online extra: Is it realistic for today’s workers to stay at the same company for 34 years?

Transcript

Lorne Fultonberg:
This month, on the Voices of Experience podcast: How do you build a healthy office culture?

Rob Cohen:
If you’re asking that question, you don’t understand the very definition of the word culture.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Well, Rob Cohen gets it. And he has a recipe for cooking up a set of values your employees believe in and buy into.

Rob Cohen:
It’s not senior leadership, it’s not the CEO, it’s the entire organization who owns culture. And you have to protect and defend culture every day.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Rob Cohen moved to Denver for love, and ended up loving Denver. In the 37 years since he settled down in the Mile High City, he’s won just about every local award you can win for leadership and community service. That’s because Cohen, the chairman and CEO of IMA Financial Group, has set the standard for attracting talented workers, creating an enjoyable workplace, and keeping up in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

On this episode, we talk about what he’s learned over his lengthy career, whether it’s how to keep things interesting in the office, how to approach social justice issues or how he’s learned to juggle so many competing priorities.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Good to have you here, Rob.

Rob Cohen:
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Lorne Fultonberg:
So we just gave your bio in the intro there, but I was reading a little Q&A you did with the Denver Business Journal in 2019 and you said you would title your biography or autobiography, “No Way in Hell.” Why?

Rob Cohen:
It’s just because of all the people during my life who’ve told me there was no way in hell I could do whatever it is so that I was trying to do. So a couple years ago I just started to jot down the names, all the people who told me things like that just, and I thought if I ever do write a book that I will title it “No Way in Hell” and I’ll put all their names in the intro of the book.

Lorne Fultonberg:
I love that. Even for someone who has risen to your position, there’s been a lot of doubters, huh?

Rob Cohen:
Always. If you’re pushing to do anything of consequence and you want to set your visions high, there’s always people who ask you why or think that you can’t do it. So it’s just part of the journey.

Lorne Fultonberg:
1989 is when you opened IMA Financial Group Denver office. And you’ve been with the company ever since? So that’s 34 years, 2023 now. I feel like that is a really rare career path these days. I was wondering if that was the plan for you to get to a company and stay there.

Rob Cohen:
No, I mean I think you have a vision in your life and how things might go, et cetera. And I actually started a Fortune 500 company and when I went there I thought that would be the place that I would certainly stay for a while. But then the two things kicked in, the entrepreneur bug got within me and then just the life journey. So it just ended up that I ended up here and wanted to create that opportunity and off we went.

Lorne Fultonberg:
34 years is a while in the business world. How do you keep it interesting after all these years?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. I think the key is to constantly be changing and innovating and really looking at what it is that not only you’re doing but what it is that the company is doing. I think that’s the big mistake that a lot of organizations make. There was a famous book written after this called Good to Great that-

Lorne Fultonberg:
I’ve heard that’s a favorite of yours.

Rob Cohen:
It is one of my favorites because I think it’s so true. When things are good, it’s hard to make change and really aspire to be great. So what I’ve always challenged myself is when things are good, are there a way to re-look at them, reassess, maybe break the things that are even working so that you can really strive to be great?

Lorne Fultonberg:
How do you know when a moment is good but maybe not as good as it could be?

Rob Cohen:
I always tell people that it’s that point in time, certainly in business when everything is just rocking and rolling, it feels good, the trajectory is good, everything’s really the people are happy around you, et cetera. And it’s usually at those moments where if you’re not paying attention, something’s going to come out of the blue that you don’t see whether it’s a economic downturn or a pandemic or whatever it might be. So you need to be in the process of challenging yourself to say, what happens if this train stops running in a good way so that you’re prepared to make that move when that distraction comes.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Could you tell us about a time either recently or notably in your career when that’s happened to you?

Rob Cohen:
Well, the pandemic is probably the classic example. So right before that, we were really doing good. As a company, everything was moving in the direction that we wanted, but we really assessed and said, “There are two options at this point. We can do IMA 2.0 or we could try to do something really revolutionary and really something that could change not only our business but the industry.” And we started having those conversations and then when the pandemic came along, most people went pencils down and curled up in a ball to see what’s going to happen during the pandemic. And we looked around and said this is our opportunity to make that shift. This is our opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We did a recapitalization at that point. We doubled down on our strategic plan and really took advantage of the opportunity that we had because we were all working at home and we had more time on our hands to really try to accelerate things. And our company has tripled, almost quadrupled since the pandemic began. And it was really just being ready for that moment when it came.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Was it smooth and simple as that?

Rob Cohen:
It’s never smooth and simple. Anyone who tells you that is lying to you. I mean that’s the fun part of the journey is there’s always obstacles, there’s always challenges. But if you’re with like-minded people who share your value system and you have a lot of alignment in that, then you’ll sit down and have honest conversations and figure out how to work your way through it.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Another thing I was reading about that you had to react to and pivoted for was the murder of George Floyd a couple years ago, and I understand diversity, equity and inclusion, DEI is a pretty central pillar of who you are. I want to talk about that. But first, how did you pivot? How did you react? How did you even absorb that news in that situation?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. I think everybody was affected by George Floyd in a different way, primarily because it’s all about your own life experiences that you had up to that point. But for me that was a seminal moment in that we’ve heard of these things before and it’s not new and DEI certainly wasn’t new to our company. But to sit on your living room couch and to watch the murder of somebody on your television was quite emotional for me personally. And it really caused me to assess and really asked myself why. And I sat down and drafted an email to our associates that day that ended up turning into an editorial in the Denver Post, which I titled, “How did this happen? We let it happen,” meaning that us, the White people let it happen. And obviously that didn’t sit well with a lot of people, but for me that was just my honest truth that I think a lot of us had been quiet, had not been allies, had not really stepped up for the type of change that I think was needed.

Again, this isn’t new. We saw the civil rights movement in the 1960s, so this has been going on for 50, 60 years in our country. So for me, it really caused me to assess and say doing the same old thing is not the right answer now. We have to do something different. We have to be honest about the conversation and we have to challenge people to thinking differently. And that’s one of the reasons that I started the pledge, which is CEOs uniting against racism and it was really a pledge that we were taking to do things differently and not just in our own companies. It’s not about changing the way our workforce looks or the conversations we’re having. It’s really understanding the inequities that happen in our healthcare system, in our education system and our social justice system and really seeing how we can unite and make a change.

Lorne Fultonberg:
We’ll be sure to link that editorial in our show notes too, so people can read it if they’d like.

You mentioned you are White. I am White. I feel like it can be tough for a lot of white people, myself included, to approach these issues of racial inequity and social justice. How do you do it?

Rob Cohen:
There’s no right way to do it. Our motto inside our company was listen, learn and then lead. I think the mistake that many of us make is we want to help. So we lead right into leading or lean right into leading and it’s against our nature to take time to really listen and try to understand what are the issues and really learn and have that perspective. And by the way, it’s not others’ obligation to teach us, it’s our obligation to go ask the questions and then listen to the responses that we’re getting so that we can learn. And then once we’ve done that, then if you see things where you think you can make a difference, then lean in and lead.

Lorne Fultonberg:
I was reading a little bit about your upbringing, Rob, and it sounds like you had exposure to diversity, equity, inclusion issues at a young age and your parents were pretty involved with that work?

Rob Cohen:
My mom was really well ahead of her time in that when I was in elementary school, she really felt like it was important for me to get exposure to the world. So she specifically enrolled me in a predominantly all African-American school where instead of being the majority I was in the minority. But when you’re in the third, fourth grade as a kid, you don’t see the world in the same way that many people as adults see it. So many of those classmates that I had became my very best friends.

So again, I said it earlier, we’re all just results of our own life journey. So that was part of my life journey that gave me just a little different insight. When I went into the school store to buy a comb, there was no comb, there were only picks. And it gives you some understanding of what an African-American might feel like walking into a grocery store and where they can find combs but they can’t find picks. And these are subtle little messages when you’re a third, fourth, fifth, sixth grader that stick with you for the rest of your life.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Maybe it’s fair to say then given your childhood experiences that DEI has been on your radar longer than it has been on a lot of CEOs’ radars. I’m curious though how your understanding of DEI has changed over the years or even recently?

Rob Cohen:
Look, we all have biases. We have conscious and unconscious biases and it’s hard to confront your biases. And even with my own experience, I still have biases. And if you deny them then that’s part of the problem. So what you realize is that this is about lifelong learning. This is not a journey that has a destination that you’re going to arrive at. This is a journey that we’re all on. And doesn’t matter when my journey started or when your journey started it, what’s important is that we’re all on it and we give people grace for being where they are on the journey. Yet we try to keep ourselves open to learning.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Where do you see the DEI work at IMA going from here forward?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. I’m proud of our associates for really stepping up and leaning in and I’m speaking in the majority as opposed to everybody because again, I just said this, everybody that works in our company is at a different place in their journey. Some are just beginning, some are deeply into it. But I think there has been a coalescing around the importance of this discussion and dialogue and many of our associates have been quite brave to stand up and tell their story. Whether that’s around sexual orientation or race or religion or mental health issues, I mean there are a number of different things that our associates have stepped up and made themselves vulnerable in front of their associates, which is really incredibly hard to do. And as I said earlier, it’s not their obligation to do that but it is quite helpful to the journey in having people understand the perspectives that each other have.

And then leading in our own work, in terms of diversifying our workforce, I’m quite proud of when George Floyd was murdered, we were like 6% diverse. Today we’re 16% diverse in our company. That doesn’t happen by having quotas or requirements. What I’ve said to our staff is, “If we want to have a diverse workforce, then we have to have every open position we have has to have a diverse set of candidates apply for the job and then we pick the best candidate.” And if you do that and you pick the best candidate, you truly will be diverse. But you have to work on the front end to make sure that the pool of candidates are diverse. And it doesn’t mean one person gets an advantage over the other. Once you have the final candidates, it should be the best man, woman regardless of their sexual orientation, their color of their skin, their religion, whatever it is.

Lorne Fultonberg:
This all leads me into a question I wanted to ask you about office culture, which is something that I feel like we just throw around. We all want a good culture in our workplace. On your LinkedIn, I read that you are proud of building what you call an “industry-leading employee culture.” And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit of your handbook for what are the step by steps for creating a good culture in the workplace?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. They can’t see on the podcast but I always smile and chuckle at this question because I get it frequently. People often say, “How did you build the culture?” And I say, “If you’re asking that question, you don’t understand the very definition of the word culture.” A single individual cannot build or create a culture. By its very definition, it’s a group of people. But what an individual can do is have a set of values and they can live and aspire those values every day and they can attract other people who have shared values. And over time those become the predominant values of a company. What most companies have risk at, as they get scale, then their culture starts to change because the values of the individuals are changing.

So what I’ve said from day one is it’s not senior leadership, it’s not the CEO, it’s the entire organization who owns culture. And you have to protect and defend culture every day. So if you see an individual who is not living the shared values that the organization has, if you don’t say something, you’re just as guilty as the CEO or the senior leaders in not protecting and defending the culture. And that’s very hard to do in today’s business world. But if you do that and you give people the ability to do that and the freedom to do that and they take it to heart, then you can build a culture. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 50 people, 100 people, 500, or as we are now 2,000 plus people, you can still protect and defend the culture. So the simple answer to the question is the people have built the culture and they have protected it and defended it.

Lorne Fultonberg:
One of the values that it seems is really important to you is this giving back to the community, community service. I know that when you opened IMA Financial group’s, Denver office, you also started the IMA Foundation at the same time?

Rob Cohen:
Yes. The foundation, it existed beforehand, but I wanted to make sure that it was certainly part of what we were doing here in Denver.

Lorne Fultonberg:
How do those two things work together?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. I mean it was really funny because all the advisors would tell me, “You don’t need to focus on building a foundation. You haven’t even got a dollar of revenue or a dollar of profit. Why are you worried about how you’re going to give it away?” And I said, “Look, if it’s not in your DNA from day one that a percentage of your profit every day that you earn is going to go back to the communities that you live and work in, then it’s hard to create that focus at a later time.”

And part of that came out of the fact that I had made all these physical moves over that period of time, but also part of it was instilled again by my mom and dad who I would go out trick-or-treating for Halloween and we came back, my mom would make us sit on the floor and sort our candy and one would go in a basket that we could enjoy over a period of time, but the rest went to be given away. In those days we called them orphanages, but they went to places where kids didn’t have the same opportunities to go trick or treating. Same thing at the holidays. If I wrote a list of gifts that I wanted for the holiday, my mom would make my sister and I sort our toys and decide which ones we were going to give away to make room for the new ones.

So those things have been instilled in me personally. I missed them when I was going through that career part of my life where I was, for lack of a better term, climbing the corporate ladder. And then when I moved to Denver, I realized that by a lot of people’s definition I was more successful than many of my friends and peers. But I didn’t feel successful because I didn’t have this place to call home. I didn’t have this place that’s community. So it just became very important that we do that from day one.

Lorne Fultonberg:
I guess the adult business professional version of that altruism is doing a lot of nonprofit work serving on boards. And you do an awful lot of that. I read that you’ve served on more than 20 nonprofit boards from the I Have a Dream Foundation to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation. My first question when I read all that was where do you find the time, you are also the CEO of and chairman of a major company?

Rob Cohen:
You find time for the things you prioritize. And if you prioritize family, you’ll find time for family, if you prioritize work, and I’m not one to sit here and say I am the perfect example of balance because I’m not. I mean the very definition of balance is in my way of looking at it is over our entire lifetime that we might have these utopian moments where everything’s perfect in our lives, but for most of us it’s this ying (sic) and yang. So just got to constantly make sure that the things you’re volunteering for are things you’re truly passionate about and that you really feel like you can make a difference in. And then if it’s important to you, you try to figure out how do you balance that with family life, your spiritual life, your personal life and your work life.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Yeah. One of our earlier guests actually, our first guest this season was talking about that balance of, he viewed it as working really, really hard for a couple decades and then in his retirement, being able to devote more time to other things and balancing that way, which I thought was interesting.

Rob Cohen:
It’s funny. I’ve heard that from a lot of people. A lot of people have told me early on, “The normal path, Rob, is to build your career, build your business, et cetera. And then when you have the fruits of that labor, then you can give and give back.” For me, I don’t think I would’ve been… It’s not right or wrong, it’s just different. I don’t think I would’ve been fulfilled if I was doing that because part of my journey was having that opportunity to do those things along the way. I had a mentor once who gave me an incredible definition of balance and he actually said, “It’s not that attractive Rob, but if you think of your life as a platter and on the platter are all these balls,” and physics would tell you only one ball can occupy the center of the platter.

And throughout your life you’re going to put more and more balls on the platter. And your job and your life is to figure out how to balance that platter. But no matter how hard you try, there’s going to be balls that are going to come off the platter and your only job is to recognize which balls are which. Because on that platter you have rubber balls that when they come off the platter they’ll bounce. You can quickly catch them and put them right back on. You’ll have steel balls that when they come off they’ll go thud, you’ve got to bend down while you’re still balancing this platter and putting them back on. But you’ve got glass balls on there too, that when they come off they’ll break. And when they break you’ll never get them back. And that’s your family, that’s your health

So he said, “No matter what you put on your platter, as long as you recognize the glass balls and make sure when you see one of them getting out to the edge, that you make sure you get it back to the middle.” Again, I’m not the perfect definition of balance and I haven’t done it perfectly, but that has stuck with me my entire career. So it’s just a great analogy for me.

Lorne Fultonberg:
That’s a really lovely sentiment, thank you for sharing that. How do you decide which organizations you want to get involved in? And for our listeners who are maybe starting their involvement journey, where do you recommend people begin?

Rob Cohen:
Yeah. Well, I tell people it’s first about passion. Find the things that you care about that you’re passionate about. I think a lot of times people think they’re supposed to get on this board because it’s a who’s-who board or this board because it will help their career. And the truth of the matter is those who have served on boards, we see the difference of the people who come in because they’re motivated by the mission and the passion of the mission of the work and those that are coming in because they want to either pad their resume or help themselves in their business life.

So if you actually look at all the nonprofits that I’ve worked with, they all fall into three categories. The first is economic development. City building doesn’t just happen, it happens by thoughtful, caring people who lean in to create a city.

The second thing for me is youth and education that, that’s the great equalizer. So I was passionate about helping kids that maybe wouldn’t have the opportunity that I had, or other people have had. And then last, you see a common thread around sports and it’s transformational in my life and I think sports in many ways is a microcosm for life. The ups and downs and winning and losing and all of those aspects. So almost everything I’ve done falls in those three categories.

Lorne Fultonberg:
I want to ask you about the job climate these days. In Denver, the governor just released a report with his budget where he said, Colorado has twice as many job openings as people who are unemployed. And I’m wondering what you need to do these days to attract new, talented workers.

Rob Cohen:
I tell people it’s always been a challenge. Anyone who said that there are better times or not, but it’s a competitive marketplace and if you want to attract and retain the very best, then you have to constantly be thinking what it is that they want and where do you meet them. I used to joke when we opened our office down at Union Station, we went to casual dress, let people wear, we call it “client-appropriate dress.” So dress for the client that you’re meeting with that day or you’re talking to that day, but really meant that people were allowed to wear jeans. At that time there were casual Fridays, but not Monday through Friday. And then we opened a Starbucks on our first floor that was complimentary for our employees and our applications for job positions tripled. And I said, “If someone had told me 10 years ago, all I had to do was let them wear jeans and give them free coffee, I would’ve done it a long time ago.”

I think in today’s world it’s a lot more demanding. I mean, people want flexible work opportunities and at least in our company, that doesn’t mean fully in the office. It doesn’t mean hybrid and it doesn’t mean fully remote. It means that everybody has the option and flexibility to figure out what works in their life. And I try to tell people that there’s choices that you make and there’s pros and cons with each of the models. None of them are perfect. And this strive for life balance is not new. This is something, as long as I’ve been in the working world, we’ve been struggling for life balance.

If you think about it, work is supposed to be collaboration and learning from each other. So if you create an environment where people want to do that, then you’ll get higher productivity out of them. And that’s not sitting at cubicles and in offices. That’s a misnomer that just happened to be the quiet place where people did head down work.

In our way, we give everybody the opportunity to have equity in our company. And that’s how I think you can really separate yourself. Compensation is competitive in terms of the benefits that we provide and the compensation. But giving people a chance to have equity gives them ownership in the company and the ability to create real wealth.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Maybe it’s the jeans and the java, but you’ve received a lot of awards and hardware in your career. Things like most admired CEO, urban legend, outstanding volunteer fundraiser, corporate citizen of the year. Is there a recognition that you’ve received that means the most to you personally?

Rob Cohen:
That’s a great question. I would say the recognition that I received that means the most to me are the letters and cards that I get from our associates when they retire from our company. And they’re usually the longer term employees who have been there for a while who’ve been there through the thick and thin. The older I get in life, I realize there’s two things that matter. There’s relationships, which are people and there’s experiences. And when it’s really meaningful is when you put the two together. When you have relationships with people and you experience something unique and different and the opportunity to build and create a company with a whole bunch of people who have the same stake in it is probably the greatest reward I’ve been given.

Lorne Fultonberg:
This is a question that we ask all of our guests at the end of our interviews. As a voice of experience on the Voices of Experience Podcast, what’s something you would want to pass on to our listeners that you haven’t already?

Rob Cohen:
Hopefully I’ve said most of it, but you know what I always tell people is don’t be scared to go for your dreams. I had a high school coach who once asked me if I had dreams and I told him that I did. And he asked me to write my dreams down and share them with him the next day, which I did. And when I did that, he said, “Tonight after practice you’re going to share these with your teammates.” I said, “No sir, I’m not going to do that.” And he said—Because some of them were personal, but some of them were team oriented. He goes, “No, you are going to do that.” So make a long story short, he made me stand up on a chair after practice and share the things I’d written down with my team.

I went home that night and the next morning he called me in, he goes, “You’re not too happy with me, are you?” And I said, “No sir, I’m not.” And he goes, “You really didn’t like what I told you to do?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Let me tell you why I told you to do that. He said, everybody dreams. But less than 2% of people ever even act on their dreams, let alone accomplish them. But if you have dreams and you write them down, they become goals. If you have goals and you share them with other people, they become passions both because you told other people that you were going to do this.” But guess what? None of us can accomplish our dreams without the help of other people.

And the mere fact of writing your dream down and sharing it with other people increased the odds that not only will you act on your dream, but you’ll have the chance to achieve your dream. So my advice to everyone is write your dreams down, make them goals, share them with others. Go for it. You only got one life to live.

Lorne Fultonberg:
That’s Rob Cohen, chairman and CEO of the IMA Financial Group. Rob, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Rob Cohen:
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed it as well.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Thirty-four years at one company is a long time and it had us wondering: Is that a path that still makes sense for up-and-coming professionals in today’s business world? Rob gave a great answer about re-inventing yourself at your current company and how executives can make it easier to retain those high achievers. You can find that little online extra on our show notes page at daniels.du.edu/voe-podcast

You’ll also find links to some mighty interesting Q&As Rob did with the Denver Business Journal—everything from how his mentoring relationships have changed over the years to his walk-up song if he ever played a concert at Red Rocks. It’s worth a read, seriously.

The VOE Podcast is an extension of Voices of Experience, the signature speaker series at the Daniels College of Business, sponsored by U.S. Bank. Chloe Smith is our sound engineer. Alumnus Joshua Metzel wrote our theme.

I’m Lorne Fultonberg. If you’d be so kind, leave us a rating and review wherever you’re listening, and we’ll see you next time.