People who are second in command must be as good as their bosses and not just act as mere spare tires. Thus, excellent leadership skills are still expected from them, no matter the situation. Cameron Herold sits down with Scott Frisch of AARP to give a peek at his life as its COO. He shares his strategies when it comes to time management, handling a considerable amount of information, and problem-solving. He also explains how he continuously improves his skill sets to be a key player in their team’s growth, from how he runs team meetings to managing several roles without conflicting with his own responsibilities.
Scott Frisch is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for AARP. He’s responsible for all enterprise-wide operational and financial matters, including human resources, information technology, real estate, and facilities management as well as data and analytics performance management. Since his appointment as COO, Scott has helped guide AARP through a period of dynamic change. He’s reengineering the operational functions of the organization to maximize efficiencies and increase operating reserves. He established a $40 million investment fund that spurs innovation in health and wellness, as well as a $60 million investment vehicle to accelerate research into cures for all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Scott is a Certified Public Accountant and previously held the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) series 6 and 63 licenses. He’s a Board Member on the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Treasurer and Chair of the Audit and Finance Committee of Downtown DC Business Improvement Council, and on the Board of Advisors for CBC Financial. Scott is also a member of the Connected DMV COVID-19 Strategic Renewal Task Force. It is a collaboration of regional leaders focused on accelerating the economic and business recovery of the Greater Washington area in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Scott, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
We were laughing a little bit about the age requirements of AARP. I was joking that years ago, I got a magazine in the mail and I’m like, “I’m not old enough to be in.” Tell us a little bit about what AARP is and even the new age requirements for it.
AARP is the largest nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in the country with nearly 38 million members serving the 50-plus audience in the US. We’re a rather big nonprofit. If you think about our background, a lot of people ask, “What do you do? What’s the size of the organization?” We operate what I describe as the nexus of advocacy work at the federal state and local level. We run the most widely-read magazine in the country, if not the world, the AARP The Magazine. Its readership is about 38 million or so people.
We’re a media powerhouse in some ways. You could describe it that way. We operate in every state in the country in the territory. We’re across the country and we’re diversified across advocacy, publications, and licensing our intellectual property to have products being sold into our membership that adds value to people’s lives across health, financial security, and personal fulfillment. It’s a great organization that has a huge impact on people’s lives.
I’m glad you mentioned the magazine. The way that I first heard about AARP was when I was the COO for a company called 1-800-GOT-JUNK? We had an in-house PR team that we were building. We identified a lot of the top publications we wanted to get covered in and we came up with AARP as the top magazine by circulation. The Costco magazine might have been number two. You were staggeringly large.
We’re still there. We’re still the most widely circulated magazine and most widely read. It’s a great place for people to communicate with the 50-plus audience. Back to your original question about the age requirement, we are 50-plus. I’ve been an AARP for sixteen years or so and it’s been 50-plus at least since I’ve been there. I don’t remember exactly when we went from 55 to 50, but it was a long time ago. We will find you at 50. We always do.
Are you preparing us at 50 for retirement? It seems like people are retiring later in life.
It used to be called the American Association of Retired Persons. We dropped the name and just went with the letters. This also predates me, but primarily because of that, exactly how you just framed it. People aren’t necessarily retiring at 55 or 60 or 65 anymore. People are working longer because they have to financially and they want to. A lot of people want to work and they love being part of something. They love the social connection. We’ve shifted to taking away the concept of retirement because it means something different to everybody no matter what age you are.
Tell me a little bit about the organization internally. What does it look like and feel like internally?
We’re about 2,200 to 2,300 staff primarily headquartered in Washington, DC, but we do have offices in every state in the country, primarily on the advocacy side. If you look at the AARP strategy, we focus around three prongs. We’re a social mission organization. We’re a membership organization. We’re a 501(c)(4). We have a for-profit arm. Everyone talks about the AARP travel discounts. That’s part of what the for-profit arm does.
We also have a foundation, the AARP Foundation, which is our charitable arm. It is a 501(c)(3) that focuses on the low-income elderly, around focus areas of hunger, income, housing, and isolation among other things. Structurally, think about it as you have a parent nonprofit, and then you have a for-profit arm and you have a charitable foundation. We focus around three real areas of health security, financial resilience, and personal fulfillment.
One of the things I’m curious about when an organization gets to your size, and this was probably what I struggled most with and I get the sense that you don’t, is when you’re leading an organization of 2,200 people, how do you not get dragged down into the details? How do you allow yourself to stay at a strategic level or a leadership level? How do you prevent yourself from wanting to get into everything that you could get involved in?
A lot of it depends on the personality of the individual, but regardless, it’s not easy. In my career, I’ve had the upward progression of increasing responsibility and increasing sizes of organizations along with increasing responsibilities at the same time. I was on the phone with a friend of mine who’s becoming CEO of a startup that doesn’t even have office space yet. He’s going to work through much details like I’m sure you did at the beginning of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? It’s vastly different than the COO or the CEO of an organization that’s been around for 62 years like AARP.
The key is, at least in my case, I have to get enough comfort and understanding of what drives the business. What are those key drivers? What are those key risks to the business? Thirdly, although equally as important, is making sure you have a comfort level with your staff that run those areas. You get an intuitive sense of where you need to jump in versus not. Unless you understand the business and understand the drivers and the risks, you’re naturally going to want to get your hands into every little detail and that’s not the way to run an organization.
How long have you been at AARP?
It’ll be sixteen years at the end of the summer of 2020.
Have you progressed in the organization then since you’ve been there and you didn’t come in as COO?
I started off as CFO of a subsidiary of our for-profit arm. It was called AARP Financial. They were an investment advisor to a series of newly created AARP mutual funds. My background prior to that was in the mutual fund industry, and then public accounting before that.
Harvard wrote an article called The Misunderstood Role of the COO. One of the things that they identified was that every COO is completely different. They came up with seven distinct types of chief operating officers. One will be outward-facing and one’s inward-facing. One might be financially minded and one might be systems and processes. One might be sales and marketing. You tend to bend towards the financial side and you also operate as CFO.
After leaving the AARP Financial, I was named CFO of the for-profit arm, and then years ago, I was named COO of the parent, and then a few months later, I added the CFO umbrella underneath that. I vaguely remember that article. Having 2 roles, 1 is the CFO and 1 is the COO, is a dichotomy in my brain. I have one side that thinks about growth with efficiency and I have the other side of my brain that thinks about the financial allocation of resources. In some ways, having both makes me better, even though it’s double the work. It does give you a different mindset as a chief operating officer to figure out how to drive the business within the financial restraints that you have.
I was talking to one of my team one time. We’ve got an organization called the COO Alliance, which is the only network of its kind in the world for second-in-commands. About 1/3 of our members act as the CFO as well as the COO and about 70% do not. About 30% operate as the head of technology or they at least have technology and IT and engineering reporting into them and another group doesn’t. It’s interesting to see the skillset. It’s different from almost every other role in the company. You don’t have other roles running completely different functional areas. How do you balance your time, bandwidth, and the cycle time of your own brain with those?
Those are two difficult questions. One, how do I balance it? Six years into this, I have a good team underneath me that runs all the individual departments, whether it’s the finance, treasury tax, IT, HR, so forth, and so on. It takes time to build your team, build the underlying staff, and to get the blocking and tackling done correctly. The blocking and tackling are working, the foundation is built, the house is built, the roof is on, and the plumbing works. Now it’s how do you fine-tune? How do you maintain? How do you build enough capacity for the future for whatever strategic direction you’re going? In terms of how I allocate the time in my brain, this job is about the volume of activity. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of hours. I try to stay as current as possible and a lot of that is based on time.
How many hours a week?
I typically go twelve hours on a normal day.
Five or six days a week?
Five days a week and weekends or whatever is necessary. It’s funny the older I get, I tend to value the time in the morning and the time at night to clean up everything to get myself ready for the next day from a work perspective. In my case and personally, for me, it’s hours. It’s how much I can get done in a day and whatever I need to do on the weekends.
What’s the leadership team that you’re on? Who do you report to? Do you report to the CEO or board?
I report to the CEO of AARP, Jo Ann Jenkins. She’s a fabulous transformational leader and she reports to the board of directors.
How many reports would she have? How many are at your level or on your team?
She probably has nine direct reports, including myself.
How many have you got?
I’ve got eight.
If you were running a strategic planning meeting for the organization, it would be nine of you.
Her and her direct reports plus our strategy team. We have an enterprise strategy group that would lead that.
With this whole COVID-19 that we’re in the midst of, how have you had to change and adapt as an organization during this? Has it been work-from-home? Has it been work-from-office?
On Saturday, March 13 of 2020, we made the decision to go fully remote. All of our locations all across the country are 100% remote. The good news is when Jo Ann and I came on board in our current roles, because she used to be the chief operating officer, and then previously the AARP Foundation CEO, one of the big things was to get the blocking and tackling done. One of those things in our IT worlds to ensure that we had the right infrastructure because, in DC, we all get hit with hurricanes and snowstorms.
We’ve had issues like most companies in the past about bandwidth. We made a concerted effort to build up that resilience from an infrastructure standpoint. Fast forward to March, we turned it on. That Monday, we were fully remote. We had a couple of hiccups with some of our connections with some of our service providers, but those are out of our control. Other than that, we have been as efficient as we’ve always been and have not missed a beat.
It’s extraordinary when you think that if we would have had this conversation in February 2020 about, “Could you ever take AARP remotely?” They’d be like, “There’s no way it could never happen. It would be impossible.” How could you ever take a 2,200-person organization remote over the course of a week? Are you going to go back? Are you going to become a hybrid online-offline business?
We are going to go back. We have offices in every state in the country and our headquarters in DC. We’ve always had what I would call flexible work arrangements. We have telecommuting where people can work from home for a day or we have telework, which is a full-time telework status. You’re working out of your house or wherever. We do have a flexible work model, which has allowed us to transition into this easily. In the COVID environment, people, myself included, are nervous about getting on the subway. You’re nervous about getting on an airplane and being around people. We’re working through all those mechanics and all those decisions, like every other organization, no matter the size is thinking through the same thing.
For me, it’s the commute time. My commute in the morning was 2.5 minutes from my bedroom to the kitchen. No traffic, no parking, and the waiter is friendly.
You pick up an extra 1.5 to 2 hours of your day that you don’t normally have and that is great. On the other hand, a lot of people use work as a way to connect with people socially. I find myself sitting here in my office in my house for twelve hours a day and I can get a little antsy.
We did miss that social interaction for sure. With your team, what do you focus on? You mentioned the key drivers and the key risks, and then paying attention and some of that intuition related to your team. Can you walk us through the team that you lead and how do you lead them? Maybe some ideas around the key drivers and key risks that you think about?
Being the COO, and I’m going to include the CFO function underneath that, from my own lens in what I can control to the extent that I can’t control, my real risk is operational risk. Do we have the ability to have the resources, financially or otherwise, to allow us to fulfill our social mission? To empower people to choose how they live is summed up in one phrase. My job is first, to reduce that operational risk to as close to zero after controls as possible. What’s the residual risk left? That’s first and foremost in my mind.
The second one is what are the trends in the business, whether operational or not, that would either allow us to continue to scale our mission through our activities and programs that we run all across the country? Are there other drivers or trends that are saying something may not be working or not be hitting its numbers or not? I don’t mean financially. I mean engagement with our members is important to us. I look at both the operational risk to allow us to function, and then what are those drivers and trends that allow us to make sure that we are scaling and getting as deep impact as possible from an engagement perspective.
What kind of operational things is going to block the organization? What have you been removing? What obstacles are you helping your team remove?
The biggest thing that has been removed was a few years ago, we made the decision that our national headquarters and our infrastructure and our building was not going to allow us to attract and retain people for AARP. It wasn’t going to allow us to have the mobility and technological advancements that we needed to run the organization. We started on both a renovation of our headquarters and something we call workforce of the future. Workforce of the future was ensuring that every staff person had the appropriate technology and tools.
The building itself, data center, etc., all of that had the right infrastructure to allow ourselves to be fully mobile. No one could say years ago, they were going to foresee a pandemic where the entire world would be essentially in quarantine and everyone working from home. I wish I could say I had that vision, but I didn’t. Luckily, that project, which lasted a few years and culminated in December of 2019, positioned us to turn on a dime and make the switch in March 2020 to go fully remote.
Anybody who had a vision for what we’d be in now had to be involved in the cannabis sector years ago to have that. They’d be high to come up with this kind of scenario.
I wish I could say that. We had made that decision because operationally when you’re distributed like the way we are across the entire country, you need to be able to have the communication technology. It was old legacy items.
What’s interesting though is you’re speaking more and the changes that you made in the last few years sound more like a Gen Y organization than it does run by AARP. From a consumer’s mindset, I would have thought that you would have been bogged down in those old legacy systems and you’re not at all.
If you’d asked me that question years ago, I would have said, “Sure.” I would have agreed with the fact that we had outgrown the technology that we had. We’ve gone through AARP that consolidated multiple systems in one from an enterprise resource management and planning system. Our back of the house, back office, general ledger, and all that has been updated. We needed the technology infrastructure, and then we needed the tools, both things like Skype or Teams, laptops, etc. We needed the right protocols to run all that. We moved from an operational perspective into what I would say the 21st century. That’s just on the operational side.
How are you growing your team? I’ve always believed that a leader’s core job is to grow people. Do you focus on that at all?
I do. I’d say from members, we’re constrained on adding actual numbers.
I mean growing the skillset, not the numbers.
We don’t necessarily add a lot of staff and we have a long tenure of people on average at AARP. In my job and all of our senior leaders, in fact, every manager, one of the biggest pieces of my job is making sure that my staff has the development needed to be ready for that next position. That next position could be my job, a lateral move, or outside the organization. When you have long-tenured staff, you need to keep them A, motivated and B, on a continuous learning journey. We’ve done things like for instance, we’ve run a program with Georgetown University called Agile. We bring in all of our VPs and SVPs into a classroom. It’s over six months and they go through an executive ed program tailored for us.
We have other programs that hit the next level down and we have a good virtual learning system for the entire staff to participate in. Starting with the CEO on down, there’s also an emphasis to make sure as things come up, a task force that’s needed or a special project that’s needed that we’re involving a cross-section of the organization at all levels to help people get that additional learning, experience, and skillsets. So far, it’s worked well.
Talk about your skillset. What have you worked on to grow your skills over the years? You’ve been with the organization for many years. How have you had to adapt and grow?
Prior to becoming the COO of AARP, both of my roles at AARP subsidiary were in financial roles. I had the benefit of being one of those individuals that had been selected for projects that were well beyond my current day job. The previous CEO of AARP called me up one day, who I started to get to know and some other things, and said, “How would you like to be my mentee?” I’m not going to say no to the CEO. This goes back probably 2009 or 2010, sometime around there.
Having him as that mentor, who unfortunately has since passed away, he gave me a project that was involved around helping him think through how do we get more resources into our social mission and streamline our infrastructure? Even though I was not involved at the parent, I was only at the subsidiary level. That one project is a good example of allowing me to get access and understanding of the parent company.
Even though none of these were connected formally, it gave me the skills and the understanding to make that transition 5 or 6 years later as COO of AARP. It’s much smoother and much more of a linear transition as opposed to you walking on day one saying, “This is so big. How do I get my hands wrapped around it?” That’s a good example of where that mentor-mentee special project learning agenda paid off for me personally.
I’m curious about meetings. I wrote a book years ago called Meetings Suck because we’ve never been taught how to run proper meetings and how to drive effective meetings and we need them. We were in meetings all the time. I’m curious if there are any systems that you use that have made any of the meetings that you operate or involved in more effective?
I don’t disagree with the title of that book, but I had a previous direct report that someone said to our meeting, “I’m going to be presenting to Scott in a couple of weeks. Any advice on meeting with Scott?” I’m going to make sure I don’t screw this up. She said, “Be prepared, be brief, and be gone.” My own style is, “We’re all busy, so let’s get to the point. Make sure we have an objective of the meeting. Make sure each individual there has a chance to express their views, thoughts, and opinions. Don’t talk over one another, and then get to a decision.” Maybe my own personal style is I’d rather be brief, but I wanted to be robust. That helps to move things along. As long as people get a chance to express their views, opinions, and thoughts, the decision comes out as a better one.
Do you limit the amount of people that you bring into meetings at all?
I don’t. That limits the free flow and diversity of thought. Some people think, “If there are too many people, things get bogged down.” If you get a good leader for the meeting, you can manage through that. The other thing is sometimes you want other people to participate in the meetings that otherwise normally wouldn’t as a learning experience.
Even being around it helps grow their skills. Talk about some of the bureaucracy and the politics of internal organizations. This is where I got stuck at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? I took the company from fourteen people when I joined and we had 3,100 system-wide when I left. It was big and it was complicated. I couldn’t wrap my head around or help the politics that was starting where people were lobbying against each other and there was the backchanneling. How do you work around that, control that, break that, and prevent silos? Can you talk about that at all?
That’s a difficult problem to solve. I don’t think you’re alone. Every organization, especially the ones that are larger and ones that have been around a long time, unfortunately, that’s a natural occurrence. I don’t think we were too different from where you were. What’s changed with us is we have a CEO that is a dynamic, indecisive individual. We recognize that in order to be as successful as we have been, we need to ensure that we’re going to be successful for the next 60 years. Part of that was to make sure that we were all on the same page. When you have a decisive CEO and you have a lot of training and educational training about how to communicate and what are the rules or the road from a value perspective and a leadership behavior perspective.
We have something and we used to call it straight talk, which was saying, “Say what you mean. Don’t say yes to the meeting and walk out the door and have a side conversation with someone else with a completely different view or disagreement. That’s what we’re there to gather for in a meeting. Let’s get it on the table and hash it out.” That was a part of our transformation. It didn’t happen overnight. I’m not going to be naive. I’m sure those things do still happen. The decision-making process is much faster now and much more streamlined. People are open and honest with their thoughts and views on different topics that are in hand. There’s no single answer to solve that issue that I’m aware of.
What about your one-on-one meetings with your team? Do you run direct one-on-one meetings with your team?
I do a combination of one-on-ones and all staff. I do my direct reports as one meeting. I do one-on-ones with individuals, and then we do all staff, all operations, and finance staff meetings. We’ll do team meetings with each in a separate discipline. The treasury team may have its own direct report core staff meeting. We have multiple layers. I attend at least the ones that I control directly and sometimes, I participate in the sub-group meetings.
What percentage of your week would be spent in meetings do you think?
Across all types of meetings, I would say 85% to 90%. My admin always kids me. I block off 7:30 to 8:30 and 5:30 to 7:00 as my time. I used to have that and now it’s getting eaten up. The percentage is high.
That’s exactly the reason I wrote the book Meetings Suck. The reality is meetings don’t suck at all. We just suck at running meetings. You can’t get away from them. You just have to learn how to leverage them and how to run them. When you do, probably some of the leader’s most effective time is getting results through people by leading and being involved in the meetings.
Given the role that I’m in, in this type of organization, that is my job. I’m not crunching out the number and the financial analysis or writing the infrastructure flowchart for some systematic IT change. My job is to sit, listen, advise, encourage, and course-correct, and you do that by talking to people.
How has that had to change or iterate since we’ve gone online now doing most of your meetings over Zoom or Skype? What have you had to do as an organization to change and adapt for meetings there?
The real change is the instantaneous access to individuals. We still have our meetings and we’ve done board meetings on Microsoft Teams. I did a 500-person roughly all staff meeting from my team, so that hasn’t missed a beat. Just like you and I are chatting now, it’s fluid. The advantage is most people are sitting at their desk looking at their computer. You can IM them and you can call them directly. There’s a quicker turnaround time because you’re not walking down the cafeteria to get somebody. You’re not going out for a cup of coffee and not in a meeting with your phone tucked away in your pocket. There’s more instantaneous access. On the other hand, it may be that you’re losing concentration because you’re trying to multitask in too many ways.
Any new technologies or automation that you are using as an organization?
We migrated to Teams from Skype. We’ve piloted it for 3 or 4 months. We’ve taken on Tableau, which is a reporting program essentially. It has been immensely helpful for us from a data analysis perspective. We are also undertaking what we call our digital business platform transformation where we are updating our, what I’m going to use the term legacy marketing systems under the sales force and the AWS to allow us to have better communication to our members and non-members. That’s been a big push for us.
Do you run all of your marketing in-house? You must be big enough that you do most of that in-house. Do you outsource any of that at all?
We do a lot of in-house. We have some things done outside. In our community, we have a robust communication group, integrated communications, and marketing group.
You’re digital as an organization as well. The magazine is part of the primary connection with your customer base. Is the digital side of that big, too?
Yes. Our website is our primary digital communication vehicle. I wish I had the unique visitors per month, but they are in the many millions. We have digital newsletters that can go out to many millions of people that participate in that. We have a huge social media presence. As a non-marketer, we have traditional marketing and communications, ThePrint. We have social and the web. If it occurs, we’re there. We have to be. When you have 50 million people over the age of 50 in this country, not everyone wants to receive information and be communicated in the same way. We have to be able to serve up information that someone wants, when they want it and how they want it to be delivered. That’s a big task when you have that big of an audience.
I’m going to send you a note on an idea I’ve got for an article for the magazine that is relevant to your audience. Forbes Magazine, the print edition, covered it a couple of years ago on this vision concept I have. I want to wrap up with one quick question. If you were going back to your 22-year-old self graduating from university or college and you wanted to give yourself some leadership advice that you know to be true now, but you didn’t know when you were 22? What would you tell yourself back then?
I tell this to my daughters who are close to that age. You don’t know as much as you think you do. If you understand that, you don’t know as much as you think you do. Experience over time helps you become a better business person, better leader, or whatever.
When I was 21, I thought I knew it and had it all put together, but I had no idea.
I totally agree with you. Me neither. I had no idea. I thought I did, but in hindsight, I didn’t.
Here’s what we’ll be like when we’re 90, looking back to today and thinking we have it figured out in early 50s or maybe late 40s.
I don’t think anybody ever. That’s the beauty of aging. When we say we want to empower people to choose how they live as they age, experience is important. It matters and it helps to frame who you are. That’s exciting.
Scott Frisch, executive vice president and COO for AARP. I appreciate the time you shared with us on the show.
Thanks, Cameron. Thanks for having me.
Thanks for joining us.
- AARP The Magazine
- AARP Foundation
- The Misunderstood Role of the COO
- COO Alliance
- Meetings Suck
About Scott Frisch
Scott is responsible for all enterprise-wide operational and financial matters including human resources, information technology, real estate and facilities management as well as data and analytics performance management.
Since his appointment as COO, Scott has helped guide AARP through a period of dynamic change, reengineering the operational functions of the organization to maximize efficiencies and increase operating reserves. He established a $40 million investment fund that spurs innovation in health and wellness as well as a $60 million investment vehicle to accelerate research into cures for all types of dementia including Alzheimer’s.
Scott is a certified public accountant and previously held Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Series 6 and 63 licenses. He is a Board member on the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Treasurer and Chair of the Audit & Finance Committee of the Downtown DC Business Improvement Council and is on the Board of Advisors of CBC Financial, LLC. Scott is also a member of the Connected DMV COVID-19 Strategic Renewal Task Force, a collaboration of regional leaders focused on accelerating the economic and business recovery of the greater Washington area in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.