Relentless Curiosity on the Journey to Generosity
Back in 2005, the founders of SignatureFD were sitting around a table deciding on the company values for their fledgling business. These defining values became the rubric for decisions and tied the team together around common goals and behaviors. Greatness, Growth, Gratitude, Grit, Grace and Generosity became the foundation for the company’s success.
During our interview with CEO Heather Fortner, we learned how the value of generosity captured her attention for very personal reasons. As the business itself became known for generosity, Fortner remained focused on embodying this value through her role as Chief Executive.
SignatureFD and its CEO Heather Fortner were nominated and selected by fellow Georgia business leaders as a goBeyondProfit Champion for their relentless curiosity to lead better. This curiosity has delivered more impact for their clients, employees, communities and the industry as a whole.
Company Values As a Mirror for Leaders
Each year, our company gives out awards for the teammate who best exemplifies each of our core values. I remember many years ago looking at the results of the annual employee surveys and wondering why my name didn’t come up as a leader in the generosity segment. That concerned me. And so it was really a pivotal moment for me as an individual. Why was I not seen that way? At the end of my life, I can be known as relentless. I can be known as ambitious. I can be known as someone who always gets it done, who laser focuses on a goal and gets there. I can be known as all of these things, but what do I want to be known for? And honestly, generosity was one of those things and I had no idea how to change that.
And when I became CEO in early 2020, there was this real moment in time where two things collided. Where the fact that I wanted to be more generous as a person and I wanted to be known for that, collided with the fact that I now had a platform and a responsibility because one of our core values is generosity. And so as a leader, I now had to lean into, “We’re going to be known for this.” And so there was just this real moment where when the rest of the world’s falling apart and I have literally zero idea of what tomorrow holds, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was the moment that I had to lean in, not only to generosity, but to every single core value we had and lead well.
When you have people aligned to your perspectives and you have people aligned to your values, and you have people, quite honestly, that want to make the type of impact that you yourself want to make, all you have to do is create the space for those people to lean in and magic things happen. And that’s what we did. We just created the space. We started asking some questions. We focused on relentless curiosity of, what are other firms doing? What does it mean to be generous? What does corporate generosity mean? How are we focusing on generosity with our clients? What are we doing internally? We’ve already been doing this for a lot of years with a lot of people in the community. What have we learned there? What has worked? What hasn’t worked? What do we want to do as individuals, as teams? There, there’s just an enormous amount of wealth that comes from creating a space where you can ask questions and allow diverse populations to lean in with their experiences and perspectives.
And ultimately, what came out of that was a challenge. It was a challenge of, we can do this differently. We can do this better. We can have more impact. We can incorporate more of our people in the decision making process. And we can lead better, which ultimately is what will make a difference in the community in which we serve.
Defining the Net Worthwhile
You know what I love about our end game is we have a term we use called net worthwhile. And it is this beautiful space where an individual’s wealth, which is not just their money, money’s just a tool. Wealth is your time, your talent, your resources, your energies, all of the things that you have at your disposal in order to pursue the things that you find worthwhile in life. Net worthwhile is the intersection of those two things. It is ensuring that you have a solid strategic plan in place to pursue a lifelong journey of the things that you find worthwhile.
So as we leaned in on the client side helping clients define their Net Worthwhile, I was sitting back saying, “What does that mean for us as an organization? Have we taken our organization through our Signature Generosity tool and what are the things that matter to us?” So we said, you know what? We’re going to plug our bottom line. We now have in our budget a hundred thousand dollars donation that we are going to make every year. We are also going to ensure that 5% in revenue also goes into that giving bucket because we don’t want to just plug the line. If we do better than what we are budgeting and what we are anticipating doing, we want to give a portion of that back as well.
We call it Signature Giving. It’s a beautiful program that we rolled out to our team. Every year we take nominations from our team members and we say, “What are the organizations you’re passionate about? What are the organizations that you want to serve that are near and dear to your heart? Tell us a little bit about that organization.” And then we vote as an entire group. We vote on, here are the two organizations that we want to support this year.
We then give a $50,000 donation to both organizations and we align all of our team volunteer activities, our Signature Generosity Days we called them, to activities in support of both of those organizations. And then the extra 5%, should we have revenues over our budget in that amount, we simply divvy that up, equally, by the amount of people that we have, and we fund a Donor Advised Fund with those dollars for each of our team members so that they can then give to the organization that means something to them.
So not only are we doing it at the corporate level, but we’re leaning in and helping to provide a way for them to do it at the individual level to the things that matter to them as well.
Leading Through the Pain Points
I think there’s always short term pain points and for a new CEO, one of those very short term, scary pain points was going to your board and saying, “I want to plug the bottom line with a hundred thousand dollars donation, and I would actually like to ask for 5% of revenue above our budget.” Making those types of asks is not easy. It’s probably easier to make the ask than it is to be sure that you can actually sell the vision. There’s a weight there as a leader of being able to translate the idea that you have and that you believe in and that you think others will buy into and then actually bringing it to fruition. There’s some courage that’s required there and sometimes that’s a little scary. I don’t know that other CEOs would sit there and use the word scary, but that’s how it felt.
And I think that the more, we as leaders, can simply strip away what we want the perception to be and to face reality with courage and with hope, but actually look at, this is where we are and this is where our teams are, and this is what’s needed for us to move forward in a way that is honoring, not only of the organization, but of every single human in our organizations. That’s when leaders can actually move organizations forward.
What Do You Want to Be Known For?
And back to our original conversation around what I wanted to be known for. Generosity is more than just your money. It is how are you being generous with your time? Are you being generous with your wisdom? Are you being generous with your experiences. Because guess what, the experiences that I’ve had, good and bad, the ability to share those with others, the authenticity, the courage, the transparency to say, “Hey, guess what? Let me tell you about all the times I failed. They’re not pretty, but guess what? They’re big. And here’s what I learned in that process.”
The generosity with self. The generosity to say, “I don’t know it all, but I am willing to get up from this side of the table and go sit beside you. I am willing to be in that uncomfortable space with you, to walk this journey with you, to not know the answers, but be committed to helping figure out the best solution moving forward together.” That’s generosity. All of those things are generosity.
And so many times it is so easy for us to say, “Well, I wrote the check,” or “I did the volunteer hours.” Did you give of yourself? Did you give of your experience? Did you give of your time? Did you give of the wisdom and the emotional intelligence and capacity that you have? Did you just sit with someone and share in their world and their journey? Because I guarantee you that’s what’s missing today. What do people need? They need each other. They need community. And that requires us. It requires us to stand and say, “This matters. It’s important. It’s important for all of us. It’s important for our future.” And take a stand and be generous of ourselves first.
My personal motto is love and lead well and quite honestly, I don’t think you can do one without the other. And so you have to be bold. You have to actually take the time to get yourself educated on what the issues are that our community is facing, because the reality is that your job as a leader is to leave this community better than when you got here. And if you aren’t doing that, if you’re just living by status quo, I would offer that, that’s not leadership.
I am proud to lead this organization. I am proud of what we stand for. I am proud of what we do for our clients, and I am proud of the way that we hold our community in esteem enough to lean in with the resources that we have been blessed with, to hopefully make an impact in the lives of the people that we serve.