Tom Rathbone of PartnerCentric: “People betray their own values”

“People betray their own values”. I think about this one every so often. People have a nasty habit of doing things that are actually counter to what they value at their core, unknowingly. That has an impact on how they feel about themselves deep down. And that can eat at a person — for me, weighing my […]

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“People betray their own values”. I think about this one every so often. People have a nasty habit of doing things that are actually counter to what they value at their core, unknowingly. That has an impact on how they feel about themselves deep down. And that can eat at a person — for me, weighing my actions against the things I actually valued has been able to show some real cracks and a path that was never going to lead to happiness in myself.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Rathbone, Vice President, PartnerCentric.

As VP of Strategic Initiatives at PartnerCentric, Tom couples his long industry experience with his technical background to achieve long-term strategic goals for the organization through innovation, development and deployment of these initiatives. His latest endeavor has been Control Suite, meant to give brands full control over their investments within the affiliate channel.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? Tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

It’s a bit unlikely — in 2008, I had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry. I had applied for a part-time analyst position at what was then Schaaf Consulting. Based above a garage, we were a small company, with about 5 full-timers. Among them was the company’s first Account Manager, Stephanie Harris (working remote) — now our CEO. As my focus shifted from the film industry to work more closely with Stephanie and the team, we made a decision to move me away from supporting our client services team and Stephanie to directly launching our technology department. Initially, it was just myself as a Technical Solutions Specialist, focusing on leveraging our different platforms to their fullest and stretching them to achieve new goals. From there we followed a path I’ve seen play out time and again — the more I learned about the underlying rules of engagement that supported the industry, the less I agreed with it, and our technology department became a major thrust in our strategy moving forward.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

With our industry, there are certain rules of engagement. Much of how the industry functions isn’t new, they are different angles on the same rules. And we see an interesting thing occur in the industry where the organizations with the deepest pockets set the rules, as they have the loudest voices. As a company, we have a habit of questioning those rules at every turn. Call us stubborn, but we know the challenges our fast growing clients face in the market and know that the rules that the larger incumbent parties put in place were not to benefit disruptors entering the industry. So we look beyond those rules to deploy our client’s advertising dollars where most impactful. For us that means steering into the curve. We developed a suite of tools that don’t accept what many others do. We don’t accept a lack of transparency as to where and how our clients are being promoted by affiliates. We don’t accept the blind traffic and we will shut that traffic down, even if it directly impacts our bottom line. Because we’re here to build these brands, and to shepherd them towards their end goals, be it an IPO, an acquisition, or other.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

Stephanie brings this up all the time. And maybe it was a mistake, but for the first 4 or 5 years of my career, I flat out refused to get on the phone with anyone outside the company. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an introvert and didn’t feel confident enough to do so, but it was impossible to get a verbal conversation with me. She brings it up constantly now, as I have been really pushing the company to have more video calls and spend about 75% of every day doing just that. Clearly I didn’t have enough respect for the efficiency of verbal communication at the time.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was a long process but ultimately it came down to confidence and imposter syndrome. This is really common, but a major learning was how helpful it could be to embrace it. I learned the importance of that feeling — and how it’s not indicative of actually being an imposter, but rather a sign of growth, of pushing myself to new challenges and new opportunities to learn.

Who have been some of your mentors?

Obviously Stephanie, for one. We’ve been working together closely for a dozen years now and we’ve both been growing so much through the different phases of our business. She’s always been really supportive and respectful of my vision, my progress, and striking that really important balance of patience with my growth while also pushing me to grow faster. My father is another one — he instilled in me early on those core values for professional growth and providing for the ones I love to make a better life. We play golf almost every weekend and those are really precious hours. The last one would be my high school coach — sadly I’m not in touch with her anymore, but she really taught me how to harness negative energy and put it into pushing myself harder, faster, and to see the positive results of that. That mentality sticks with me every single day.

Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

As far as Stephanie’s ability to be patient with my growth, I wouldn’t be here without it. For a few years my focus, frankly, wasn’t on the business. I was still doing strong work daily, but my goals were elsewhere. She saw that potential in me and didn’t try and force me to abandon my other goals for those of the business. But she did continue to reward my strong work and encourage my growth, to the end that I started to shift my goals to align with those of the business. I saw the positive results on a personal level as I invested more time, energy, and care into my work. A lesser manager may not have put that energy into me, but she invested that energy and I like to think it paid off.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good?

Certainly not, as not all systems deserve to be functionally disrupted. But I think the intellectual curiosity associated with that is always a positive. Acceptance of the status quo, to me, is akin to complacency. It leads to iteration and not to evolution. It’s imperative as growth-oriented professionals that we’re constantly questioning and testing that concept of disruption. Asking ourselves if these systems are efficient, if they’re just, if they’re productive, and in our case, if they’re going to benefit us and our clients, is a critical practice and one we are determined to never let off the gas on.

When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’?

“Withstanding the test of time”, in my opinion, isn’t indicative of value. It could just as easily be withstanding the test of time because there are enough powerful entities that are benefiting from that system that they can artificially keep it in place — even if it’s not beneficial to anyone but themselves. And I think that’s a critical underpinning of our work. In the marketing space, many of the rules are set by those larger entities with the larger wallets — they command the greatest attention and will naturally align all those attempting to work with them to just benefit themselves and certainly not the disruptors.

Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’?

It’s positive when the beneficiaries of the disruption outweigh those that it negatively impacts, assuming all parties involved the disruption are purely positive — meaning those downstream from the direct beneficiaries should also see a positive impact on their lives. And that’s where it gets a little fuzzy. In that removal of the inefficient costs from the disrupted system, there is a possibility (even a likelihood) that there is also a removal of positive benefits that many parties saw from that disrupted system — or even a possibility of newly created costs placed on parties of the new system, many of which can not always be foreseen. And those parties receiving those newly created costs may not have previously been involved in the disrupted system.

Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Take ridesharing for example. It disrupted the transportation industry, in general, to the benefit of the consumers of that transportation system. They are the direct recipients of that benefit, and there are more of them than there are transportation entities that were benefiting from the old system. I don’t want to gloss over the very real hardships that’s put on those who were disrupted, many of those individuals that were completely reliant upon the disrupted system. They and their families absolutely suffered because of it. But it also goes another layer deeper — on to the ridesharing drivers themselves — many of which for whom the economics of this new system as a service provider are not in their benefit. And these drivers were not parties to the original disrupted system. And that’s where we start to see the hidden costs of disruption that are not immediately apparent from the jump.

All this isn’t to say I think it’s been a net negative. I use those services regularly and personally have benefited from it. But I try and zoom out as much as I can to understand the bigger picture of these systems, and it’s not all positive. Could they have been foreseen? Perhaps, but it’s a huge challenge as a disrupter to pull back from the growth orientation to dig into the broader impacts of that work.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Managing people does not equal career progression.” There’s a perception out there that the only way to progress in an organization is to take on the role of a manager. And I had that impression early on, and it’s completely false. Hearing that allowed me to focus more on being a strong individual contributor, and I’ve grown more because of it. Over time I’ve ended up managing people as I’ve grown, but I could just as easily manage less people in the future and that would be totally fine — in fact, growing the team underneath me to the point where they report to somebody else could be indicative of my own success in the role.

“People betray their own values”. I think about this one every so often. People have a nasty habit of doing things that are actually counter to what they value at their core, unknowingly. That has an impact on how they feel about themselves deep down. And that can eat at a person — for me, weighing my actions against the things I actually valued has been able to show some real cracks and a path that was never going to lead to happiness in myself.

“You should want to spit blood before you let them beat you.” That’s… pretty aggressive. But I distinctly remember hearing my high school coach deliver that line to me with such passion during one of the hardest workouts of my life. But what it inspired in me — determination, intention, drive, and a willingness to suffer greatly now for victory later on, had a major impact on me from that point on — even outside of athletics.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

“Work begets work”. Our best lead generation has been referrals from satisfied customers. Those people bring other people to us, or go to new jobs and bring us back into the fold. In our space this is the most impactful strategy — focus on going above and beyond and really making those we work with look like all stars.

How are you going to shake things up next?

I don’t think we have a target. We’re not actively looking for things to shake up. Often we happen to look back and realize that maybe we did shake things up in the process of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to benefit our clients. The closest thing I personally have towards shake up targets would be in a reaction to hearing a phrase akin to “that’s just how it’s done” or “that’s just how it works”. Those are incredibly complacent phrases to me and I have a visceral reaction to them. Right now I’m hyper-focused on bringing our brands as close as possible to their customers, and away from the layers upon layers of an industry that comes between them.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Definitely Ryan Holiday’s stuff. I tend to have a strong bias towards action, towards starting now and figuring it out as I go. That has definite downsides, and I try really hard to rise above my baser instincts. I find that Stoicism allows me to think a little more about what options I have, what I can control, and make a better decision. Ultimately it leads to a more patient approach with less emotion tied up in my day to day work. And right now, I use any stress reduction I can get.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s one that’s stuck with me through a few life phases: “There is no creative impulse in the absence of discontent”. I believe that’s Deepak Chopra.

When I was following more creative career paths, this was always something that came into my mind. I viewed my creative outputs as a response to discontent in my own life.

Now that my career focus has shifted, it’s still relevant. The solutions and disruptions I bring forth are creative solutions to complex problems, which come from a discontent with the status quo. Recognizing that discontent as coming from that allows me to think creatively and run through what if scenarios constantly, discarding them as they are impossible or improbable but always allowing those creative impulses to run their course.

What is a movement that you support or feel would deliver value to people?

A silver lining of Covid — the number of people getting outdoors. As an avid hiker and backpacker it’s been really great to see the number of people exploring our great outdoors. The benefits towards time spent in nature have been underappreciated and I hope it inspires more people to get out, enjoy the natural beauty of our world, and protect it.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn is the best way.
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