338 - Capturing History with Beth Maser - John Laurito
Episode 338 Capturing History with Beth Maser Tomorrows Leader Podcast with John Laurito

338 – Capturing History with Beth Maser

Today host John Laurito speaks with the President and CEO of History Associates Incorporated, Beth Maser, about history, how she started doing what she does, and how she leads her organization and people from different backgrounds.

Beth’s experience includes managing high-profile projects for the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, USAID Knowledge Services Center, ABC News, and Fortune 500 companies and law firms. Leading multi-skilled teams, she helped source, organize, and apply information strategically and innovatively. Before joining History Associates, she was the Director of Records and Information Systems at PPC, a management consulting firm, where she quadrupled the firm’s knowledge management services to $17M. As the Senior Director of Professional Services for an INC 500 Information Services firm, she led teams of professionals to win and execute corporate and government contracts valued at more than $15M annually.

Beth also founded and managed two organizations—University Ventures, a consulting operation, and Semantic Staffing, a boutique information management services recruiting firm. She is an active member of several professional organizations and engages with the UMD iLEAD Council and the Corporate Council of the National Archives Foundation.

Beth is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Beth also holds an MA in History and Public Policy from George Washington University and a BA in History from Washington University. She maintains a strong industry contacts network and is active in several DC-area organizations and nonprofits.

Connect with Beth:

[0:00] Intro

[1:54] What is HAI, and what do they do?

[7:15] On how she leads her people

[9:23] How did she fall into history?

[12:36] How important is it to adapt to your audience in terms of acquisition?

[15:51] What does she do to lead a creative-based organization?

[22:18] What keeps her up at night?

[24:23] Where to find Beth

[25:15] Outro

Get a copy of “Tomorrow’s Leader” on Amazon.

John Over the last two decades, I’ve been on an insatiable quest to learn everything I can about leadership. What makes the best leaders so good? After running companies small and large over the last 20 years, today I speak on stages all across the world to audiences who are interested in that same question. My name is John Laurito. I’m your host, and I invite you to join me on this journey as we explore this very topic and what makes the best leader so good. Welcome to tomorrow’s leader.

John All right. Tomorrow’s leaders. So today I’ve got president and CEO of History Associates, Inc., Beth Maser. And here’s what’s cool. I learn new stuff every day. What I didn’t know is there are companies out there that help companies kind of capture their whole history and tell their story. You know, when you if you join a new company, you need to understand the background of the company. And that’s what they do. They you know, you see the companies that have the big wall of all their history of, you know, Coca-Cola that has a museum of all their, you know, where they were, where they came to. That’s what they do. It’s really, really cool stuff. But we talked also about leadership, all the different elements of building an organization that’s diverse. It’s attracting the right people, that’s growing, that’s really bringing people together in this type of environment. Really, really cool stuff, very candid, frank conversation. I think you’re really going to like it. So here is Beth Maser.

John All right. Welcome to today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader. I am here with Beth Maser, president and CEO of H.A.I. Beth, thank you so much for joining the show today.

Beth Thanks so much for having me.

John John Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I am fascinated by what you do in our conversations beforehand and my research learned about you. It was kind of this eye opening thing. I didn’t realize this existed, but explain to the audience what it is and what you actually do.

Beth Sure. A lot of people don’t understand what we do. We’re a professional history consulting firm. And history can be something that happened 200 years ago or an hour ago. We have three different divisions of the company. We deal with archiving and collections, management, exhibits and interpretive planning for museums and corporations. And also we have a large litigation support arm that provides expert witness services and investigative litigation to most of the major law firms in the country.

John That’s that’s diverse. There’s a lot of stuff there.

Beth A lot of stuff.

John Yeah. So and what is so so if I’m understanding right? I mean there’s and you’re right there’s so much to history when companies have been around or organizations for years and years and years. It is so I know in my work that I do with leadership consulting, there’s so much importance on people understanding the background and the history. So is that right? In my understanding, you’re kind of bringing that to life and helping make making sure you preserve and and make sure that people are understanding and have a good way to understand a piece together the history of an organization.

Beth True. And if you think about it, it comes in different flavors, right? If you’ve got a merger and acquisition, you know, the bottom line is driving the merger. But are there legacy liabilities that they’re going to uncover that they didn’t know about later? That leads to litigation insurance claims, you know, Superfund issues. You’ve got that and then you’ve got legacy brands, you know, like Coke or Ford Motor or other companies that, you know, have archivists onsite full time but may need help telling the brand story. Because think about that ad with me and Joe Breen. Right. That invokes such nostalgia. And you’ve got companies that have assets like that that never bring them to the forefront. You know, I saw your face when I mentioned that ad. You know exactly what I’m talking about, right? Yeah. So it’s crazy that companies a lot of companies may not realize that they have those emotion evoking pieces in their archives that they can use to drive the brand forward to tell a story. Or even we work with national parks and we’ve got interpretive planning services that try to map out the story of the national park. You know, you’re walking through and you find the the marker and you’re like, this spot someone. So and this happened or, you know, you’re looking at a view of a 500 year old tree. It’s the first one, you know, of its kind, blah, blah, blah. We do all that type of work and it’s really cool that, you know, we’re a small company, but we’ve told thousands of stories and you know, we keep wanting to tell more.

John I love that. What’s some of the coolest stuff that you’ve worked on and that you’ve done?

Beth We’ve been involved with the National Work to Museum, curating content and licensing images for their Road to Berlin Road to Tokyo. Homefront exhibits there. The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. We’ve been involved there almost every national park we’ve been involved with, from telling their story to charting your visit, journey through the park or even arranging the archives. Did you know that every national park pretty much has an archival collection?

John No, no. I didn’t see them learn more stuff every time I taught there. Yeah. So and what is what is the so thing like? I think about a company that’s been around like Coca-Cola for years and years and years and years. And is it you when you see something which I haven’t been there, but I understand there’s a really cool, you know, display of all their history and everything and the coke cans and bottles and everything like that. That’s the type of stuff that you produce for a company where you put that all together and create that.

Beth But we don’t say, you know, fabricate the exhibits, but we can provide the content for these. We work with partners that can. So a lot of the work could take some of our vision and they can bring it to life and the world. I think it’s the world of coke. I think that it’s in that second incarnation. I could be wrong, but there are museum companies that specialize in building those exhibits, but we contribute to that. A lot of times. We are subcontractors on projects such as that. That one, I don’t think we work on World of Coke, but. Mm hmm.

John That’s amazing. Well, bottom line is, you know, and I think that and this is a great segway into leadership, I think, about people that are joining an organization, new organization. I’ve been there before. I’ve joined different organizations where it took me a long time to understand the background and the history. It’s so important for people coming in to understand the culture, but also what kind of led to that culture, what what things people have been through an experienced and how did that brand get created? And let’s talk a little bit about the leadership aspect of that, because I know that’s really critical. I know that’s something that you recognize is important. How how do you do that when you, as you’re built, been building your organization, you bring people in? I mean, how do you give them kind of a really good idea of what the organization’s all about, the culture and and how they can really succeed as effectively as they can in the organization. What are your thoughts on that?

Beth You know, I think history is not used enough in the onboarding process. I think most people, when they come on board a company, they might get a sheet or two that may have some milestones. I know the poster behind me is something that we did for Texaco, that map, the history. Clearly Texaco doesn’t existent as Texaco any longer, but you know, something like that. You can just see and just appreciate the just the genius of what a company has done, some milestones that they’ve hit, you know, first to market, whatever. But then they come, especially if they come to AGI. We try to steep them in the history of this because I know this company was formed by four historians that wrote The History of the Three Mile, the Five Mile Island, Three Mile Island accident. And they wrote the book for Department of Energy. So that’s how I got started. So it was just kind of like a fluke. But then they realized this could be a business and. I think it’s really an important tool. And, you know, history is cyclical. Things keep happening again. Things that you say, oh, you know, never again. It won’t happen again. But, you know, look at today, things are happening again. And just from you know, a lot of people just don’t learn from history. And we try to keep telling the stories, so hopefully we can change course.

John And you were saying earlier kind of a cool thing of how you got intrigued about industry, somebody who had an effect on you. I think it was your teacher. What was that story?

Beth Well, you know, I fell into history, literally. I didn’t get into the business school in college. So I was sitting in a class. And one of my professors, his name was Ivor Bernstein, had jumped on a desk and started singing I Have a Civil War him. And I was like, All right. History seems like a decent major. I will. I’ll go that route. And little did I know that it was literally going to become the building block for my entire career.

John It’s amazing as a great leadership lesson in that. I mean, I think leaders that make things interesting and fun, they draw people in. You know, I mean, he or she was a leader. He, you said was a leader in your life in that instant and steered you into a direction that you might not have otherwise have gone. Maybe you would have found it eventually.

Beth I don’t I honestly, John, I don’t know if I would have found it eventually, but, you know, it kind of set the stage. And then I was like, graduates, well, what should I what should I do? So then I came to D.C. for graduate school in history. And, you know, most people are like, what are you going to do, teach? And I didn’t want to teach. I came from a family owned business. I always was very entrepreneurial, and I happened to walk into my adviser’s office and he had just gotten a call about a potential internship that I was about to take another one, but I said, I’ll go talk to that firm. Turns out that firm was a public history consulting firm, very similar to HHI, but maybe a little bit more litigation focused. So I work there for a few years and that was the start of my career. And you know, fast forward 30 years later and my mentor there and first partially books, Ben is now one of our principal consultants here at HCI and on our board of directors. So, you know, the universe of professional historical consulting is very small, as you can see, by example alone.

John Yeah, well, it’s amazing to and how important it is to build networks and build relationships and, you know, every industry, although it may be big and in some cases huge, it’s still small circles, relatively small circles. So that’s so important that you that you do that. I think you recognize that of how important those connections and networking is.

Beth Yeah, I think keeping keep your networks always be building your network and, you know, give back. You know, I try to I try to mentor, you know, undergrads and grad students that want careers in history that are not, you know, in a in a school library, in a government organization, and just try to even advocate for a career in consulting because history and consulting generally don’t end up in the same sentence. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that you can make a career as a as a historian in a consulting firm. Yeah.

John Well, let’s talk a little bit about I think this is interesting, too, the whole concept of new business development or client acquisition and retention. I think that’s an interesting concept for business leaders and you’re in a very unique industry. But I also know it’s much different the way that you might approach a law firm versus the Smithsonian or another institute. How do you what’s your thoughts on that? How do you adapt? How important is it to adapt to your your audience, so to speak?

Beth Well, it is difficult. And I think, you know, customer acquisition cost is an issue, you know, industry agnostic. Right. So you how are we would sell a legal project here is is much different because it’s you’re dealing with ethics, you’re dealing with confidentiality. And we have to really understand the business and sell, you know, truly our skills, where we’ve been, what we’ve what we’ve done. So that is a totally different of consultative sale than, say, you know, I’ve got an archival collection that needs to be processed, you know. We’ve got several clients that understand the value of history and they have no problem selling that project to their executives to get them to get the buy in. Other clients, you know, unlike and not unlike, but like other companies, you need to create demand. So it’s a lot harder to sell maybe content for museums if we’re not a prime mover or sub versus going to. We need a history book of 350 years of X, Y, Z Company. I just it’s it takes a lot to get the messaging right. And we are really spending a lot of resources here to try to figure out how to better get our brand at the forefront. So people know that you are 42 year old company operating like a startup, basically.

John Well, it’s interesting. And you say, you know, you made me think of something. I was watching a video earlier today about and this is one of my favorite foods, Chilean sea bass. And I just love it. I love I love it. I could eat it every single day. It’s fantastic. But it’s interesting. It was never popular back in the seventies when people found it or fishermen found it. It was called the Patagonia Toothfish, and it’s just such an unappealing name. But I think about like the difference. The fish is the same, the name has changed, the image has changed and people try it and all of a sudden it becomes this delicacy. And it was the same thing. They just figured out how to position it a little bit better and how to communicate it a little bit better. Sometimes the name does everything, so it’s interesting.

Beth You know, it’s very true. I’m thinking brussel sprouts, too, you know. Now it’s like this easy thing to be eating.

John Yeah, right. Exactly. Yeah. There’s probably all kinds of things. Maybe lima beans, they can change the name of that to something a little bit more intriguing. Get it. Get me to eat them. So you have bread. I think in environment, I know you’re working. You’ve worked very hard to bring an environment that’s that’s very creative based, that’s really helping to pull people together. This is a really unique time. I know a lot of leaders are kind of struggling with, okay, how do I allow people in a in a in an environment where they’re in all kinds of different places and different roles and different backgrounds and everything? How do I allow them to operate in the most creative way that that works for them and helps bring out their best, but also in a way that really helps serve the organization well. What’s your thought on that and how what are some of the things that you’re thinking about or you think about when you’re trying to do that?

Beth That’s a good question, John. I always said that if I was ever in this type of position, I think the best lessons I’ve learned are what not to do. I said to myself, If I’m ever in this position, I will. There’s the lesson. I will never do that was staff never micro-manage. When I did walk in here almost four years ago, it was a definitely a very it was a change management exercise. So we’ve kind of pivoted from a history firm that kind of operated more like an academic history firm to a corporation. And we are it’s hard to get people motivated. It took a little while to win over hearts and minds because we were moving at a much faster pace. I think that we did have some turnover, but we’re at the point that we’ve created a very light open culture here because we’re dealing with creative people were also dealing with, you know, archivists and librarians that, you know, some may be introverted and prefer to not be client facing and just be worker bees. And we’ve got people that can manage the projects and be in front of a client. So you’re dealing with a mix of personalities, which is not unlike any other business. And I think letting people be who they are, you know, with some structure, with the right management, but not micromanaging. I’d like to think that we’ve got a bunch of very, very smart people here that can, you know, fit client needs and deliver strong deliverables to our clients with, you know, the supervision that’s required of them. Sure. But not at a micro, granular level. You know, I trust that these people are adults. And, you know, until they prove me wrong, I’m going to.

John Just.

Beth Not hover. And I feel that we’ve had enough turn and now we’ve got a much stronger foundation. And I am the right people are in the right positions for us to grow because we’ve seen know the pandemic almost finished us off. And like a lot of other companies, you know, I’m sure a lot of your listeners had the same challenges because, you know, you shut your business down, everybody scattered, but you still had work to do. So, you know, we’ve dealt with the shift to hybrid. We implemented, you know, my my archivists were here during the pandemic. They came in because you can’t take X, Y disease collection home and work on it over your kitchen table and bring it bring it back to the office. It couldn’t leave the building. Right. So we were like, how can we at least give them some of the benefit of being able to work from home when, you know, the other half of the company hasn’t been here in two years, but you guys have continued to come in. So at no cost to the company. We implemented a 410 workweek. So the archivists or people that were coming into the office religiously could have a three day weekend every week. And, you know, that doesn’t cost the company any money, but the benefit is huge. You can schedule all your appointments, get your you know, just hang out and read a book and not have to, you know, come to work. It’s huge.

John My guess is most people, if offered, that would take that over over a, you know, 5 to 8 hour week.

Beth Yeah. And it was it was well-received. But there are people, you know, even I’ve tried to take advantage of that, even if or work half day Fridays. You know, I’m always on no matter what. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if I’m in the office or or away, even on vacation, I’ll look at my email. But between that and you know, there weren’t that many people here. So we allowed dogs and it really it worked out really well. And people are today there are a ton of people in the office, which is great.

John Yeah, well, I think about that. You know, the more you think as a leader, the more you think about how their work can really work in with their life. And they have balance, whether it’s bringing dogs to the office or working different time frames and days and schedules, the more appreciative people are. But, you know, the healthier they are outside of work, the healthier they are inside of work. And when you start to breed an environment where it’s so rigorous and and and doesn’t give any flexibility and leave any room for outside interests or things that people want to do or need to do, then ultimately, that’s how you lose great people, number one. And people aren’t as productive. I’m sure those people on the 410 are more productive in a lot of ways and probably more so consistently than. Somebody that’s not. So it’s interesting. Interesting concept.

Beth You know, and how, you know, maybe you and I would look at something versus, you know, a new hire, that this is their first job and what stresses them out versus you know it probably some of the things that stress the younger employees out may not even enter my mind. So it’s been very interesting figuring out how to deal with, you know, people in their twenties. It just goes the gamut because I would think each each decade has a little has differences in what’s important to them and what may bother them. Yeah, you know.

John I’m interested. What what does stress you? What does what keeps you up at night?

Beth The pandemic kept me up at night. For a long time, we benefited from a PGP loan, and that kept the doors open. And by chance, we launched a rebrand rebranded website in March of 2020. Unbeknownst to Neil Wright, it saved us. We transitioned to more online marketing. We shifted how we did things. I slept a lot better after utilization rates started going back up in early 21. Now, I have to say there are certain things that might keep me up, but we’ve worked really hard to get to where we are. We’re in a growth phase. I do worry about retention, making the numbers for my board of directors, but you know, we’ve had a couple of really good years and I think that we’ve shored up our foundation and, you know, we are solidly, you know, building the house on the foundation now. You know, you never know what curveballs are coming down the pike. We’re a consulting firm. So know with my pipeline is a little low and I’ve got a lot of projects ending, you know, that’s going to give me a little bit of stress and worry. But, you know, we’re bringing on new resources and we brought in a new sales, head of sales and a new marketing manager. And our pipeline is looking pretty good. And I think, you know, we just have to get out there more and pound the pavement and show the value of history.

John Yeah, well, there’s certainly a lot of it. And congrats on everything you’re doing in a relatively short period of time and the success you’re having. It’s it’s very interesting. It’s exciting. I know people will want to engage with you and check it out as well. What’s the best way for them to do that?

Beth You know, our website has a lot of great content and thought leadership. It’s www.historyassociates.com. We’ve got a contact us form you can find me fairly easily on LinkedIn and I’d be happy to answer any questions.

John Okay, excellent. Terrific. Well, I appreciate you being with us today about this has been absolutely fantastic and interesting and appreciate your leadership insights as well. I know the audience does, too.

Beth Thanks so much, John. I really appreciate being asked.

John You got it. Well, thanks, everybody, for joining us today. We’ve been here with Beth Maser, who’s the president and CEO of H.A.I. Be sure to check her out, but be sure to check out all the links here in the show notes. And as always, like share, subscribe, go down below. Give a five star review and we’ll see you next time, thanks.

Beth Thanks, John.

John Thanks, Beth. Thanks for joining us on today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader. For suggestions or inquiries about having me at your next event or personal coaching, reach me at John@johnlaurito.com. Thanks, lead on!

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