Leadership + People: Episode 32 - Jeff Lyman - Part 2 of 2

Jeff Lyman, Chief Product Officer at Vivint Smart Home, talks about the importance of prioritizing the big picture in business and discusses brand and marketing lessons he learned while working at Nike that have helped shape his work and the future at Vivint. .

Show Notes

  • Recognizing and acknowledging career-limiting “tumors” [02:08]
  • Being too busy to be effective [04:14]
  • Without WiFi: Disciplined, focusing thinking & productivity mid-flight [06:54]
  • The anxiety of disconnecting in a digital world [07:38]
  • The advantages of avoiding your to-do list snooze button [09:41]
  • Less talk, more rock: focusing on the bigger problems & limiting less important distractions [11:21]
  • Being a Steward of the Brand, Brand Management [13:50]
  • Creating the business culture, dedication you want to the brand begins with hiring [18:10]
  • At Vivint, home is the epicenter of human life [19:15]
  • Getting to people’s soul in the interview process [22:37]
  • Selecting people, employees with owner-thinking versus renter-thinking [25:26]
  • Advice Jeff Lyman would give himself if he could go back 15 years? Everyone has a fastball. [26:25]

Show Audio


Jeff Lyman part 2-10

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: May 1st, 2018

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, senior executives and entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies, and what device they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

HOST – JESS LARSEN: This is part two of our episode with Jeff Lyman.

GUEST – JEFF LYMAN: Figuring out how to sort of remove those obstacles and really carving out in some cases, particular time of the day where you’re not going to have a meeting, and you’re able to just sort of, discipline yourself and say, “Ok, I’ve got to solve this not trivial set of problems that are really going to require some deep thinking,” and those are things that’ll shape your career.

00:47 JL: If you didn’t catch it, please go back, listen to part one. Hear about lessons he learned helping build LeBron James, the brand, and how that’s translating over to inventing the future at Vivint. You know, one thing — just picking up where we left off on the last episode, Jeff — we were talking about having the humility as leaders to be open to the data even when we really like our good idea, right? [laughs] You talked about this – your, I don’t know – mantra, your cliche, whatever you want to call it that you came up with of “If you’ve got a tumor, pretending you don’t have…” Well, you give it, ’cause I’m going to misquote it. Tell it to me one more time.

Career “Tumors”: Limitations Worth Acknowledging

JEFF LYMAN: So, when someone has some type of a boulder in their progression to reaching their potential – with your organization or any other one, either they’ve got to overcome some interpersonal dynamic, or they’re not-they have some weakness in their sort of skill set. These are career-limiting things and so… the odd thing is the person who’s not progressing because they have this problem, they know it. They know it’s not moving and they have a hunch about it, but they need [laughs]…

But, you know, if you’ve got a tumor, it’s not productive for anybody — both the person suffering from it and the people around — to pretend like you don’t have it. It’s actually more relieving to the employee who’s kind of feeling these senses of how come people aren’t connecting with what I’m saying? Or, how come my people are frustrated with me? Or, how come I’m not making strides or getting traction on X, Y, or Z? It’s like, well, you’ve got this tumor. And so, getting it out is actually more productive for the employee. They actually feel better about validating that they know they have this problem — there’s a way to work through it, than wondering why all these symptoms suck.

02:45 JL: Yeah. Well, so, I want to talk about this for a second. So, you know, at Myelin here, we’re trying to be like a Bloomberg, right? We’ve got our media half doing shows like this with you know, obviously, Corporate Alliance is the sponsor underwriting this show, making this one happen. And then we’ve got our consulting training arm. And, we advise a lot of CEOs and other corporate executives who have a problem with time management. You know, we live in this cult of busyness where being super tired and being super busy is almost like a badge of honor in society today. Right? And, they know that it’s not actually going well, but it can really feel like a ball and chain of, I mean, we’re all given the same hours per day. But, it requires discipline to say “no” to things if you’re not going to have an absolutely frantic life, and we hate saying “no” to possibilities, right?

Nike is this incredible organization. Vivint is obviously growing in huge ways and you guys are kind of inventing the future in a number of ways. Any thoughts on that one? Where a lot of people know they’ve got a tumor when it comes to “I am almost too busy to be effective, but I don’t quite know what to do about it.” Any lessons from your career, of you know, high-performance organizations on an issue like that one?

The Battle of Busyness vs. Effectiveness

JEFF LYMAN: Yeah, two big things: One is you get to this point where you actually have to embrace that you’re not going to get everything done, and I think when you’re younger and hungry and so, you know, anxious to prove to the organization that you’re an asset and not a liability, that you just think you have to get to everything. And then it sort of hits a point. I can remember working for a manager ten years ago or so who was particularly on top of it, it seemed like. I’d get emails from her at all hours and if I brought anything half-baked to her, I would hear about it and knew it, and she was exacting in every way. I can remember walking out of the office one time at like 8 o’clock at night and she happened to be walking out and she said, “How’s it going?” And I said, “I just don’t feel like I’m staying on top of it all.” And she looked at me – and this was someone who I did and do respect a lot as someone who had it all together – and she said, “I haven’t felt on top of things in ten years.” It was kind of an interesting moment for me. Yeah, you sort of get to this point where you run out of hours and then what’s important is how you’re able to kind of manage it. So, that was one.

Two is you know, there’s a growing attention epidemic right now. I see it in my, you know, in groups that I’m hiring and it’s particularly challenging. You know, there’s this great book written by I think Campbell’s the last name and it’s called Deep Work. It talks about how it’s so easy to get on this sort of — you can get caught up in sort of the thick of thin things, you know? You’re racing through email and reacting to that, and you’ve got these push notifications flying on your phone, people pop in the office, and you literally don’t get into a frame of mind where you do any type of deep or important strategic thinking. So, figuring out how to sort of remove those obstacles and really carving out, in some cases, particular times of the day where you’re not gonna have a meeting, where you’re gonna put the phone away, and you’re able to just sort of discipline yourself and say, “Ok, I’ve gotta solve this not trivial set of problems that are really gonna require some deeper thinking,” and those are things that have shaped your career and actually can help sort of shape the company is when that thinking happens. And I’m seeing a labor force that’s actually less able to do that than any before and I think it’s in part because of kind of the, sort of the digital generation that we operate in.

I can remember times, and hopefully my former bosses at Nike aren’t listening, where I would book flights from Portland, Oregon to New York and back, and this was the days where either Wi-Fi sucked on a plane or you couldn’t get it. It was kind of hit and miss. I would do that simply as a way to just — being able to discipline the thinking — and some of my best strategic work both on my job, but also my life, are always done in those environments. Which is odd. But, I think we’ve got to figure out a way how to book those types of things in our every day jobs without having to write a huge check to Delta in the process.

07:38 JL: You know what’s interesting though is I feel like there’s a story in that book from Cal Newport about the guy who had to get that book written that booked a flight to Japan and back, and wrote that whole thing on his flight. You know, there’s those stories of J.K. Rowling trying to finish the last Harry Potter book where she went and rented a hotel room and turned the phone off so that people couldn’t reach her, right?

But, there is this obsession. I mean, people… there’s those studies about people feeling anxiety of not having their phone physically on them or not having their phone like turned on and able to receive text messages. What if I get an important one? You know? And then when they run tests of — they have them do it and they check and they end up admitting yeah, there was nothing important I would have missed, kind of thing.

But, it’s like we’re not practiced for it. We’re not, you know, I… so, big fan of the same book. I’ve been trying to do that and I find the same thing of, there’s this pull of, well, what if somebody calls? What is something happens? Right? And, it’s funny if you can get past the emotional part of, yeah, logically, are there really that many emergencies that can’t wait until the top of the hour when I turn my phone on to see if there’s been an emergency? You know?

Avoiding Your To-Do List “Snooze” Button

09:02 JEFF LYMAN: Yeah, there’s this great book called Getting Things Done, I think it’s David Allen. He sort of was, he was ahead of this in the late nineties where he would talk about how the human brain is — unless you have a system for parking these things that keep popping back up in your head like, “Oh,” every day or two, I gotta do my taxes. Or, every couple days, “Oh, I forgot I need to do this,” and when you don’t solve them, your brain actually as a system just keeps reminding you of them almost like there’s a snooze button that keeps coming back every nine minutes.

He says what happens is if you don’t have a system to park that stuff, you know – a memo, a Trello list, like something – you actually clog your brain with all of these little snoozed to-dos, and you never are actually able to get any level of kind of depth of work done. And so, certainly, that’s really a theme that I think he saw early on, and then now it’s like multiplied by in order of magnitude now as far as what we have to sort of peel away in order to get to kinda the core of the real problems and opportunities that may be based in your business or your life, or anything else.

10:24 JL: Yeah. But, it takes discipline and it takes forethought, right, to you know, [laughs] make sure everything is forwarded to an assistant who can call you if there is an actual fire, right? And, if you just run things the way that everyone else would like you to run of coming to all their meetings, or taking their call when they want you to take their call, right? That’s just not gonna happen.

Less Talk, More Rock: Forcing Yourself to Focus on the Bigger Problems

JEFF LYMAN: Yeah, there’s some interesting trends in tech; you’ve probably seen the Light Phone. It’s the, the original one I think was in Indiegogo. (Indecipherable — 10:58) Basically, it’s a credit card-sized phone that uses your phone number and basically just takes calls. And, you can decide I think if it takes texts or not, and you basically put your phone down and you put the Light Phone in your pocket. So, if anybody really needs to get a hold of you or call a couple times, you’re not sort of disconnected from those extreme circumstances where you worry. But, it’s a forcing function of kind of removing yourself from sort of being in this sort of the thick of these thin things that just distract your attention.

Even in finding out through the entire process of triaging whether they’re important or not, is a gigantic distraction in and of itself. And I’ve sorta looked like, “Wow, that’s tech actually taking a gigantic step back,” like literally going back to like a Nokia phone that I would have owned in 1998. But it’s viewed as an enormous step forward and I think leaders have to — they’ve got to make time to do that because their teams are looking for them to solve the bigger, harder, more complicated, multi-faceted problems — not just bang through a list of emails or Slack, you know, Slack messages.

That’s one. I think two is, you know, there was a time when I was at Nike and we were just – our organization around wearables and kinda building, you know, this whole platform around digital fitness — it was a beehive and there were tons of meetings going on. As an organization, we started looking to each other going, “We’ve got to break this cycle,” and we may need to be pretty overt in doing that, rather than just suggest best practices.

So, we started blocking chunks of the day that were “meeting blackouts.” I think it was like Thursday mornings, or something like that. You were expected to be in the office. This was not a time to play hooky. But I think we called it “Less Talk, More Rock.” So, every Tuesday and Thursday morning, there was less talk, more rock, and everyone was there, but they weren’t being sort of drug into meetings where someone else was sort of controlling their thought pattern or agenda. And that was, I think, particularly useful as a way I think from sort of an organizational level — this sort of demand that people you know, are making time to be able to sort of prioritize solving some of these deeper problems.

13:23 JL: Yeah. What’s another…? It’s interesting you know, how much many of us would welcome something like that, but don’t get around to doing it, right? So it’s interesting to hear a high-performance organization like Nike actually did it, instead of talking about it. You know?

What’s another one? Thinking about like what you feel like you learned from ten years at Nike you couldn’t have learned any other way?

Brand Management: Being a Steward of the Brand

13:50-56 JEFF LYMAN: That it takes like 30 percent of the work to get it 80 percent there and the last like 70 percent to get it the last 20. [laughs] The last 70 percent of the work to get it, right? Nike is such an exacting organization. I mean, the brand is more valuable than, you know, trailing three years of revenue. I mean, it’s just such a significant asset and so everything that you would communicate in and around that brand, there was no room or sort of, tolerance, for it to be off — or not insightful, or weak, or not well thought through, or… and so, there was — you sort of all felt like you were the steward of this thing, this incredible brand. And it’s a brand that allows you to create a t-shirt for $1.50 and sell it for $29. The gap in there, other than some channels getting paid and some wholesale margin, is just that that brand means something when a person puts that shirt or that hat on.

And so, you manage and sort of protect and fortify that asset every time you have an impression around it, and it’s an opportunity to either weaken the asset or to fortify it. And so, my time there in learning both through a lot of mistakes and I think great peers and mentors that believed in me, but also, would not accept anything less than great — creates a culture where you feel like, “I’m not just the only steward of the brand, I’m here with all these other stewards of it,” and my job is not just to you know, do what it says on the job description or get the whatever the empirical result is, but my job is actually to be a co-steward of this brand with all of my peers.

And so, we felt like — if there was this feeling that if you did something that didn’t land, that just had a really negative social media reaction to it or anything, you actually let down all the other protectors; all the other stewards. If you’ve ever played football, it’s like being a lineman and you let the linebacker through your hole and you should have stopped them, and the quarterback got sacked. It’s that feeling when you go back to the huddle and you’re like, “Sorry, guys, I let them through. I know we lost 14 yards there.” And, that is the sense of kind of brand management at Nike.

Getting to great, the last you know, 70-80 percent of the time was spent getting the thing kind of the last lap. And that, you know, there’s a lot of approvals and layers and stuff like that and sometimes I really had disdain for that. But overtime, grew to kind of deeply appreciate that e these were all brushes in a polishing exercise of getting something ready to go that would conventure it with that brand. So, that’s probably the big learning.

17:13 JL: Yeah. So, you know, you think about A) trying to instill that kind of a feeling in an organization where maybe it’s not as intense and secondarily, this idea of it sounds like there was no tolerance for over-optimism. Your point about the first 80 percent only takes 30 percent of the time and it takes another 70 percent to get the last 20 percent done.

When it comes to helping a team embrace, hey, let’s plan for that. Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot planning to get the last 20 percent done at the same rate we got the first 80 percent done. As you’ve tried to bring these lessons now to where you are at Vivint, how’s that shown up, or what kinds of conversations are you having with people, or what kind of policies or programs do you have to try and help bring that feeling to where you’re at?

JEFF LYMAN: It starts in your hiring. But, I’ve learned this the hard way. So, you know in organizations not everybody at every level can be an actual equity owner or that that equity is evenly distributed. But, what you have to hire for is that everyone can be an equal owner in the mission and the commitment to it. So, hiring people in that puts a fair amount of scrutiny on the hiring process is to make sure that people are there for the right reasons.

18:55 JL: So, what’s an example? How do you separate a good interviewer from, from somebody you can really believe that?

Home: The Epicenter of Human Life

JEFF LYMAN: Well, so I mean for us, we believe that home is the epicenter of human life and that if you can solve significant problems inside the home and give people time and money and control, you know, and peace of mind back to their life that you actually could make a meaningful difference in their existence. And that we could do that not only at a home level, but actually at a neighborhood level. And so, I would spend a lot of time in the hiring process sort of digging in to the, you know, “Ok, what’s interesting to you about Vivint?”

And I would do this at Nike a lot ‘cause there would be people that just wanted to work at Nike, because they saw the commercials, they think the shoes are cool. It’s like, “Ok, great. Why do you want to work at Nike?” And unless I heard a passion to actually innovate to serve the athlete, which is not the Kool-aid, you know, it’s way more than just Kool-aid, it’s religion there. You could easily, when the going would sort of get rough, and you would hit sort of hard points in this organization, that could be really exacting. The only thing that would carry them through was they don’t have enough equity to want to stick around, you know? This is sometimes their first or second job. Or, you know, they’re still early in their career. They didn’t have a lot to lose financially by walking away.

But I wanted to hire people who had a lot to lose emotionally by walking away, because the cause mattered to them. And so, I think you’ve got to ask your way through those questions and then sharpen your B.S. meter, and really listen. “Ok, does this person care about the thing we’re trying to do?” Because this isn’t going to be easy and there’s going to be huge companies that are going to come at us and try to take market share, etc.

That to me has been I think, you know, the most effective way of sort of building that culture. It’s hard to get people to get religion on that after they become an employee. [laughs] It really is. They either have to kind of have some world views and kind of values that align with the company’s values and what it is that the company actually exists to do beyond give a return to its investors. And those are usually when you combine those values and that alignment with someone who’s really capable and brilliant, and can grow and learn, you have the makings of someone who is going to be really successful in your organization and someone who you’ll not spend a lot of time helping be engratiated into your organization and get over interpersonal dynamics, etc. because I don’t care what you wear. I don’t care if you have an accent. I don’t care, you know, if you voted a different way than I did or come from a different background, I don’t care about any of that. If somebody aligns to the mission, I’ll work with them. I think that is pervasive throughout your whole organization and that is inspiring to people. And sometimes they need that next new hire who’s just as inspired and as motivated about the mission as you are, and then that can actually feed an infectious energy throughout an organization and that can be a pretty virtuous cycle.

Get to People’s Soul in the Interview Process

22:37 JL: You know, it’s interesting the way you described that, it sounds so different than here’s the canned interview answers. Know what they said. Move to the next question. It sounds like when you’re asking them, you’re not taking the first answer, you’re going deeper. It’s interesting as I think about interviewing — which obviously, you know, giving people a probationary state, actually trying them out, is going to prove whether our first guess is right or not. But, as far as first guesses go, that deeper idea of open-ended — tell me what you’re passionate about… and then, it sounds like you’re asking what’s behind that? And then, what’s behind that, and then what’s behind that? Am I putting words in your mouth there or, what would you say?

JEFF LYMAN: Yeah, and you say things like, “Hey, you were just working at this place for the last two or three years.” I’m like, “Explain to me your best day there.” And if the answer you hear is about how the mission of the company moved forward in a critical milestone versus something that is just an individual achievement for that person, those can be really important signals.

Interviewing is — I’ve learned from doing it the wrong way, especially when I was younger, how important it is to just get to people’s soul in the interview process and it’s a really great way, because I think one of the markers for someone if they’re going to successful in your organization is how real are they about the things that they suck at, and how introspective are they? And more of back to what we started with–talked about at the start, how aware they are of their own tumors?

And so, I’ll say to someone, “Hey, tell me about some interaction you had with either a peer or someone you worked for that did not go well and what you learned from it?” And if they respond to that with what a D-bag the person that they were working with was, and how they just had to react to that, you have — that is a really, really great signal. If they respond with, “You know what, I was really emotional about this thing and I thought we were making the wrong choice, and so I spoke up and really challenged the CEO on it, and I was a little bit curt and I don’t think it really went over that well and I should have done that a lot better. But I was just really passionate about this thing where I felt like strategically, we should have gone in a different direction and I needed to speak up.” So, that’s someone who is admitting that they didn’t approach it the right way, but you hear from that, this kinda like passion and drive around caring what your company does and why.

Thinking like an owner versus a renter, which is, you have to select for that. You know if you think about it in sort of evolution terms. You have to select for people who have owner-thinking versus renter-thinking. And those are the people who I think are going to thrive in your organization and that starts with the types of questions and answers that they give you in an interview.

25:39: JL: I love it. I love it. That’s great. Well, maybe let’s close with what’s become my favorite question lately: What piece of advice do you wish you could go back and give yourself 15 years ago?

JEFF LYMAN: I probably should crosstrain instead of running the whole time. That’s a different outcome, but, let’s see… I alluded a little bit to this, but, the faster somebody can find — I think every person has a fastball. Everyone has something in their skill-set that they actually can spike particularly high at, and the faster that they embrace and accelerate and accentate that as part of what they do and deepen that, versus trying to be a generalist and being insecure about not being great at everything is to me, something that I sort of had to learn through experience. And over time, I sort of started to develop these instincts and I realized that these were instincts that not everyone else was developing, and I started to follow them and speak up on them and execute on them, and that started to create a very kind of virtuous loop that helped me understand, “Wow, there’s some things that I think I do really well – better than others, and there’s some things that I just categorically suck at, and I don’t care that I suck at them.” I wished I would have spent more of my career being so clear-headed about that versus being insecure as a young kind of mid-twenties, feeling like I’ve got to be great at everything. So, that’s what I wish I would have told myself.

27:44 JL: Love it. I think that’s great advice. Hey, thanks for making so much time for us here.

JEFF LYMAN: My pleasure. It’s been great to talk to you, Jess.

27:53 JL: Thanks.

[ENDS] 27:54