Brad Smith knows karate. Not “business karate” or any overwrought metaphor about teamwork; he literally teaches karate. Or at least he used to before he became chairman and CEO of Intuit.
Image via Getty.
Intuit is the financial software company that owns and operates TurboTax, probably the most idiot-proof way to file your taxes in the US. (I speak from personal experience, as I’m definitely bad with money and taxes. Using TurboTax feels like playing a soothing video game.) They also own the popular personal finance app Mint, and were the original developers of Quicken. Nothing is without controversy, though; Intuit has been criticised for lobbying against making filing taxes in the US easier. But let’s get back to the karate.
Brad Smith has been with the company since 2003 and has served as CEO since 2008. He credits much of his success to the discipline he gained through his martial arts training as a young man, as well as the career advice given to him by his father. We caught up with Brad to learn a little about his background, how he manages his time, and some of his favourite inspirational movies. Here’s how he works.
Location: Mountain View, CA
Current Gig: Chairman and CEO, Intuit
One word that best describes how you work: Passionately
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook Air
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I was born and raised in Kenova, West Virginia, population 3500 if you round up! From an early age, the community played a key role in my life. I began studying martial arts at a local dojo as a Year 10 high school student, and the discipline it taught me continues to impact my life to this day. After graduating from Ceredo-Kenova High School, I attended the US Military Academy at West Point for one semester, but my West Virginia roots pulled me back home. I went on to graduate from Marshall University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing.
After graduating university my dad advised me to always pursue what makes your heart beat the fastest. He [also] said I should always make my job choices based on the franchise and not the role. In other words, look for purpose-driven companies that would challenge me and provide me with stretch assignments so I would continue to grow. He told me not to focus on title or the money, because that would change over time if I worked hard. Finally, [he said to] understand that there will be good days and bad days, but if the good outweigh the bad, you are on the right course.
I learned at an early age through my martial arts training — where, as a black belt and teacher, you are measured on the progress of your students — that I loved getting things done through a team as opposed to being an individual contributor. This led me into people management and my first job at Pepsi. I went on to work at ADVO and ADP before joining Intuit in 2003. I held various roles within the company before becoming CEO in 2008, and chairman in 2016.
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without?
Time is our most precious and limited resource, therefore managing my time is my most important priority. A productivity tool that helps me is colour-coding my calendar so I can see how I’m spending my time against my “100-point plan”.
I allocate my time in a 40-30-20-10 split: I spend 40 per cent of my time running the company through operating mechanisms and product reviews; 30 per cent building our organisation’s capability and leadership bench through 1:1’s, skip levels and leadership development forums; 20 per cent on outside-in learning by engaging with fellow leaders in roundtable discussions, forums and board rooms; and the last 10 per cent on personal growth and development, meeting with mentors and learning from others I admire. Colour-coding my calendar holds me accountable and allows me to measure whether I am on track or off, so I can adjust if needed.
What’s your workspace setup like? Coffee shop with laptop and headphones? Home office with a standing desk?
I have a seated desk for when I’m focused on getting work done, a table for in-person meetings, and a video conference screen so I can meet face-to-face with people around the world.
When I’m in my office I’m surrounded by photos of my family and special memorabilia that represent the influences in my life, like my framed We Are Marshall poster, a Marshall University football, and a model of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable — with a Latin inscription that reads “leadership through serving others”. My home office is similar, with family pictures and signed photographs from my favourite movies including Forrest Gump, The Godfather and Gladiator. Family and fighting for causes greater than oneself have always inspired me!
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
The tip is simply-stated, but requires real commitment: Never touch something more than once. For example, my email inbox is cleared every day, despite receiving several hundred emails that require action. It is not managed or sorted by an assistant. Instead, I practise the principle of read, act, file or delete. To stay on top of it, I schedule 45 minute meetings (versus an hour), which allows me 15 minutes in between meetings to quickly read and act on any incoming messages.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Call me old school, but I’m a pen and paper kind of guy! If I write something down I won’t forget it.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Google Home, because it has the power of Google search at voice command. Conversational user interface (CUI) is enabling us to do things faster than ever from shopping to getting our news, and these types of gadgets have won me over. I’ve just been looking for the one that can understand my West Virginian accent, and luckily they keep getting smarter!
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
I’m not sure I am better than everyone else at anything, but I do write poetry. My wife and my two daughters each have poems that I’ve written for them framed on their walls. My wife has one that was written before our wedding, and another that I wrote when she chose to leave her profession to be a stay-at-home mother. Each of my daughters’ poems were written the night of their birth. While they aren’t world-class poems, they are sincere expressions of my love and gratitude for having them in my life, and for helping me strive to be a better man each and every day.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
While I am a musician myself (guitar and sax) and I am constantly inspired by music, it has its place in my life. I tend to work in silence, which allows me to focus 100 per cent of my concentration and energy on the task at hand. However, during a break or at home, my playlist is quite eclectic — ’80s rock, contemporary country and some classical music tossed in for good measure. Lyrics matter most to me, so good songwriters are a plus!
What are you currently reading? Or what’s something you’d recommend?
I’d highly recommend a book I recently read called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. It’s full of amazing, inspirational stories that show that anyone, regardless of IQ, talent or background, can succeed if they have grit — a blend of passion and persistence. I’m a big fan of this school of thought — one of my strongest personal beliefs is that it doesn’t matter where you went to school. This book makes all of us underdogs feel like we’re just as capable as anybody else.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
Spending time with my wife and daughters is my favourite way to recharge. I also love to go to the movie theatre. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been touched by the power of movies, and I find some of my greatest inspiration comes from them.
What’s your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I’ve always been a morning person, so on a typical day I get up early, around 5:30 or 5:45AM. I work out every morning, I do P90X and I watch [CNBC’s] Opening Bell. Then I read a couple of papers: The Wall Street Journal and the Huntington Herald Dispatch before getting into the office around 8AM. I usually get out of the office a little after 7PM, get home, have dinner and spend time with my wife. I’m in bed about 9PM. That’s the program!
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My Dad is no longer with me, but the best advice I ever received was from him on making tough career choices. He offered three simple guideposts:
- Surround yourself with people smarter than you: According to Dad, this was important for choosing where you work, because it ensures that you will constantly be learning and growing. With this in mind, I have always been drawn to work in organisations where the bar is high.
- Volunteer for assignments no one else wants: Once you find the right environment, volunteer to work on the hardest and most unwanted problems facing the organisation, because that’s where you’ll stretch yourself and be forced to grow in ways you wouldn’t have planned. In addition, every boss has something that no one wants to do, and if you volunteer to take it on, it will distinguish you from others and establish you as the “go-to person” for tough problems.
- Finally, make sure you can pay your bills: The last thing Dad told me was to never prioritise big dollars and big business cards over the principles above. He cautioned that if I did, I would most likely find myself in a position where the number of bad days outweighed the good ones. As for paying my bills, Dad was always someone who fulfilled the promises he made. For him, bills were a promise of payment. So he closed by saying “but always try to make enough to pay your bills!”
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]