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Investors Business Daily
Investors Business Daily

Why Intuit's Legendary Former CEO Relishes Being Different

Talk to Brad Smith and you'll know at once he's not like most Silicon Valley leaders. The legendary former Intuit CEO's West Virginia accent gives him away.

Smith's accent is so noticeable, one of his early bosses sent him to a vocal coach. He thought Smith's accent made him "come across as unsophisticated," Smith, CEO during Intuit's breathtaking run from 2008 to 2018, told Investor's Business Daily. "I had another supervisor who told me he was going to coach the folksy out of me."

Fortunately, the re-education plan didn't work. And Smith, 56 and still Intuit's executive chairman, took a key lesson from it. A leaders' job is "to recognize the greatness in all of us and create an environment where that can shine," he said. "That's the kind of authenticity I bring to this job."

And by being himself on the job, he hopes he inspires others. "I hope people look at me and say, 'Wow. If he can do it and he's that flawed, maybe I can do it too,'" he said.

Deliver Results Like The Former Intuit CEO

Smith is already inspiring the next generation of leaders. Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit remains on IBD's Long-Term Leaders list of the best companies over the long haul, even through bear markets and recessions. It rents and sells popular business software like QuickBooks and TurboTax.

"Brad is always focused on helping you become a better version of yourself," said Sasan Goodarzi, 52, who replaced Smith as CEO in 2019. "He is willing to share his advice and perspective based on his decades of experience, but at the same time giving you the space to internalize his feedback."

Smith's run as Intuit CEO is remarkable. He was the company's CEO for 11 years from 2008 to 2018. During that time, Intuit's customer count doubled to 50 million, revenue more than doubled from $2.7 billion to $6 billion. Profit per share jumped nearly 300% to $5.61, amounting to $1.5 billion. And the stock soared more than 500% with Smith as Intuit CEO, while the S&P 500 rose just 73%.

He never doubted success would come, despite many challenges. Smith knows his positive attitude "can sometimes be disarming and quite frankly people may not believe it," he said. "But if you stay true to who you are through good times and bad then eventually people will accept you for who you are."

Former Intuit CEO: Listen Like A Good Leader

What's Smith's rule no. 1 of leadership? Listen to your employees. Employees are closer to customers and better understand their needs than the CEO, he says. And the best way to find out what they know is simply listening.

He learned this in 2005. Smith was general manager of Intuit's small business division. Intuit was trying to operate as one team, instead of spreading over individual products.

Smith and his staff met behind closed doors for six months. They presented the new organizational chart. There was one problem. It didn't work. So just two weeks later, Smith called a second town hall meeting. He claimed responsibility. "I didn't have a very forgiving audience," Smith recalled.

"One of the employees raised (his) hand and said: 'We know it's your fault, Brad, but let us give you a tip,'" Smith recalls. The bold employee continued, "'The next time, don't start talking to us when you have the answer. Start talking to us when you have the question and maybe collectively we can come up with a better answer.'"

That stuck with Smith. "I have always since then tried to reach into the organization and grab the people closest to the customer problem," he said.

Challenge Your People

Smith also knows how to push employees to do more, too. Intuit wanted to jump-start mobile apps, including with TurboTax. "The TurboTax team had the courage to ask me in front of an audience what does doing taxes have to do with the phone?" Smith said.

He laughed and said "I'll be honest with you. This is a pretty small surface area to do TurboTax, but if anyone can figure it out I'll bet you can." Six months later, that team developed TurboTax for the iPhone. And it's now the No. 1 way people get their taxes done using a mobile device.

Inspire Greatness Like The Past Intuit CEO

Smith reminds employees they stand for something greater that just financial products. He starts every meeting with real-life stories from customers, showing their challenges.

"We want to be a champion for those people that are overlooked and underserved," Smith said. Small business owners know half of them will fail in the first five years.

One story about family farms' hardships inspired Intuit's developers. They made software to help farmers get more accurate pricing on products. And on a trip to India, Smith visited a farming family that made a point to thank him. This relatively small product enabled them to earn enough money to send their daughters to school — not just their sons.

"When you tell these stories to employees, they don't think about building tax products," Smith said. "They think about changing people's lives and putting money in their pockets and allowing their kids to go to school."

Make Doing The Right Thing Your Business

That attitude inspires Intuit customers, as well. On April 14 a few years ago, the crunchtime before the tax filing deadline, users overwhelmed TurboTax' website. The server slowed down. Intuit couldn't tell people, who filed between 10 p.m. and midnight, if their taxes went through on time.

"We looked up every customer that filed between 10 p.m. and midnight and we issued a full refund and apology," Smith said. "Within about a week, a lot of those checks got returned to us with a thank-you note saying, 'Hey, my taxes went through. But it really means the world to me that you would try to refund my money,'" he said.

Find Your Idols

Several unexpected "idols" inspire Smith: Mr. Fred Rogers, Sun Tzu and Forrest Gump.

Smith appreciates how Mr. Rogers tackled racism during his childhood, "one of the most divisive issues at the time (the 1960s). I think that kind of courage wrapped up in that sort of compassion is the kind of leadership we need."

Why is Smith a fan of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War?" Tzu contended "every battle is won or lost before it's ever fought," Smith said. The same goes for software. "I think that's about the importance of testing and piloting" before releasing a new product, he said.

As for Gump? "He goes through life and as he experiences something he turns it into a very simple memorable line that becomes a teaching lesson," Smith said. "My life has just been a bunch of mistakes that I turned into lessons like Forrest Gump."

Take Jobs Nobody Wants Like The Intuit CEO

Smith also learned from his father. "My dad used to tell me that the best way to advance your career is to volunteer for the job nobody else wants, because a couple of things will happen," Smith said.

First, it's probably an unwinnable situation. "You'll have to get really innovative and scrappy. So you're going to have to learn a lot," Smith said.

Second, if you volunteer for enough tough jobs, "you're going to become the go-to person," Smith said. "A good job is going to come along and (managers are) going to say, 'Let's let Brad do this one.'" This approach "paid off for me," Smith said.

Bounce Back From Mistakes, Smarter

Smith suffered his share of professional setbacks. He recalls a tough period before he became Intuit CEO. He was running QuickBooks.

"We were moving to the cloud," he said. "We had an old version of a cloud product that a team of engineers said we should just throw away and build a completely new one." Smith went with it. Two years later and $70 million down the drain, the new software project collapsed under its own weight.

But his goodwill with the team saved the project. "Employees kept working on the old one, making it better. My lesson there is (that the best move) is not necessarily to create something but to take something existing and make it better," he said. That's the number one definition of innovation."

Former Intuit CEO Smith's Keys

  • Intuit CEO from January 2008 through 2018. Drove enormous growth in this IBD Long-Term Leader, including into new areas like mobile apps and cloud computing.
  • Overcame: Fear that taxes couldn't be done on a phone as the screen is so small. Turned TurboTax' mobile offering into a big win for Intuit.
  • Lesson: "Courage isn't the absence of fear. It's the willingness to stand up and face the things that are scary."
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