Over the years, Brad Smith’s team at Intuit could never be sure whether they would come to work to find him in a blue suit, a suit of armor, a 1920s wool swimsuit or an Elvis costume. His wardrobe choice depended on what sales or product launch goal the team had accomplished.
Brad Smith’s unconventional motivation fostered success
In 2006, when he was senior vice president of Intuit’s Small Business Division, he told his team he would put on a 1920s bathing suit and jump in a pond if they met the launch deadline for the latest version of QuickBooks.
His team met the deadline, and he took the leap.
“I’ve done a number of things in the spirit of employee motivation,” said Smith, who was named CEO in 2008. “I tend to be a storyteller and a student of history. I often tell stories of great battles, like the Battle of Thermopylae, to inspire teams who face what appear to be insurmountable odds. And yes, I have been known to don costumes ranging from a Roman soldier to Elvis Presley as a reward for a job well done.”
Using 300 to inspire marketing efforts
During another particularly challenging launch, Smith huddled Intuit managers at a retreat in order to develop strategies to counteract Microsoft’s release of a competitive product 60 days before the latest QuickBooks edition was due to be released. Everyone received a copy of the graphic novel 300, a fictitious retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, to inspire them in their efforts to maintain market dominance in accounting software over Microsoft.
Intuit managers developed a preannouncement strategy code-named “Rolling Thunder.” The goal was to convey to potential customers that QuickBooks’ new version was worth the 60-day wait, even as Intuit shared the airwaves with Microsoft during the announcement of its new product.
“Rolling Thunder” worked. QuickBooks-related revenue jumped to $861.7 million in fiscal year 2006, the year of “Rolling Thunder,” which was 14% above the previous year.
Fostering creativity and innovation
“Beyond the costumes and storytelling, I find that one of the most powerful motivators is defining clear goals, and giving employees the resources and decision-making authority to do what they do every day—deliver their best effort to make a difference,” Smith said. “At Intuit, we’ve introduced concepts like unstructured time to enable individuals and small teams to be entrepreneurial and identify new processes or product ideas.”
When Smith became CEO at Intuit, known for its financial programs such as TurboTax and QuickBooks, he brought a strong desire to foster creativity and innovation among employees, reach out to the company’s stakeholders and stay ahead of market trends. His promotion came at a time of rebranding, as the 25-year-old Intuit was looking forward to its next quarter century.
“It’s a different world than when we started as a company in 1983, and we’ll need to do things differently if we want to be one of the world’s most innovative, fastest-growing companies,” Smith told SUCCESS.
Listening was key to Brad Smith’s successes
“When I transitioned into the CEO role, one of my primary goals was to learn what our stakeholders were thinking about,” he said. “I went on a listening tour, talking to our board of directors, other CEOs in Silicon Valley and our investors. I also spent time in small groups with more than 300 of our customer-facing employees.
“I primarily asked three questions: ‘What do you see as Intuit’s biggest untapped opportunity, what is the biggest risk facing Intuit that keeps you up at night, and what is the biggest mistake I can make as a CEO in my first year?’ There was a wealth of learning and consistency from what I heard that helped frame the priorities for my first year as CEO. To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘A wise man learns from his own mistakes, but a genius learns from others.’”
Giving customers what they wanted
Priorities that emerged included making Intuit a more global company, especially with 37% of its customers already doing business globally, and accelerating growth and innovation, Smith said.
“There were four major shifts occurring in the market that would require us to change: demographic shifts with the emergence of the digital generation entering the workforce, the impact of social networks and user-contribution systems to add value to products and services, the accelerating growth rates of SaaS [software as a service] and mobile devices as a means to get things done and a world increasingly without borders,” Smith said. “Those four tenets became the core of our new growth strategy and how we will continue to make our offerings even better in the future.”
Less than 90 days after taking over as CEO, Smith announced the launch of Intuit’s new product services. In addition to producing software for laptops and desktops, Intuit’s new services included software that offered increased connectivity and could be downloaded onto mobile devices.
Now, a customer shopping for groceries could input the bill into Quicken, and a business owner could pick up the purchase and instantly add the expenditure into their record-keeping system via a mobile version of QuickBooks.
The customers themselves also helped to institute some software changes. In a program called “Follow Me Home,” in which customers allow Intuit to observe them at home and at work, team members saw how a customer doing global invoicing had to import/export data several times between QuickBooks and Excel, which led to the addition of the multicurrency feature in QuickBooks 2009.
After Intuit’s rebranding, revenue in the fourth quarter of 2008 was 11% higher than the final fiscal quarter of 2007, with total revenue for 2008 topping $3 billion.
Brad Smith’s lasting legacy
Smith said his desire to learn as much as possible through his listening tour was influenced by his education at Marshall University in West Virginia. There he learned “you didn’t have to have all the answers, but you had to know what questions to ask,” he said. Later, Smith was able to give back to his alma mater, first as a mentor and now as university president. Mentoring served him as well. While teaching students to follow their dreams, he gained knowledge about the digital generation in turn.
While wearing his class ring, as he does every day as a reminder of where he’s from, Smith recalled how his first employer, a Fortune 500 company, sent him to a communications school to drill the West Virginia accent out of him. He maintained the accent, as well as a strong appreciation for the individual and the strengths and talents each employee contributes to a company.
In his personal life, Smith enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He practices karate and plays the saxophone. His favorite charities are those helping young children with special needs and advancing educational programs—including his own. He and his wife founded the Wing 2 Wing Foundation in 2019 in order to “advance the great equalizers of education and entrepreneurship in regions where individuals and communities have been overlooked and underserved,” according to his website. After leaving Intuit in 2019, he returned to Marshall University, where he was named president in January 2022.
At Intuit, Smith took the time to inspire and encourage his employees. “I encourage our employees to seize every opportunity to move into areas where they have little or no domain expertise and are forced to rely on the power of inquiry and learning to be successful,” he said. “In today’s world, things change rapidly and positions don’t come with instructions. The ability to learn, adapt and execute is critical.”
This article was published in March 2009 and has been updated. Photo courtesy of Marshall University.