Trading One Ring for Another—and Still Winning

Amy Fisher Executive Connection, Issue 13 - Sept/Oct 2014, Marketing & Sales Leave a Comment

Kickboxer turned Thomson Reuters CMO Tobias Lee talks scoring big with metrics and customer contact

By Amy Fisher

Kickboxing is a numbers game. Sure, it’s technically a martial art and can look as beautiful as ballet when executed properly, but when all is said and done, those spinning back-fist strikes and graceful crescent kicks are deployed strategically to score points: one for a body strike, two for a head kick and so on. So it should come as little surprise that when a professional kickboxer hangs up his gloves to pursue a career in business-to-business marketing, when it comes to creating breakout campaigns, he would deem metrics to be just as important as the art.

It is the constant allure of harnessing that perfect combination of art and science that drew Tobias Lee out of the ring and to his present position as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for the Tax and Accounting business of Thomson Reuters. Challenged with the task of helping an organization that had never had a CMO build its brand, Lee needed to land some quick body blows while lining up a knockout, big-picture strategy

“I came into the organization with a philosophy that marketing can be a strategic contributor to the business,” he said. Lee has made one of his priorities defining what the values of different functions in the organization are, particularly those of marketing. “I really stressed upon the team that we have to ensure that we can measure what our contribution is, so people can understand what our value is.”


Regimen & The Wild West

Before joining Thomson Reuters, Lee worked at Dell and Trend Micro, and while those companies are quite different from one another, he gained valuable experience during his time with each.

Lee joined Dell fairly early in his career, and found that the company demonstrated the power of structure and process, calling it a very well-run organization. He described the people there as ambitious and management to be very clear: Everyone knew what his or her specific job was, and it really motivated people. There Lee learned the power of working hard, being competitive and wanting to win.

“It really grounded me in terms of my management style,” he said. “And today I’m very much results oriented, I have that passion to win, have clarity and goals. All that came from my time at Dell.”

Lee moved to Trend Micro, which felt to him a bit Wild West compared to the regimented Dell environment. “Trend Micro is kind of like a huge startup, even though they’re a billion-dollar company now,” he said. “People have to wear various hats and do whatever it takes to get things done.”

This setup gave Lee the opportunity to take on various jobs. “It gave me lots of different perspectives in terms of learning and allowed me to help create and influence the way the organization was being created,” he explained. “In terms of learning, it was huge and very valuable for me.”

Results, Metrics & Authenticity

In leading his team now, Lee embraces several blended components. He strives to lead with clarity and vision, and to be results oriented, metrics driven and authentic.

He explains the importance of making sure people know what they’re doing and how they connect to the broader purpose. “I don’t think you can do that unless the leader has identified what our goal is,” Lee said. “That requires passion to succeed and passion to understand what we’re striving for, but also making that quantifiable in a way so people know if they’re doing well or not.”

Developing a scoring system is critical, according to Lee, because it should never be a surprise to someone if he or she is put on a performance plan or even terminated. Promotions shouldn’t be a surprise either. “If you know what the benchmark is and what you’re striving for, then I think you really know how to connect with things.”

Lee related his philosophy on metrics back to what he learned at Dell and what he brought to Trend Micro. The latter group initially did not have resources like performance reviews in place, but over time incorporated such performance-tracking features. “We can’t ask employees to spend their days working toward some ambiguous target,” he said. “We have to let them know where they stand, and that their efforts are critical for us to be successful.”

In 2012, Lee launched a customer experience function. Thomson Reuters has always been a very customer-centric company, he said, but his effort was to make it more systematic—“make it more consistent and create a methodology around it.” Lee rebranded the company’s annual leadership conference in 2012 and made the topic customer experience. He called it Spark, and this is where he launched the concept of a six-step process for evaluating and improving customer experience.

The first steps were to upgrade Thomson Reuters’ surveys by making them named instead of anonymous and asking questions that allowed for open-ended answers. “It’s been wonderful in so many ways because we can understand who said what,” Lee said. “Every customer is different, which means we might find more value in certain kinds of customers.”

The company also increased the survey frequency from two to four times per year, and instituted a real-time case management system that notates surveys coming in with a score of five or below (on a 10-point scale); the new system triggers a flag, and a client service manager looks into it right away. Further steps involve working with a customer experience team and assessing a customer relationship score in the categories of customer satisfaction, likelihood to recommend and likelihood to renew. After follow-up external and internal meetings, then they “go forth and conquer.”


Follow the Leader

When Lee worked in Japan, he learned a valuable lesson from the No. 2 man at Hitachi Cable Ltd., Yoshinobu Yoshida, who Lee considers to be an especially impactful professional mentor. Japan is a hierarchical culture, and the respect for people at Yoshida’s level is almost godly there, Lee conveyed, but Yoshida didn’t live in that world and rest on his laurels. “He was on the front lines and talked to everybody,” Lee said, “because he always felt that there was something to be learned from everybody.”

Lee explains that Yoshida especially liked young, early-career people due to their “fresh eyes and different perspectives.” Lee was a young professional and had a Western-centric way of thinking when he met Yoshida, noting, “[Yoshida] was so curious as to how I thought about business because for him I was a potential customer someday.”

Lee learned to take this respect with him. “Certainly be discerning about what you choose to take away as valuable,” he said, “but there’s probably something there in every interaction if you stop and listen.”

A learning experience of Lee’s that he considers a “successful failure” was his social media project “A Day in the Life of a Tax Accountant.” The goal of the program was to highlight the daily challenges accounting professionals face so as to ultimately shine a spotlight on areas where Thomson Reuters could help.

Lee explained: “The thinking was, let’s take 50 to 100 customers and get some of this data and create a very interactive game-of-life experience, where I’d create a fictitious company, create a website and everyday you’d go to this website and see this company doing business like a regular business.”

The fictitious business would be followed on social media, then at the opportune time Thomson Reuters would harvest an opinion from the masses about changes to this business. “The dream was to show what real companies are doing, but based on some artificial company experience,” Lee said.

Ultimately it was probably just overambitious, he now recognizes. He was excited about using social media and a creative way to get people involved, but they just didn’t respond. While not successful in terms of gathering customer input, the project did serve as an excellent learning experience—“an example of me being too passionate around some creative initiative I thought would work, that for this customer set was a real stretch.”

Lead Your Customers

As CMO, Lee has kept the customer at the forefront and really made marketing an integral part of the business. “You have to make sure that you’re in front of the customer, but not so far in front that they can’t see you,” Lee said. “If that’s the case, they won’t know where to go.”

He draws a parallel to his early experiences in martial arts. “In martial arts, the first thing you learn is to forget everything you think you knew about fighting. When someone throws a punch at you, the natural instinct is to recoil or try to avoid it. In martial arts, you learn that you are most effective when you get in close to your opponent—close enough that you can diffuse a blow before it reaches maximum velocity—and make an offensive strike when it is least expected. It’s a lesson that applies to many aspects of business, and one that I’ve tried to bring to my career.”

Amy Fisher is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.


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