After helping turn around companies for the last 13 years, David Lee, NetKAL VII, recently took on his biggest professional challenge yet: Transforming Best Buy. For the last nine months, he has been commuting from San Francisco to Minneapolis each week for work, juggling his family life as a father of two young girls and as a husband to NetKAL VI Fellow Susan Kim. With the help of Lee and his colleagues, BestBuy’s stock price surged 13% on earnings in August 2013—naming the company S&P’s 500 top performer of the year. He speaks with Ani Phyo, NetKAL VII.
WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU DO IN YOUR ROLE AT BEST BUY?
I am the senior vice president of enterprise finance at Best Buy. I lead our corporate strategy, corporate finance, and treasury functions, reporting to the chief financial officer/ chief administrative officer. I have three jobs: My strategy role is to place the best possible bets for the company, near-term and long-term, to ensure sustained financial success. My finance role is to measure progress and predict when to shift course to make those bets pay off. My treasury role is to sell the viability of those bets to the public debt and equity markets. All of these roles must be performed while improving the health of the company’s culture and motivate an often beaten-up workforce.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE A “TURNAROUND EXPERT?”
Implying expertise in turnarounds is to presume they are more similar than different, creating the opportunity to run a pre-determined playbook. In my experience, this is not true due to the difference in company culture, which is usually the most significant challenge or opportunity when a company is on the verge of failing, aside from a company’s financial stability. As a result, one of the general requirements for a successful turnaround executive is to presume the one you are in is dissimilar from the ones you have experienced. That said, there are common pressures in any turnaround, even as each particular company’s challenges remain unique. These commonalities tend to be: 1) a need to stem increasing financial losses (initially through cost reductions) in order to fund future investments critical for growth; 2) a need to create in parallel both a short-term operational plan to “triage” the current crisis and a long-term strategy to inspire employees, customers and investors; 3) a need to improve morale while upgrading talent.
WHAT ASPECT OF YOUR CAREER GETS YOU EXCITED TO JUMP OUT OF BED EACH DAY?
I get excited about moving a room full of people to do what’s best for the company. My best days are when I feel like I made a difference not just in the life of the company, but also in the career trajectory of an employee. I am inspired by those moments in corporate life when a large group of people smile because they made a difference while being proud of how they treated each other.
WHAT ARE THE TOP 5 KEYS TO SUCCESS THAT YOU’VE FOLLOWED THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
Three come to mind: Firstly, constantly remember that business is not a meritocracy. Being “the best” is not sufficient, but it opens the door. Secondly, make decisions quickly based on the facts. Being wrong is better than being right after the ability to act has passed (fail fast). Thirdly, coach and inspire your team as a long-term investment that comes back to help you down the road
COULD YOU SHARE ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND HOW YOU OVERCAME IT?
My biggest challenge recently was helping Emmy adjust to her first day at a new school. She has been at a new school every year, and the pressure to find immediate best friends is intense, even at age 6. Letting her fight her own fights is my biggest challenge as a parent, even as I ensure she knows I am always there when she needs me. I rely upon my wife and friends to overcome this challenge. Trust me, they call me out as a “helicopter parent” when needed.
YOU TRAVEL WEEKLY FROM YOUR HOME IN THE BAY AREA TO THE HEADQUARTERS IN MINNEAPOLIS. HOW DO YOU BALANCE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE AND YOUR CAREER?
There is no easy answer to this question. My work/life balance is not healthy right now, and I have recently admitted to myself that my current pace of work is not sustainable, particularly with my aspirations to be a great father of two young girls and with my wife’s career taking off as a CEO of startup. I am blessed with a family who has supported my career tirelessly, and it is not just for them, but also for me, that I will make adjustments to sustain my overall health.
WHAT’S NEXT ON THE HORIZON FOR DAVID LEE?
Every day I wake up excited for what will come, unsure of exactly what that will be. The next horizon will have more balance between my personal and professional life, but what that looks like is unclear. We shall see.
ANI PHYO, NetKAL VII, is a best-selling author, wellness expert and serial entrepreneur focused on helping people live healthier through lifestyle, behavior change and technology. www.AniPhyo.com
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