Steve Shaheen – Global Head of Digital Marketing for Restaurant Brands International

For our team members, I set a rule: Come with solutions, not problems. I don’t want my team to come to me and say, “Steve, what should we do?” I want them to say, “Steve, here’s what I propose.”

Steve Shaheen is the global head of digital marketing for Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons, which has $23 billion in sales and operations in more than 100 countries.

Steve previously founded two companies in the digital space and has held leadership roles with The Walt Disney Company and LivingSocial. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he graduated as a Baker Scholar (top 5 percent), and degrees in systems engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Steve has also been a part-time teacher and a volunteer at various animal shelters, including the Humane Society of New York.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

It’s easy for people, myself included, to suffer from false productivity. We sometimes use “being productive” to distract ourselves from the real issues at hand — for example, making 100-plus calls today instead of making the one important, but difficult, phone call that I should have done. The mind is powerful and can often use productivity as a shield from doing what is difficult, yet it’s critical for our personal (and our organization’s) long-term benefit.

On a more practical note:

I keep my inbox to less than 10 emails, trying to reply immediately and never read an email twice.
I keep lists and check things off.
For our team members, I set a rule: Come with solutions, not problems. I don’t want my team to come to me and say, “Steve, what should we do?” I want them to say, “Steve, here’s what I propose.”
Lastly, I try to be kind to myself and give myself a little reward when I accomplish the things I wanted to do!

How do you bring ideas to life?

The most critical part of bringing an idea to life is people. When I’ve fully digested a new idea, I start with trying to get others excited about it. Although love at first sight or sound can happen, building enthusiasm typically evolves over time. This process is fun because we get to hear people’s unique perspectives, which helps refine and improve the original idea.

Having been through a few startups, I fully believe that although ideas are important, execution separates the winners from the losers. There is a somewhat harsh, but fairly true, quote that goes something like “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

What’s one trend that really excites you?

Given my background in engineering, I could easily tell you something in technology. But on a more personal level, what excites me are trends in education and healthcare.

In higher education, costs are increasing faster than in many other sectors of the economy, yet the percentage of people with college degrees working in jobs that don’t require college degrees is massive. Higher ed needs to fundamentally change.

In healthcare, I find recent developments in preventive medicine and the mind-body connection fascinating. We spend so much money fixing health problems after they occur! If we can develop care models that enable people to be healthier, both mentally and physically, everyone in the system wins.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My natural tendency when I get excited about something is to get really, deeply focused on it. Sometimes, this is incredibly helpful. I can sit for hours on end focusing on a problem until I feel real progress is made. The flip side is that being an entrepreneur requires the ability to move back and forth between issues.

What helps me here is not being so rigid about a schedule. If I’m excited to work on something analytical one week, I’ll allow myself to go deep on it. Then, if I want to spend time selling another week, I’ll build that in. Of course, in reality, things don’t always work out this way, but allowing yourself the freedom to work on things that excite you when they do can lead to much better results.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I totally subscribe to the saying that you don’t work for companies; you work for people. When you’re younger, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that working for a fancy brand-name organization is the way to go — to impress your friends, parents, etc. But at the end of the day, you have to find a good mentor. I’ve been fortunate to have had these mentors at various points in my career, yet I’ve also worked for people who were incredibly difficult.

The irony is that sometimes you learn just as much from a bad boss as you do from a good one. My worst bosses were “transactional” — everything they did was about what they could get from you in return. Conversely, the best bosses see the bigger picture — that circumstances can change and that there’s much more to life than work.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

One thing I sometimes wrestle with is the tradeoff between variety and depth. In my career, I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve worked in finance, sales, operations, and product/strategy, as well as marketing. The learning curve in a new role starts out very steep and flattens rapidly within several months. I’ve spent a lot of time on that steep part of the curve, which, for a curious person like me, has been both exciting and enriching. It also helps me as an entrepreneur because I feel very confident in all the important aspects of running a company.

That said, I look at some really smart people I know who have spent 20-plus years in one industry or functional area. Beyond just pattern recognition in their space, they tend to have much deeper industry networks that are crucial to success. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like now had I specialized earlier in my career. All that said, it’s easy to spend too much time thinking about the past (or the future) — I accept the choices I’ve made and focus on the present.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I am a big fan of a Peter Drucker quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you bring smart people together in an environment where everyone is recognized and treated with dignity, good things happen. Of course, the strategy can’t be to sell VCRs in 2016, but assuming you’re in the right ballpark, this really is a formula that works. Obsess over finding great people and making their careers challenging, fun, and rewarding; don’t obsess over corporate strategy.

What is one failure you’ve experienced, and how did you overcome it?

A failure that shaped me early in my life was with a house-painting business I had in my first few years of college. I did some painting one summer in high school and, with my youthful enthusiasm, thought, “Hey, I could be the guy who runs this.” I used my savings (I had worked since I was 11) to buy some old ladders and a van (it was ancient and cost about $900). I went door to door to find people who would let my crew and me paint their houses. I was fairly good at booking jobs, but when the time came to paint — disaster.

My first mistake was hiring my friends (who totally weren’t qualified)! About 60 days in, I was out of money and down to one employee. I was about to lose my savings and “waste” a summer while all my friends from college were doing internships at big companies.

With some guidance from a mentor, I was able to turn things around — the secret was to pay more and hire better painters. It was a good lesson I still hold close today: Find the best people. With failure, things can seem so permanent, when in reality, they’re more changeable than we think.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Here are two:
There is a cool service called AirPaper that lets you cancel your cable service for around $5. Would you pay $5 to not have to make that phone call? I would! There’s a real need for businesses that free up time for busy people.

I’m also a believer that the value of experiences in our culture is increasing at a faster rate than the value of products and goods. Companies that deliver great experiences will likely see bigger opportunities. Certain retailers get that: If I just want a product, I’ll go to Amazon, but to drive traffic into the store, shopping today and in the future needs to be an “experience.”

What is the best $100 you recently spent? Why?

Often, money spent on others makes you feel better than money spent on yourself. There’s something fundamentally human about this concept. A few weeks ago, I sent a friend who is going through some tough times a $100 gift certificate to a steakhouse with a note saying, “Be kind to yourself.” It’s easy to get so wrapped up in solving whatever problems we are having that we forget to care for ourselves, too.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I’m a huge believer in writing things down, so I’ve tried most of the note applications. (I used to just fumble around and write myself an email.) Recently, I’ve been using photos more to take notes. (For example, for restaurants, I take a photo and file it in a “best places” folder.) Same with bookmarking stuff on the mobile web: I just take a screenshot. For that reason, having a good photo app where I can sort everything into folders and easily access what I want is key. I like this example because it really demonstrates how removing the friction from a user experience can lead to a behavior shift.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

Let me go a different way: I’m an avid reader of plays. It has always been surprising to me that people can read 300-page novels but don’t read much shorter plays! Great playwrights can spend 10-plus years creating a 50-page experience that can often be read in one setting. I also really enjoy reading the dialogue that helps characters come to life. Here are a few playwrights I’ve enjoyed reading:

Neil LaBute
Michael Weller
Adam Rapp
Neil Simon
Christopher Shinn

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I’ll give two very different examples: Ajahn Brahm and Elon Musk.

Ajahn Brahm is a former theoretical physics student at Cambridge who became a Buddhist monk. He is a wonderful storyteller and shares some amazing ideas for our generation. The core of this philosophy is that your mind is truly the source of either happiness or unhappiness. Type A people often have strong egos and the desire to control things we cannot. I find his perspective on acceptance refreshing.

On the other end, what inspires me about Elon Musk is his unwillingness to accept the status quo and his sheer relentlessness. I recently read (from this article) that he sometimes sleeps at his factory  when Tesla has a deadline to hit. Elon’s motivation beyond just money is inspiring.

It helps me to have balance hearing such different, and equally brilliant, perspectives!

On a lighter note, this video has some great, and amusing, lessons on leadership.


Steve Shaheen on LinkedIn: