As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Bell.
In 2014, Jeff Bell was named Chief Executive Officer of LegalShield, the leading provider of legal, privacy and identity theft protection services in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom. Since his arrival, LegalShield has grown to over 1.8 million members, protecting and empowering over 4.6 million lives. Previously, Mr. Bell was Corporate Vice President, Xbox, for Microsoft. He spent 12 years at Ford Motor Company, including serving as Managing Director of Ford Spain, and five years at Chrysler as Vice President and General Manager of Chrysler and Jeep Divisions. Jeff earned the 2008 Cannes Grand Prix for the Halo 3 Integrated Marketing campaign. He was named AdAge “2007 Entertainment Marketer of the Year” for Gears of War, and AdAge “2005 Interactive Marketer of the Year” at Chrysler. He serves on the Advisory Board of his alma mater, Johns Hopkins-SAIS, and on the board of numerous venture-backed start-ups. Bell graduated from Kenyon College Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and was honored as an Academic All-American in football. He holds Master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins and Wharton. He is married to his wife of 33 years, Colleen, and has three sons.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Both sides of my family are from Guthrie, Oklahoma. I was born in Oklahoma City to two loving and committed parents. We moved to Ohio before my 1st grade and, growing up, I was a paperboy and an Eagle Scout, and enjoyed playing football. I attended Kenyon College and earned a Bachelor’s degree in History and Spanish. I received an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and an MBA from Wharton. I spent 17 years in the automotive industry, in and out of Detroit, including 12 years with Ford and another five years with Chrysler. I ran advertising for Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep, including the “That Thang Gotta Hemi” campaign. I launched the 4-door Wrangler and Chrysler 300. Later, I served as Corporate VP of Xbox at Microsoft, launching Halo 3 and Rock Band, and bringing Netflix to Xbox Live. I’ve spent the last six years investing in VC-backed start-ups and have been CEO of LegalShield for roughly the same amount of time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I hope my answer is what you want to hear. When I held my first business dinner with our Board of Directors and top business leaders from our sales organization, I booked a private room at Nobu in Dallas. As context, I had never met anyone from our field sales leadership, so this was a “first impression” dinner for them and me. What I did not anticipate was the reaction of several people to “raw fish” (sushi). I remember one comment to this day: “Can’t we afford to cook the fish?!?” Of course that was in jest, but some people would not eat sushi, so we quickly adjusted our menu selections. Anyway, it was embarrassing and humbling, but also funny and endearing. It broke the ice and expedited our bonding process.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Three, in particular, come to mind: Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, Traction by Gino Wickman, and Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. Scrum explains the creation of the “agile” process for software development and argues for its application to all business processes. After reading the book, I had all my VPs at LegalShield and above read it and we followed that advice. Traction presents a very specific approach towards building a successful organization and culture. It starts with culture, focuses on defining the right structure and “seats” and then putting the right people in those seats, and it establishes the concept that “everyone has a number (EHAN)” to align activity with desired outcomes. Finally, Extreme Ownership argues that leaders must accept responsibility for everything, believe in the company’s mission and make sure their team fully understands it; and be humble, take the blame for mistakes and give full credit to the team for the victory.
Previously, as a liberal arts grad and life-long learner, I enjoy philosophy and literature. Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, St. Augustine, Dante and Machiavelli have been very influential. I have enjoyed Joyce, Wallace and Milton as well.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I arrived, there was a strong culture, but no written purpose, vision or mission. We gathered and discussed what was “assumed but unwritten,” and came up with all three. Our purpose is to protect and empower. Our Vision is to provide equal access to the Liberty, Equality, Opportunity and Justice that every human deserves. Our Mission is to help people improve their lives by teaching life-transforming skills and to deliver exceptional products and services that promote peace of mind and confidence in a world that is oftentimes uncaring and selfish.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Set clear objectives and measurable goals for five years out and then make every decision in order to achieve them using a simple 2x2 matrix of “importance/difficulty” as the criteria.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have been very blessed because we do not yet know anyone who has had coronavirus. Our oldest son lives and works in London with his wife and they are abiding by UK guidelines. Our middle son is working in Idaho. Our youngest son “escaped” from New York City and has been living with us in Kirkland, Washington, working remotely for the past eight weeks. I believe he may return to Manhattan in the first week of June. Personally, I had a distinct advantage because we have been using videoconferencing for over five years to run our business. The majority of our leadership team does not live in Ada, Oklahoma, and we fly to our home office there 15 to 20 times each year to build relationships and execute key meetings. When we are not in Ada, therefore, we use Zoom. Now with travel limited, we use Zoom all the time. We were culturally and practically ready for this COVID-19 imposed change.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our collective challenge is to regain trust and improve humanity. Trust is grounded in feeling safe and having confidence that systems and services function as expected. In addition, we must not squander the opportunity to improve society; to improve life. Every global pandemic has been followed by an increase in equality. This crisis showed that not every child has a laptop and access to the Internet. This crisis showed that the elites can work from home but the working class and working poor cannot. We clearly need to improve our approach to proactive wellness screening, to vaccine and antiviral development, and access to healthcare.
For LegalShield, most of our employees are customer service representatives, so this crisis expedited our “work from home” plans. We had tried it two years ago and ran into technical limitations. This time we were able to move 550 employees to a work from home environment in three weeks. This was enabled by a brand new ERP we launched in December which is cloud-based. This same platform has enabled all of our law firms and lawyers to work from home and still serve all of our members.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Be safe. Be smart. Be brave. It is absolutely natural for everyone to feel afraid. We are afraid of the uncertain; of what is unknown. Right now, we do not know how to fight nor cure the novel coronavirus. We do not know if we will die if we get it. We do not know if we will infect others if we have an asymptomatic case. All the uncertainty leads to anxiety and tension. That is normal. But what we must choose to be is brave. We must stay focused upon facts and science and math. We live our lives making decisions and we must make our very best decisions during the coronavirus crisis. When anyone panics in the face of a crisis, they become the crisis.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
All people must actively try to be more affable and kinder regardless of whether we maintain social distancing and mask-wearing. Waving, saying ‘Hello’, and random acts of courtesy and kindness are what I pray for. That is a start. As Teddy Roosevelt once said: “We need civic courage, honesty, and steadfast adherence to the immutable laws of righteousness.” Government and business must return to a focus on attaining and retaining the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. We must all believe that humankind will not merely survive but thrive. We must affirm that we all have a soul capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. We must start each day reminding ourselves that honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice will lead to greater glory than we have every achieved in the past. As terrible as both the virus is, and how terrible the closure of our economy and society is, we must find a collective response to improve our society and world.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There are two extremes — people wear masks, keep their heads down, and do not show any humanity, or everyone intentionally decides to be more connected and positive. Let’s recall the response of New Yorkers after 9/11. Let’s be honest, New Yorkers have a reputation for being a bit distanced and caustic. But after the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center, people came together to love and comfort and support one another, to rebuild the city and restore faith in humanity. We need to use that attitude as our model.
I am also reminded of the response to the terrible terrorist attack in Oklahoma City over 25 years ago. It led to the creation of the Oklahoma Standard. As President Bill Clinton said, “Oklahoma City, you’ve broken our hearts but you’ve lifted our spirit.” The Oklahoma Standard is an initiative promoting a culture of caring citizens by encouraging Acts of Service, Honor and Kindness. A national initiative in this vein would be an appropriate response to Covid-19.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our business promotes equal access to equal justice. We will deploy new technology that makes it possible for every citizen to affordably live free under the law by having the protection and support of a lawyer. We are also aggressively expanding services to protect everyone’s privacy — personal reputation management, anti-bullying, anti-tracking and spamming — and have trained our private investigators to counsel and support people on each topic.
While LegalShield and IDShield membership has been growing, we have seen a rapid increase in demand for our services during this crisis, as you can imagine. Everyday citizens need legal advice and counsel on employment, eviction, foreclosure, collections, and financial issues. People are facing terrible scams from criminals who are trying to steal their stimulus checks or sell them products that do not exist (like a cure for the virus). We have a commitment to scale our business by reaching more and more people through diverse channels. Some members come to us through word of mouth. Others join our community by responding to advertising. Many others become members through employee benefits. We will increase our brand awareness and demand generation in the Post-Covid world to help protect and empower more people.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
What businesses do and how they do it matter in a post-Covid world. The government is going to be extremely indebted and the means to repay the debt driven by emergency decisions and actions is to grow the economy. We need to invest and hire and expand access for all products and services. And that leads to the “how.” I believe education needs to abandon “summer break” which originated when America was a land of farmers. We need to guarantee access to computers and online service for every child — at school and at home. We need to increase access to healthcare while we also promote healthy lifestyles — exercise and diet — for our citizens. Finally, we need a very clear and practical plan to ensure our economic recovery does not depend upon a laissez-faire approach and addresses the real concerns of populist movements to address the disenfranchised and working class of society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In life, there are only two things you can control — your attitude and your effort. Your attitude should always be positive and your effort exemplary.” — Gerald Mayall Bell (1938–1983), my father.
How can our readers further follow your work?