Homework features AHAM members’ insights on careers, success, life outside of work, and AHAM membership. This month, we spoke with Robin Liss, CEO & Co-Founder, Suvie.
How important is it for leaders to foster a culture of mentorship in their organizations? What makes an effective mentor?
Mentorship is incredibly important for development, and I think it has to come in both formal and informal ways. I have had great mentors throughout my life, from the community theater technician who taught me to dream big in grade school, to the federal judge I interned for in high school, to the U.S. ambassador who took me under his wing in college and remains a trusted mentor and now my fellow CEO board members, investors, and friends. Mentorship can be complicated within an organization. But I have found it is amazing how much incredibly busy people want to mentor and help if you just ask.
For a great mentorship relationship you have to be 100% honest, which can be hard in a corporate environment where people are mindful of reputation. When I sold Reviewed.com to USA TODAY, I had a great relationship with my boss, Susie Ellwood. I was 100% honest with her because she saw me when my weaknesses laid bare in some tough corporate situations. But that turned into an even stronger relationship because I demonstrated a willingness for introspection and a desire to grow, she became a lifelong mentor and friend.
I would also advocate for finding mentors outside of your company. Three of the most important for me have been Dochul Choi of Samsung (current AHAM Board Second Vice Chair), Bill Beck (formerly of Whirlpool), and Pam Kyln (also at Whirlpool). They helped me move Reviewed.com into appliances, providing advocacy and support for my ambitions to build best-in-class test labs. And when it was time for my next project, all three encouraged me to start Suvie, to dream big with a new appliance, and think outside the standard kitchen box.
What is the best advice about leadership you have ever received?
First: "Leaders eat last." To me, the best leaders are willing to make sacrifices and work hard if they expect their team to do the same. When Suvie was working on our first generation product, many of our engineers had to spend significant time in China and away from their families. I moved to China for about a year and a half to help and support them. I did not feel it would be right to ask them to spend time away from their families if I was not willing to do the same.
Second: This one came from my Dad, who is a safety culture organizational development consultant. The idea that "safety first" for employees and customers is not just some corporate jargon — it is how a CEO says to employees and customers: I care about your life and your happiness. A CEO has to be willing to say that they will protect the health and safety of everyone involved in the company above all else, including profit. For the company to be innovative and successful, the team must feel supported and heard and customers must know the product is safe. It is a way of stating your values to people involved in your company.
I’ll add that in “office” innovation work I think safety from fear of failure is critical to fostering innovation. Employees are not going to be willing to take innovation risks if they fear losing their job. What paralyzes big companies from innovation is employees more focused on keeping their job — keeping the water calm, rather than taking on big risks that might fail spectacularly, but also have a shot at being huge successes. So in our organizational environment, we try our best to drive fear of failure from the workplace so our people can take innovation risks and feel safe to innovate.
How has a diverse and inclusive workforce helped your company to meet its objectives?
We are a “majority-minority” STEM company. I am proud of our diversity across the whole organization, but particularly in engineering and leadership. We're a STEM company where 80% of leadership are women, we have an engineering team lead by a woman and a POC man, and our team spread across Asia, Europe, and the U.S. has many LGBTQ team members. We have people in non-traditional families and in all types of living situations.
The diversity of our team and their experiences helps us immeasurably to understand and connect with our customers. The American family is different and changing from what it was in the 20th century, and our kitchen appliances need to accommodate that.
What are your secrets to a productive day?
I have been a division CEO, running a “startup” inside a huge 10K+ person publicly traded company, and CEO of companies with only 10 people. It is the speed of execution and decision making that is a startup’s greatest strength. Being able to make decisions quickly, learn from them, and adjust — all in the same amount of time it might take a big company to just take the first step — is key to daily productivity and success.
Predict an innovation that will revolutionize the next generation.
Cool-to-cook kitchen robots and appliances that vertically integrate with the food they are cooking, all for an amazing user experience.
What does your company gain from its involvement in AHAM, and how do you encourage your employees to stay involved?
As someone who worked in politics and media before, I certainly had one perspective on lobbying and corporate advocacy. Compared to the televisions and cameras I started my electronics career with 25 years ago, home appliances are heavily regulated (including refrigerants, energy usage, and most importantly, safety standards).
Participating in AHAM has shown me that to have effective regulations, the industry needs to be a part of the conversation alongside the political, social, and other economic interests. When those conversations are collaborative, they can lead to better outcomes for consumers, society, and business. AHAM works to make those conversations collaborative and I think that’s very valuable to consumers and society.
What is your best advice for somebody who wants to succeed in the home appliance industry?
COOK! CLEAN! It is amazing to me how many senior execs in this industry have maids or stay-at-home partners who do all the chores. Or people who do not love cooking. The Bureau of Labor Statistics studies how people spend their days, and something like two-thirds of the free time people have when they are not working, driving, or sleeping is spent on household chores including meal preparation. To make great products we need to understand and experience that for ourselves.
What would be your dream job outside of your current industry?
I'm doing my dream job. I get to play with kitchen gadgets all day and make amazing food while helping people spend more time with their families.
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