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Lenovo VP David Rabin: “To prevent burnout work how you want to work”

…work how you want to work. Sure, when the CEO invites you for a 3-day leadership workshop, I’d suggest you attend. But barring those critical business needs, create flexibility to work how you work best. For me, it’s early mornings. I thrive in the quiet of the morning before most of my colleagues (and certainly […]


…work how you want to work. Sure, when the CEO invites you for a 3-day leadership workshop, I’d suggest you attend. But barring those critical business needs, create flexibility to work how you work best. For me, it’s early mornings. I thrive in the quiet of the morning before most of my colleagues (and certainly before my family) wakes up. Even on weekends, I find time before the sun rises to do my best thinking and catch up on tasks which need to be tackled.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Rabin. David is Vice President of Commercial Business of Lenovo’s PC and Smart Devices group. This includes product stewardship for the Think family of products, including the legendary ThinkPad laptop. David holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from the Tulane A.B. Freeman School of Business, and lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife and two kids.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I’ve been in the marketing field for over 20 years and throughout that time have held several different roles on the marketing agency and corporate side. After college, I worked at a small advertising agency in Washington, DC, doing everything from account management to copywriting for clients across multiple industries. From there, I moved on to roles at two of the largest agencies in the world. First was J Walter Thompson in New York, and then to Detroit at Young & Rubicam, where I worked on the Ford Motor Company account, managing Lincoln’s $100 million national advertising program, as well as competitive intelligence.

That path then led me to Lenovo in 2006, where I have been for more than a decade. I started in a role where I was leading marketing efforts across consumer and commercial channels in North America. The experience gave me the opportunity to manage a variety of marketing initiatives, including Olympics, NBA and NFL and retail co-marketing programs with the likes of Best Buy and Amazon. Over the years, I added responsibility for other regions (Central and South America), as well as other functions, including running lenovo.com in North America.

Most recently, I’ve been traveling the globe in my role focusing on commercial business, which represents some of the largest companies in the world. In fact, we do quite well in that area, with 1 out of every 3 commercial customers using Lenovo PCs!

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

To be a thought leader, you must become an expert in your field, understand where the market is headed, and have a platform to communicate that to others.

In our commercial business, we have been supplying devices and solutions to the leading companies in the world for over 30 years. Lenovo is very well known for the iconic ThinkPad laptop, and we’ve sold over 150 million of them since 1992.

To stay a leader, we have to understand the industry we live in today, and have a vision and a viewpoint of what our industry will be like tomorrow. By listening to our customer feedback and the problems they need solved, we create devices and solutions to not only support them, but also to reshape the industry. We also spend a lot of time listening to, and partnering with, industry suppliers, technology analysts, and other strategic partners.

Given our history of success, the industry now looks at us as a defining force in where the commercial market is headed. I am fortunate to be a part of the team, and use channels such as customer forums, press interviews, analyst meetings and keynotes to help deliver my point-of-view on our industry. Today, our business covers very exciting topics around how technology is powering a workplace transformation, the workforce of the future, and the employee experience, as well as how we are making businesses smarter through amazing technologies like AI, 5G and AR/VR.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Well, that would depend on your readers definition of interesting. I’ve had a lot of experiences which have been memorable to me, involving celebrities, corporate CEOs, running into acquaintances halfway around the world, and dealing with diva execs and clients (and even played ‘bodyguard’ to Bruce Hornsby at a private concert). Possibly one of the most career changing, and one which I talk about a lot when I discuss my career, was simply a stroke of luck. Early in my career, I was working at a large advertising agency, and two of my more senior colleagues left for other jobs. After a couple months of trying to backfill them, the client essentially said, ‘why don’t you just promote David into the senior role?’. The agency did that, and at a pretty young age I was running an account at a large agency and had access to the CEO. That was a great learning experience, but also a major springboard in my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

So, this definitely wasn’t funny at the time. I was interviewing for a job, and in my thank you note to the recruiter, I put the wrong name of the client they were hiring for. Total faux pas! And of course, I didn’t get the job — something about my attention to detail wasn’t good enough! In hindsight, it taught me two valuable lessons. First, be thorough and detailed, because if you can’t master the little things, you’ll never master the bigger challenges. Second, and this may go a bit counter to the first, is to be more accepting. Nobody’s perfect, so sometimes giving people the benefit of the doubt and letting them fail will pay big dividends down the road.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

You are only a leader if you have followers, and to achieve that you must be credible and knowledgeable in your industry. A typical leader to me is someone who understands the challenges of today and leads a team to solve those problems.

On the other hand, a thought leader is someone who understands both the current and future challenges and thinks proactively about solving these problems in unique ways. This requires a vision and a well-thought out plan and strategy, as well as calculated investments for the future. They must have focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and how to bring to market products that solve customer pain points or find a better way of doing business. They are the trailblazers in their industry or the ones changing the rules of the game by inventing new business models.

Lastly, an influencer is someone who is widely known and someone people may listen to or trust, but that does not make them a thought leader. In the case of some influential voices such as analysts who are seen as thought leaders whereas more consumer-focused influencers may not be vocal about any particular topic at hand and instead a resource people have come to admire.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Becoming a thought leader gives you a voice and credibility on a topic you are passionate about. I have personally found this worthwhile because I have been able to empower businesses to think of technology in a new way.

Any time you can be a trusted advisor to your customers and help them improve productivity and transform their business, it is worth your time and energy. It’s about solving customer challenges and helping them transition from legacy to the latest technologies that can help them avoid being another Blockbuster or Kodak.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Thought leadership is the most important ingredient for business growth and taking advantage of lucrative opportunities in the market. It could involve transforming the entire company’s business model, creating new incubation areas or using the latest technology to improve productivity, collaboration and security. It is about staying competitive in the market place and thinking ahead.

Right now, technology is impacting every business and has the ability to empower thought leaders everywhere. At Lenovo we see this as Intelligent Transformation — using intelligent computing to empower people and business. We are delivering customer solutions to help them build more secure, smarter and competitive workplaces.

Since people are companies’ most valuable asset, much thought should be put into providing them with all the necessary computing devices that promote agility, creativity and productivity. Emerging technologies, such as AI, IoT and AR will change how employees interact with technology and each other, therefore transforming workplaces to efficient collaboration hubs rather than task-based work environments. Today’s workforce, which consists largely of Millennials and Gen Z, is used to having the latest technologies and innovations at their fingertips. Businesses must consider this reality and integrate factors that meet the new workforce’s unique needs in order to thrive.

An example of this is the automation of labor-intensive manual tasks. Integrating AI technology in the workplace can effectively streamline busy-work and get your employees focused on more strategic thinking and greater business challenges. Lenovo works with the largest aerospace customers, who are using Lenovo’s ThinkReality headsets to eliminate downtime by diagnosing airplane issues, fixing them quickly and getting travelers on the way faster. We are seeing similar applications in manufacturing, oil/gas/utilities, field service, healthcare, engineering and architecture, where thought leaders are transforming their business.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Ensure you have a clear and consistent message in an area you are an expert in — And drive that message through everything you do. This will be your thought leadership platform, so make sure it is something you are not only credible in but passionate about.
  2. Have an external presence — Speak at industry events, have an online presence, meet with the media, etc. Not only does this give you visibility among industry peers but this also provides great media and networking opportunities.
  3. Don’t stop learning — Continue to learn about your industry and area of expertise. It’s consistently evolving and to the extent you can stay one step ahead of trends you’ll be able to better position yourself as cutting-edge.
  4. Have a confident point-of-view — Take the knowledge you’ve gathered and package it into a unique, provocative and succinct storyline. Be prepared to stand up for your perspective, or tweak it as your POV evolves. Remember that your background and role make you as qualified as anyone to speak on your topic of choice.
  5. Network — While I mentioned speaking at industry events as a great networking opportunity, I cannot stress enough the importance of networking. Get together with other leaders in your industry, or even send a note to someone you’ve always admired. You never know what can happen and who you’ll meet.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

I’m going to take a very easy and politically savvy road here, and highlight Lenovo’s CEO, Yang Yuanqing (or as we call him, YY).

YY’s thought leadership has shaped the course of Lenovo. There are three major milestones that he has championed, each time by recognizing changing market conditions and identifying opportunities where Lenovo could lead. First was taking a company called Legend global by acquiring IBM’s PC Division in 2005 — a risky move with many sceptics in the market, which has paid off for Lenovo. Second is having the vision to go beyond the PC space and diversify/expand our business with Motorola smartphones and IBM Data Center acquisitions, thus providing customers with a full portfolio of solutions. Finally, his thought leadership has led us to where we are today focusing on our 3S strategy: Smart IoT, Smart Infrastructure and Smart Verticals. It’s about developing smarter technology for all — for home, work and play.

What we can learn here is that thought leaders are visionary and they must have big dreams. They must understand where the industry is going and invest in those areas that provide solutions to their customers. They must communicate their vision, develop the right culture and set the right goals for teams to challenge themselves in delivering customer value.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think “thought leaders” are here to stay. Take a quick flip through LinkedIn and you’ll see many posts on people or companies winning awards or accolades. Be it ‘intern of the year’, ‘sales rep of the quarter’, ’30 under 30’, or any of the other ‘name-your-award’ winners, it’s all over the place. But does that mean these don’t matter? That they are meaningless? Of course not. Not everyone can be the #1 person in their field, but there are still a lot of amazingly talented individuals who are doing great things. Same can be said for thought leaders. They come in all sorts of packages, but if someone is educated, visionary, customer/outcome-focused, and has a platform to share their views, I think they can safely be called a thought leader.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Two thoughts come to mind. First, work how you want to work. Sure, when the CEO invites you for a 3-day leadership workshop, I’d suggest you attend. But barring those critical business needs, create flexibility to work how you work best. For me, it’s early mornings. I thrive in the quiet of the morning before most of my colleagues (and certainly before my family) wakes up. Even on weekends, I find time before the sun rises to do my best thinking and catch up on tasks which need to be tackled.

Second, you have to hire people who can help you succeed. Your team is hired to contribute, and not to bring you problems to solve on their behalf. There’s a great HBR story from the 1970’s called ‘Who’s Got the Monkey?’ which still rings true today. In it, the monkey represents a problem or issue, and the entire concept is that leaders must ensure the monkey stays with their employees. The more monkeys you take from your team to solve on your own, the more you’ll be overwhelmed and fall behind on your own tasks, and that is a surefire recipe for burnout. I actually have a box of plastic monkeys in my office to remind me that while I’m certainly going to support and nurture my team, everyone needs to take ownership of their problems and propose solutions.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d use my magical powers to provide support and opportunities for the people who generally don’t have it. There are so many bright, talented and motivated people who simply don’t have anyone to open a door for them, and have never been taught how to do it.

For the past five years, I’ve been on the board of directors for Junior Achievement, which teaches financial literacy to K-12 students. It’s a remarkably rewarding experience to watch kids grow when they are enabled to think about their future and learn basic skills to start them on a journey.

At Lenovo, we’ve also been a partner with NAF, a non-profit education organization that’s preparing underserved high school students for the future by providing them with work-based learning and career-focused courses in IT, Engineering, Health Sciences, Finance and Hospitality & Tourism. Our Lenovo Scholar Network program through NAF teaches them how to code and develop computer science and entrepreneurship skills. There is a shortage of computer programmers and we want to inspire the young generation and get them excited about STEM fields. We have turned this into a national mobile app development competition and a challenge with prizes that give students an incentive to try and do something out of their comfort zone. We are attracting diverse candidates to this field and also bringing them to Lenovo as summer interns where they gain invaluable first time work experience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m going to cheat and throw a few out here. Some of these are more ‘business lesson quotes’, such as:

  • Be memorable and make friends — This is ultimately the script to follow as you grow your career. Being memorable means doing things which make a difference, and having a style which sets you apart from your peers. Making friends is obvious. You want to be that person in the office, or in your industry, who people want to be around, not the person who people dread to be with in a meeting.
  • You are the only person responsible for your (career) success — Sure, luck helps, but you have to take control of your life and career so when that luck strikes (and it will), you are poised to take advantage of it. In the agency scenario I painted above where two of my senior colleagues left our company, I was in the right place to take advantage of this because I had laid the groundwork to advance with my actions (hard work, customer knowledge, strategic vision, etc.)

Perhaps the most insightful quote was something I learned from Marshall Goldsmith, a corporate leadership coach. The quote is… ‘Is It Worth It’? This is such a profound question to ask yourself in many work or life situations, but especially as a leader. The point is that as a leader, we’re tempted to always want to give our perspective, be it simply to have our voice heard in meetings, or responding when an employee presents a plan. Instead of immediately responding and giving our two cents, sometimes it’s best to take a breath and ask yourself, ‘is it worth it?’. Then, instead of piling on, or worse, demoralizing others simply to get your point across, you may decide ‘no, it’s not worth it’… and simply say ‘great job team!’.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Coming from the tech industry, there are so many progressive, risk-taking and influential leaders from whom I could learn so much from (Satya Nadella from Microsoft and Dr. Lisa Su from AMD come to mind). However, I don’t want my boss thinking I want to meet them to look for a new job, so I’m going to stay away from them!

So instead, I’m going to host a small breakfast meeting with a few other trailblazers who have become leaders in their field through great leadership, sound strategy, overcoming adversity, staying nimble in the face of change, and/or just seem like they’d be fun. So let’s see if we can get Mary Barra (GM CEO), Craig Jelinek (Costco CEO), Jimmy Buffett and Howard Stern together for coffee… my treat!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and @davidjrabin on Twitter.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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