Lightspeed Systems CEO Brian Thomas: “I’d like to start a movement to protect students — from school violence, bullying, self-harm and depression”

It would be a way to protect students — from school violence, bullying, self-harm and depression. We do what we can with our technology, but I wish I could combine our technology with a social movement so that I never again have to read a story of a young person committing suicide.

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It would be a way to protect students — from school violence, bullying, self-harm and depression. We do what we can with our technology, but I wish I could combine our technology with a social movement so that I never again have to read a story of a young person committing suicide.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Thomas, president and CEO of Lightspeed Systems, which has evolved from a small start-up in Bakersfield, California, to an edtech software powerhouse in Austin, Texas. Under Brian’s leadership, Lightspeed has become the market leader in K-12 content filtering — more than 25,000 schools around the world use its software — and played a critical role in bolstering school safety. “I can’t tell you how many times school IT employees have contacted Lightspeed to tell us our technology has helped them identify students who were contemplating suicide, self-harming, or planning to harm someone else,” Brian said. “This gives us a strong sense of purpose.”

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in Taft, California, then went to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where I got a business degree. I moved to Bakersfield and started working for Lightspeed Systems in 1999, the year it was founded. I started as a sales rep, and rose through the ranks: to sales manager, then sales director, then VP of sales, then VP of the company, then president of the company. Today, I’m the president and CEO.

I realized that Lightspeed was a special company when one of our partners introduced me to a group of K-12 IT directors. Devices and the internet were new to schools at that time, and we were trying to solve the same problem: How do we keep students safe with all this new technology? This common drive made us fast friends. We learned together how to protect students. I made mistakes over and over — always new ones, of course — but our partners and district leaders didn’t abandon us for my mistakes. They recognized, and rewarded us for, our grit. I love the K-12 community and I love Lightspeed for giving me the opportunity to work with them.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most important things that have happened have all been related to saving students’ lives — stories we get from our customers about using our tools to identify and proactively reach out to suicidal students or students who are having trouble. Those stories are what keep us all working hard every day.

But the most interesting experience was probably the move of the company headquarters from Bakersfield, CA, to Austin, TX. We knew we needed to be more centrally located for our partners and needed to be in a market that attracts top talent to help us grow. What we didn’t realize is that 90 percent of our Bakersfield employees would make the move with us. Many of them had lived in Bakersfield their whole lives, yet they packed up their families and moved to Texas. It was a great demonstration of the Lightspeed culture. We’re in this together, and we’re doing things that are worth making big changes. This company, and the employees who make it up, are not afraid of change to accomplish our missions.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

Apple came up with the concept of the DRI — directly responsible individual — and this has really helped us synchronize our teams. When multiple people or teams are collaborating, expectations can’t be vague; it’s easy to assume someone else is handling a project and forget about it, or accidentally duplicate work. Assigning a DRI ensures there’s no question who’s accountable for completing a project on time. So, once we’ve defined goals, gathered feedback, and determined action items, we always assign a DRI to help us hit deliverables on schedule.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

Managing global teams in different locations is very challenging. I think the best step to success is ensuring you have a great leader who you trust at each location. The communication between the CEO and that individual will be the key to information flow; and the leadership of that individual provides an essential connection between the team in that location and the rest of the company. This individual combined with the repeatable process for decision making and team synchronization is paramount.

When the headquarters was still in Bakersfield, we opened a second office in Austin. The office had several long-time employees who had proven very capable at their jobs as well as some new Austin employees. One thing we quickly realized is people who are capable at their jobs when they’re located in the same building as their bosses are not necessarily people who can lead remote offices. The new office was in downtown Austin, surrounded by a lot of distractions, and we came to realize people would leave for lunch and … never come back. It’s not about having someone who reports back inappropriate behavior as much as it’s about having someone who sets the tone, regularly reminds people of the vision, and keeps everyone on track. Now, we make sure we have a trusted leader at each global office.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Give everyone a voice and a part of the mission but don’t let too many voices impede forward movement. At Lightspeed we try to work toward true collaboration through a process. Our leaders encourage feedback on decisions in our processes but also make it very clear that once the path is chosen, we execute.

It should be clear that this does not mean we avoid course correction. Admitting when we’ve made mistakes and fixing them is important to helping employees thrive.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

Retaining talent today (especially in fantastic cities like Portland and Austin) is not easy. And while we have ping-pong, cold brew, free lunches, and other cool ‘perks’ companies talk about, I don’t think they’re really the key to retention. I think it’s about making sure the company has a vision and then making sure each individual has a voice and a role in that — so they’re truly part of something. Our managers strive to give people ownership of their jobs, make sure everyone has an opportunity to give feedback on any area of the business, and make sure each individual is engaged in our meaningful mission, which is keeping students safe.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”.

1. Ask questions constantly.

This is one I learned early in my time in sales: You need to really understand your customer and their needs to build them a solution that will help. And that requires asking a lot of questions because sometimes their true need is buried in some other things they think will solve their problems. The same is true when managing people, so do discovery with your people. Ask them questions and follow up-questions.

I’ve started a process of choosing random people from different departments each month and asking two questions: What’s good? What’s bad? Those two questions lead to a lot of follow-up questions that eventually help people open up, and help me learn things and understand new perspectives.

2. Be open to ideas you don’t want to hear.

It can be easy to ask a question and think you know the answer already, so you don’t really listen. Or you listen but only to hear what you want to hear. That’s dangerous. Drop your preconceived ideas and be open to the answers you hear.

As a company, we spend a lot of time talking to our customers and hearing what they want. One of the ways we do this is a District Advisory Committee. Once a year, we invite customer representatives from districts all around the country to fly out to a major city, meet with us, and give feedback. We went in our last DAC meeting excited to present a new feature idea. What we heard from them is that the idea was right — but the plans and names were wrong. If we had only been listening for what we wanted to hear (“Great idea!”), we wouldn’t have understood how to tweak our execution to make this tool more helpful to customers.

3. Know when to stop having meetings.

You can’t let collaboration, brainstorming and feedback impede progress. Set a specific time for that — to consider, discuss and fight over ideas. But then you need to pick the path, the DRI (directly responsible individual), the exact deliverable, and the date it’s due.

We didn’t always set such specific courses. Years ago, I can remember having meeting after meeting that seemed like the same discussion with just a small twist. Now, we end each meeting with a clear plan and next steps.

4. Before you say, “This is the way we do things,” stop and think.

Process is key to consistency and scale. But you can’t let the company get bogged down in technicalities.

When we were a very young company, we had little process — but we were also a small team in a single office. When we first started to grow rapidly and expand internationally, we implemented a bunch of processes to keep things organized, well-communicated and consistent. This was a difficult adjustment for long-time employees because they felt like we weren’t as nimble as we had been. Now we’ve hit a balance: We have process so we can scale and streamline things, but those processes are open to change.

5. The right answer wins.

Any employee can have an idea or a critique. And any employee (or customer, or partner) can have the right answer.

Just a few weeks ago, a vice president presented his idea for a new solution in a meeting, but several junior and senior employees had doubts that it would work. We’re validating the VP’s idea now — but I never let a person’s title or position override the people in the trenches doing the work every day.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

It would be a way to protect students — from school violence, bullying, self-harm and depression. We do what we can with our technology, but I wish I could combine our technology with a social movement so that I never again have to read a story of a young person committing suicide.

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

It’s about grit, something my dad gave me: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

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