Kevan Lee is the VP of Marketing at Polly, a company which mission is to empower teams to measure and understand every aspect of their work. He loves building high-performing teams and supporting teammates so they feel significant and fulfilled. Kevan is also an educator on Brand and Growth Marketing at Boise State University.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a small city (60,000 people) in Idaho. We were about a seven-hour drive from Seattle or Portland and five hours from Salt Lake City. My childhood was pretty great: I had an amazing family, a good community around me, and lots of opportunities to try new things. When I was in high school, I had the chance to spend a free period creating a school newspaper. It was such a fun, creative project, and it sparked my interest in writing and storytelling. I went to college and majored in journalism before pivoting my career toward marketing, but I don’t think I would have ended up here without the support of my family and the chances I had growing up.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
Well, I definitely gave up too early on the piano. I wish I would have realized how cool it is to be good at an instrument!
Beyond that, I wish I would have realized that there’s a balance of “service to self” and “service to others.” Most often, I fall on the side of “service to others,” and I have needed to learn to give myself grace and space to focus on myself sometimes, too. It feels selfish to say it — but I know it’s not selfish. It’s healthy. And I think it took me experiencing an imbalance of “service to self/service to others” to fully understand the importance of respecting both sides.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I’m not sure this fits under a “bad” recommendation necessarily. But one thing that I’ve experienced in tech is that a formal education matters less than experience and outcomes. For instance, I have never been asked about education in an interview, never really talked about my college degree at all. There is of course a ton of great learning to be had with a business degree or an MBA, and some companies definitely will care about it. My experience has led me to believe that there’s really no replacement for doing the actual startup work and delivering good outcomes.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
The hardest period I’ve ever gone through was when my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. My wife and I were fortunate to be living nearby at the time, so we got to spend his final two years together. The experience completely shifted life for me both in very tangible ways (my wife and I welcomed our son – my dad’s first grandchild – during this period) and in intangible ways. I became much more aware of my agency in life and became committed to doing work that brought me joy and met my aspirations. To a degree, I felt I had been floating before his diagnosis; since then, I’ve lived with far more intentionality. This is partially how I ended up pursuing a career in tech, why I applied at Buffer (even though I wasn’t sure I could hack it), and what drives a lot of decisions I make to this day.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
My background is in journalism. Early on, I had a few jobs as a sports reporter at newspapers around the Northwest, and one of the key elements of a newspaper is working on a deadline. Because of this exposure to deadlines, I developed a very strong sense of accountability, output, focus, and delivery. You simply had to find a way to get things done — you can get them as close to perfect as possible, but there will always come a time to ship. (And that time was usually 11:59 p.m.)
This became a major part of my success because I was able to deliver a constant output of impactful work, consistently and on time. Early on at Buffer, I delivered a ton of content — four 2,000-word articles each week. As my role evolved more toward strategy, I maintained that focus on delivering, but the output evolved toward strategic documents, feedback to my team, input on ideas, and a presence in key campaigns. I believe it contributed to my being recognized by others as dependable and dynamic.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up at 5:30 a.m., roll out of bed, walk down the stairs, and begin my workday. My team is fully remote, so I’m fortunate that my office is just a few steps away. Mornings have always been my favorite time to work. Slack is pretty quiet at 5:30 a.m., so I’m able to get a lot of focus work done and prepare myself for the rest of the day.
At 7:00 a.m. I help my son get ready for school. We have breakfast together, I pack his lunch, then I drop him off. I’m usually back at the computer by 9:00 a.m., and I spend the rest of my day there until 3:00 p.m. and school pick-up.
In terms of my actual morning work, it’s a little like this:
Begin my day by reviewing a “tomorrow list” that I made at the end of the previous day. The list usually has spillover items that I didn’t get to or else urgent things that need to be complete at the start of the day.
Go through my messages: I check three inboxes (work email, personal email, personal brand email) and social media DMs.
Look at a numbers dashboard for business metrics, or check out in-flight projects to make sure I’m up to speed.
Working with a distributed team, there’s typically a good amount of catchup I need to do so that I’m aware of the work that happened while I was sleeping. This may mean reading Slack, reading Dropbox Paper, or reading Notion docs.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
For the past several years, I have tried to get in the habit of regular reflection throughout the day. I read a book called The Seven Sacred Pauses, which provides an outline for reflection and meditation at seven distinct times:
Midnight – Waiting
Dawn – Awakening
Midmorning – Blessing
Noon – Peace
Midafternoon – Reflection
Evening – Gratitude
Night – Compassion
Each theme has a few different quotes, verses, meditations that you can reflect on, or you can just be quiet, slow your mind, and listen. These are a few of the quotes that I think about:
“I dwell in possibility.” ~ Emily Dickinson
“We see that the shadows, which are at morning and evening so large, almost entirely disappear at midday.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
“This day’s troubles will end. When I meet them tomorrow, they may be tinged with blessing.” ~ Macrina Wiederkehr
“Let your loveliness shine on us, and bless the work we do, bless the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:17
I’m not great at doing all seven pauses throughout the day (especially the midnight one). There are many days when I don’t do any. But having these moments in mind has brought me calm, peace, and strength over the years.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Limit distractions. I’m fortunate to be able to do this through remote work — so long as I can control my notifications, I can have as much uninterrupted focus time as I need.
Along with this, I tend to be quite deliberate about how I spend my time. As you can see from my morning routine, I start early so that I can maximize my focus time. Since I’m a full-time worker and a full-time dad, I have the privilege of being with my son throughout the day, helping him get ready for school, doing pick-up and drop-off, etc. This builds in certain windows into my day, kind of a natural time-boxing.
I sprinkle in a mix of common productivity strategies like the two-minute rule (if a task can be done in two minutes or less, then do it now and don’t put it off) and limiting email to first thing in the morning and last thing of the day. But for the most part, my productivity is enabled by the way I structure my day and the time blocks I create in order to get work done.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
1 – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott — I have always loved to read books about how to write well. Bird by Bird is an excellent writing book, written by one of my favorite authors, but it’s also so much more than a writing book: I have taken tons of encouragement and motivation from Anne Lamott’s writing and the way that she tells stories, dispatches life advice and builds people up. The title of the book refers to a story about Anne’s little brother who was scrambling to do a giant book report on birds, having waited until the very last day to begin. He came to his dad for help, and his dad told him, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy.”
2 – Alchemy by Rory Sutherland — Not to be confused with The Alchemist. 🙂 (Which is also a great book.) Alchemy is all about the magical side of marketing, the parts that aren’t as obvious or evident but that underpin how consumers make decisions. It’s written by one of the leaders at the famous Ogilvy advertising agency, so he’s definitely seen his fair share of marketing magic. What I appreciated most about the book is that it validated the idea of marketing as an art as well as a science. There have been a ton of words written about the tactical science of growth and marketing, but there aren’t nearly as many stories about the art of it, much fewer ones as eloquently written as Alchemy.
3 – I’m currently thinking a lot about the dichotomy between two books I’ve read recently: Infinite Game by Simon Sinek and Playing to Win by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin. To give some background: An infinite game is one in which there is no clear set of rules, some of the players are known and others are not, players play the game however they want and whenever they want, and because there is no obvious finish line, there is no obvious “winner.” A finite game is an opposite: fixed rules, clear timeframe, known players, and an obvious winner.
A finite game would be something like football. An infinite game would be something like business. This is why the book Playing to Win — a business book about how to win with strategy — is such an interesting companion read. There is a huge number of businesses who desire to “win.” There is a new school of thought that perhaps “winning” in business is a misnomer. I don’t know where I land yet, but I do find it fascinating to carry both thoughts in my head.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“If you give freely, there will always be more.” – Anne Lamott
This quote is from the book Bird by Bird. It was written in context to writer’s block, but I’ve applied it to the way that I conduct myself at work and with my relationships, always trying to be as generous as possible. As time has gone on, I recognize that there’s a privilege that comes with my embracing this quote; for instance, it is not the case for everyone that “there will always be more.” So I try not to project this stance onto others and instead maintain for myself a spirit of generosity, openness, and encouragement in order to give back some of what I’ve gained.
“I’ve never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” – Pippi Longstocking
I love this quote because it speaks powerfully to a growth mindset. If I haven’t said these words out loud before (I probably have), I’ve at least internalized them, especially as I began my career in tech. I didn’t know anything, I hadn’t tried anything. So I needed to dig in and embrace the idea that everything is “figureoutable” (another favorite quote, from Marie Forleo).