Interview with Charles Teague, CEO of Lose It!

According to NBC News, there is an obesity epidemic in America. NBC reports, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that almost 40 percent of American adults and nearly 20 percent of adolescents are obese — the highest rates ever recorded for the U.S.”

If it was your purpose to help solve the problem of obesity, how would you begin to address the issue? To give some background according to Fortune, “The U.S. weight loss market totaled $64 billion in 2014.” This is an industry where a great deal of money can be made, but on the downside competition is fierce.

Charles Teague’s purpose was not to help solve the problem of obesity. Teague’s story is as ordinary as yours. According to VentureFizz, Teague graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Political Science, and he told the outlet, “I got out and said to myself, What do I do now? What am I going to do for a living?’”

On his quest to help answers those crucial questions Teague found himself working at companies such as Macromedia, Onfolio, General Catalyst, Microsoft and finally joining Lose It! as its CEO in 2008. Where his passion for mobile intersected with a new found desire — solving the obesity problem. Under Teague’s leadership Lose It! has been able to help 30 million people improve their weight loss. Let’s read on and see how Teague’s leadership strategies have helped Lose It! provide practical solutions for obesity.

So, Charles what’s your story?

I started programming computers when I was 10 years old. First, using a Timex Sinclair 1000 that I bought with my paper route money, later a Commodore 64 and Apple 2. Despite my early exposure to computers and programming, it never occurred to me that this is something that I could or would pursue as a career.

In fact, 12 years later, I graduated from a small Midwestern Liberal Arts college with a degree in political science. My plan was to take a year off from school, then head east to pursue a Ph.D in Political Science or Philosophy. During that year off, I ended up connecting with a fellow alum who had started a company that made software for building a programmable internet.

That was the beginning of my work in technology. I started by answering telephones and providing technical support to customers, and worked my way up to lead development of core products. Some years later, I co-founded Lose It! with that same colleague and have been working to make the company a success ever since.

For my whole career, I’ve been absolutely driven by a desire to bring something new into the world, and to maximize the impact that it has. This is my best way to make the world a better place. I’ve been willing to do nearly any kind of work, work nearly any hours, and work on just about any product, so long as I felt like the impact of my effort would be meaningful and felt by people.

I came to Lose It! in part because I saw an incredible new technology platform in mobile technology pioneered by the iPhone. But the real motivator for my work on Lose It! is the impact that it has on our members. We all know the statistics about obesity and its effects on the world, whether it is premature deaths, sickness, or economic impact in the form of loss of productivity. The idea of making a dent in that is incredibly motivating.

The emails, social media posts, and testimonials we receive from customers help me see the actual people behind these numbers. Reading the stories of our users personalizes that impact even further: like the person diagnosed as pre-diabetic whose health is now improving, the person who now feels more in control of their diet, or the person who has changed the way they eat and exercise for good, passing those positive habits down to the family. It’s that impact, both large in scale yet highly personal, that gets me out of bed every day and has me fired up to get to work!

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

To me, leaders are entrusted to be shepherds of a collective goal. That collective goal might have existed before a leader joins a company, or they might find themselves heavily involved in defining what it is. In the case of a startup, the founders are typically instrumental in laying out this goal and often use it as a rallying cry to attract and retain talented colleagues.

But once a leader steps into a team, it’s their responsibility to keep the team on track to that goal. That means providing the motivation, material support, structure, and guidance for the group. Everything ranging from building the product to directing the effort of others to kicking some people out if they aren’t contributing towards the goal is instrumental in keeping the team on track to achieve the goal at hand.

I’ve found that even when things get tough, people respect and trust a leader who is genuinely driving toward that collective goal, particularly when it is clearly communicated. When you have a greater purpose and can explain all of your decisions to your team by that purpose, it glues the team together.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

At Lose It!, we're very intentionally focused on small teams.

We believe that individuals, using creativity and autonomy can have a huge impact and we're determined to enable this. We favor informal, organic, and flexible practices over rigorous and inflexible processes. We favor individual autonomy and motivation over commands from a hierarchy of leadership. We favor cross-functional skills over narrow or siloed skillsets.

Rather than seeing Lose It! as some sort of machine full of gears that all must mesh perfectly in order to function, I see Lose It! as a living, breathing organism. Lose It! is a beautiful variety of complicated bits and pieces all working together in a really fluid way. This organic approach doesn't always move in a straight line. It sometimes takes a winding path to its destination, but builds incredible resilience along the way.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you cite one example you are currently fostering?

The best example of how we incorporate nontraditional methods into our processes at Lose It! is our desk assignment. Every quarter the entire company moves desks chosen completely at random. This means everyone (including the CEO) has an equal shot at the awesome desk by the window, or the not-so-awesome spot near the back closet. This frequent, random reorganization of our office has helped us maintain our core values even as we’ve grown.

One of those values is the idea of ‘player coaches’; that while we are each playing different roles in the company, we are all needed to succeed. If we’re all players and coaches, we all have a spot in the locker room. We all roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.

This type of seating arrangement also improves organic, informal communication in the company. Because we are purposely small and organic, we rely on very strong individual communication among employees. This random distribution of desks encourages strong communication because employees are constantly getting the chance to work next to someone new. By sharing space with others, you get to know them better, you get to hear and see what they work on, and you develop relationships that foster trust.

How do you make sure that when you are assessing talent, you are not only identifying the ability to do the job but the talent’s capacity to scale and do more?

This is one of the key attributes we look for in potential employee candidates. Since we have such a non-hierarchical organization structure, we’re much more interested in getting the best people rather than people to do specific jobs. We tend to hire the ‘best player available’ instead of the ‘best at that position’.

To do this, our interview process is focused on elements of both talent and collaboration. We typically ask prospective employees to solve a problem independently. The actual problem differs for each part of the company, but each one gives us a sense of the candidate’s critical thinking and problem solving skills.

We also have group interviews where we work collectively through a problem to understand what it will be like to work with this person. We round out the consideration process by asking references about the candidate's skill set and growth in their last organization.

In the competitive market of product development how do you manage your “No’s?”

At the beginning of each year, we set 3-4 high level goals that we want to achieve as a company. As a team, we make a prioritized list of all of the work that we think will best actualize these goals. As other potential projects come up throughout the year, we use this shared framework to analyze the work that we decide to do; we say ‘no’ to anything that won’t advance one of those key goals. Keeping a commitment to these goals throughout the year helps keep the team aligned and motivated on a daily basis. We also actively try not to keep a list of ideas or projects to work on; we’ve found that good ideas will keep coming up over time.

According to Dr. John Maxwell, “Everything rises and falls on leadership," he continues, "but knowing how to lead is only half the battle.” What is the other half of the equation your wondering — execution.

You can read Charles Teague’s entire interview, take copious notes, red team the strategies but unless you are committed to making those ideas happen your team will never be effective. In all honesty, there are only two states that a leader can occupy — effective and ineffective. As a leader, your decision is which state you will occupy? That decision will have a massive impact on your success as a leader.

Today Lose It! boasts over 24 million members and Teague’s mission is to not only disrupt the weight loss market but to add features that the community will allow for massive value, some of those features include — track your food and exercise, track weight loss progress, meal planning, custom challenges and detailed insights. It’s clear that Teague’s singular purpose is to help solve the obesity epidemic, but it’s his leadership that has allowed Lose It! to be effective in helping its members lose over 60 million pounds.


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