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When former CEO Hubert Joly decided to step down from his role as Best Buy’s executive board chairman last year, he had his choice of options.
Joly said he didn’t want to move down to Florida and retire “to play golf with aging white men.” He also didn’t want to become a chief executive again, at least for now, even after the success he found leading the revitalization of Best Buy and his earlier experience heading Twin Cities-based Carlson Cos.
Instead, much like former Medtronic CEO Bill George, he decided teaching and mentoring current and future business leaders would be more fulfilling. Joly works as a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School in addition to serving on the boards of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren Corp.
His new book, “The Heart of Business,” is a guide on how businesses and even individuals can stage a turnaround similar to what he did at Best Buy by becoming purpose-driven, people-focused and spreading love.
“I wanted the next chapter of my life to matter, to continue to make a difference, and I took the time to reflect,” said Joly, 61, who still has a home in Minnesota but spends much of his time in New York City. “I wanted to add my voice and my energy to what many believe is a necessary refoundation of business and capitalism around purpose and humanity.”
Hubert is donating what he earns from the book, published by the Harvard Business Review Press, to Best Buy Teen Tech Centers.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Joly, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why do you think the way we look at the concept of work needs to change?
A: Why do we work? Is work punishment? Is it something we do so that we can do something else, or is it part of our quest for meaning, part of our fulfillment? Of course we need the money, it’s not about ignoring that. But what gives you energy? Is it just a paycheck or is it something more?
As human beings, in our hearts, we have a desire to do something good for other people. I think that is what’s common in all of humanity. Even Darth Vader in “Star Wars,” you still say there’s some good in him. That’s my belief, that in my heart we have a desire to do something good for others. It’s the same in business, and I learned that from a client, that the purpose of a corporation is not to make money. It’s imperative like earning a salary: You need it, but that’s not the ultimate goal. My view is that with any human activity the ultimate goal is to contribute to the common good, do something good for others. That’s a much healthier idea.
Q: How do you think “human magic” and love can give businesses a competitive advantage?
A: People are much more than a resource or some human capital, they are the source. I think our role as leaders is to create an environment where “human magic” can be unleashed, which is what I’ve seen at Best Buy. People talk about loved brands where you have an emotional connection. You are not just buying because the product is cheap or solid. There is something beyond that.
When I joined Best Buy in 2012, people thought we were going to die. It was not great. Now fast forward to a couple of years ago. There was a woman who walks into one of our stores with her child. The child has a “sick” T-Rex because the head was dismantled from the body. In any normal store, they would have been pointed to the direction of the toy aisle, and with some luck the mother could have bought a replacement. At that store on that day, there were two blue shirt associates who saw what was going on and understood it and took the “sick” dinosaur and went behind a counter and started performing a surgical procedure. When the kid gets the cured dinosaur, you can’t imagine the joy of the child and the mother.
Do you think there was a standard operating procedure with how to deal with “sick” dinosaurs? The two associates found it in their hearts to do this amazing thing for the child, felt they had the authority the autonomy to do this and probably in the process created a customer for life. This was how you build loved brands. This is how you find meaning in your work. This is how you build these amazing relationships.
Q: As you left Best Buy last summer, the country was in the thick of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think Best Buy as a company responded to the crisis?
A: I was executive chairman of the board at the time. The way that [Best Buy CEO Corie Barry] led was and is fabulous. Yes, I was close to her at the time; we had board calls like every week. Here’s what I love in terms of what she did. She had clear principles. The safety of the employees and the customers was first. They delayed furloughs for as long as humanly possible so that the federal program would kick in so that the team would have the time to explain to the employees how the furlough actually works and make sure we came out of this stronger, meaning let’s not do anything stupid that’s going to help the short-term but harm the long-term. She came up with these principles that are very purpose-driven, values-driven and empowered her team to make decisions.
Q: How do you think the COVID crisis will impact the retail industry for the long-term?
A: If I can use an analogy, it’s a little bit like planet Earth had been hit by an asteroid 66 million years ago. The dinosaurs died and then you had new species thrive. And I think that in retail, as we come out of COVID, it’s not a restart it’s a reset. You have to reimagine your business around the needs of your customers you are trying to serve, the purpose you are trying to serve. You have to focus on and plan where the puck is going and you have to reconfigure, reimagine and refocus.
With technology, there are so many things you can do. As you know last quarter for Best Buy, about 44% of the revenue was from online sales. It’s not easy to do because you have to imagine and design for the future, but there’s no way that you can go back to what it was before. You would be a dinosaur. One of the great things I think about the Best Buy story is that we had said: We are not a consumer electronics retailer. We are company whose purpose is enriching lives through technology. That leads us to do many more things that you can do in stores but also online and in people’s homes. I think stores have a role to play.
Q: Should CEOs and companies speak out about societal issues and current events like inequality and what happened in the police killing of George Floyd?
A: It is a responsibility. At Best Buy, we have been on this journey for a number of years. We are not perfect. There is a before and after George Floyd. This is not the first time a Black man was killed by police, but it was so extreme and caught on video and it provoked a reaction. You can say [changes] should have been made 40 years ago or 100 years, but something happened. Not only in people’s heads are they convinced that we need to end this systemic racism, but now it’s in their hearts and in their guts. So many people, myself included, began a more personal journey to more deeply understand the experience of the Black man or woman in America and realized we need to stop this. Companies have made commitments, public commitments. Boards are holding management teams accountable. In America, once a business decides something is important, we know how to get things done. The reason why we have not made more progress as a country is because [systemic racism] was not deemed that important and now it feels like it is really seen as critical and there’s accountability and you see [companies] really doing the work.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I don’t want to be the CEO anymore. I feel like I can have more impact with coaching and mentoring a number of CEOs and senior executives. At Harvard, I can impact hundreds if not thousands of future leaders and at the HEC Paris [business school] where I am also involved. At Best Buy, when I was there, I could impact 100,000 people directly, but here I can impact multiple companies. I think there’s a time for everything. I’ve been a CEO and happy, but I have a different desire in my heart today.