Here is an excerpt from an interview of Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s former chairman and CEO, for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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My individual, personal purpose is to try to make a positive difference for people around me and then to use the platform I have to make a positive difference in the world. This is an evergreen purpose, meaning, whether I’m the CEO of Best Buy or starting my next chapter, it’s always true.
It stems from a reflection on what work is, because, of course, work is a big part of our lives. You can see work as a curse, as a punishment because we sinned in paradise. I tend to see work as being essential to our humanity and to our fulfillment, part of our quest for meaning. It’s not something you do so that you can do something else; it’s something that’s essential to our lives. I think it’s essential when we lead companies that we recognize this for all of the people working at the company—and that we can connect their individual purpose with the purpose of the company.
These days most companies, and most leaders, believe in the importance of purpose, and there is a broad-based realization that excessive focus on profits is wrong. The question is often, “So where do you start and how do you sequence?” The logical part of our mind would have us start with purpose, then derive the strategy: anchor it in purpose, and transform the organization on that basis.
My personal experience is different. When we started the turnaround, I was very clear about my philosophy, which was that profit is not the purpose. Purpose is to contribute to the common good. But we did not spend time in the first three years of the turnaround on refining our purpose. We spent the time saving a ship that was sinking, by addressing key operational-performance drivers.
We also spent a lot of time—and I can see it very clearly with hindsight—on making sure that the soil of the company was fertile. Do you know the parable of the sower? If the seeds fall on stones, nothing is going to happen. You may have perfect seeds, but they aren’t going to grow. So a lot of our emphasis was on creating a joyous, growth-oriented culture, and on creating a very human environment where people felt that they belonged, that it was a human organization, that we emphasized individual development.
How do you define that noble purpose? I believe you find it at the intersection of four circles: what the world needs, what you are good at, how you believe you can make a positive difference in the world, and how you can make money.
So the sequence of steps is not always going to be, “Start with purpose.” A lot of companies are focused on that, but it may not be the best point of attack. When you start working on defining purpose, the danger is to make it too abstract, too glossy.
No. It needs to be grounded in true customer needs, and true demonstrated abilities to achieve competitive advantage. Your dream, of course—but also the ability to make money: something that’s very real, tangible, and tightly connected to the growth and profit engine of the company.
The danger of the fact that purpose is very much en vogue, paradoxically, is to put too much emphasis, too early, on it—as opposed to really finding the right time and the right approach to go after it.
If the definition of purpose is too much for the website, people say, “Well, that’s not my reality.” So how do we make it real and how do we unleash that human potential?
At the end of the day, a company is a human organization made of individuals working together in pursuit of a goal. These individuals produce value for all stakeholders. They are the source, not simply a resource. In a turnaround, typically people tell you, “Cut, cut, cut.” My approach to turnarounds is essentially the opposite; it’s to start with people. I spent my first week on the job in a handful of stores, starting in the store in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to listen to the front liners and learn from them what was happening. That’s how we decided to invest in the shopping experience online and in the speed of delivery, to neutralize the advantage of online players. We also invested in the store experience, partnering with the world’s foremost tech companies to develop stores within our stores. On the cost side, we started by looking at how we could attack nonsalary expenses. Head count was a last resort—starting not with the front liners but with the top of the house. In eight short weeks in 2012, we constructed a plan that we called “Renew Blue.” We co-created it, we didn’t go for perfection, and then we got the bicycle going in a turnaround, creating momentum and energy. (For a detailed look at Best Buy’s transformation, listen to “Transformation and resilience: An interview with Best Buy’s executive chairman Hubert Joly,” on Apple Podcasts.)
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Bruce Simpson is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Toronto office.
He wishes to thank Becca Coggins and Jinchen Zou for their contributions to this interview.
The transcript was edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office.