Leading with purpose and humanity: A conversation with Hubert Joly

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Hubert Joly by Bruce Simpson 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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Best Buy’s former chairman and CEO reflects on a business’s reason for being by defining it around purpose and humanity, the link to competitive advantage, and managing shareholders and stakeholders during a crisis and beyond.
In a recent poll of customers’ reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, more than 80 percent of respondents said they would remember which companies “did the right thing by their workers” in dealing with safety measures or efforts to avoid layoffs. Three-quarters said they wouldn’t forget those businesses that took missteps “long after” the crisis ends.  This is familiar terrain for Hubert Joly.
After joining Best Buy as CEO in 2012, Joly engineered a dramatic transformation of the ailing electronics retailer and built a reputation over time as one of the business world’s most visible advocates of defining a business’s reason for being with social purpose and people as a guiding star. Today, as more and more executives grapple with the need to incorporate the needs of all stakeholders into their leadership choices, Joly’s experience reflects the challenges and opportunities inherent in mobilizing customers, vendors, and other stakeholders in pursuit of what he calls “noble purpose.” In this edited interview, Joly, a McKinsey alumnus, shares his thinking with McKinsey’s Bruce Simpson about personal purpose and managing the evolving landscape of corporate purpose during COVID-19 and beyond.

Personal purpose

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.

Pursuing ‘noble purpose’

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?

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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.


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