As a hard-charging McKinsey consultant, Hubert Joly created a career that many would instantly deem a success. He earned a good salary, worked on meaningful projects, and took on significant responsibilities.
What Joly lacked, though, was a genuine purpose.
“Sometimes you reach the top of the first mountain and find it empty,” he said.
By the time Joly took over the then-ailing Best Buy in 2012, he was ready to fully tap into the necessity of purpose-driven leadership. This philosophy, along with empathy, a people-centric approach, and a desire to grow as a leader, underpinned his success in saving the iconic American electronics from near bankruptcy. Through this approach, Joly revitalized the Best Buy brand, re-established it as a leading electronics retailer, and saved thousands of jobs while tripling the stock price in a little more than a year.
Joly joined Russell Reynolds Associates CEO Clarke Murphy on May 13 for an online fireside chat with more than 1,200 registrants from across the globe to discuss purpose-driven leadership. For Joly, the discussion allowed him to talk about his career path, how he turned around Best Buy’s business a decade ago, and how he puts people first when he leads.
Here are some insightful points Joly made about leadership during the hour-long conversation.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. “Hi, my name is Hubert, and I need help.” Joly joked that this statement is one of his most-used favorite sayings and the reason is simple: He doesn’t know everything and doesn’t feel that he needs to.
“Early in my career, I wanted to be the person with all the answers,” Joly said. “As I continued along my leadership journey, I learned that there were only certain things I had true power over. My job was to create an environment for those with the answers to feel empowered to share them.”
Joly said that as a CEO, certain responsibilities fell under his direction – creating a long-term business strategy, making key people choices, nurturing culture, and approving major investments and trasactions, among others – but many did not require his seal of approval. His duty was to manage the obligations under his purview, make himself available to those who needed him, and not serve as a roadblock for those looking to get things done.
Stick with your principles. To find true meaning in work, Joly called on attendees to share with him what gives their work meaning. While it may be difficult, especially for those early or mid-way through their careers, “you must define your principles and stick to them,” he said.
Too often, Joly said, people let factors like money or increased responsibility drive their careers, but those motivations do not lead to long-term satisfaction. Joly pointed to the advice he received from two influences that guided his thinking.
The first was a client from his time at McKinsey who told him the purpose of a company is not to make money. Rather, profit is an imperative and an outcome, as the financial success of the business is a derivative of the ability to have great employees who make customers happy. But the ultimate goal has to be to contribute to the common good.
The second piece of advice came from two monks who asked Joly to write about work. Together they concluded that modern work is part of our quest for more significant meaning in life and to create a common good.
It is with these ideas that he remade his career, focusing on the principles he valued most. This advice he gives executives today: “Figure out what you stand for and either be an agent for change at your company to make it happen or find another firm that shares your values.”
Life is short, and the world is a large place.
Focus on people-centric solutions first. As Joly set out to rebuild Best Buy, which was struggling to compete with Amazon and new retail stores from technology providers such as Apple, Microsoft, and Sony, he believed the answers to his problems were his organization’s people.
“Whenever a company is in trouble, the advice is to cut, cut, cut,” Joly said. “When I took over at Best Buy, our stores were profitable. It was talking to the employees where I found the answers. They know what is going on. Yes, there will be parts of the business where cuts can be made but headcount reduction should be the last resort.”
Joly shared a story about the week he spent in a Best Buy in St. Cloud, Minnesota, talking with customers, floor workers, and local management. He quickly saw that Best Buy’s challenges were self-inflicted: Prices were too high, customer service had declined, and the online experience was lacking.
Joly noticed that customers wanted a brick-and-mortar place to see high-end electronics in person and ask questions. At the same time, vendors needed a space to show off their latest and most extraordinary developments.
While many aspects went into Best Buy’s turnaround the message was clear. Listen to the people doing the work, let them know they were heard, empower them to make a change, and encourage them to dream big.
Always listen to criticism and use it for personal growth. Even when Best Buy was rapidly growing again, Joly found himself receiving feedback on areas to improve. His initial thought was to reject that criticism, using his success to brush away any negative comments.
After a bit of reflection, though, he came to an exciting conclusion: They were right.
“Just as I work with a tennis coach to improve my forehand, I realized how an executive coach could help me improve my leadership,” Joly said. Part of that journey included reverse mentorship, where Joly met with junior associates of the company to learn about issues and experiences he was not familiar with. That included a complicated discussion about the challenges Black employees and customers faced living in the United States – something Joly, a native of France, had not grown up with.
The lesson: Embrace your perceived shortcomings to improve yourself.
Be transparent every step of the way. Joly joked that, early in his career, he wanted his board to support him and not get in the way. He later realized that this was a missed opportunity. So, to best work with his board – and any other company stakeholders – Joly aimed to be as transparent as possible, even when it came to bad news. He wanted to be able to ask his board members for their advice – part of his goal to continually improve.
More broadly, he wanted those engaged in the company’s success to know where things stood. He knew the employees understood how the business indeed operated. As a manager, Joly wanted to be honest with them about the situation and the path forward, listen to their ideas, and make sure they felt heard.
He wanted to put aside ego to create an environment where everyone one could grow.
It was these principles that drove his career. Future leaders, Joly said, need to find theirs, by “using your brain, eyes, ears, hands, heart, and soul.” Following them will bring work worth celebrating.
For more about Hubert Joly and his leadership principles, read his new book, “The Heart of Business, Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism.”