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‘You Don’t Need to Choose between Purpose and Profit’ — Hubert Joly and Doug Conant on Leadership in a Changing World

At ConantLeadership’s most recent BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit, a free meeting of the top leadership minds in the business space, ConantLeadership Founder Doug Conant was joined in conversation by Hubert Joly, former chairman and CEO of Best Buy, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and author of the recent WSJ bestseller, The Heart of Business.

Extracted from their summit session, enjoy the following smart tips from Doug Conant and Hubert Joly for leading in a changing world, crafting an effective corporate purpose, and engaging all your stakeholders. (You can watch the full video of this summit session here. To skip intros and housekeeping, fast forward to minute 07:45.)

Guest Hubert Joly at the BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit

In a Rapidly Changing World, Purpose Is More Than Just a Buzzword

Doug Conant and Hubert Joly, two leaders credited with turning around ailing organizations and helping them thrive anew—Conant as CEO of Campbell Soup Company from 2001 to 2011, and Joly as CEO of Best Buy from 2012-2019 and chairman through June 2020—both have unique insight into the important role that purpose plays in reinvigorating an organization.

Joly explains: “The world we live in is not working. Right? We have a health crisis, an economic crisis, a societal crisis, racial issues, environmental issues, and geopolitical tensions. And what’s the definition of madness? Doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome. We need a re-foundation of business and capitalism.”

Joly’s thoughts echo a growing consensus among corporate leaders that there is a new model for the role of business in society, widely known as “stakeholder capitalism,” an approach that places generating shareholder returns on equal footing with creating value for customers, employees, communities, and the world.

To pursue a more enlightened approach to stakeholder capitalism, Joly says leaders must reimagine business as a way “to pursue a noble purpose,” which is achieved by “putting people at the center, embracing all stakeholders,” and understanding that “you don’t need to choose between purpose and profit.” In fact, he explains, when you put purpose first, profit becomes an inevitable outcome: “At Best Buy, we had a very purpose-focused strategy and our share price went from $11 to $110—a multiple of ten in eight or nine years.”

Communicating Purpose Unlocks Engagement

In his over 45 years of leadership experience, Conant has observed the many merits of a purpose-centered strategy. He describes the ideal trajectory for enterprises as “going from total shareowner returns, to total stakeholder returns,” with the ultimate goal being, “total societal returns.” To achieve this goal, one big challenge is moving beyond the intellectual argument for “total societal returns,” in order to find ways to make purpose feel “real” for every stakeholder. This requires acknowledging the reality of today’s chaotic environment.

Conant explains: “People are swamped. They live in a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” It can be difficult to get through to chronically busy associates but, “they hunger to do better and they’ll listen if we craft the right conversation for them to engage in this journey.” He notes that framing your message properly is key in bringing people along: “This is not about making shareholders wealthy, this is about doing something special and making a difference.”  You have to declare your intention clearly, and then deliver.

Joly has also found that persuasively communicating the right purpose is powerful in combating another “pandemic,” the scourge of “disengagement at work.” Echoing Conant, he explains that you can’t get people excited about a statement like, “We’re gonna double earnings per share,” but you can motivate them if you are able to show “We’re here to make a positive difference,” and are able to connect that sentiment back to what drives them individually.

The Nuts and Bolts of Crafting an Effective Purpose

So how do you actually craft a strategy with purpose at its heart? Joly says there are four steps, and they all begin with understanding that the purpose of a corporation is why it exists in the world, “its reason for being,” which can be found at the intersection of four circles:

1.What the world needs. (Joly clarifies that this is not about what products you sell, but rather, the underlying needs in the world that you’re trying to address.)

2.What you’re passionate about as a team.

3.What you’re uniquely qualified to do.

4.How you can make money.

This criteria can be used to discern the purpose of a company but can also be used as a roadmap towards discovering one’s personal purpose, too. What’s key is that you can’t cherry-pick one component or another. They’re interconnected—and you need to address all four.

Next, says Joly, it’s crucial to strike the right balance “between being bold and specific.” Even if you’ve found a way to communicate a purpose at the intersection of the four circles, it needs to resonate with a majority of your stakeholders.

Conant builds on this: “Purpose needs to be aspirational to help everyone lift their sights up to a new level of contribution. At the same time, it needs to be sufficiently approachable so that they can connect to it.” Arriving at a purpose in the sweet spot, he explains, “is both an art and a science,” that requires a nuanced approach of pushing people towards higher ground, while also doing it in a “measured” way that allows people to buy-in at their own pace.

Purpose Drives Culture

Once you’ve arrived on a purpose, the key is to leverage it so it becomes central to company culture—a rallying point for the combined efforts of the enterprise to coalesce around.

Joly found he was able to strike a resonant chord at Best Buy by boiling down their purpose of “enriching lives through technology,” to its essence, which was that they were in the “happiness business.”

To bring the “happiness business” to life in stores, Joly wanted associates to feel empowered to take autonomous and impromptu action, to surprise and delight customers based on their own instincts, not on some corporate-mandated “standard operating procedure.” As an example, he shares the story of a child bringing in his broken dinosaur toy to a Best Buy location; the boy, distraught, insisted the dinosaur was “sick.”

Best Buy frontline workers could have merely substituted a new toy, but they saw the boy’s level of distress, so they made the inspired decision to take the “sick” dinosaur behind the counter and “operate,” mimicking a surgical procedure (before stealthily replacing the toy), so that the child went home, not with a mere replacement, but a “cured dinosaur.” The customers left elated and with a special story to tell.

To create the conditions at scale for this kind of organic customer service, or what Joly calls “human magic,” requires a purpose-centered culture. And Conant adds that building such a culture requires ensuring that employees feel “supported and encouraged,” so they know they have the power and freedom to take action.

Joly agrees and shares his “five ingredient” human-centric recipe for making purpose the cornerstone of your strategy:

1.Build an environment where people can connect their dreams to the day-to-day. (This requires being “curious about the dreams and purpose” of your constituents.)

2. Build an environment that fosters genuine human connections. Make people feel seen.

3.Build an environment that values autonomy.

4.Build an environment that creates mastery.

5.Build a growth environment. (Joly implemented personalized coaching for every associate as CEO of Best Buy.)

Conant builds on Joly’s recipe, adding that to make meaningful change in the culture, you as the leader must “model the desired behavior,” which requires being “very well-anchored in this work,” so you can show up in a way that inspires others to follow your example.

People First’ Is the Path Forward

Overall, Conant emphasizes that the way to achieve breakthrough with purpose or any related leadership endeavor, from strategy to employee engagement, is to know that these undertakings are not “either/or” propositions. He explains: “What we champion at ConantLeadership is being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. Not one or the other. Both.”

Conant says that to build an “enduring proposition” in today’s marketplace, you have to find a way to deliver high performance and understand that performance is contingent on your ability to “connect with people, with your colleagues, in a very human way.”

In matters of both purpose and performance, Conant and Joly urge leaders to start with “people first” and everything else will fall into place. Joly says the secret is to not be too focused on the outcome, but to focus on the “inputs,” which are “your team, your coworkers.” Conant agrees that chasing outcomes is not sustainable because it puts “the cart before the horse.” Instead, he celebrates the power of  “enabling the organization” to deliver in the way you envision, which requires a laser focus on people. Ultimately, the path forward is to “dial into the humanity” of your organization, and total stakeholder returns are likely to follow.

Amy FedermanAbout the Author: Amy Federman is ConantLeadership’s Director of Content and Editor in Chief and co-author with Doug Conant of the WSJ bestseller, The Blueprint.

Enjoyed these insights? Sign up for our upcoming FREE spring BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit featuring top luminaries Brené Brown, Susan Cain, Steve Collis, Liz Wiseman, and more.

For more advice about performance, purpose, and people, explore the full video recording of this summit session here, read Hubert Joly’s book, The Heart of Business, here, engage with our suite of written leadership resources here, or start your Blueprint journey by getting your signed copy of the book here.

Ready to step into your full leadership potential?  Apply to our signature leadership development program, The BLUEPRINT Boot Camp by ConantLeadership, a 2-day leadership intensive offering elite level, highly interactive training with Doug Conant and a community of your peers. Learn more about this premium tier of transformational leadership development here or set up a complimentary consultation call here.

(Cover photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

Doug Conant is remarkable—and so is this work.
– Stephen M. R. Covey
Author of The Speed of Trust

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