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Unleashing Human Magic

A Conversation with Hubert Joly and Piyumi Samaratunga

Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, and Piyumi Samaratunga, a partner at the law firm Constangy, believe that diversity is a business imperative. In this episode, Chanda connected with these two business leaders to talk about the importance of diverse and inclusive teams, the dangers of tokenism, and the power of leading with purpose.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:04 

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast, that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker. I am so honored to introduce to you, two amazing business leaders, Piyumi Samaratunga, and Hubert Joly. Hubert is a former CEO and chairman of Best Buy, Harvard Business School professor and author of the Heart of Business, and Piyumi is a partner at the law firm Constangy. And here’s a fun fact, Piyumi had to go to a law school for a third time, after she learned her legal credentials in Sri Lanka and Cambridge University in England are not transferable to Minnesota, and now Piyumi is widely sought by corporate clients, and top employment immigration law firms alike. In this episode, Chanda connected with these two business leaders to talk about the importance of diverse and inclusive teams, the dangers of tokenism, and the power of leading with purpose. Enjoy the show. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  01:29 

I’m so happy to have you, Piyumi and Hubert on the Conversations with Chanda, a podcast that we offer here at the Minneapolis Foundation. So, welcome, so glad to have you both. As we jump in, I’m just gonna start with you, Piyumi and ask if you wouldn’t mind, just providing an introduction to yourself, what you want the audience to know about you, and then, Hubert will follow up with you. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  01:54 

Thank you, Chanda and Hubert, for this amazing opportunity, delighted as always to be in a conversation with both of you incredible thought leaders in this and larger spaces. First and foremost, I think of myself as a mother of three wonderful kids, a wife, and a daughter, and an immigrant to this country who believes in what this amazing country has to offer. But like in everything in life, perfection is a journey and not a destination. That is what I hope we will get to talk about today, in terms of diversity and inclusion. My day job, as it were, is being an attorney, running the Minneapolis office for a national law firm that really at its core, and its founding DNA has diversity and inclusion etched into it. 75 years ago, we were founded in the deep south by three founding members, one of whom was a woman. The notion of a woman, simply being an attorney in an Atlanta based organization, 75 years ago would have been an accomplishment, but in addition to be a woman who was a founding member, goes to show our kind of commitment, founding commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are also the only law firm on a national landscape that has a named partner who’s a minority.  

 Chanda Smith Baker  03:34 

Thank you so much Piyumi and Hubert. 

 Hubert Joly  03:37 

Well, Chanda and Piyumi, what a delight. I so look forward to our conversation and eager to, to have this dialogue. In terms of an introduction, I am a grandfather of three amazing young granddaughters, ages one to one year old, to two and a half year old, which, of course, gives me a sense of responsibility for the future, right? What kind of world are we going to live for, leave for these amazing granddaughters. I have been in business for, in my entire life, but my journey has been one of the transformation from somebody who grew up as a hard charging, deeply analytical, performance oriented McKinsey consultant to somebody who believes now in human magic, and I can say I didn’t smoke anything illegal along the way. I’ve had the privilege of spending a dozen amazing years in the Twin Cities, leading to Great Minnesota companies, calcium companies, and then being part of the delightfully surprising resurgence of Best Buy. I’ve now started a next chapter in my life,  I really focused on adding my voice and my energy to what I believe is the urgent and necessary foundation of business and capitalism around purpose, and humanity with a sense that, in this world, we need to make a declaration of interdependence. Business can be a force for good, and business cannot succeed in isolation, right? Were part of a community when you know, after the murder of George Floyd, when, if the community is on fire, you can’t open the store, it’s as simple as this, right? You cannot run a business, and similarly the planet is on fire, you don’t have a business. And so we need to make this declaration of interdependence, and an act for the sweet foundation. So I do it I, you know, I do a number of things, these days. I wrote a book, I published a book this year, The Heart of Business, which I’m very excited about, and now teaching at Harvard Business School, was in the MBA program and an executive education with a focus on helping leaders put purpose to work and unleash human magic. And then with my amazing wife, or counselors, Auntie, I coach and mentor, a number of CEOs and an executive. So it’s really, you know, trying to find meaning and provide impact and joy in this next chapter of my life.  

 Chanda Smith Baker  06:11 

Man, fantastic. There’s so much goodness, just in the introduction. And, you know, I’m thinking about how Piyumi, sort of, talked about the law firm right, founded by women, yet the only one right now that has a named minority, how did you say Piyumi? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  06:30 

A named partner. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  06:31 

A named partner, right? So I met Don, he’s amazing, and so here it was, it was founded by a woman, and now it remains the only one with a person of color with the minority name. It feels like we started out strong and then somehow didn’t do a lot somewhere in the middle. Piyumi, how do you reconcile like those two things, or what do you want people to understand about the importance of having him be the named partner? Is there any level of concern that we don’t have more, like how do you reconcile those two things? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  07:06 

Absolutely, and Hubert is, you know, Exhibit A for a spokesperson for this cause, if for lack of a better term, right, I think we’ve often the three of us have talked about the pyramid model. We’ve done amazingly well, at the bottom layer of the pyramid in terms of opening the floodgates, as it were, to women and minorities. So, you know, 20, almost 30 years after, we have seen a critical mass of women, going into the professions, law schools, medical schools, accounting profession, we’ve got built up an amazing pipeline of entry level, to meet middle level managers. It is the C suites, it is the decision making places at the top of the pyramid as it were, that we need to now focus on and Hubert is an amazing spokesperson, having done this himself, and seeing the value of it, right? We’ve got to have a bottom up and a top down model, what we call the sandwich model, right, and hopefully, you will meet somewhere in the middle. There is a place for everyone. We’ve talked about this before, what the inclusion of one group is never to the inclusion of the other, exclusion of the other. When I advocate for my two daughters to be able to do everything, if or anything they set their mind to. If that comes at the cost of my son being able to do that all we’ve done is swapped one group for another, right? And I think Hubert makes the perfect case in point that there is a place for everyone, but that simply making the pie bigger makes us stronger, not weaker. Same with law firms, right, having a named partner who is a minority, in our case, done profit, you know, didn’t eliminate the role for white men or women. So you know, we are better and stronger together, something I know, Hubert you and Chanda, you have been great advocates. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  09:28 

And Hubert, as you’re listening, I want to hear more about how you’ve been great on this issue. I know you have been but I would love for our listeners to hear that. And then you talk about your granddaughters and making the world better for them, and I think you mean that literally in terms of climate, but I think I imagine you also meet it in terms of if they want to see on a corporate board, they would be valued the same way, consider this same way. Their expertise would be seen as equal to everyone else around the table. Can you offer anything more around this topic, or I’d love to hear what you have to say. 

 Hubert Joly  10:02 

No, of course, and you know, both of you are very kind. It’s not about me being great or not, because it speaks with narrow focus, but it’s about the topic, and I think we have to say it out loud, diversity is a business imperatives. How stupid would it be for companies to just recruit from one quarter of the population, people who look like me, that’d be crazy. Businesses need to represent the customers they serve in the communities that they operate, it’s as simple as this. If you don’t, then you’re gonna miss. It’s that the business consequences are enormous. Let’s take a couple of very concrete examples, Melody Hobson, the fabulous CEO of Ariel Investment, the chairman for Starbucks now as well, she told me, and I didn’t know this, right, if you go to the restroom in a hotel, they see an infrared activated soap dispenser in the bathroom. Well, infrared technology, I had this confirmed by the top engineers at Intel doesn’t do a good job of detecting black as a color. So if you go into the bathroom, and you have very dark skin, chances are you’re not gonna be able to get soap. Now, in the hotel company, or in the engineering company, there’s no black leader, black engineer, there’s nobody black, you’re gonna miss, and imagine the consequences of that. Similarly, smartphones, cameras tended to be infrared activated, which led to a well known issues with the difficulty that was a few years ago. These cameras, these smart cameras to take good pictures of black individuals, if you don’t have any black engineers, again, or people on your team, you’re simply gonna miss. And more broadly back to this idea that if the community is on fire, you cannot operate a business. So there’s a business imperative to address diversity and inclusion in all the negative ways in positive ways. We know from experience that diverse teams where everybody feels that they belong, and that they can be the biggest, best, most beautiful version of themselves are more effective. Believe, for example, that if it had been Lehman Brothers, then sisters, as opposed to Lehman brothers, it would not have been the catastrophe that we’ve seen. And to your Piyumi, you know, it’s one of things I learned from Mellody again, she told me, you cannot be who you cannot see. And so she highlighted the importance of making change visible at the top. And in many ways, you know, changing the top is actually easy, right? If you think about a board, that’s 10 people, how hard can it be to recruit five amazing directors who are women? How hard can it be to recruit, you know, two or three, let’s say, amazing directors who are people of color. That’s the easiest thing in the world, you know, if you really set your eyes, but we know also, that most of definition of madness, right, doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome. So we’ve learned a great deal in the last, you know, couple of years, I would say. We know that having diverse slates in diverse interview teams, leads to a more diverse outcome. Now, in the case of our board at Best Buy, we were very clear with the headhunters. Heidrick  struggles, we told them, look, don’t bother giving us resumes of non black candidates. Because we’re at a stage where we want to really move the needle on that, and if you believe that you’re going to be unable to identify, you know, high quality black candidates for our board, we’ll accept that it’s okay, we will have no problem with that, except we’ll work with another firm. And of course, they, you know, working together, we found three amazing black directors who have added enormous value, and when I stepped down from the board in June of 2020, we had a majority of women on the board, and we had three black directors, and so that can be done. I think it starts from not only realizing that this is a business matter, it also starts in the heart. I have to say that I know that many leaders now have gone through this journey, right? So for me, it was in 2016, I believe, when I realized that the level of diversity, the level of engagement, at Best Buy weight was going up all together, it was significant variation across race and ethnicity. So, you know, I did what a good leader would do, which is added focus groups with, you know, in particular, black employees, and they got a punch in the stomach, based on what I heard, I was shocked. I did not grow up in this country, grew up in France, and I believe in France, there’s racism, plenty, but frankly, I had much to learn, and what I learned about the experience about black colleagues was devastating. And diversity team was kind enough to them, gives me a mentor, they call it a reverse mentor, I don’t know that, scratched the reverse, right? She was my mentor, Laura, Gladney, amazing young mother, black African American woman from the RONDO community, here in the Twin Cities, and I learned so much from Laura. And so the combination of the brain and the heart and the guts gave me the gut level courage to say we have to change this. And I believe today that this generation has the ability, if we stay with it, to change the outcome and and systemic racism in corporate America. It has to be done, and I think we are on our way to do it, but we have to stay with it. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  16:15 

You talked about it would be essentially stupid to only run a business with 25% of the population. Yet, it still is happening on a fairly regular basis, and so I would like to believe that other people see it as important, but I think part of the challenge in the tension right now is that many don’t. Well, they aspire but they don’t like there’s you know, you talked about continent dissidents in your book, the difference between sort of what they desire and what actually is happening. So what, what’s at play here? 

 Hubert Joly  16:54 

Yes. So I think, assume that I’m not wrong in observing a sea change in the last couple of years, in particular, following the murder of George Floyd. I think that’ s what happened on that day, what we all saw, was a game changer. I see it, and that led so many individuals and leaders to deeply realize that we had something deeply flawed here. And a lot of leaders that I give credit to Brian Cornell, for example, who eloquently tells the story, took the time to personally and deeply understand what what’s been going on. And now what’s happening, I don’t know every company in America, right, but I sit in a few boards and I am involved on these issues. What you see is big change. What do I mean by this? You have now companies setting quantitative targets that are time bound, and you have boards, holding management teams accountable. And you have management teams, genuinely now saying no, we’re going to fix this. And there’s a wonderful thing in this business world, which is once we’ve decided that something was a priority, was a business priority, we know how to solve these things, right? I mean, we’re not, nobody’s perfect in the business world, but once we’ve decided that, let’s say we’re going to attack the Chinese markets or the, you know, that we are going to develop at Best Buy an online business, we know how to get this done. And in a sense, you know, once you’ve decided this in a company, and I’m focusing on black diversity, because I think we have to focus on that, because it’s been the most horrendous, it’s a marketing problem. What do I mean by this? It’s about how do you recruit? How do you retain, and how do you develop black employees, managers and leaders? Well, that’s a marketing problem, because it’s similar to attracting, retaining and developing customers. And so once you attack this as a marketing problem, you look at the main targeting, you know, the right ponds to attract the targets, individuals that you are trying to recruit. What are the friction points? If I’m not retaining the employees, why is that? You analyze it, you see, and you’re problem solved, and then you hold leaders accountable. And so increasingly at companies, performance on the diversity dimension is part of the assessment of leaders. It’s part of the increasingly compensation of leaders. It’s part of the business reviews. So I see it completely, video material change in attitude on that front, and that doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re not. That doesn’t mean we can let go, but based on what I’m seeing, and I see, I see the progress year over year, now at individual companies. If we stay with it, that’s a big thing to underscore. I think that we can make a huge difference, and the one thing I would highlight when I hear, you know, conversations in the boardroom, is that the competition for black talents is extraordinary now, and so that’s a good, that’s a good sign. But it’s not just about just competing for the existing that I also see initiatives, you know, focused on how do we grow the talents, and so on and so forth. So I see material change on that channel. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  20:42 

Piyumi, do you see the same sort of material change the sea change, particularly following George Floyd’s murder? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  20:50 

I think there is a sea change in terms of the desire and the intention, and so as Hubert mentioned, I think we have to keep the pressure on, and share hold the pressure in addition, right, and the customer demands, you know, like both of you refer to hiring just from 1/4 of the pool of candidates doesn’t make sense. We, as a nation, form less than 5% of the global population. So even as a corporate strategy, when you know, 95% or more of your potential customer base, may or may not look like you and lives outside your borders, you need to begin to reflect look and sound both like your customers and clients by, you know, retaining and attracting from diverse pools. So, long winded answer, Chanda, to say, you know, the change that we would absolutely like to see on this side of the fence, as it were, hasn’t quite happened, but I think there has been a sea change in the sense of urgency and intentionality. I think we got this conceptually, for now, a couple of decades, we understood the need for diversity and inclusion. But there was still not enough tension, as it were, to make this a business imperative, and now it is. 

 Hubert Joly  22:29 

And what is interesting to see is that in the last two decades, we’ve had shareholder activism. I think what’s helpful to the cause, now, in a way, is that we have stakeholder activism. Employees, customers, community, shareholders are demanding more, right? And you see many examples of companies that are either coming from their employees or their customers, or their community, or their shareholders, being put under pressure, if they don’t behave on either, there’s societal issues, racial issues, environmental issues. And so as leaders, you know, companies have a choice, they can either be on the backfoot, or they can be on the front foot. And that doesn’t mean that, you know, sometimes there’s excessive actions, like, you know, there’s a debate these days about the New York Times is writing about, you know, should McKinsey and Company, for example, continue to serve high emission companies? And McKinsey’s responses, well, if we if we want to, you know, lower the carbon emissions in the world, we have to work where the carbon emissions are right to see cannot just abandon ship. So, sometimes there is some nuances, but this notion of stakeholder activism is absolutely real, and by the way, the next generation is, you know, it’s a different mix. My good friend Melita for Melita Stable, when she does our gathering, she does this exercise right, in a big room. She asked the members of a gathering to go to four corners of the room based on the generation they’re from. So it will have the boomers, the Generation X, and then Generation Y and Z and A and so forth, and then she says, look at the color diversity in the four corners of the room. Well, in my corner, which is the boomers, not that much, but in the Gen Z, oh my god, it’s majority. In so, you know, it’s inescapable, and that would be another reason to believe that how stupid would it be to just recruit from one quarter of the population? It’s one quarter on average, but if you look at the next generation, this is stupid to the power of tip. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  24:50 

And we don’t need a critical mass, right? Tokenism just doesn’t do what we need to be done, desperately, just having one person or two doesn’t add the power of a voice, right? The three of us are case in point, we’ve seen how our debates and discussions have changed significantly on the vote board that we serve together. Now that we have more than just one or two people of color minorities. And so you know, the famous saying, one is a token, two is a presence, three or more is a voice, and we need those voices, again, to ensure the success and continuity of business success. Because we bring in different experiences, whether it’s an innovation, I mean, talk to some of the largest, most successful healthcare centers in this country, whether it is Mayo Clinic, or Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins. Most of the departments, their top physicians come from all over the world, they’re not recruiting from one homogeneous group. And there is a reason for it, because that diversity, enhance us, the delivery of whatever it is, whether it is a professional service, or a widget that we are producing. 

 Hubert Joly  26:26 

Piyumi, in your role, right, leading a professional service firm or a permanent law firms, you see a lot of companies, right, you see, by definition. If you had to analyze what differentiates the companies that you serve, that you see, that are really leaning forwards, on the diversity in making great progress in achieving, what differentiates them from the laggards and getting to, you know, what are some of the key leverage points? What have you observed? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  27:00 

That, you know, we are able to deliver more effective, customer focused or, in our case, client focused, you know, solutions, when we have a diverse group of people, seemingly similar, because we are all, you know, lawyers and have gone through the same rigmarole of, you know, years of law school training, but we bring our experiences and background, no matter how much we try to kind of say, we’re putting our lawyer hat on, you do bring your experience and so how we even conceptualize, how we, you know, peel a problem apart and cosmetic, when there are different, you know, mindsets at the, at the table is so different. And, and so again, back to the tokenism, you know, gone are the days when you can have a token minority person for your pictures, you know, just joining you, and then never participating in in the outcome, the long term outcome, because you see the difference in the quality of the product. And when you can relate when your lawyers, your legal teams can represent your client, and your clients customer base, there is automatic, you know, trust built much faster. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  28:34 

Yeah, and I imagine that companies and places that are really understanding the value of diversity are also retaining diverse leadership at a different rate than those that are hiring for diversity. I imagine that there is consistency, that there are measurements, that there’s expectations, as you shared out, you were, that are built into performance measures, so that there’s an alignment. And so you mentioned Mellody Hobson, I had the opportunity to talk to John Rogers on this podcast, and so one of those measures for me would also be what he shared and what the University of Chicago is doing around moving from supplier diversity, to business diversity. I think it’s the alignment of decisions on where investments are made, who are you hiring for your business services, down to who’s reflective in your boardroom and your leadership? And as Piyumi mentioned, it’s the pyramid meeting itself, and there’s an intention at every level. And I see that as a difference maker and you feel it when you walk into businesses that have this aligned commitment. Are there other measures and things that we should be looking at or aspiring to he were to really show the commitment? And as Piyumi said, like, organizations, businesses that are moving beyond tokenism, what does that look like from your perspective? 

 Hubert Joly  30:01 

Yeah, in terms of targets, what I see is companies setting targets for themselves in terms of the, the mix of talents at the leadership level, and setting targets to be achieved over time, then, you know, to break it down, you have to look at another driver of this, which is diversity of slates and diversity of interview teams, as a key driver of that outcome. I love John Rogers points, because it’s a, it’s about diversity, it’s also about economic opportunity. In so business, you know, can be a force for good and can make a difference in creating business opportunities for, you know, the, in particular the black African community or women. And so, companies that lean in, on how they manage their supplier base, and to John’s point, not just the janitorial services to be blends, right, so but how, you know, the Coca Cola Company had its general counsel, share with the law firms that they were working with that, you know, they had a target. Similarly, when I was at Best Buy, as an event, I told, you know, the community of marketing vendors, that if they were not evolving the diversity of their teams, potentially, they could save on gasoline. They would no longer need to travel from, you know, Minneapolis to Richfield. And so, again, companies can be a force for good, but it’s, again, it goes back to this idea, these are business problems, and we know how to solve business problems.  

 Piyumi Samaratunga  31:49 

Hubert, Chanda, if I may, I have a question for you, Hubert, often, at least in the professional services space, something we come across is where larger clients will say, yes, we would like to hire diverse law firms, diverse vendors, but we don’t have the scale needed, in you know, diverse, you know, vendors or professional services pools that we are looking at, because they still tend to be smaller. How do you address that? For me, it is a catch 22, right. I mean, none of these larger firms, whether it is, you know, or in the, in the, you know, service industry started out being giants, or global behemoths, you know, they started somewhere, but someone or many people had enough faith and trust or commitment to keep giving them enough work until they grow big enough. So how do you address that? 

 Hubert Joly  32:55 

So, you know, one of the things I’ve seen a CEO do was to sit down with the CEO of one of their large IT vendors, and say, let’s work together. So that over time, you know, the teams that this 80 vendor was going to feel at that company, were going to be more diverse, because it’s one of these things where it’s like, the carbon footprints. If I’m running a company, and you asked me tomorrow, you need to be carbon neutral. I don’t know how to do this. When I was at McKinsey, you know, we used to say it takes you know, 12 years to develop a partner, a senior partner, you just can’t shrink. It is like the famous saying about, if you take nine women, it still takes nine months to, for a child to be to be born. And so I think it’s the idea of sitting down between the company and its key vendors, and really developing a plan on how to do this being clear about expectations. In looking at how firms react, I know that, you know, I said, I’ve seen on boards, where would be a professional firm pitching with a non diverse team, and you just tell them, look, we’re not we’re not going to work with you if you have a non diverse team. So that’s working with large established players, and then I think, the on the other side, you’re talking also about how do we have smaller firms that are from the get go, you know, more diverse, I think the implication would be, let’s serve this concept of putting the thumb on the scale, right? Again, because what’s the definition of madness? Doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome? And maybe I’ll tell a story about gender diversity. Last week the suppliers with more to succession planning and development, that according to Sally Helgason, who’s written this great book, How Women Rise, according to her research, if a if a boy is 80%, ready for a promotion, most of us will say, Oh, we got it we are ready right? And she’s observed that if a woman is 125%, ready for promotion, most of the time, women will say, I’ve not finished what I was doing here, I’m not sure I’m ready. I’m not sure I want the limelight. So thanks, but no thanks. So if we take this at face value will always go with a boy, and not the highly qualified woman. It will miss on the opportunity to have a better team, and so once you realize this, if it’s true, then you have to have an exchange rate. If a boy is saying, I got it, that means most of them got 80% screw, and if everybody’s saying, I’m am not sure, then it’s probably 100% ready. And so put the sum on the scale, not take no for an answer. In work, you know, on adjusting for that. So as leaders, we have the opportunity to make a difference, but it requires putting out some understeer. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  36:21 

That’s a great point to bear. I mean, we see this at classroom level, right? Whether it is K through 12, or, or college and beyond, that the professor who actually calls out and draws out, the quiet kid, whether it is a woman, or a person of color, who typically doesn’t show their hand up often is worth listening to when the professor draws them out, right? So it is it is not one person, it’s not simply telling the immigrant creditor, the kid of color, or the woman, hey, you need to learn to speak up and, and do better in class participation. It’s a two way street, the professor needs to step up too. 

 Hubert Joly  37:06 

Such a great experience on exactly this point. So as you know, I’m teaching at Harvard Business School, and earlier this week, the students who has participated least since the beginning, we had done an exercise, a simulation on a optimizing performance of a company based on the case study at Harvard. The most silent students produce the better answer on the case. And if you never asked that, so you have to find a way now, you know, the world is this great book also called Quiet, right, that shows how the world is dominated by the extroverts, and so to your point, if we don’t call on the introverts, we’re gonna miss their point of view is often accurately better for the extroverts. So again, it’s putting our thumb on the scale. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  38:02 

Yeah, I appreciate you calling out us introverts. I appreciate that. And I think that what we’re talking about a couple of things in here, and I want to just, perhaps talk about something you said in the beginning, Hubert, which is around your evolution as a leader, because all of this has to be a commitment of a company that’s expressed through the leader. And you shared that you’re a very different leader now than you were when you were at McKinsey. What changed? 

 Hubert Joly  38:35 

Oh, what changed? It’s been a 30 year evolution. One was about 20 years ago, in many ways had been successful, right, that was at the top of my first mount and I’d been a partner at McKinsey, I was on the executive team of major multinational company called Defending Universal. I was successful, except I felt that it was empty. There was no meaning at the top of that first mountain. And that led me to step back like my midlife crisis, and reflect on, you know, the meaning of my life. How? What meaning do I want to find in my life? What’s the purpose of my life? How do I want to be remembered? At HBS, in the new CEO workshop, we do with our good friend, Bill, George, we ask the new CEOs to write their retirement speech, and my wife Hortense Le Gentil, who is this amazing executive leadership coach, one of the things she does with our client is she asked them to write down their eulogy. How do you want to be remembered? And believe me, whether it’s the retirement speech or eulogy, people don’t rise, you know, I want to have a partner by the age of 30. I want to have, you know, made so much money by the age of, no. I think at the heart of every one of us, there’s a desire to do something good in the world even Darth Vader in Star Wars, his son believes, you know, the force is still within him. And so  it’s about defining our purpose, what kind of a leader we want to be. Now to Piyumi’s earlier points, there’s a difference between desire and ability. So something that also helped me was when in 2009, I started to work with a coach, and if before that, you know, somebody had told me, Mary or Jack are working with the coach, or we have said, what’s wrong with them? Who needs a coach, right? Why are we wasting company’s money, and, then you realize, I’ve done a an extensive survey, exactly 100% of the top 100 tennis players in the world, have a coach, 100% of the NFL teams have a coach, NBA, MLB, you name it? Why would it be that as leaders, we would not need a coach. Now the challenge I had, in part was struggling to deal with feedback, and my coach Marshall Goldsmith, the father of all executive coaches, helped me learn about feet forward. What do I want to get better at? It’s not what I did last month, I cannot change what I did last month, right? But based on a 360 feedback, I can decide what I want to get better. So when I joined Best Buy in 2012, three months after I joined, two of my team, let’s agree that this turnaround is going to be hard, right? The reason why we know it’s going to be hard is that everybody thinks we’re gonna die, right? So that’s, that’s how you know, it’s gonna be hard, and so that means that every one of us on the executive team are going to need to be the best leader we can be, and that includes me. So I have a coach, he’s going to come in, he’s going to ask for your views on what I’m doing well, and things I can do better. I got that feedback. Marshall told me, here’s the scoop, you don’t need to do anything. There is no god that says, you know, you need to do this, but he told me, what would you like to get better at. And then I went back to the team and say thank you for everything you’ve shared with Marshall, on this basis, three things I’ve decided to work on number one, number two, number three, right? And I’m going to follow up with each of you, and ask you for advice on how I can get better at these things, and then I’m going to follow up in three or four months, and ask you how I’m doing, and you know, if you have further advice. And so that was transformative for me, because who doesn’t want to get better. And of course, you know, Marshall, in that context helped me understand that the role of the leader is not to be a superhero. It’s not to tell everybody else what to do. It’s much more to create an environment where you can unleash, you know, the potential of everybody. It’s not about being perfect. There’s an entire chapter in the heart of business, right in my book, around the quest for perfection is evil. And I think the model of leaders today is much more, somebody who’s authentic, who is vulnerable, who is humble, who has empathy, and realizes that we don’t know, and we need help, right? Did anyone of the two of you had the manual to deal with the pandemic, back in March 2012, when you did not write otherwise, you would have shared it with the web. Same with back to the office. So we’re in a world where many of these issues is we don’t know, and we have to figure it out as a team, and in that’s how we unleash human magic as opposed to the leader as the superhero. So that these were some aspects of my long journey to evolve. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  43:50 

I love it. And Piyumi, I have some assumptions about how you maybe have changed over the course of your leadership, which I imagine includes you getting more bolder in the spaces, as you have moved into your current role as partner. Can you share a little bit about your leadership transformation and perhaps even some of your best leadership advice you’ve received? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  44:15 

Absolutely. And for me, too, similar to Hubert, and you, Chanda, it’s a journey, right? So my, I think my first pivotal moment came 25 years ago, when I moved here, migrated here as a, you know, adult, and found that I was in a place and a space that was really very different to where I had been born and raised for 30 years of my life, and suddenly being put outside your zone of comfort, you know, makes you grow in ways that at the moment you don’t fully appreciate but makes you realize that you’ve got to dig deep and find tools that you never thought you had. And so that was kind of one critical and pivotal moment for me. And then throughout the journey, you know, again, talking about, you know, need for a critical mass in any space that we are trying to expand and open out, for me to, initially, it’s the desire to blend them, right not rock the boat, so that you get a sense of no matter how false it is, I belong, you know, you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. And then increasingly finding communities of, of similar voices like you, like Hubert, like our dear friend, Val Jensen, who really kind of helped me, you know, find that courage really, for lack of a better term, that you’ve got to speak up. And that again, you know, if you are holding others accountable, and pushing them against the difference between intention and implementation, you have to do it yourself as well. And, and so those have been my critical moments of learning, and again, you know, Hubert referred to it, the George Floyd event, which kind of precipitated the need for those of us who have believed in this work, to step up and speak up. But that doesn’t come easily, it’s not an overnight process. And I look at some of my younger partners and colleagues who are in that journey. And you have to get, I think, to a certain place of feeling secure enough and confident enough to really push the envelope and advocate for more radical change. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  47:02 

I like it. In the in the book, Hubert, you talk about a data breach story in the book, it turned out not to be a breach, but it was the holiday season, you thought there was, you gathered them, and you talked about sort of, or I felt like you shared sort of yourself, talk as you entered into the room in terms of how you were going to go in there. And what you said was I need to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer, and I really appreciated that. And I think that even in this last conversation, it’s how we show up as leaders, knowing what to employ when and understanding the role and setting culture, building leadership, measuring what you want to be done, and ultimately understanding that business is so much more, business has a purpose that extends beyond the profits. I wonder if you could share what you meant by be a thermostat? 

 Hubert Joly  47:56 

Yes, so back to the question of the role of the leader, which is to create the right environment for others to be successful. If I’m a thermometer, that means that if things are not going well, oh my god, I’m going to be very cold, I’m going to retrench. And if things are going well, I’m going to be very effusive and so forth. And just to amplify, the movements, once these we have realized, right is that we need to make a difference between what we can control and what we cannot control. And what we cannot control influences the environment, but then it’s all about what we do. And so if I’m a thermostat, it’s the realization that you know, what happens, sort of independent of what I can do. It’s all about what I’m going to do to help navigate these waters. And so that means that, and I learned this from from my coach, every day, I’m trying to, you know, show up as a beaten positive, irrespective of the temperature outside, right, because I know that when my role as a leader is to create the energy within the organization. It is not that I want to be insensitive to what’s happening, but it’s all about what are we going to do? And how do we show up to deal with this matter whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. And as a public company CEO is one of the things you notably to dissuade your point. You try to avoid it, overly react to what the share price is doing, right? And I learned that from my CFO, Sharon, who we recruited in 2012. She told everyone because she had ample experience working in public companies. If the share price goes up, don’t go, don’t be too excited, because if it’s going to go down at some point ready to flip to it. When it goes down, then you’re going to be very depressed. No, just focus on what you’re doing, doing the right thing for the benefit of company and all the stakeholders, and then the share price is gonna go up, it’s gonna go down, but don’t overreact. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  50:08 

And it’s interesting, isn’t it also, Hubert, especially for you from your vantage point now teaching at a premier business school, that is Harvard, to see how our own notions of leadership and what we value in leadership has changed over the decades, you know, 30 plus years ago, it was all about IQ, right? Then we said, no EQ matters, and now we are at a point where Wallner ability is a critical leadership trait, and authenticity is as well. So the leader is not expected to be this hard charging. I know it all, let me tell you how to do. And some of the most effective leaders during points of crisis will show up and say, I don’t know what how we should react, or what we should do or say, but let’s figure it out together. So it is fascinating to see our own definitions also, of leadership. Same with physicians at one point, I mean, Atul Gawande, his book Being Mortal is an absolute seminal book on that. We thought of physicians as warriors, they were battling disease or death, and they had to make it dry. And sometimes it is acknowledging the inevitability of death. And then how do you kind of, you know, blanket the family and the patient with warmth and care and concern, rather than let’s battle this out with every procedure at our hats, right? So this humility that is so necessary in being an authentic leader, now. I want to talk a little bit about why you went to law school so many times. Yes. So as you know, I migrated here 25 years ago, and at the time, Chanda, I had gone to law school in my home country, Sri Lanka. I was a fully fledged lawyer, having worked for a little over five years at the time exclusively on international transactional law. And then while in my home country, I had also taken a sabbatical to get to Cambridge University in England, where I did my masters in law, again, focusing on corporate law. Due to family circumstances, specifically a terminal illness of my mother in law, we kind of moved here unexpectedly, as you know. And then when I came here, and again, family circumstances compelled us to stay longer, and that longer has turned into 25 years. So we never really intentionally decided to migrate. But at that point, I thought, you know, I could practice law and then found out in the United States, each state governs its own, has its own rules in terms of admission to the bar. And in Minnesota, which then happened to be one of the most restrictive, simply to be able to take the bar exam, I needed to have an American JD, so I couldn’t even take a bi exam, to get my license without an American JD, despite a law degree and a graduate law degree from Cambridge, England, Sri Lanka, and US have all three common law base countries, so we had the same foundation. But I had to go back to law school all over again, while working at major Fortune 500 in town, with a three year old at home and pregnant with twins. So I did law school in two years, but you know, that, again, it is the power of family, friends and community, sometimes that keeps you going. I don’t think I would have taken that journey on my own, unless for the fact that I felt I couldn’t let down all of those who thought I could do better. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  54:23 

Yeah, and Piyumi, how many people do you think, choose differently than going back to school when they come to this country? 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  54:32 

I think the greater majority. I can tell you from personal experience. I remember when I was at a different law firm and used a different parking ramp. The parking ramp attendant, was a judge in his home country, and didn’t have the means to go back to law school, when he was here. He had gone to law school. He was a practicing judge with very more years of experience than I ever had cumulatively at that point. And he was a parking garage attendant at a downtown Minneapolis parking lot. I’ve talked to checkout counter clerks, at grocery stores who have been practicing lawyers. I remember distinctly once at, at a local hospital getting my blood drawn, and the technician who drew my blood was a surgeon who had practiced as a surgeon for seven years in her home country, before migrating. So the amount of talent that we don’t fully leverage and tap into, is just unbelievable. And again, it is about, you know, unleashing human magic, finding ways in which we leverage talent, wherever it exists, right? And you think of, I mean, forget the immigrant community even domestically, whether in the African American community or the Native American community, how many who are compelled to remain at home, because access to childcare, or eldercare is not affordable. And then, you know, those who are kind of responsible to do provide the caregiving who choose not to engage in a vocation, or profession, or a trade, that they might be missing a skill there, or those who don’t find the seed money to find that $5,000 you need to take your business to the next level or your idea to a business plan, even.  

 Chanda Smith Baker  56:55 

Yeah, and these are things that are barriers that there’s actually solutions to. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  57:01 

Absolutely, I mean, if you look at some of the microlending. I once had a client, she was disposed of a client who had led one of the largest micro lending banks in her home country, capitalized at a couple of million US dollars, at the time, who was recognized both by the UN and eel for her incredible work in micro lending to women in third world countries, shown that she had, you know, there was something about she was sat silently preserved immigration consultation that her husband came to meet me yet. And there was something about her that once the consultation was done, I said, tell me a little bit about yourself. And she broke down asking if I could find her a bank teller or secretary job that she could not, that she was interviewing. And they would say she is overqualified, but nobody wanted to consider her for anything higher up. And I mean, imagine someone recognized with, who has addressed the UN, and recognized by the UN and the EU, for her expertise. I mean, in a climate like this, where we had reeling from the ramifications of the pandemic, with women and people of color at the hardest hit levels. Why don’t we leverage talent like that? So it is just unbelievable how much we don’t happen. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  58:44 

Yeah, it absolutely is. And speaking of talent, and your move to the, to the US, which I’m glad you did for my very selfish reasons. Your children are amazing. I’ve met two of them, but I feel like I know them through our conversations. And your son has contributed to a book that I see behind you on the shelf. Can you just share a little bit about them quickly and adopted us here and hear a little bit more about this book Preventable. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  59:13 

Absolutely. So my son is a first year medical student at Rackers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It was a long journey for him to get to medical school, and it was a lifelong dream. And what gives me most hope and joy is he says, Mommy, I want to do real healing and primary care and open up a clinic in a place that one hasn’t existed for 100 years. So he is not in this for the glamour of it. You know, medical school is a very long slog, but he is about how do we impact the most and that clinical acknowledged in that clinic. Medicine only impacts 10% of the healthcare outcomes in this country, 90% is public policy around racial justice, access to food, good water, you know, decent living, education and the like. And it was, I think, a gift of a lifetime for him to have the opportunity to be a research assistant for Andy Slavin, who wrote the book, Preventable, and to have contributed to, to that effort, and he has been an amazing mentor to our son Nat, and again, you know, it is leaders like and the Nobel who are really impacting the next generation, to focus more about what they can give. I think this generation is anyway has a propensity for that. But, you know, gives me hope, I think, hopefully, this next generation will do better than our own. My twin daughters once at Barnard College in New York, hoping to go to law school, and she too, is a huge fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and again, wants to focus on public interest litigation, again, representing those who need a voice and who have been not represented at all or under represented. And my other daughter, who’s a senior at Trinity College in Connecticut, she started out in the art history space, which she is majoring in, but increasingly disillusioned by the very western centric focus on that and the lack of, of, you know, people of color and expertise and representation around, you know, artists not simply a Western centric notion for 1000s of years, they have other countries and spaces and people who produced amazing works of art that we are yet to fully recognize and focus on. So she is majoring also in International Studies, the African diaspora and Peace and Conflict specifically in Africa being a major interest area for her. So I feel very blessed that our kids somehow didn’t focus on Wall Street and making the most money they can but more kind of in the public service, how do I have impact? And hopefully, you know, for you and me as well, right, we leave wherever we have been better than when we arrived. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  1:02:56 

As we close, I wonder if you would be willing to share what you are most hopeful about, at this time. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  1:03:06 

For me, it is this is the moment if not now, when? I think we’ve understood the concept and doctrine for the value of diversity and inclusion, we’ve known about the business case for diversity and inclusion. If we go to nature, we know the, the value purely as a species to exist in terms of the need to cross pollinate, which is why we, you know, make it illegal to marry your own first cousin, because diversity strengthens everything, whether it is biodiversity, or in the business case. So I think hopefully in the next few years, we will move beyond the theory and the understanding of the concept of actually making mass scale critical change needed. 

 Hubert Joly  1:04:03 

Piyumi, that was beautiful. Two things make me hopeful, one is increasingly widespread realization that what we have today is not working, right? And second, it’s the heart and the soul of the next generation of leaders, whether it’s the you know, 20 year olds, but also, you know, the 30, 40, 50 year olds, there is a is a quality of leadership, and a desire to create, as a good friend, Richard Davis, used to say, create a future that does not exist yet. But that can be better and needs to be better. And I think that if we work together, if we stay with this, you know, we, hopefully, will create a better outcome and we need to, because back to my granddaughters, you know, if we continue the same trajectory, they’re going to talk to me, you know, in 10, 15, 20 years, and say, they call me Happy. How cool is that to be called? You know, what did you do? Were you asleep at the wheel? And I would like to have a better conversation with them. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  1:05:13 

Hubert, you’ve mentioned your book. I’ve read it, it gave me more gifts than I imagined that I would receive. And I know the proceeds of the book, go to support the Teen Tech Centers. And I’ve told you I had the opportunity to bring a tech center from BestBuy to the Brian Coyle Center before I left Pillsbury United Communities as CEO, and I hope community where my sister leads has won, and I’ve seen them come up, very, very impactful. But can you share a little bit about the connection to the tech center with your book? 

 Hubert Joly  1:05:47 

Yeah, Chanda, thank you for asking him, of course, very excited about the book, the Height of the Business Impact, yes, because the proceeds, by proceeds from the book, go to help fund the Best Buy Teen Tech Centers, which is a great initiative that, you know, we started when I was CEO at Best Buy, which is focused on helping disadvantaged teenagers in underserved communities have access to technology skills, which are so important right to today and the future, and hopefully a pass to a job in higher education. And the funding for the Tech Centers has come from the Best Buy Foundation. So Best Buy, but increasingly, also from individuals, and I’m very, very excited that’s one of my key priorities with my foundation and the book proceeds to help fund that. So we have 50 of these thin tech centers across the country at this point, when I went to one hundreds, and I’m hoping that I’ll contribute, personally, a few of the things that excites me about this book that had our business, right? It’s a  book that amplifies the idea that yes, business can be a force for good. And that’s the extreme pursuit of profits, you know, has been poisonous in that we can reinvent a view of business as a force for good in pursuit of a noble purpose, putting people at the center, embracing all stakeholders, and treating profit as an outcome, not the ultimate goal. Now, this is something right, Chanda and Piyumi, that most people now believe in. And the challenge for many of us is not whether that’s the right direction, but what does it mean, in practice? How do you move in that direction? And so it’s a book that I’ve written, with a view to help those leaders, many leaders who are keen to move in that direction, and need a bit of help. So it’s really a handbook for these leaders full of all the ideas, but very practical advice and very concrete examples. So my desire is that the book gets into as many hands as possible, and that it’s the little bit helpful to those leaders who are eager to lead from a place of purpose and with humanity. 

 Chanda Smith Baker  1:08:00 

Yeah, I think the reflection questions at the end of the chapters that are very helpful to allows you to just pause and take in what you’ve learned, but also to really think about what it means for you in your role, and leadership is so personal, and we all bring gifts to the places and spaces that we’re in, if we so choose. So thank you for that and the work that you’re doing. And just shaping leadership and the future of where business could and should go. Piyumi, I’m wondering if there’s anything that you didn’t say you want to announce when your book is coming out. 

 Piyumi Samaratunga  1:08:35 

Not quite yet. But, Hubert, you know, I’ve read almost every book written on diversity and inclusion, but will be yours is a game changer, because you give concrete examples of having implemented these strategies and the outcome which was successful. I love the term unleashing human magic from your book. And that’s really what this is all about. And that profit is an outcome, not the sole goal. Just a wonderful book, I cannot recommend it enough. My chairman said he was so moved by it. He is making it required reading for executive committee, but really a wonderful handbook for top leaders of corporations speaking for myself and our firm. Again, you know, look to firms that are not out there brandishing. There are voids in diversity and inclusion, but who believe in this and who have walked the walk for decades. And, you know, borrowing from Hubert, amazing suggestion during our conversation, getting into conversations with your vendors who are not as big and out there, as to how you can co create a pipeline, that meets your diversity and inclusion goals, but also enables the kind of scale you need. So thank you both very much for this wonderful opportunity. 

Chanda Smith Baker  1:10:10 

Thank you. I love this conversation. I appreciate you both so much and I look forward to interacting soon. 

 Hubert Joly  1:10:17 

Of course, I look forward to that, Chanda. Piyumi, thank you so much.  

 Souphak Kienitz  1:10:24 

And that’s Piyumi Samaratunga, Hubert Joly, and our host, Chanda Smith Baker. The Heart of Business Book can be found and purchase in your local and online stores. If you like this episode, have a suggestion, or have questions to ask for upcoming new guests, please visit Chanda on Instagram @chandasbaker. Thank you to Sarah Gillund, John Cuoco, Darlynn Benjamin, and our host, Chanda Smith Baker. This is Souphak Kienitz and thanks for listening. 

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About Our Guests

Hubert Joly

Hubert Joly is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School and the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Best Buy. He is also a member of the board of directors of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren Corporation, a member of the International Advisory Board of HEC Paris, and a Trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Hubert has been recognized as one of the top 100 CEOs in the world by the Harvard Business Review, one of the top 30 CEOs in the world by Barron’s, and one of the top 10 CEOs in the U.S. by Glassdoor. He is the author of the best-selling and highly acclaimed book “The Heart of Business – Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism.”

Piyumi Samaratunga

Piyumi Samaratunga is a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete, LLP. Piyumi works with large corporations seeking to attract highly educated foreign nationals. In this capacity, she ensures each matter is handled with the personal and professional integrity and legal expertise required to successfully relocate top talent to this country.

Piyumi has been recognized as one of the 25 Women to Watch in the Twin Cities by The Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. She currently is a board member the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. She has also served on the board for the Great Twin Cities United Way and the YWCA of Minneapolis. She has degrees from Hamline University School of Law, University of Cambridge, and Sri Lanka Law College.