Change agents share stories of transformation

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It might seem that no other industry can compare its rate of change to retail.

A Monday morning NRF 2018 Main Stage session begged to differ. During “Transformational Leadership: Women Empowering Change,” innovator Beth Comstock took the crowd back to her days at NBC Universal, when a “cute” little company called Netflix was quietly sending people DVDs. NBC was so busy freaking out about YouTube instead, she said — and how it knew how to do content but not videos of cats playing piano — that nobody was paying attention to the upstart that would radically change the way people would watch shows. Netflix moved into streaming in 2007, and within a few years topped 20 million subscribers.

“Thank God the team got together and realized we needed to find an entrepreneur,” she said. Comstock was president of integrated media at NBC, and oversaw the founding of Netflix streaming service competitor Hulu.

More recently, Comstock served as vice chair for General Electric, where she was involved in a variety of transformative initiatives, including GE’s digital and clean-energy efforts. All told, her experiences made for an insightful, relevant — and practical — talk.

“Transformation,” she said, “means you’re never done. Volatility is the new normal.”

Comstock, the author of the forthcoming book, Imagine It Forward, covered the gamut of transforming company culture in her conversation with journalist Ali Velshi of NBC News and MSNBC.

She noted that teams need to be made up of a variety of thinkers; that the entire culture needs to adapt a mindset of being open to change; and that learning and experimentation must be constant.

“Why have we ceded most of our entrepreneurism to Silicon Valley?” she asked. Every company began with an entrepreneurial seed at some point. “In every company, you have to unlock experimentation.”

Comstock was one of three powerful speakers during the session, which also included Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and founder and CEO of Thrive Global, as well as Helena Foulkes, president of CVS Pharmacy and executive vice president of CVS Health. Huffington and Foulkes were interviewed by NBC News correspondent Jo Ling Kent.

For her portion, Huffington told the story of how one day she literally collapsed from exhaustion, breaking her cheekbone during the fall. It served as a wake-up call to reevaluate where she was putting her time and energy — she founded The Huffington Post in 2005, and it had become like a third child, she said. Today, however, her efforts are focused on helping people and businesses make small but significant positive changes in their lives.
She began by going straight to the heart of the matter: smartphones and social media, encouraging the audience to manage their relationship with their phones differently.

“Let’s look at the facts,” she said. “We take better care of our smartphones than we take care of ourselves.” She made a bet that everyone attending could say how much battery power their phone held. And any time her own reached 13 percent, she added, she was anxiously searching for a “charging shrine” to fill it back up. “But if anybody had asked me on the day of my collapse how I was, I would have said, ‘I’m fine.’ I didn’t even know I was running on empty.”

Huffington’s company is introducing an app this week that will help users set their own digital limits. In addition, Thrive Global offers a phone charging station that looks like a little phone bed, complete with a blanket for tucking it in. Disconnecting — and putting it in another room — allows both the phone and its user to be freshly recharged in the morning. And during the morning, Huffington said, it’s important to take a moment to be proactive about the day rather than reactive.

“Your phone is a repository of what everybody wants from you,” she said. “You need to start your morning with, ‘What do I want from my day?’ The most creative, most inventive people are not just responding to what the world wants of them. They set the agenda.” And that one minute, she said, can change everything.

In terms of cutting back on social media, she said, “Guys, we need it. We are almost addicted. We only have 168 hours per week, and every hour is a way for us to choose: Are we going to invest in ourselves? Invest in our relationships? Invest in our business? Why should we be spending all these hours on social media, feeling less-than because somebody else’s salad looks better, or their vacation looks better or their bikini body? It’s not that I’m against social media. Absolutely use social media. Just don’t be used by it.”

Foulkes introduced her segment on change with the announcement that CVS has committed to non-digitally altered imagery in its marketing materials and stores, as well as on its website, app and social media. Photos that haven’t been altered will receive a “CVS Beauty Mark” watermark starting this year, and the company also is working with its partners to ensure that if/when they use imagery that has been altered, it is labeled as such. The goal is that all beauty images in CVS Pharmacy stores will reflect transparency by the end of 2020.

Foulkes noted that she hadn’t talked to a single company yet that wasn’t “on board,” though there may be challenges with technical execution. “This is not some mandate CVS is doing to be on a pedestal,” she said, “but to be a reflection of consumers. And I think these beauty companies know that, too.”

“Beauty is supposed to make us feel good, not insufficient,” she said; 80 percent of CVS shoppers are women, and are “all bombarded by media every day.”

But it’s only one effort among many to better meet the customer where she is — and help her have a happier, healthier life. The company made the “incredibly hard” decision to remove tobacco from its stores in 2014, for example, and has made other moves around trans fats and chemicals. It also has increased convenience for busy shoppers by allowing them to fill prescriptions by text; next-day delivery will soon be launching nationwide. In addition, 20 million people have downloaded the CVS app, using it to receive deals as well as fill prescriptions.

The company is testing new formats, including one focused on health and beauty, another on value and yet another based on the different ways Hispanic customers shop.

“All of these decisions we’ve made have been purpose-driven decisions,” she said. “Hopeully what we’re doing here is creating a broader movement.”

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.

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