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Hubert Joly’s Passion: ‘Purposeful Leadership’ At HEC Paris — And The World

Former Best Buy CEO and current Harvard Business School lecturer Hubert Joly: “We need this urgent reinvention of capitalism around purpose and humanity”

Hubert Joly is not even close to the first person to articulate a need for business to act, in society and the environment, for the greater global good. But he may be one of the most persuasive.

Joly is one of the most successful CEOs of the last 20 years, having presided over the unlikely resurrection of a badly flailing corporate giant. Since stepping down as CEO of Best Buy in 2019, he has added senior lecturer at Harvard Business School to his CV, among other impressive titles and accolades — including this one: “bestselling author.”

It’s good news for the planet, then, that Joly’s passion — and what may be his most well-remembered legacy, no small feat for the savior of Best Buy — is the academic chair he sponsored in his family’s name at his alma mater, HEC Paris.

EMBRACING ‘PURPOSEFUL LEADERSHIP’ AT HEC PARIS

Hubert Joly

Joly’s involvement with the school from which he graduated in 1981 goes deeper than the typical graduate-alma mater relationship. Not only is he a long-time donor, he is also a member of the business school’s International Advisory Board. In 2018, he endowed the Joly Family Chair in Purposeful Leadership, highlighting the need for business and business education to make the search of meaning an essential part of the role of individuals, managers, and organizations.

What is “purposeful leadership”? Here’s how the school defines it in a recent prospectus:

“In the face of pressing issues, humankind along with its various economic organizations must reevaluate existing practices and foundations.

“We have a wide-scale responsibility to act collectively and urgently to face today’s challenges in a world that is increasingly interdependent socially, economically and environmentally.

“As a result of this context, stakeholder expectations have evolved. The role of business needs to go far beyond simply creating financial value. Economic performance goes hand-in-hand with positive social and environmental contribution, and businesses can only be successful in the long term if they also enable all of their stakeholders, their community and their environment to thrive.

“This new environment urgently calls for a new type of leadership. HEC Paris has decided to play an important role in this necessary and crucial overhaul of business. The Joly Family Purposeful Leadership Chair prepares tomorrow’s leaders to create a future where businesses strive to create long-term value that benefits customers, employees and communities and to contribute to peoples’ well-being. By promoting a leadership that places purpose at the heart of companies’ strategies and practices, we contribute to facing the challenges of the 21st century through a responsible and inclusive capitalism.”

‘IF YOU STAND STILL, YOU’RE GOING TO BE IN TROUBLE’

The launch of the Joly Family Chair in Purposeful Leadership was, for HEC Paris, just the beginning of a major transformation of the MBA curriculum. HEC’s MBA students — as well as other master’s students — now pursue 100 hours of classes dedicated to purposeful leadership. It represents 10% of the master’s curriculum at the school. Master students, MBAs and executive MBAs alike are pursuing mandatory purposeful leadership classes throughout their studies.

For Joly, it’s edifying to see an elite institution like HEC Paris embrace the “search for meaning” and understand the “profound implications” of purposeful leadership.

“I give credit to Eloïc Peyrache, the new dean, and to Rodolphe Durand (holder of the Joly Purposeful Leadership Chair and founder of HEC Paris’ Society & Organizations Institute, launched in 2009), and the entire team of the Society & Organizations Institute, for defining what needs to be the future of business education,” Joly tells Poets&Quants in a recent interview. “Business education is a world where, like in the rest of the business, if you stand still, you’re going to be in trouble. I really admire the way that they’re leading in and part of the capital campaign that we are in.

The author of Wall Street Journal bestseller The Heart of Business — Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism says the coronavirus pandemic has only brought the need for purposeful leadership into sharper relief.

“We have a health crisis, an economic crisis, societal issues, racial issues, environmental issues, geopolitical issues,” he says. “It’s not working. What’s the definition of madness? Do the same thing and hope for a different outcome. So we need this urgent reinvention of capitalism around purpose and humanity.

“I think that today, pretty much most people embrace these ideas. I think what we’re finding is that it’s easy to say. It takes you two minutes to say. But it’s really hard to do, because we need to revisit the purpose of our life, we need to revisit how we think about companies, we need to revisit all the key aspects of management, we need revisit how we lead — and that’s hard, because that means all of us need to change. Self included.

“In the last two years, even though I’m an internal optimist, I had to slow down like many others did, and say it out loud: ‘The world we live in is not working.’ It may be working for a few people. But in general, it’s not working.”

‘WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE & WE HAVE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE’ 

Hubert Joly 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 a member of the board of directors of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren Corporation and a trustee of the New York Public Library and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He has also been recognized as one of the top 50 management thinkers in the world by Thinkers50 and received the organization’s 2021 Leadership Award.

But he’s also a grandfather of three who is deeply concerned about the state of the world, and business and business education’s role in it.

“What we see now is the rise of stakeholder activism,” Joly says. “Employees are voting with their feelings. They want to work for purposeful, for ethical, good companies. Customers increasingly care about what companies do. Just listen to (BlackRock CEO) Larry Fink, and Vanguard, and State Street — they’re all on that bandwagon and have been. And that’s just wonderful. I think that everybody has a sense that we need a declaration of interdependence in business.

“So Best Buy is, of course, headquartered in Minneapolis. Following the murder of George Floyd, when the city was on fire, you could not open the stores. You could not run a business. Or to paraphrase (Harvard Business School professor) Rebecca Henderson, “If the planet is on fire …” That’s the biggest business risk, according to Larry Fink, that businesses are facing.

“So the idea that business can be performed in isolation, and that you take no prisoners, and you do your thing, that’s gone. That’s been gone. And that’s good, because for the benefit of my three granddaughters, we need to fix some of these issues. They would appreciate that of their grandfather. Business must look beyond financial value.

“It’s a great time for people to be in business or in business education, because this has posed an opportunity and a responsibility to tackle these issues. I think the leading business schools — and HEC Paris is clearly one of them, Oxford Saïd is another one, HBS is another one, New York University — feel that, ‘We can make a difference and we have to make a difference.’ So let’s mobilize our might to make a dent in some of these issues.”

Read more about purposeful leadership at HEC Paris here.

DON’T MISS MOST INFLUENTIAL BUSINESS SCHOOL PROFESSORS OF 2021 and AT HEC PARIS & OTHER EUROPEAN B-SCHOOLS, U.S. & CANADIAN APPS ARE ON THE RISE