Masters of Leadership: Corie Barry

Best Buy CEO details how the nation’s largest consumer technology retailer pivoted during the pandemic and is planning for even greater changes to come.

By Mark Toner

 The leader of the nation’s largest consumer technology provider said that she’s not particularly excited about any one product coming to market. Instead, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry sees multiple opportunities in the rapid wave of innovation that has dramatically accelerated during the pandemic.

“It’s less about the product and more about the idea of constant technology innovation and our position to help people understand the ways innovation will make their lives better,” Barry said during the Masters in Leadership series, sponsored by NVTC and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

Barry discussed the ways in which Best Buy pivoted during the pandemic and identified sectors such as healthcare and home office technology facing transformative change during the July 29 event, which was moderated by CTA president and CEO, bestselling author and NVTC board member Gary Shapiro.

Leading While Pivoting

Best Buy has shifted its business model nine times since the onset of the pandemic in March, Barry said. Even after an early shift to curbside pickup, however, the retailer maintained 80 percent of its sales while supporting furloughed employees by maintaining health benefits and providing other services.  “There are things you plan for as a leadership team, and then there are completely unwritten playbooks,” Barry said. 

At the same time, the massive transition to at-home work and learning has underscored the importance of technology—and helped the company and its 125,000 employees pivot because helping deliver that technology was understood as an essential service.

“The pandemic has completely changed the way we work, learn, and entertain, and it’s all on the back of technology,” Barry said. “That’s only underscored our purpose—to enrich lives through technology.”

Barry told Shapiro, who the day before the event led CTA in announcing the total online pivot for the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, that leaders need to follow their core values now more than ever as their organizations navigate unpredictable times.  

“Every CEO right now is trying to balance many constituencies at once, and it’s incredibly important to talk about how you’re balancing them with clarity and humanity,” she said, describing ways in which Best Buy has supported employees who have been furloughed during the shift and accelerated other planned initiatives, including an increase in its minimum wage. 

“People are craving context and clarity, and for you to do it in the most honest and empathetic way possible,” she said, emphasizing Best Buy’s four inclusive leadership behaviors—empathy, courage, vulnerability, and grace.

As the youngest female CEO in the Fortune 100, Barry also stressed the importance of diversity at this particular moment in time.  “CEOs now more than ever need to be in constant learning mode,” she said. “It’s not just about having answers based on your own life experience, but constantly being willing to learn from the life experience of others as a way to help inform your decision making.”

Led by Barry and a diverse board of directors, Best Buy has focused for several years on a wide range of diversity and inclusion efforts, including reverse mentoring, corporate work-study, internships, mentorships, partnerships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and ensuring that employees have time to volunteer and make their voices heard.

“Our work around diversity and inclusion began because we believe that it is a business imperative,” Barry said. “The question is how you create the right platforms and space so you can have very open conversations and unleash other leaders to do amazing things.”

The Innovation Imperative

Barry cited two sectors she believes are poised for wide scale innovation in the years to come. The first, healthcare, is “the one space that had yet to be materially disrupted by technology,” she said, although the pandemic will likely accelerate change.

Beyond the pandemic, the imperative for business transformation is driven by changes in how people exercise and stay healthy at home, the proliferation of wearables and other personal healthcare technology, and the 10,000 people turning 65 each day and the caregiving demands that places on other family members. 

The other area—working from home—is characterized by people seeking more sophisticated solutions as the practice is increasingly expected to far outlast the pandemic. “It’s not ‘I need a computer’ but ‘I need a comfortable home office space that has a webcam’,” Barry said. “You’re not just buying an iPad, but trying to create a productive space for your 14 year old who has to finish 8th grade in the dining room.”

In both cases, the opportunity for Best Buy, Barry said, is not just selling products, but also providing solutions that integrate them for consumers. “It’s not just the idea of the stuff, but how do I put it together in a way that will work?” she said.

Moving beyond the pandemic, Barry predicted four enduring changes for companies and consumers: added choice for how and when people shop, the speed at which companies continue to innovate and pivot, an increased focus on an “enterprise mindset” instead of separate channels, and the importance of providing flexibility for work and learning, which she called “a forever change.”

Barry also spoke to her own values as a leader, which were largely shaped by her parents—two self-employed artists who crisscrossed the country with her while she was growing up. Even though she started her career as an accountant, about as far afield from the profession of artist as possible, Barry said their work ethic, advocacy of diversity, and the importance of having purpose in their work all inspired her. “Those ideas and ethical moments were important in shaping the leader I am,” she said. 

The Masters of Leadership series continues on August 11 with WW International, formerly Weight Watchers, President & CEO Mindy Grossman. For more information, click here.  A recording of this interview and previous ones can be found here


Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.