Masters of Leadership: Mindy Grossman

WW CEO shares strategies for wholesale transformation.

By Mark Toner

Like other organizations, WW International had to quickly pivot to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, but few companies had to find new ways to serve millions of members attending more than 30,000 weekly in-person workshops in a dozen countries. The company formerly known as Weight Watchers did just that by training more than 15,000 coaches and launching virtual workshops in just six days, CEO Mindy Grossman said during the Masters in Leadership series, sponsored by NVTC and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

“The reason we were able to do that was that we were manically focused on the fact that our members were going to need the support of their coach and community more than ever, and we had that purpose in mind,” Grossman said. “You have to be built on purpose and impact, no matter what business you’re in. The brands and the businesses of the future that are going to engender the greatest trust are the ones that can marry technology and meaning to help people live better, connected lives.”

With membership and retention at all-time highs, the dramatic pivot is part of a broader transformation Grossman has led since joining WW in 2017 that has broadened the focus of the 57-year old company beyond weight loss to “all the pillars of wellness and long-term sustainable behavior change,” she said. 

“Transformation is one of the most overused words in business today,” Grossman said during the August 11 event, which was moderated by CTA president and CEO, bestselling author and NVTC board member Gary Shapiro. “True transformation is large-scale wholesale change.”

An ‘Accidental CEO’

A self-proclaimed “accidental CEO,” Grossman described her path to WW, including serving as global vice president at Nike, where she led the company’s first women’s leadership group, and the Home Shopping Network, which she transformed and then took public during her tenure as CEO of its parent company in 2008, right as the Great Recession roiled the economy—a lesson that has relevance today, she said.

“Companies that use these opportunities to think about what they want to look like coming out of this are the ones that succeed,” she said.

Grossman says she was attracted to WW because of a desire to do something with a “financial and human return on equity,” and presented its board with a four-page “impact manifesto” before joining.

“We had to go deep inside what we represent,” she said. The challenge was that diet alone was no longer as resonant to new customers, even at a time when 72 percent of adults are either obese or overweight. Under her leadership, WW expanded its focus to incorporate broader domains of wellness, including nutrition, activity, mindset, motivation, community, sleep, and hydration. 

True transformation, she said, requires the support and alignment of the board, financial investment, an engaged and passionate culture, and resilience—“because it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said.

Leaders need to surround themselves with diverse talent so “you can be in a room and have what I call productive discomfort,” she added. They also need “acute self-awareness,” she said, which she described as “the ability to look yourself in the eye and say, ‘this isn’t working, let’s pivot.’”

Leading During Crisis

The pandemic will require further pivots as people undertake “large-scale reappraisals” of how they work and live, Grossman told attendees.  “Wellness is going to go from being what was considered a luxury to a necessity as people realize the fragility of life,” she said.  The end result, she said, is that “face-to-face will be a smaller part of what we do.”

Pivoting to meet these dramatic changes requires leaders to focus their organizations and the teams that work within them, Grossman said. 

“I’m not just the CEO, but the chief communication officer, the chief crisis officer, and the chief hope officer,” she said. “I communicate where we are, what our focus needs to be, and why we’re going to come out of this a stronger, even more innovative company that can help that many more people live healthy lives.”

Grossman said that she will know these efforts will be successful for WW if the company is “able to, along with partners, announce we have changed the health trajectory of the world.” 
“If that’s our goal, the business metrics will be there, because we will be touching that many more people,” she said.

See videos and summaries of speakers from the Masters of Leadership series here


Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.