Helena Foulkes Bio

Helena Foulkes is an experienced CEO and senior executive with a track record of delivering results by building high performance teams, innovative consumer-driven launches and digital transformation. She is known as a purpose-driven leader who has made significant impacts on organizations and industries. Helena was the President of CVS pharmacy where she led many groundbreaking innovations, including the elimination of tobacco in its 8000 stores, and she led a successful turnaround of Hudson’s Bay Company, an international retailer. She most recently sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Rhode Island.

March 18, 2024

Helena Foulkes: The Power Behind Asking “What Could Go Right?”

Research has repeatedly shown that we are hard-wired to worry. Whether we worry about our own survival, our family and friends, or our future, it can seem like we spend much of our lives fixated on what could go wrong. In this episode, Helena Foulkes discusses how taking courage can be as simple as asking what could go right – a philosophy that has taken her from the helm of CVS Pharmacy and Hudson’s Bay Company to the campaign trail for governorship of Rhode Island.

Transcript

Ranjay Gulati:

Successful politicians and effective business leaders share a number of key qualities. They’re skilled at rallying others to a cause and a goal. They articulate how a well-defined sense of purpose will help achieve that goal. And they often use the power of storytelling to bring disparate stakeholders together. My guest this time on the podcast is a leader in both business and politics, who has all these qualities. She’s here to share some of the key lessons she’s learned over the course of her remarkable career.

Helena Foulkes spent 25 years at the helm of CVS Pharmacy, a division of the Rhode Island based company that is ranked sixth in the Fortune 500. It has some 260,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $320 billion. As president of the retail business, Helena Foulkes guided CVS through a series of momentous changes. Then, she took on the top job at the legendary Hudson Bay Company, which at the time was a struggling retail conglomerate. Helena led HBC to remake itself. It shed underperforming businesses, totally reorganized its operations and successfully prepared to go private. Helena Foulkes has also served on Harvard University’s Board of Overseers. In 2022, she ran for Governor of Rhode Island, her home state. She finished a close second.

I began my conversation with Helena by asking her to recall some of the pivotal moments in her life and career that really shaped her as a business and political leader.

Helena Foulkes:

I grew up as the oldest of five children, four girls and a boy, in a fairly traditional Irish Italian Catholic family. I had an amazing mother, who was born maybe 10 years too early to have her own fulfilling career, but she was really a feminist ahead of her time. A big thing for me was my mother really pushing me and my sisters in particular to have careers. She had never had one, but she wanted that for us. That was a big theme in my life, just the notion of being empowered, having power, having a voice and something that I observed a lot in my early years.

I had amazing teachers in my life. I had a teacher named Miss Murphy, who was my gym teacher in elementary school. I was a pretty good runner, and I remember there weren’t other girls who were willing to run in a particular race. I ran and I didn’t do that well, but Miss Murphy hugged me and she said, “You’re going to be President of the United States someday, Helena.” I remember thinking, “Miss Murphy thinks I can do anything. Isn’t this great?”

Then, I had the gift of going to an all-girls Quaker high school. Junior high and high school, actually. Where I had some incredible teachers there as well who were role models. There was no sense of inhibition, we could do anything we wanted. They pushed me, they inspired me. Mrs. [Paitere 00:03:43] is one woman who comes to mind, my English teacher, but I had other amazing teachers who also thought the world of us and thought we could do anything.

Ranjay Gulati:

Wow. That was very empowering. Helena, those are very empowering stories and thank you for sharing that with us. Let me fast-forward. You start your career, after graduating from Harvard College in 1986. You did your stint in investment banking, at Tiffany’s, and then you come to HBS. You start a career at CVS Health that keeps you there for 25 years.

Now, one of the early moments in your career, you have a bit of a health scare. Tell us about that and tell us a little bit about how you processed that. Because I can imagine that, as a young mother and a young person starting your career, that can be pretty scary.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah, it was scary. It was 1999. I was about 36 years old. I had four children, ages one to five. I was exhausted. I remember asking my husband to have lunch with me one day, which we never did during the workday because we were both so busy. I sat across the table from him and I just said, “I’m so tired.” But of course, I thought it was because I had four kids and a very full-time job. At that point actually, a decent sized job at CVS. He looked across the table at me and he said, “What’s that lump in your throat?” I felt down to my throat and there was this giant Easter egg sized lump in my throat, which I had not noticed. I was immediately freaked out. I got to a doctor in Rhode Island, and one week later he called me to say I had thyroid cancer.

It was very hard to be … First and foremost, you think about your family. I did have a lot of responsibilities from a work perspective, but I had an incredibly, I would say loving environment at work. I had an amazing boss, I had people who cared about me. I had an amazing team. I went through surgery, and some radioactive iodine treatment after surgery. It was a lot. But I think that the whole experience, honestly, taught me how lucky I was to have incredible family and friends around me. It gave me a great sense of empathy in the healthcare environment because so much of healthcare is efficient and not that friendly. What I realized too was everyone’s really walking around with a little secret inside of them, a burden that they have. If we, in the healthcare industry, can help serve them, we will be giving people a great gift. That did really change me in a very positive way. Oddly enough, after the whole experience, I felt a renewed sense of both purpose, but also ambition to try to make a difference.

Ranjay Gulati:

One momentous difference Helena Foulkes made at CVS was leading the decision in 2014 to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products in its 8000 locations. It may seem strange, but for more than a century, American stores dedicated to healthcare, pharmacies, sold cigars, cigarettes, pipe tobacco and the like. Some still do. When Helena led the move to snuff out tobacco sales at CVS, the company was selling $2 billion a year in those products. I asked Helena how she and CVS came to such a big, risky decision.

Helena Foulkes:

Well, I wasn’t alone. It was a journey because, at that point, I had been with CVS for close to 20 years. That whole time, we would have company meetings and people would … We would talk about our mission, our vision, our values, and some very brave soul in the audience would say, “Well, how do cigarettes fit in that?” We would push that to the side or rationalize it, just given the size of the business.

In 2009, we bought a healthcare company, a PMB called Caremark. We were out now trying to pitch ourselves to health plans, and different healthcare providers that we were a healthcare partner to them, hospital systems. We had a louder drumbeat of people in that community questioning why we sold cigarettes. I think it became louder once we were pitching ourselves as a healthcare company. Several members of the management and I really felt like now was the time to try to do something. We had a really great team of leaders at CVS, and we had a lot of debates over this, and we didn’t all see eye-to-eye.

But we actually went to our board, and I use this, I think it’s a very important example of the power of a good board. We went to our board, quite frankly, with a somewhat more tepid approach. The board said to us, “Only one company can do this first. We really think if we’re going to be a healthcare company, we need to do it.” That was very powerful for us, as a leadership team. I remember just feeling, honestly, quite elated and scared, because it’s a very scary thing to walk away from that size business. When we thought about all the stakeholders, the one we were most nervous about was Wall Street. We’re a public company walking away from $2 billion in sales. What would that do to our stock price? We did have a small decline the day after we announced the news. But 10 days later, our stock price was back higher than it had been. We never would have predicted that.

Something that really rang true for me at that moment, there were two things. Number one, we had a bunch of analysts say, “Ah, they’re a healthcare company, look what they’re doing.” Healthcare companies happened, at that point, to have higher multiples. We’d been trying to tell the Street for five years we were a healthcare company, but suddenly, we put the words into action and they could see that. There was also a conversation about a leadership team which had the courage to make a tough decision, maybe being able to make other tough decisions that really mattered for the company. That piece was the most nerve wracking side of it. We had so many people though, who were so proud of the company.

It was very personal for me. I told you my own cancer story, but I had lost my mother to lung cancer five years before. It’s a terrible way to lose someone, I had seen it firsthand. To be able to feel like I was making a personal difference in something I cared about was incredibly meaningful.

But you can imagine, we had 25,000 pharmacists working for us at the time. One in 10 families has some form of lung-related illness in their family members. Now for all of them and us, to be working for a company which had made such a bold move really created a sense of pride. And in many ways encouraged the organization to say, “Wow, we did that. What else should we do? How can we tackle other things we were unwilling to do?, and go and be more ambitious and bold.” It really catapulted us, I would say, from a culture perspective and inspired the people who were there, attracted new, great talent. People who were purpose-driven, young people who wanted to come work for a company like CVS. It had a lot of unintended great consequences.

Ranjay Gulati:

Helena, you mentioned the word purpose and you’ve talked about pride. Full disclosure, I wrote a book called Deep Purpose that came out a year-and-a-half ago, so the topic of purpose is near and dear to me. Tell me, do you think purpose is good for business? People think of purpose as some woke construct. It’s some kind of an ESG CSR. Purpose is about intention. You said that, “Our purpose was clear to us that we were a healthcare company, really in the business of enabling healthcare. In light of that realization of our purpose, if you will, we realized that cigarettes didn’t fit into our overall picture of who we saw ourselves as.”

You mentioned briefly that employees felt a sense of pride, it unlocked talent. Did purpose make a difference? Do you think the realization for CVS in that moment was really a catalytic moment?

Helena Foulkes:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think that maybe the cigarettes example is too challenging for people. They think, “Oh my gosh, we have to walk away from $2 billion in sales to prove that we have purpose?” I don’t think that is the case. I think that purpose really connects to your why. Why do we exist as a company? What impact do we have in the planet? Why do people come to work every day? I hadn’t thought a lot about purpose until we bought this healthcare company, because now we had two very different cultures working together on something bigger. Which is really around keeping people on the right medicines to achieve better health outcomes.

One of the things we did with our purpose work, on our journey anyway, was really to step back and say, “Why do you come to work every day? What is it about this place that motivates you?” We actually started internally with our purpose work. We were looking for the connective tissue. What was it that brought people together in these two very different places, but that was a common purpose? What that led to was this notion of helping people on their path to healthier lives. Every word we chose was very careful, but it wasn’t done for some marketing campaign. It was really done to connect employees in the organization to a purpose. Then that purpose became a filter for business decisions.

For me, that is an incredibly important lesson in the power of purpose to drive better business outcomes. I don’t see that as a conflict at all.

Ranjay Gulati:

Now in this process, I’m sure you thought about your own purpose. How did that clarify? In various places, you’ve talked about going from an achievement orientation to an influence orientation.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

Tell us a little bit about how you clarified in your own mind what your purpose as a human being was, and how that connected into what you did at work, what you did at home? I’m sure that was part of the conversation you must have been having inside yourself.

Helena Foulkes:

I was and I think it’s connected to this point of emerging from my cancer experience and thinking about, “What impact could I have in the world, in my community, with my family?” I’ve always loved watching great leaders, and I worked for some really great leaders at CVS. I had a great gift of working for people who I admired enormously.

One guy in particular, who made me feel like I could do anything. This goes back to my early youth stories of finding people in my life like that. He stretched me to do more than I could and I thought, “Wow, if I could be that kind of leader, I could really unlock a lot for those people and for this company.” My purpose was around finding a way to have an impact which was greater than just me, but was brought to life by everyone I could touch in the organization.

I tried to do that in my personal life, too. We all fail, but we make our best efforts to bring energy. Someone has once said to me, “You can be an energy giver or an energy taker.” So I try to be an energy giver when I go into rooms, or organizations, or boards. Wherever I am, I think a lot about that, and I think that’s connected to purpose, too.

Ranjay Gulati:

Wow. Now along the way, it seems that you’re also clarifying your own leadership philosophy. In one of your writings I found, that you actually talked about that, in your mind, you had a clearing up of a philosophy of what great leaders do.

Helena Foulkes:

Yes.

Ranjay Gulati:

I’d love to hear from you. You had a few key points. You really crystallized in your mind, “Here are five things great leaders do.”

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

Do you want to lay them out for us? Maybe it would be good to hear that.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s my leadership philosophy, and I have leader it from a great coach in my life who’s an HBS grad himself, David Burnham.

Ranjay Gulati:

David Burnham is a highly regarded business executive and consultant.

Helena Foulkes:

David Burnham’s philosophy is really around interactive leadership. This notion that great leaders achieve outcomes because they are a source of empowering others to get great things done. It’s not a directive leadership down into the organization, but a way through which you can pull people together and achieve bigger things than you would have done on your own. It starts with, and I’ve done this every time I’ve had a new team that I pulled together, really getting clear on what will make us proud. You’d imagine two or three years from now, what is it that unites this group and will make us proud?

Then a second piece of it is having really deep conversations about paradox and complexity. What that means is allowing people to share their emotions about, both for example what they’re excited about and what they’re nervous about. And not living in an either-or world, but actually taking those competing emotions and finding something new and different as a creative solution to that internal tension. That’s a big part of what I have learned in the journey and I think it’s made me a much better leader at igniting creativity from the people on my teams.

A third leg of this is this notion of work focused planning. Once you’ve identified the pride that you’re going to have and all the tensions that exist, you’ve got to pull the team together to be clear on what you can achieve.

A fourth level of it is mutuality. Showing with a team, not directing or seeing yourself for the source of power, or seeing yourself as not having any powerful.

Then the fifth element is this notion of returning authority. Returning authority in this model means identifying things you’re unwilling or unable to do. I think as a leader, knowing that and being explicit about it, and having that conversation with your team, is very important in terms of really freeing you up to do what only you should be doing. And sometimes, telling your time this is something you do want to have authority over. Or something they bring you where you say, “You know what, I’m happy to be a thought partner but I’m returning authority on this particular decision to you.”

Every challenge I have, I put through that framework. I think hard when I’ve got complicated issues coming up. I actually write stories. I’ve done it so much, I’ve learned to do it in my head. But I put every decision I make through those five filters.

Ranjay Gulati:

After 25 years at CVS, Helena Foulkes took on the enormous challenge of turning around Hudson’s Bay Company. HBC is North America’s oldest company, with roots going back to the 17th Century fur trade. In addition to its namesake department stores, HBC owned Saks Fifth Ave, Lord & Taylor, and other businesses that were struggling to compete as so much retail shopping moved online.

When Helena joined HBC in 2018, the company had lost millions of dollars on a total yearly revenue of $14.5 billion. Taking the helm was a bold, scary decision.

Helena Foulkes:

Totally. You call it bold, some could call it crazy. I had this great career, 25 years at a company I absolutely adored. But I felt like I needed to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and do something different. I was liberated in many ways. I always think we have these professional type podcasts and we forget there’s a personal life. For me, my fourth child had just gone to college and I thought, “Oh, I can do anything I want now,” and my husband was game. We picked up our bags and we moved to New York, and I took on this big turnaround, to your point.

Hudson’s Bay had a great group of brands and people. Saks, and Lord & Taylor. We owned three different retailers in Europe, and Hudson’s Bay in Canada. But we were burning $1 billion a year in cash. I think one of the things you learn when you do something entrepreneurial is that sometimes it’s good not to know everything. You jump into it, you find more bad things than you expected, and you figure it out. I personally loved the challenge of a turnaround because it was liberating to have to make decisions pretty quickly. I really liked the pressure that that drove and the need to get very clear, very quickly on the team that could help me get that done. Then having a long-term goal, but creating short term wins along the way, which has always been a big part of my leadership style. And, having to make some really hard decisions.

We ended up having to sell Lord & Taylor. We sold a company called the Gilt Groupe. We made hard decisions, but we knew it was in service of creating a stronger core of brands that were left. I was a better person for all of it.

Ranjay Gulati:

Why do you think people struggle with these big decisions until they have their back against the wall? Where it’s like, “Oh my God, now we have to do it.” Why do you think they postpone, procrastinate, delay sometimes even inevitable decisions? Kodak should have shut down the film business a long time earlier, and just doubled down on digital cameras and printing, or whatever they were going to do.

Helena Foulkes:

I think it’s very hard when you’ve been inside a company a long time to have that objectivity. I think for me, fresh eyes at Hudson’s Bay was a very liberating thing. I didn’t know enough to be burdened by the past. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I think part of what I learned at CVS was that market kept changing so you had to keep reinventing the business you were in. But it can feel personal sometimes. You’re letting go people who worked for you, who you care about, and all sorts of deep, personal things. There’s something, though, very energizing when you get it right. You realize, “Wow, you could do that, you could do anything.”

Ranjay Gulati:

One of the next things Helena Foulkes did was, again, all about leadership. But this time, not in the business world. Helena made a gutsy jump from retail sales into retail politics.

Speaker 4:

12 News, your local action headquarters. Another candidate expected to enter the race for Rhode Island Governor. It’s become a pretty crowded field of candidates, especially on the Democratic ticket.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. Target 12 has learned former CVS health executive, Helena Foulkes is set to start her campaign. Kate Walsh is joining us-

Ranjay Gulati:

In the 2022 election, Helena Foulkes sought the Democratic nomination for Governor of her native Rhode Island. It was another big, bold move, but not out of character. After all, Helena came from a renowned political family. Her grandfather was US Senator Thomas Dodd, and her uncle Senator Christopher Dodd.

Helena Foulkes:

I had grown up in a political family. I had a grandfather and an uncle who were both US Senators from Connecticut. I admired them enormously. My grandfather had been the lead prosecutor at Nuremberg after World War II. He’d been an early crusader in gun control. My uncle had been the architect of the Family Medical Leave Act. I was really, really proud of my family and all they had done, but I never wanted to be that person. My mother used to talk a lot about growing up the daughter of a politician, and the burden on her and her family around privacy and time. I would say, in many ways, she discouraged all of us from thinking about that. I loved my business career and I thought I could have a huge impact in the world through business, and I still am very proud of that.

When I left Hudson’s Bay, I got a bunch of phone calls from people who said, “You should really think about this. We could do better, we need you.” It gave me a big, giant pit in my stomach, which is mostly fear. But there was also a little piece of excitement, so back to this paradox and complexity. I was thinking a lot about all the competing emotions that I was having. It was the hardest decision of my life and I didn’t make it quickly. But I thought about impact that I wanted to have and the difference I could make for people. I was at a point in my life where I had achieved a lot in the business world, but still felt I could do much more for the people of Rhode Island.

I jumped into the Democratic primary. My first poll, we were polling at 4%. There were five people in this Democratic primary and no one thought I had a shot. I actually won on election day, but I lost overall by 2000 votes because of early voting. I didn’t get the ultimate prize that I wanted, but I would do it all over again. I was a better person for the experience. I grew. I met people who really, to this day, inspire me. I continue to do a lot of work in Rhode Island to make this a better place.

Ranjay Gulati:

Now you mentioned this idea of the pit in your stomach.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

That this is scary. Let’s talk about that idea because I’ve been dabbling with the topic of courage. People use the word courage a lot and think of courage as James Bond, no fear. Actually, I think courage is taking action in the face of fear.

Helena Foulkes:

I agree.

Ranjay Gulati:

How do you convince yourself, it’s scary, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I’m going to do it?

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

What propels us to take risk, try new things, make bold decisions? You’ve given many examples. What is the self talk you give yourself that, “You know, I need to do this?” Is it a sense of responsibility? Is it a sense of commitment? Is it some kind of inner drive or is it come from your place of purpose? Where do you think this idea that I’m going to do it, even though it’s kind of scary?

Helena Foulkes:

I think it’s all those things, but I also think it is a lifetime of making smaller acts of courage and finding out that things work out, even when they don’t. That you can go for something and it doesn’t work, and yet other gifts come. I’ve had a lot of those experiences in my life, in my career. I think it’s redefining what failure looks like and asking yourself, not only what could go wrong, but what could go right? My brain sometimes goes to what could go wrong, and I think that’s good HBS training, but I also think it’s important to ask ourselves, “What could go right if I do this?”

Running for Governor was not the first experience I had making a hard choice like that. In the many other examples in my career, lots of things went right, even when I didn’t get what I wanted. I think I built up a muscle that allowed me to trust in myself and trust that I was doing it for the right reason. I had to think a lot about my purpose and what was my driving purpose around doing this. My world has expanded, even though I didn’t get the ultimate goal I was looking for. I think I could not have imagined that at the beginning of the journey.

Ranjay Gulati:

Now in the past, you’ve talked about life as a marathon and I’ve heard you use that metaphor as well in how you deal with adversity, setbacks, and framing them as learning moments rather than as failures in your mind. Is that the self talk you do to yourself when you’re talking? All of us engage in self talk. We talk ourselves into doing things, or we talk ourselves into not doing things.

Helena Foulkes:

Right.

Ranjay Gulati:

What is that self talk you say to yourself? Is that that idea that hey listen, focus on the upside and not the downside?

Helena Foulkes:

There’s a few versions of it. I think one version is, and the reason I do use a marathon example for people is because I’ve run some marathons, is my thought during marathons … Well, it’s very rarely I would get to mile 26 and say, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” It’s hard and there are some moments of glory at miles five and eight, but towards the end, it’s not a fun thing to do. And yet every time I would finish, I would take a day and say, “Ah, I got to do that again. That was amazing.” I would say childbirth is like that. There’s no moment of it that’s especially great, but when it’s done you say, “Oh, I want to do that again. That was great.”

I have found, when I’ve talked to other leaders and my teams, when people look back at their moments of great pride in their life, they often are those moments of greatest adversity. I think seeing adversity as something to not run away from but run to is part of my self talk. I also use this phrase often, I said it before, “What could go right?” I try to remind myself that there could be hidden gifts and I’m naturally more of a glass half full than empty person. Sometimes I need to have people around me who will say, “Hela, you’re being too trusting. Or watch out for this.” That’s helpful in my life. But I think having a positive, optimistic framing allows me to take on things that really, in retrospect you might say, “Why did she think she could do that?” That’s been a part of it.

Having great people on my team, having people where you know they’re going to have your back, that’s so important in life. I talked about my first boss who did that for me and wanting to do that for other people. Those are some of the things I tell myself.

Ranjay Gulati:

Very nice. Let me ask you a little bit about, as a woman leader, you talked a little bit about your mother and how she encouraged you to have a career. What advice do you have for young women who maybe are starting their career? I’m teaching the second year MBA right now. You’ll be pleased to know that the percentage of women in our class has gone up a lot, which we’re very proud of. What advice would you have for a young woman starting her career right now? Or even somebody, a minority person as well.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

More broadly, what advice do you have for future aspiring leaders about how should they think about this? Because they’re not going to get the responsibility early on, you’ve talked about you have to work through until one day, you will have responsibility.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

What advice do you have as they think about career choices, life choices going forward?

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah. I give it often to young women who I mentor and meet, and that is do not hold yourself back. Go for it. I think when I was graduating from HBS, I was part of a really great women’s networking group. I told you, I loved my mother. I had this great experience growing up with a mother who was a full-time stay-at-home mother, and I thought we all turned out pretty great. I thought, “How can I also have children and do this?” I didn’t really have my own personal role model. I felt, “Well, I’ll work for a few years and then I’m going to take time off and do that.” I got to a place in life, and I didn’t plan on this, but I became the primary breadwinner and I just didn’t have the gift of saying I could walk away and I’m so glad, because my work got so much more interesting.

I think in those early years of graduating from business school, you’re really, quite frankly, often in jobs that don’t live up to your potential. It’s very easy to get discouraged. Then if you’re having children on top of it, there’s just a lot working against you that can make you feel like it’s just not worth it. I’ve always thought that my job just got so interesting as time went on and I’m so glad that I had to stick it out, and I did stick it out even when I had cancer and came back. It doesn’t mean that you should never leave your job and you have to stay somewhere for 25 years, but it’s like being a marathoner. Sometimes you’re going through some really hard things, and you’ve got a bad boss, and you’re in a crummy situation. I can tell you, I learned more in those moments than I did in the easy moments, and I became a better leader because of those moments. I think that applies for women and minorities, and anyone who’s coming out of business school and trying to figure it out.

Ranjay Gulati:

In my research, my writing and in this podcast series, I’ve explored the power of deep purpose for firms, for their leaders and for their employees. Purpose is an existential intention that informs every decision, practice and process. Purpose becomes an operating system, a vital and animating force for individuals and companies. I asked Helena Foulkes about her own deep purpose and how it has evolved over time.

Helena Foulkes:

Right now, I’m very focused on being a catalyst for tackling an education crisis, in particular, in my home state of Rhode Island, and being a catalyst for people working in communities that need support. I get a lot of people who I now have informally networked with who call me when they’re working through a crisis or a challenge, and I love being a thought partner with them and helping them unlock new ideas. It allows me to have greater impact because it’s not just me having to do all of it, but me as a source of new ideas and support, or encouragement, whatever I need to do in that moment. I’m trying to make myself open and available to as many people as I can, mostly in Rhode Island, to help them achieve big things here.

Ranjay Gulati:

On this note, a lot of young peoples, including myself when I was younger, when somebody would tell me, “Ranjay, think about your purpose,” I would say, “Give me a break, I’ll do that when I’m 65.” I’m realizing having a purpose is a wonderful thing to do early in your life and not later.

Helena Foulkes:

So agree.

Ranjay Gulati:

Do you have any pointers? How can you convince people who are listening to this to say here’s a reason why having a purpose is good for you, even early in your career?

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah. That’s a great question. Sometimes, maybe we all think of purpose as very highfalutin. That purpose has to be connected to getting rid of cigarettes or solving world hunger. I think that purpose, it’s translated every day. I would often say to my kids when they were growing up, “Look at that person, she loves her job. She might be the cashier at a grocery store, and she brings energy and life to the interaction. She has a purpose and that is to make you feel good about yourself.” I’m a big believer in finding a way to know what you’re really good at and to share that with others, and to bring energy, and I think all that is connected to purpose.

Ranjay Gulati:

Great answer. I have one last one for you. That is we talked about courage and bold decisions, but unfortunately, research shows that’s not the default tendency of most people. Most people end up being fearful, risk averse, cautious, waiting. Some might even, in extreme form, call it cowardice. But that’s a loaded term, let’s not even go there. Most of us struggle with exercising courage in our lives.

Helena Foulkes:

Yeah.

Ranjay Gulati:

What advice would you have for people like that? How can they find courage in themselves?

Helena Foulkes:

I think that being open to possibilities is such a liberating concept, and maybe I think that’s what courage is. I think courage is about imagining something going right, imagining something you’d like to effect happening. I think, especially as we get older, our worlds can become more narrow, not broader. Courage could be throwing yourself into something you’d never tried before and finding some sense of joy, and finding a way of feeling fulfilled because you’ve helped other people. Once you build the muscle, it grows. I think that there are a lot of courageous people who I was so inspired by during my race for Governor, and I try to spend more time with those people. They’re doing really hard work. It’s not as fancy or as prestigious as some people who I know. It’s much more inspiring.

I think when you find those acts of courage, it makes you realize, especially people with Harvard Business School degrees, wow. If that person could do that, I could do anything. That’s a fun way to live your life.

Ranjay Gulati:

Helena Foulkes is an American business leader with a remarkable resume. Former president of CVS Pharmacy, and former CEO of Hudson’s Bay Company, and also a 2022 candidate for Governor of Rhode Island. For more of my conversations with leaders in the business world navigating the 21st Century business environment, visit my Deep Purpose website. While you’re there, you can also find out about my book, titled Deep Purpose. Companies that are serious about establishing and working towards a deep purpose find that it delivers game changing results for the workers, the shareholders and the larger society. Visit with me at deeppurpose.net.

This podcast is produced by David Shin and Stephen Smith, with help from Craig McDonald and Jennifer Daniels. The theme music is by Gary Meister. I’m Ranjay Gulati, thanks for listening.