Michelle Peluso has been here before. She was leading the online travel company she founded from downtown Manhattan when 9/11 happened. Thankfully, her staff was able to stay safe and healthy. Her business, however, wasn’t so lucky—revenue immediately plummeted by more than 70%.
Yet Peluso says the experience freed her as a leader to think differently, which enabled the company to return to growth. Since then, the Nike board director—who chairs its corporate responsibility, sustainability, and governance committee—has built her career on reinvention. Whether by disrupting travel as the CEO of Travelocity, which bought her start-up, or helping refocus Citi around digital just as the banking industry was emerging from the financial crisis, few executives can match Peluso’s experience across industries. To be sure, her time serving on the board and as CEO of Gilt, one of the pioneering companies in online fashion retail, served Nike well as it relied on e-commerce and direct-to-consumer distribution to drive sales during the pandemic.
After spending the last five years as the senior vice president of digital sales and chief marketing officer at IBM, Peluso was named the first-ever chief customer officer of CVS Health in January. In this edited interview, Peluso spoke with Korn Ferry about what the pandemic taught her about being a director, how boards have changed, remote work, and her new job.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the crisis about being a director?
It really drove home the importance of listening with intent. In times of crisis, opportunity emerges, and to capitalize on that, you have to listen with purpose and have the agility to switch up your thought process to meet the moment. You have to be willing to learn, which not everyone is, and ask questions with humility.
How did the role of the board change as a result of the pandemic?
It had to be reimagined in lockstep with how the company’s business was being reimagined. Directors had to be repurposed to address the company’s needs. Luckily, Nike has an extraordinary breadth of experience on its board. Our directors with CEO experience have been helping management think through the pandemic from a global perspective. Directors with digital expertise have been going deeper with those teams. We also have directors who are exceptional at talent and diversity and inclusion, and through the pandemic and the crisis of systemic racism, they have been working with management to address those issues. Directors are optimized to maximize expertise for the company.
Purpose also got a seat at the table in the past few years, and this year especially, in a way that it hasn’t in the past. Companies like Nike that do well do so in large part because they live their purpose. Companies that do that will continue to do well, and those that don’t will fall behind. As a result, purpose has to be a major part of board discussions.
You’ve been a CEO, a CMO, and now a chief customer officer. You’ve worked in banking, retail, tech, travel, and now healthcare. How does all that experience help you as a director?
For me, I love being at the center of when consumer experiences are being transformed by technology. I love being in the middle of that transition and the opportunities it can create, and having that perspective on a board is certainly beneficial. My career essentially follows that path. Travel was at the forefront of the digital revolution, banking followed closely behind, and retail is now being fully reshaped by digital. Healthcare is poised to be next.
Is that why you took the role at CVS Health?
I took it for many reasons, but that’s certainly one of them. The pandemic put digital at the center of how people access healthcare, and it is going to stay there. Reimagining how people connect digitally across CVS, Aetna, and our other assets is an incredible opportunity, especially at a time like this when the touchpoints for consumers around COVID-19 testing and vaccinations have to be seamless. It’s a huge challenge, and we have to rally to meet the moment and connect healthcare experiences for customers across CVS Health’s portfolio, from getting treatment to filling prescriptions to insurance coverage. We have to think differently about the overall healthcare experience and help every consumer on his or her path to better health.
Women are dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate during the pandemic. How should boards address this and other diversity and inclusion issues in a remote work environment?
More diverse and inclusive teams produce better business results. And with that, diversity and inclusion must be a top business priority and not a nice-to-have. As you would any business priority, the path to success is to set clear outcomes, measure every step of the way, invest, learn from others, and hold people accountable. You have to look at your total population, representation at every level, hiring and attrition rates, pay and promotion frequency, and analyze where you are falling short and why. You take action, and you hold leaders accountable. The good news is, companies that follow this simple recipe improve D&I and produce better results.
I worry about the impact an all-virtual or remote environment can have on women and racially diverse talent. We are beginning to see that those populations are disproportionately negatively impacted by fully remote work. Virtual works really well for people who have established networks, as there is a trust reservoir. For those who don’t, it can damage training and development, job advancement, mentorship, and relationship building. There’s a value to being in the office sometimes and walking the halls and getting to know your coworkers. The way we do work has changed forever. But I believe we will build anew, and the best companies will find a hybrid model that moves us forward.