The Transformer

Michelle Peluso built her career transforming firms in industries from banking to travel. Now, as CVS Health’s first-ever chief customer officer, she’s tackling healthcare.

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By Peter Lauria

It was the day of the final exam, and Michelle Peluso was nervous. Despite more than 20 hours of online training, she awoke early the morning of the exam, brewed a pot of coffee, and locked herself in her home office for some last-minute cramming. After all, this wasn’t a simple pass/fail test—she needed a score of at least 80 to receive IBM’s cloud computing certification.

“Given my children saw me studying, there was no way I could fail—they’d never let me hear the end of it,” says Peluso.

She didn’t need the certification for a job, however. She was already IBM’s senior vice president of digital sales and chief marketing officer. Rather, she saw how the pandemic was hastening the reliance on the cloud for IBM’s clients and felt a need to refresh her skills to help them through the transition.

Roughly a year later, Peluso is still studying alongside her kids. After spending the last five years at IBM, the 49-year-old mother of two was named the first-ever chief customer officer of CVS Health in January. Since then, she’s been immersing herself in the intricacies of the healthcare system and reimagining how to deliver COVID-19 tests, vaccines, and healthcare more broadly to the company’s customers. It’s no accident that Peluso’s hiring coincided with President Biden’s rollout of a new vaccine plan that aimed to enlist pharmacies like CVS Health to administer 100 million vaccination shots over his first 100 days in office. “It’s a huge challenge, and the CVS Health team has rallied to create a seamless experience for customers that meets the moment,” says Peluso. 

“The pandemic put digital at the center of how people access healthcare, and it is going to stay there.”



Seamless experiences and healthcare don’t often go together, however, and in her new role the need to meet the moment will continue long after the pandemic is gone. A large part of Peluso’s remit will be to accelerate the digital integration of CVS and Aetna and connect healthcare experiences for customers across the combined company’s portfolio, from getting treatment to filling prescriptions to insurance coverage.

Peluso built her career on precisely this kind of reinvention. She inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from her father, who was way ahead of his time in founding an environmental-engineering firm in the 1970s. Peluso herself started an online vacation-booking company to disrupt travel in 1999. That start-up was eventually sold to Travelocity, where she became CEO. From there, she moved on to Citi just as the banking industry was emerging from the financial crisis, to help that company refocus around digital. In between her Citi role and IBM, she also served as CEO of Gilt, one of the pioneering companies in online fashion retail.

Now Peluso adds healthcare to a resume that few executives can match in terms of the breadth and C-suite depth of experience across industries. She spoke to Briefings during her week off before starting at CVS Health about her career, leading during crises, remote work, and more—before returning to studying.

The first line of your LinkedIn profile says that you love transformative times.

For me, I love being at the center of the transformation of consumer experiences by technology. I love being in the middle of that transition and the opportunities it can create. 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? And how much did the pandemic play into your decision?

That’s one of many reasons. 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, Caremark, 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. 

You were leading your start-up online travel company from downtown Manhattan when 9/11 happened. How much did that experience shape your outlook about transformation?

There’s something slightly freeing about operating in a crisis. It gives you permission to think differently about your assets. After 9/11, we were the first in the industry to truly offer dynamic packages—combining air and hotel and activities with real-time availability, all of which came with a high margin. We also shifted quickly to using our engine to power others’ websites with packaging. That provided explosive growth. We soon realized how much more we could do simply by using our assets differently.

By providing a new experience?

Exactly. Think about the pandemic’s impact on retail. One way to look at it is that traffic to physical stores may never come back to pre-pandemic levels. But another way to look at it is that now retailers aren’t limited to only engaging customers when they come to the store. That was sort of holding back their transition to a true omni-channel approach, with integrated marketing strategies that unite services across physical, digital, and mobile platforms. Retailers have been talking about it for years, but now that transformation is fully unleashed.



Nike, where you’re a board director, saw success shifting to e-commerce and direct-to-consumer during the crisis. What set them apart?

When sports came to a standstill, Nike leaned heavily into its purpose. Nike doesn’t exist just to sell clothing and shoes. It exists to inspire athletes, and that is what the company always rallies around. How can the company get trainers to people, how can it activate its run club virtually, how can it help people take part in athletics? It helped that well before the pandemic the digital experience was front and center at the company from a strategy, culture, and people perspective.

Part of the struggle for companies is leveraging all the data they have, right?

Data is the natural resource for all companies, and if you think of it that way, then the question is, how do you make that resource available to the people who need it in the moment they need it? It’s no longer the case that data is just for the data team. It’s for everyone in the company. It needs to be syndicated in a way that embeds it into the workflow of every department—while protecting privacy and security, of course.

From a leadership perspective, how do you get people to buy into that kind of mindset transformation?

Companies are really good at change management from an organizational level. Most times they communicate clearly and consistently about the mission, objectives, and outcomes. Where they trip up is at the personal level. They sometimes aren’t so great at explaining to employees why it matters for them to go through the change, or getting obstacles out of their way so they can go through it.

Reskilling the workforce is a huge issue. What’s your view on tech companies increasingly moving into education?

The skills needed for work today are changing at an unprecedented rate. It’s simply not true that you can learn a skill set that will serve you in a career for the next 20 years. The life of a skill is more like two or three years. And the fact is that a four-year education isn’t the path for everyone. So put those two together, and I think there is a huge need and market for making sure tech jobs benefit everyone and not just the few. It would be unethical to deprive a large, talented workforce of the new jobs tech creates. All companies, not just tech companies, need to think along with the government about new approaches to education and learning to make sure more people benefit.

Does that mean at some point you will need reskilling as well?

Absolutely. I’m always refreshing my skills. I’m still spending hours each day diving into a learning agenda around healthcare. I’m right there with my kids studying at the table.

In that regard, you’re like a lot of other working parents. How has remote work impacted your approach to leadership?

My leadership values haven’t changed—purpose, empathy, agility, to name a few. But I’ve listened intensely and have fast adapted the means I use. I’ve vastly evolved with new creativity the way I communicate, use time, hold meetings, and connect one-on-one. I’ve learned the value of having good relationships with competitors and external providers. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with other chief marketing and chief digital officers to get thoughts and ideas from them.

“I worry about the impact an all-virtual or remote environment can have on women and racially diverse talent.”


Is this how work is always going to be now?

There are certainly things we were able to do virtually and remotely that I was skeptical about before the pandemic. But I don’t think work will or should be all remote all the time. I worry about the impact an all-virtual or remote environment can have on women and racially diverse talent. We are already seeing that those populations are negatively impacted by fully remote work. Virtual works really well when people 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.

Women have dropped out of the workforce at an alarming rate because of the pandemic. How do you correct that in a hybrid work environment?

It’s clear that diversity and inclusion must be a top business priority for all companies. And 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—and analyze where you are falling short and why. The good news is, companies that follow this simple recipe improve D&I and produce better results.

So are you anxious to get back to the office?

When CVS Health’s offices reopen, I will absolutely be going back. And I’m looking forward to traveling to our locations across the country as well.