Breaking Through from the Sales Floor to the C-Suite

Posted By: Michael Burke Global Alliance Summit, Member Resources,

He’s been a salesman, a seminary dropout, a “learner and a history buff”—oh, and then he was the CEO of Best Buy.

Brad Anderson gave the second keynote address on the final day of the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit last week, “Breaking Through: The Construct of Leadership Starts with Individuals.” He learned a few things about leadership and business over the years, starting with his first awkward steps as a salesman who initially “couldn’t sell anything.” He finally broke through by selling speakers to a customer—sealing the deal by promising to drive them 70 miles to deliver and install them in their home.

“Business is about value,” he said. “It’s about delivering more value than somebody else does to the customer.”

Teams and Individuals

Another inflection point for Anderson was a conference in New York about 30 years ago, he said, where he listened as a group of HR specialists deconstructed the morning’s presentation over lunch. The content they received positively, but putting it into practice? Forget it.

“Nobody was going to implement anything they heard,” he said, “because it was far too difficult to do.” The lesson? If even a fraction of that innovation could be realized, Anderson thought, how much better could an organization be?

Organizations, of course, depend on good leadership. And on teams. And on individuals. So what’s the right mix? What should be the focus and priority?

According to Anderson, it’s the individual—meaning, employee engagement.

“I don’t believe in team energy,” the former Best Buy chief said. “You can see team energy, but it comes out of individual energy.”

Steve Jobs: “You’re All Imbeciles”

The way to harness this, Anderson believes, is through servant leadership, which means “you provide room for people underneath you to bring innovation.” That includes, as he told me in a separate conversation, dissenting voices. Because they might just be right.

“If you’re in a meeting, and you’re thinking, ‘I know I’m right, but nobody here understands me at all’—well, you’re either insane, or you’re right.”

One famous business leader who was maybe a little bit of both was Steve Jobs, whom Anderson first met in the late 1990s. They were meeting to discuss a potential partnership between Apple and Best Buy to sell the iPhone—but it didn’t start off well.

First Jobs gave Anderson the fish eye over his attire: a suit (he’d just met that morning with the CEO of HP, where suits were de rigueur). Then the famously black turtleneck and jeans clad visionary bluntly informed him: “Everyone in the industry you’re in is stupid. Not dumb—they’re stupid. You’re all imbeciles.”

The reason? Jobs argued that companies at the time were still largely focused on product and sales—cramming their products down the customer’s throat—rather than on the customer experience and the value proposition for the consumer.

A Valuable, “No-Brainer” Partnership

Nevertheless, Apple actually needed Best Buy for iPhone distribution. Apple had been floundering, and brought Jobs back after firing him to try to save the company. Anderson said their relationship actually warmed after that initial encounter—even though Jobs remained who he was.

The partnership was “a no-brainer” for Best Buy and Anderson, despite the fact that he knew Apple would compete with Best Buy and that Jobs would make sure it was done in a “ruthless” manner.

“We were going to be his partner,” Anderson recalled. “Steve would sell us the phones as long as he made all the money. But we made the deal. Within a few years he was making half of all the money in the consumer electronics industry.”

While Jobs was not known for treating people well, Anderson maintained that employee engagement is how the best companies actually succeed. Typically, the bigger the company, the more it “shaves off the value of the individual.” Instead, leaders need to leverage individual strengths to move the organization out of its “institutional comfort zone.”

And the consequence if they don’t? In retail, at least, “it isn’t just decay—you disappear,” he said.

“The individual talent of human beings has not been fully explored,” Anderson concluded. “Nobody can do this perfectly—but it’s where all the value lies.”

There’s much more value to be found in our continuing coverage of the 2024 ASAP Global Alliance Summit, which ended last week. Check back with the ASAP Blog for more stories, insights, and lessons gleaned from the conference.