Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman on transforming a business and setting a purpose filter

Mindy Grossman has become renowned for her tremendous skill level of being able to transform organizations. In July 2017, Grossman joined Weight Watchers, now WW, and set a clear purpose filter for the entire brand. At the 2019 Riveter Summit conference Ladders attended, CEO Mindy Grossman spoke about how she tackles transformation, the biggest lesson she learned from Oprah, and the deciding factor for each and every job she accepts.

You now lead a team of 18,000 at WW and you’ve also led the company through an incredible transformation. Can you tell us what drew you to WW?

“Sure, so I spent the first, I feel so old when I say this, the first 38 years of my career, in menswear, fashion, women’s, sport, media, technology, and my path has been anything but linear. I find that part curiosity, and part wanting to really build a portfolio of understanding business. I tend to look at where the consumer is going, and what areas of business are going to be compelling.

The second is I love transformation and growth. I’m not the person you bring in to keep the flywheel going because I would disrupt it in five minutes. And I love legacy brands and brands that have had an impact on people in many ways. I was at my last company, HSNI, which I transformed Home Shopping Network to HSN and a catalog portfolio of brands. Two years with Barry Diller, I took the company public and ran it for the next seven years. And we were putting in a CEO when I was going to be transitioning to the chairman, but I knew I wanted to do one more thing. I knew I didn’t want to be in retail and I didn’t want to be in fashion.

So of course, when you’re getting all these calls for, go run these giant retail companies and go run these giant fashion companies because most people think very narrow, but in the last two years I was at the company I really was spending my time on how we had to pivot and where the consumer was going, what things were going to be important to them, because I always look for businesses that have tailwinds. I really was spending a lot of time in health tech and health and wellness, when I became chairman of the National Retail Federation I started speaking around the world that the brands of the future were going to have to marry technology plus meaning to help people live better-connected lives, no matter what business you were in.

So I got very interested in the health and wellness space. What happened was, it’s an interesting story, in October 2015 I was watching CNBC and I saw the news that Oprah had joined Weight Watchers, but more than that I heard them talk about wanting to really move from not just the #1 weight loss program on the planet but to really be peoples partners in wellness and I thought that was interesting…never thinking I would be at the company. I ended up buying stock because I thought it was so interesting.

A year later I saw that they had parted ways with their CEO and at the time I was looking at the wellness space. And then in December of 2016, I got a call from a headhunter asking if I wanted to go run yet another huge retail company. And I said no, I said, ‘But aren’t you looking for someone for Weight Watchers?’ And they said ‘Yea, my colleague is…why?’ I go, ‘why hasn’t anybody called me about that? The interesting thing is, they said, ‘Well, Mindy we didn’t think it was big enough for you. We didn’t think it was in the space…and we didn’t think…’ I said, ‘Well, because you didn’t think.’

I really find, and this is so important, I have never taken a role because it’s bigger. I’ve never taken a role because it’s the next vertical climb. I’ve taken every role based on the impact that I think I can make on the business and on the consumer. I really felt that, after doing a lot of due diligence, this brand has been transforming people’s lives for 56 years. It started by a female entrepreneur, in her home, around eating to lose weight healthily, and building community.

I think brands need to build community and they had that community, but in today’s world, you have to be so much more to people if you want to give them the power of sustainable healthy habits for life, which is what we’re trying to do. So the idea to be able to come into this business and be able to lead this transformation was incredibly exciting to me and the idea that I would not only be able to deliver a financial return on equity but if I did so I would deliver a human return on equity was really powerful.”

When you got to WW, how did you think about shaping the transformation?

“You cannot transform a company if you don’t focus first on the culture. I think too many people come in and they’re focused on the external…you have to focus on the culture. I recently taught a class at Yale Executive education, the CEO’s perspective on business transformation and the first thing I said was, first let’s define the word transformation. I think it’s one of the most overused words in business. People paint the wall and put a statement up and they think they’ve transformed a company.

It’s wholesale radical reappraisal and change. No one has transformed a company overnight. It takes time, and it’s never a linear journey so you really have to make sure that, number one you have complete alignment and support of your board against the vision. Number two, you have to have investment dollars because that’s what it’s going to take.

Number three, you have to have a passionate, engaged, aligned, culture where everyone is aligned against that vision.

Number four, you need to have resilience. Because at some point in that journey, and I show a slide where on the left side of the slide are all these articles about how brilliant I am, and on the right side of the slide are all these articles about what a disaster I am. So that’s going to happen.

When you’re going through this kind of change, even in my last company when I got to HSN, I was the eighth CEO in 10 years and the business was frozen because all they were doing was waiting for the next person to go, so the first thing I had to do was reignite the culture and give people the pride and the vision and the understanding of what needs to happen.

So what we did at Weight Watchers when I came in, and again, I had done a lot of due diligence, but I had spent the first month doing deep dives into every single area of the business and getting a sense of what the culture is. Different from my last experience, there was no toxicity whatsoever in the culture.

This is a purpose-driven organization and the people that are there wake up every morning and say, ‘How can I help transform lives?’ But that doesn’t always transform into an understanding of exponential growth or change or transformation. It was very clear that in order to do that, we needed a new purpose and mission and vision and strategy that everybody could be aligned against. So we brought a team from within the company, I’m a huge believer that if you are going to truly transform, the work has to be done from the ground up.”

So who was on that team, internally?

“So, it was a mix. I wanted people from different areas of the business, certainly, my executive team, people who had been in the business for some time, people that were new, and I also partnered with a company called SY. So SY partners with CEOs and their teams who want to affect transformation. So when Howard Shultz came back into Starbucks, Ginny Rometty at IBM…they will only work if the CEO is intimately involved in what they’re doing and the team. That makes a big difference. It’s not like having a consultant come in and spend millions of dollars and hand you a deck, that doesn’t work.

So we kicked it off in August and we built what we call an Impact Manifesto, the impact we wanted to have on the world. We presented it to the board in December and then February 7, 2018, which I think is a watershed moment for the company, we were doing the entire rollout globally to all 18,000 employees. Actually, we were one of the first users and we’re a test case study for Facebook Workplace.

When I got there I said, how am I going to communicate with everyone and there was no vehicle for me to communicate. We have about 2,000 of what you would call ‘corporate employees’ in marketing, finance and all that, but we have almost 16,000 people in the field…our coaches, our guides…how am I going to talk to all of them? I said to my team, ‘Figure it out, I’ll give you X amount of dollars,’ and it was fortunately when they were really launching. I just spoke at Facebook Workplace because I said yes immediately and within 24 hours of launching it, we had 96% adoption. That’s how much people really wanted to be part of this and the vision.

We took over Alice Tully Hall and we created about an hour and a half visual storytelling, immersive presentation of who we were going to be and the impact we were going to have in the world. I’m a huge believer in storytelling. As much as I’m the CEO, I think of myself as the Chief Storytelling Officer, especially if you’re transforming- if you’re not out there telling the story, that story is going to be told for you. Whether that’s by Wall Street, or by consumers, you really have to tell the story.

About two weeks before we were ready to have this huge presentation for our employees, our CFO and I were talking and I said ‘You know, I think we have to make this public.’ That was a pretty bold move. So we actually issued a press release. We live-streamed it, not only to our employees but on our investor and corporate site. In hindsight, it wasn’t that we were so brilliant, we just thought that this was the thing to do. But the impact it had on our culture…this was not an investor meeting that we let our employees see…this was for them.

For the biggest evangelists and keepers that had to affect the transformation and we were letting other people see what we were doing. We had stories of transformation, we talked about the impact we were going to have, we made sure that there was an incredibly diverse group presenting what we were doing. Then, Oprah did come out at the end, which was good.

But, it was a real statement of the company. The impact manifesto, our purpose, is ‘We inspire healthy habits for real life. For people, families, communities, the world, for everyone.’ And to really be a brand that’s going to democratize wellness and be peoples partners in whatever their health journey is, no matter what point in their lives. And then we obviously built the plan around that and we were able to engage and do breakouts in every country, make sure everyone was aligned.

Then we went to phase two, which was around the branding and the elements and what we had to do. And we did a lot of qualitative and quantitative studies. So then in September of 2018, we rolled out the new branding. But one of the things that were very important in this process, and I’m a huge believer, when we created our impact manifesto, we also created what we called our purpose filter. I think every human being should have a purpose filter. I worked for Ralph Lauren a long time, and I’ve got to tell you…you want to see someone who has a purpose filter, it’s Oprah. It’s more important what you say ‘no’ to as a brand than what you say ‘yes’ to.

So we created a one-page purpose filter that’s in all our conference rooms on people’s desks, and we put everything we hit through that purpose filter. Every product, every partnership, every decision. A great example of having to make a hard decision is we put our snack products…so you don’t eat WW food, you can eat anything you want. There is no food that’s off-limits. But we do make fun snack products, breakfast products…not one product made it through the purpose filter if we were going to be a healthy living brand. I remember having a conversation with Larry Merlo who runs CVS and I said Larry, tell me how you made the tobacco decision. It was a $2 billion decision.

Well my decision, relative to the size of my company, was kind of like the tobacco decision because it meant that I had to get out of every product we made and reformulate, because they had artificial sweeteners, preservatives, etc. So the purpose filter made that decision for us. So we made the announcement that we were getting out of every product we sold. In one year, we had recreated or reformulated or expanded and we had to transition, it was a financial impact, but if you don’t make the decisions that are going to be right for the brand in the long term, you’re immediately compromising yourself at the get-go.”

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💙 Meet Jake! 💙 ⠀⠀⠀ ➖MEMBER SINCE: February 2017 ⁣ ➖JOINED WW TO: Lose weight to Improve his high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes ⁣ ➖USED TO: Eat second and third helpings, and overdo it on pasta and rice ⁣ ➖NOW HE: Eats more mindfully, does a mix of strength training, cardio, and core exercises six days a week, and leans into ZeroPoint foods like roasted brussel sprouts and spaghetti squash ⁣ ➖LOST: 141.4lbs* 🎉 ⁣ CONGRATS @keepingitawesomejake! 👏 *People following the WW program can expect to lose 1-2 pounds/week. #ww #wwfamily #wellnessthatworks #smartpoints #weightlossjourney #weightloss #mantra #inspiration #motivation #weightlosstransformation

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How do you convey that the values of the brand make a financial impact necessary to your shareholders and the board?

“I don’t think it’s either-or. I’ve never thought it’s either-or. I think that your brand and your talent, are your most important aspects, right? That’s the impact you’re going to make. If you compromise, you’re never going to have the future that you have the potential for. Now, you have to have a plan. You don’t just go, ‘Oh, I’m getting out of whatever without the plan of what’s coming. So we had a transition period throughout the first nine months of this year of how to ramp up all the product, but if you look at 2020 and the volume that we’re going to do in the product, it’s going to dwarf anything we had because now our products are in 600 Kohl’s stores.

My products are in all the Cibo Expresses at the airports. Our products are just healthy, delicious products that people, not only members but anyone, could want. We wouldn’t have a WW freestyle cafe at the Barclays Center, we wouldn’t have Sur La Table, cooking classes. So the healthy kitchen is now a big growth vehicle for the company, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So again you have to have the bigger picture.

What have you enjoyed most about leading the change?

I love inspiring people against division and really galvanizing people against a common purpose and giving them the opportunity and the capability to achieve what they may not have thought possible. It’s hard when you go into a company that was maybe not performing at a level or, in the case of HSN, really not performing, and all of a sudden making people think 10x growth. It’s scary. How am I going to do that? How’s that even possible? But working to really lay out the vision to have people do what they didn’t think possible. That’s very, very exciting for me. It motivates me to be able to do that.”

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💙 Meet Marlena! 💙 ⠀ ➖MEMBER SINCE: 2018 ⁣ ➖JOINED WW TO: Stop watching her life go by and wishing it were different ⁣ ➖USED TO: Eat fast food for nearly every single meal, park on the couch for days on end, struggle with self-worth, and feel achy all the time ⁣ ➖NOW SHE: Cooks healthier versions of the foods she loves, lifts weights, does yoga, runs, takes fitness classes, and feels happier and healthier ⁣ ➖LOST: 64.8lbs* 🎉 ⁣ CONGRATS @mar_slay_na! 👏 ⁣ ⁣ *People following the WW program can expect to lose 1-2 pounds/week. #ww #wwfamily #wellnessthatworks #smartpoints #weightlossjourney #weightloss #mantra #inspiration #motivation #wwtransformations

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What’s been difficult about the change?

“Look, any change is married to a certain amount of volatility. Just look at the past 2.5 years and you’ll either decide if I’m on the brilliant side or I’m on the not brilliant side. You have to go through a lot of peeling the onion and finding what’s there. This is a 56-year-old brand, a lot of investments hadn’t been made in the right area of the business.

We had to change everything we did. We changed the structure of the company to be truly a global company as opposed to a North American company that did business elsewhere. We became a matrix structure so people had to learn how to work differently. So if you were the GM in Germany and you just did your thing, and now all of a sudden you have a global brand team and a matrix structure, and the brands going to be consistent globally and you have to execute locally, not everybody can make that transition.

So there’s a lot of change, both cultural change…I’m a big believer that you absolutely first worst to maximize the team you have. I think one of the biggest mistakes CEOs make if they come into a company that’s not performing, they just assume the people aren’t good. It’s usually because the leadership wasn’t good. There are always great people, and we had great people.

But then there are areas where we didn’t have talent where we needed to do what we needed to do, so I had to rebuild the whole executive team, and you’re basically changing the tires while the car is going, because you have to run the day to day business of today while you’re building for the future. And that’s challenging. And then, not only are we changing what we do as a brand, but we’re transforming how we show up as a brand. And Weight Watchers becoming WW and becoming a partner in health, that becomes the journey.

But it becomes my responsibility to be able to communicate that to the organization and not let the organization lose focus because you can get distracted by outside voices, and if you listen to the noise, and you compromise, you’re never going to be able to achieve what you can ultimately achieve.”

How do you recruit?

“It’s in a lot of different ways. I am a very curious person. You can either say I don’t have patience, I’m constantly in a different business, but I think one of the greatest assets is that I have an incredible, authentic network of individuals that I’ve been fortunate to get to know and have relationships over the course of my career. Both in my last role and here, that has been a huge help, because I can reach out to people.

I was joking around saying if anyone to tell me three years ago that I’d be at the American Health Insurance Provider Conference, or I’d be speaking on the obesity epidemic in the world, I probably would have said, ‘No.’ But I am. And I’ve had to learn a lot, whether it be about the science. I have a Chief Scientific Officer that reports to me. So I’ve had to do a lot and I’ve leveraged my network to say, ‘Who’s the best brand person you’ve worked with? Who should I look at? What companies should I look at for these people? So that’s been part of it.

The other part is that I have a couple of people that I really trust on the recruiting side who are going to think out of the box and who also have a shared vision. So I need the people who are more like me, who saw what the possibility is and who didn’t look at the size of the business today or what it is, but who also wanted to make an impact. I have people who could go do anything they wanted, and what I said is, ‘Just let me meet them. Let me just have coffee.’

That was very important to me that whoever I brought in really had a bigger vision of wanting to have a great impact. I’m very lucky to have the team that I have today, which is a very diverse team, and a real mix of talent and experience. I would say the one common element is that they all have the capacity to envision exponential growth and impact.”