Staples CEO on Innovation

August 26, 2017

In 2016, Shira Goodman took over as chief executive of Staples at a challenging juncture: A plan to merge with Office Depot had been nixed by the Federal Trade Commission, and the 30-year-old company was under extreme pressure to shift its business quickly from retail stores to online sales. That urgency remains, but Staples was acquired by a private equity firm, Sycamore Partners, in mid-2017, taking the company out of Wall Street’s quarterly pressure-cooker.

How do you divide your time when you think about growth?

This interview is from our CEOs on Innovation report, in the Fall 2017 issue of InnoLead magazine.

Personally, I am a big believer in [McKinsey’s] three horizon approach and talk about it a lot within Staples. For our business, Horizon 1 is facing real-time challenges—specifically secular decline in our historic categories, like paper and ink, and a channel shift from traditional retail to e-commerce. While we are doing a good job of adapting in these areas, it increases the importance of Horizons 2 and 3. Horizon 2, our mid-term growth, is where I spend the majority of my energy because we need to get the flywheel going there fast.

Spending so much time on Horizon 2 has taught me the importance of focus. There are a lot of great ideas out there. But as a company, we need to focus on a few to get scale, and then utilize the advantages of that scale, which we’re doing by focusing on our Pro Categories like Facilities, Breakroom, and Technology.

Finally, I find that not over-managing Horizon 3 works. We have good people and processes in place to fuel creativity. It’s my job to give them the time and space they need to innovate and let the best opportunities rise to the surface.

Are there new positions or structures or processes you’ve created since becoming CEO in 2016 to help Staples be more aggressive about innovation, enter new markets, or find new sources of growth?

We’ve recently opened [digital and software development] labs in several different geographic areas, including Cambridge, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and Vancouver, so that we can source tech and digital talent more broadly. To further streamline and drive innovation, in the past year we combined our legacy IT and e-commerce experience organizations into one combined entity—Staples Digital Solutions—so we can more rapidly bring products to market.

Staples CEO Shira Goodman

We’ve also created an applied innovation group, which delves deeply into customer needs and surfaces relevant solutions to their problems. The standing meeting I have with them is one of the best hours of my month, as it shows me the types of innovation we’re capable of. This group was the originator of our Staples Easy System, a digital platform that makes it easy for office managers to order from and interact with us.

Are there new types of talent you’re trying to bring into the company?

Our focus on B-to-B customers has put an added emphasis on e-commerce capabilities, and our labs have been a great way for us to attract top digital talent. But it’s not just focusing on designers, developers and product managers—it also starts at the top. We have made it a point to hire folks who have a passion for innovation—like our Chief Technology Officer Faisal Masud, and new Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Bottomley. And we’ve promoted internally with leaders who show an aptitude for it, like our President of North American Delivery Neil Ringel, and Chief Merchandising Officer Peter Scala. Having the right people in place is critical when you’re transforming an iconic company like Staples.