Aug 10, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line: Lead like Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Walgreen Boots Alliance

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Walgreen Boots Alliance

Axios is running a series of interviews with top leaders from business and beyond who discuss lessons on life and leadership.

This week I interviewed Rosalind (Roz) Brewer, 61, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance — corporate parent of Walgreens in the U.S. and Boots, a health and beauty retailer in the U.K., as well as majority owner of clinical network VillageMD.

  • Why she matters: Brewer is seeking to broaden Walgreens from its drugstore heritage into a full-fledged health care company. Brewer's leadership career spans consumer goods (Kimberly-Clark), retail (Walmart, Sam's Club) and beverage service (Starbucks).

Brewer talked by Zoom on Monday from the company's headquarters in Deerfield, Ill.:

1. What one sentence describes your leadership style?

  • "Listening and [being a] very open communicator."

2. What's the one book — business, philosophical or cultural — that most shaped or reflects your leadership?

  • "Good to Great," by Jim Collins — a 22-year-old classic that Brewer refers back to often because its lessons cover different industries.

3. What's your blind spot?

  • Getting bogged down at times with immediate matters — board meetings and earnings reports — and not spending more time on exploring innovation and the future of the business.

4. What's one thing you do outside of work that helps you perform optimally at work?

  • "I'm not an exercise fanatic, but I feel so much better — like a different person — when I've exercised probably three times a week." (Brewer favors cardio, the elliptical machine and light weights.)
  • "And then if I can get around 6 to 6½ hours of sleep — it's my sweet spot. Anything below that, I might be a tiger the next day."

5. What's the one part of your leadership game that you're working hardest to improve?

  • Leading teams through remote work. She holds "Connect and Commit" calls, where instead of "blasting" people with information, she focuses on "listening and acting" — and tries to solve roadblocks by the next meeting.

6. Who is an employee who's changed your life?

  • A woman she hired earlier in her career was struggling with hiding her sexuality. When this employee's partner had a medical emergency that wasn't covered by insurance, Brewer helped her publicly embrace her identity.
  • "I learned what it's like to hide who you are. She was so brave," Brewer recalls. "Coming out at that time, it was not popular. ... That really left a huge impact on me."

7. What do you mean when you say you decided to bring your whole self to work?

  • "It is extremely, extremely stressful for me to be two different people. ... People around me weren't comfortable because they never knew who they were going to get that day."

8. What's your biggest pet peeve about other CEOs?

  • "I really admire those that lean over to me and ask me to help explain something that deals with diversity. I love that because they're just trying to learn."
  • On the other hand, leaders who might have "some ignorant views ... but they move in a direction as if they've got all the advice and knowledge in the world ... is a frustrating thing for me."

9. What's one thing you ruthlessly filter out of your life?

  • "Fake people. I'm really good at getting fake people out of my life."

10. What's the best way for unconscious-bias training to stick in people's minds?

  • Spotlighting bad behavior and comments, as well as setting guidelines for how colleagues treat one another and listen to one another.
  • "Every person walks in the room with a bias ... [with] something happening in their lives that day that makes them unique. We have to be sensitive to that, and we have to call it out when we see it."

11. How do you want to be remembered?

  • "As someone who mobilized great change on something as important as health care."

🎤 1 fun thing: If you could have any side hustle, it would be...

  • "Dancing behind Beyoncé."

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