From AI adoption to supply chain woes, leaders are facing changes like never before.
Top executives shared their strategies for adapting to this changing dynamic at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Fortune’s Maria Aspan hosted the panel, which included Anu Bharadwaj, President, Atlassian, Alexis DePree, Executive Vice President, Chief Supply Chain Officer, Nordstrom, Tabata Gomez, Chief Marketing Officer, Tools and Outdoor, Stanley Black & Decker, and Asha Sharma, Chief Operating Officer, Instacart.
From unleashing AI to adapting with a surge in consumer demand during COVID, the leaders offered insights and advice from personal experience.
This interview transcript has been edited for brevity.
Maria Aspan: Looks like we are ready to get started. Thank you all so much for joining us. I’m so excited to moderate this conversation about the operators’ opportunity. I’m Maria Aspan. I’m a senior writer at Fortune and one of the co-chairs of MPW. So, thank you so much for joining us. And, you know, I can’t wait to introduce our amazing panel of speakers. But before we do get started, I want to first of all, thank Instacart for sponsoring the session. We appreciate your partnership. And a reminder again, that this session is on the record. It’s also meant to be a group discussion. So, we look forward to soliciting your questions, your experiences, and bringing you in. I’m going to start off by asking our panelists a few questions, and then I will open it up. We do have mic handlers in the room. So, if you’d like to speak, please raise your hand and we’ll bring a microphone over to you and then, you know, please give us your name, title, company or affiliation before asking your question or sharing your experience. So now, I’d like to introduce our discussion leaders. Anu Bharadwaj is president of Atlassian, Alexis Dupree is Executive Vice President and Chief supply officer at Nordstrom, Tabata Gomez is Chief Marketing Officer of tools and outdoor at Stanley Black and Decker and Asha Sharma is Chief Operating Officer at Instacart. You know, when we were talking about this conversation, the operators’ opportunity –it’s a broad topic. There’s a lot we could get into, and we’ll get into, but a few of you on the panel suggested that we start off by talking about just what a dynamic environment to be diplomatic, or perhaps challenging environment, is today on an economic level, on a technological level, internal company level. So, I guess I’d like to start by asking each of you, what is one thing you are doing to navigate the business environment for your company right now?
Anu Bharadwaj: Sure. Thanks, Maria. So Atlassian is a $50 billion technology company. And we have a variety of different products with IP owed about seven years ago. So, for our phase of the lifecycle for the place that we are at Atlassian. For us, one of the big fundamental shifts in the tech industry is A.I., I’m sure all of you are experiencing this. And as a company, our mission is to unleash the potential of every team. So, we think about teamwork a lot. So, the one thing that we are thinking about in an AI-enabled world very much, and as president, it’s part of my day job is to think about what teamwork in an AI-powered world looks like when there’s teams composed of human beings as well as AI-powered teammates? What does the interaction between those humans and AI power teammates look like? And what does collaboration in an AI powered world look like? Because in my experience, so far, customers and different companies have been receptive to what AI can do. And it’s very disruptive, no matter what function, what industry, what business you’re in. And that’s one thing that is front and center for me as the president at Atlassian.
Alexis DePree: So, I started as the leader of the supply chain at a luxury retailer five weeks before COVID hit. So, if you talk about doing dynamic nature, and navigating what has been like an incredibly challenging and frequently changing world for the last three years, like that has been my life. So, appreciate the question. You know, I think if you connect it to the opera, you know, the operators’ opportunity that’s the title of this session, I think it’s, well, it’s been incredibly challenging, and I don’t want to relive it in any way, shape, or form, it’s been incredibly transformational. I think for the opportunity for those of us who sit in a much more operational function, and lead teams like supply chain or, you know, other typically back end or back-office types of functions. We really got center, in front of the stage in a way that I think people started to really understand the role and the impact that we can have both on the top line, right, and the customer experience of our business that I think we’ll talk more about today. But also, we play an incredibly important role on the bottom line, right? Often some of the largest P&L components for the organizations that we have the chance to lead. So, when I think about how we’ve navigated that and the ups and downs and the differences, you know, first it was getting team members to work safely, right? And protecting them throughout to navigate all the disruption from a supply and an inventory perspective. And now all the macro and micro elements that continue to come at it us, I think one of the keys for me has been really building plans and aligning the team so that we have a really good foundation of an understanding on what we’re trying to achieve and deliver for our customer and for the business. So that the energy that is spent trying to figure that out, right, having people in the right place, knowing what their role is, knowing what their contribution is, we don’t waste energy on that. So, we’re keeping the energy to direct it towards the things that surprise us, right? The things that don’t come according to the plan, so that we can, you know, be as helpful to the customer experience with the company as possible in those moments.
Tabata Gomez: Thank you. Great, well, Stanley, Black and Decker is the largest tool and outdoor power equipment manufacturer in the world. And it’s been around since 1843. So, we’ve lived through several pandemics, we’ve lived through several wars, we’ve lived through several economic cycles. So, this was not a new environment for us. But like it happened to a lot of companies out there, we have the same challenges that COVID brought, right, we had the surge in demand. And then the demand contracted, we had the challenges on the supply chain, right, we had inflation. So, we also took the opportunity to do a transformative shift for that company. And we said the one thing we’re going to do is we’re going to prioritize, we’re going to prioritize, to simplify, very similar to what Alexa said. And we said, we’re going to have a strategy. And we’re going to ensure everybody is following these four things. So, we said, we’re going to focus on innovation and electrification, that’s our number one thing, then we said, we’re going to streamline the organization to simplify it, but then we’re going to use those dollars, we’re going to use those resources and put it towards our growth areas, because we have very strong growth areas in the company. So, we’ve got to leverage them. Then we said, okay, we are already doing supply chain and operations transformation, let’s accelerate that, because that’s going to drive bottom line growth, like what Alexa said. And then finally, we said, we need to focus on really generating that cash flow, and then really getting those inventory management optimization done. And we did that. But I want to say that that’s a journey we’re on right now. But saying what you’re going to do is as important as saying what you’re not going to do. And I think that’s sometimes something we forget to tell people, because employees are out there doing their jobs. And the moment you’re shifting resources, changing the structure, if you don’t tell them, ‘Hey, you’re not going to be doing this job. But this is going to be your new role and your new focus’, your prioritization doesn’t cascade down. And I think that’s one of the things we need to remember, we’ve got to communicate, and we’ve got to inspire by communicating down and get people to understand the strategy.
Asha Sharma: So, we’ve lived through one pandemic, and it’s only 11 years old. But I joined shortly after that. And so Instacart became a lifeline for millions of people during the pandemic. And then I joined about three years ago, and I think the prevailing feeling was that we were going to shrink. And so, we had to do everything possible to, you know, capture the opportunity that we had. So, we had to re-architect our entire product, we had to harden our unit economics and grow and marketing. And instead of shrinking, we grew 30% year on year, we diversified all our revenue sources, to build new technologies for our brands, and our partners. And we were able to grow revenue 150%. And then, you know, the climate changed quite a bit, and we had to focus on getting profitable. And we did so for the last five quarters. And so, you know, when I think about what got us through that transition, and what I’m thinking about going forward, there’s a few things. One is we have a principle around just being adaptive, we must believe in survival of the quickest, and the resilience that you have to go through. We think about being aggressive paying now or paying later. And then we think about not trading the future. And that’s where I’m spending a lot of time right now. We have become synonymous with online grocery. But we’ve long believed that the future of grocery isn’t just online or just in store. It’s both. And so, we’re in this transition of really building technology to connect online and offline and helping our teams deploy a different playbook to thinking about our customers and the market because we know that omni-channel customers are more valuable to retailers. They’re more valuable in the long run overall. And so we are, you know, going through that fundamental shift amongst other technology changes that are happening, but that one is paramount right now.
Maria Aspan: I noticed nowhere in there did you mention that little IPO.
Asha Sharma: Yeah, it was an important milestone for the company. But it marks a milestone in many ways. We’ve been doing quarterly earnings calls for you know, the past couple of years. And, you know, it gives us the flexibility to go achieve the 10-year vision that Fiji has laid out and so, one of the things we talk about is, just stay hungry for the next 10 years. And it’s back to business as usual.
Maria Aspan: You know, I want to pick up a little bit on something that Tabatha said about knowing what you don’t want to do and tie it to what Anu brought up about AI. Because, I mean, we could have a whole separate breakout on AI. But I feel like that’s something that every company is trying to wrap their head around, every operator. And I wonder from your role as a software operator, you know, does everyone need to be thinking about AI?
Anu Bharadwaj: Absolutely. I think AI is one of those foundational shifts that impact everyone across industries across job functions. And I mean, the several of you in the audience who head up large functions in large companies, whether you’re an HR marketing, sales, product, operations, any of it, they’ll all be substantially impacted by AI, and the promise of the technology, we’re seeing more and more evidence of it over the past year and a half. I’ve been in tech for 20 years, and I have not seen a technology trend gain momentum as fast as AI has over the last couple of years. Any other tech trend has not moved that fast. So why do we think that? Because if you think about how AI fundamentally impacts any of our jobs as operators, I personally believe that AI is going to augment humans, rather than replace humans, right? So, think about if each of you have a super powered copilot, along with you, a super powered assistant with you who can answer questions who can answer difficult questions, who can give you a head start on some of your day to day jobs? What would that world look like? It’s basically like acquiring superpowers, no matter what your job function is. And in that world, what are we capable of doing? That’s really the future that’s unfolding in front of us. And like I said, at Atlassian. For us, the fundamental human problem we’re trying to solve is how do we make teams work better? It doesn’t matter what kind of work you do in a team, but how does collaboration get better? How can you come together to build something greater in an AI charged world? And it looks very promising from where we sit right now.
Maria Aspan: And I’d be curious, Alexis and Tabata as non-tech forward, or non-tech first companies, how you think about this?
Alexis DePree: Yeah, you know, I’ll take it first. I mean, technology is still a very important part of how you know, Nordstrom continues to engage with our customers and grow. But if I think about it, you know, a lot of what a new job describes is about how you make work smarter and easier, right, and create a platform across which you can help both your teams and other companies do their jobs better. That’s what the supply chain is trying to do at Nordstrom as well, right? When I think about the business that I run, you know, we have multiple banners, multiple channels, it’s like supporting, you know, multiple businesses, and so on in a lot of ways. And so I need to build capabilities that make all of those parts of our business better, right, whether that’s our rack business, right, our sort of off price channel, which is primarily a store based business, primarily sort of an E-indices and close out sourcing model, right? a very different sourcing model in that way to our nordstrom.com digital business, which you know, is much more about speed to customer growing very fast on a digital channel. And how do I build capabilities that are extensible across both of those? And where am I seeking opportunities where technology makes that better, right, and solves a problem or continuously and it’s, you know, AI is obviously the sort of buzzword of the moment, but the reality is analytics, right in the spectrum of analytics have been present and playing a role in a number of those decisions that we make on a daily basis for a long time.
Tabata Gomez: Yeah, I would just add, I like to look at technology and as an enabler of productivity, right? And think about it, the world is changing, like, there is no normal anymore. Normal is changing right now. And we need to adapt the way we operate. And one of the things we like to do is we like to operate with an activist mindset. That means we’re going to be disrupting ourselves before somebody else comes and disrupts us, right? And if we’re going to do that, we need to stay one step ahead. And that’s where this productivity comes in. And that’s where technology comes in. And one of the things I like to do with my teams at least, it doesn’t matter if it’s somebody from the industrial design team, or the engineering team or anybody around the company is giving them productivity targets that can be about innovating the way they’re working. That could be about leveraging AI to produce faster content in a way that’s safe. And that doesn’t violate any IP regulations. You know, so we do those targets, and we make sure we put that in people’s work plans, right? Because if they’re part of that, that means you’re going to do it on a day-to-day basis. And then we set up a structure to review those. So every month when we connect, and we do our marketing review meetings, we take time to review those productivity projects. And we find a ton of savings and a ton of optimizations and a ton of ways to make the company more efficient. Our packaging engineers figured out a way to build a code and a program themselves that it’s now saving them hundreds of hours, when they must change packaging templates, our industrial designers are starting to work on generative design that’s going to allow them to produce tools that require less product, so they’re better for the environment that are stronger, and that they can actually do faster. So again, this kind of work needs to be ingrained in everybody’s work plan. And think about this concept of this. This activist mindset, because I think that can help a lot of teams.
Maria Aspan: I’m not sure I know, you’re going to be talking at length about this a little bit later, but we’d love you know, highlights.
Asha Sharma: Yeah, so AI has long been this invisible ingredient of Instacart, actually, so today, we have a grocery catalog of 1.4 billion items, it updates 6000 items every single second, we connect millions of customers to hundreds of 1000s of shoppers to 10s of 1000s of stores. That is what we do every single day. And so, what I think happened with generative AI is that it’s a natural language format that just democratizes that superpower if you will, to every single person. And so, I see it as this accelerant, this accelerant for our customers to express themselves in a much more natural way to get the things that they need to help their families and accelerant to help shoppers navigate the stores and earn more than they could have otherwise, and an acceleration to our teams. Today, you know, a large amount of our code is now written through generative AI, we are seeing op X leverage by reducing escalations and contact rates. We are deploying this in our marketing and creating libraries with human mirroring AI activities. It allows us to have our teams spend their time in a much more strategic way and unlock the future. And in a business like ours, which is kind of connecting the digital and the physical space. It’s paramount. And now everybody can have a hand on it.