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Whole Foods, Amazon Relationship a ‘Happy Marriage,’ Says John Mackey

Whole Foods CEO sees need for more 'love' in business
Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey
Photograph courtesy of Whole Foods Market

After sending WGB a copy of his new book, "Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business" with Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps, Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey agreed to an email interview to discuss the company’s relationship with Amazon, as well as the book, which delves into the “monumental challenges” faced by today’s leaders, the importance of purpose and leader servants, and the need for more love in business and the world.

Jennifer Strailey: From the book, it sounds like you view Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods as very positive. You also talk about pushing innovation at Whole Foods and healthy competition. How do you see Amazon and Whole Foods' relationship evolving as Amazon expands its Amazon Fresh concept? The recently opened Woodland Hills Amazon Fresh is just minutes from a Whole Foods Market. Will the proximity impact the offerings or strategy at Whole Foods in Woodland Hills? 

John Mackey: I feel that our relationship with Amazon is best described as a "happy marriage." Amazon’s customer-centered culture meshed so well with ours and now our customers get to enjoy lower prices and access new services such as grocery delivery and pickup. Team members benefited from Amazon’s decision to raise the minimum wage but also through the opportunity, which helps us hire and retain talent.

When it comes to grocery shopping, we know customers love choice and this new store offers another grocery option that’s distinct from Whole Foods Market, which continues to grow and remain the leader in quality natural and organic food. Since joining the Amazon family, Whole Foods Market's growth has accelerated. Whole Foods Market currently operates over 500 stores and has already opened more than 10 new locations in 2020. In parallel, we continue to invest in grocery delivery, which is now available in more than 2,000 cities and towns where grocery delivery is available.
Conscious leadership book

An Introduction to 'Conscious Leadership'

Ironically, it was an online offshoot of Whole Foods Market, WholePeople.com, that temporarily shifted Mackey’s focus 20 years ago and nearly derailed his career as CEO of the company he founded in 1978. In the introduction of "Conscious Leadership," Mackey recounts the pivotal moment in his career, when he was called to Florida to meet with Whole Foods’ board of directors, who were considering removing him from his position as CEO.

Before the meeting, Mackey describes a decision to visit a Whole Foods. As he walks the aisles and interacts with cheerful team members, he remembers why he started the natural and organic grocery business, and his sense of purpose is renewed.

Strailey: This book is immediately engaging—beginning with your description of visiting a Whole Foods Market and rediscovering your original purpose before that important meeting regarding your fate as CEO in January 2001. Do you still make store visits? Do you think that connecting with team members at store level is an important aspect of being a conscious leader?

Mackey: The store visits are an incredibly important part of leading Whole Foods Market. Seeing team members in-person and visiting our stores is an integral part of what we do here, and it’s something that I personally love. Of course, COVID-19 has made it more challenging for me to be out and visiting our stores, which has been difficult, but the stores are beautiful, and they are all full of love. I am reminded of it every day as I walk through the store on the way to my office. I see team members helping customers and each other. I see customers happy to be in a place where they have so many choices of healthy, natural food. I hear from those customers too, they’ll say, "I just like coming into your stores. They feel good." What they’re really saying is, "The store looks beautiful and they can feel the love"—the love we have for what we do and for one another. People are just naturally attracted to that. It’s part of the vibe of Whole Foods Market.

Throughout your book, you discuss the simple, yet profound notion that humanity needs more love in the world. What is one important step leaders can take each day to move the needle on love in the world? 

Historically, the language we use around business is very combative—we use analogies from military battles, the jungle, sporting competitions. It encourages a winner-take-all attitude rather than suggesting that business is an opportunity to uplift people and communities. We really need to let love into our businesses and make it a recognized, heralded quality. Love helps us understand what all the different stakeholders need and desire, and it makes it easier to fulfill those needs and desires. When stakeholders feel loved by a company, they love it back. And that elevates business to more than a place for transactions—it makes it a place of community.

The first thing I tell people is, they can model the behavior. At Whole Foods Market, we don’t manage by fear, but with positive reinforcement and encouragement and patience. When you remove the fear, you’re removing the roadblocks for people to unlock the expression of love between your people. Another way we model love is through appreciations. We all practice it—everyone is encouraged to publicly acknowledge and appreciate good acts they witness. That practice helps us bring love into the business every day and creates a culture that you can tangibly feel when you walk through the door. Unleashing that love, expressing it through gratitude and appreciation doesn’t require a committee vote, new company policy, or anything formal. It’s something any leader can start doing any day.

You intelligently and eloquently present a great many thought-provoking ideas in "Conscious Leadership." Is there one concept or idea shared in this book of which you are most proud?

The idea of leading with love is something that I feel very strongly about, but we’ve covered that. Another concept we talk about in the book that’s incredibly important is this idea of win-win-win solutions. Win-win solutions in business are reasonably common. A customer comes into a Whole Foods because they want to buy healthy, natural food, and we provide it. Both sides win. But win-win-win solutions are more all-encompassing because they also demand a win for the larger community—that could be all the stakeholders in an organization or it could even mean the whole country, or a social challenge like climate change. 

Conscious leaders find win-win-win solutions to every challenge. We’re underutilizing this approach. We need to break out of this win-lose thinking and find a win-win-win solution to move in this COVID environment to innovate our way out of this [in a way] that benefits all of the stakeholders involved.

One specific example of win-win-win during the pandemic that I can point to is how we ramped up grocery delivery during the early months. We were able to quickly convert some of our stores and new stores that hadn’t opened yet to the public into stores only fulfilling grocery delivery orders. This was a win for the customers because they could access more delivery time slots. This was a win for our team members, who could continue working and learning a new skill set. This was a win for Whole Foods Market and Amazon because we were able to innovate and work together to serve our community.

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